The Line Becomes a River, Francisco Cantu ( May 2023)
The Line Becomes A River, Francisco Cantu
For the first time we decided to set aside our usual ‘ranking’ of this novel. It is hard to grade , either in terms of enjoyability or whether or not it should be recommended on to others. It certainly prompted a range of reactions, and became an interesting book to discuss, if ultimately leaving us feeling somewhat overwhelmed and depressed at the state of affairs described.
The structure of the book is unusual, which is at first irritating but actually makes sense once the whole is completed. Phase 1 covers the writer’s decision to take a job as a border guard and is a randomised set of diary style entries, indicating a sense of unease, a changeable set of emotions, and an overriding sense of futility on both sides – the wannabe emigrants and the border guards. The stilted writing may explain his state of mind, but it was disjointed and not that easy to read. He does shed light on the physical difficulty of policing the border – the historical length of it, the desert conditions and the brutality of withdrawing water and shelter to force refugees into the towns.
Phase 2 has some horrific insights into the criminal underworld of drugs and arms trafficking in Mexico and the US border states. Again, Cantu offers no explanations or answers, that is not his aim here. It is simply an observation of how grim life can be for men and women caught up in it. At times the book was genuinely difficult to read for those of an empathetic disposition.
There were some interesting, if questionable, theories about why some people / nations might be more predisposed to violence – not that Cantu offered them up as solutions, more as food for thought in the absence of easy answers. There were some interesting, thought- provoking lines on second and third generation immigrants as he reviewed his own approach and discussed it with his mother – she appears more as a ‘device’, an omnipresent sounding board, which irritated some!
Phase 3 is concerned with the personal story of one man, Juan, a worker who has spent thirty years in the US raising a family, but having crossed back to attend his mother’s funeral, he is now trapped in Mexico, despite a US family, a job and a seemingly flawless reputation. Cantu ‘s concern for him takes a form of forgiveness /redemption for all the previous individuals he had to ignore, forget or not think about. This section also was enjoyed more by most readers, as it put a human perspective onto what had been quite a detached narrative. Ultimately though, the case is hopeless, and this mirrors what seems to be the entire immigrant situation.
As a book which veers between facts, and some stranger episodes analysing dreams, or recounting anecdotes, it did ‘ fall between two stools ‘ – not factual or offering insight enough for the non- fiction readers, and too vague and detached for those wanting emotional insight. Our reactions included thought-provoking, valuable, harrowing, sad, through to irritating and annoying.
The author’s note at the end is probably the strongest part of the book – both in how it is written, and his attempt to clarify what he was trying to achieve.
It is inevitable that this book raises issues which transcend far beyond the US Mexico border, and which are difficult to even debate, let alone solve, both in humanitarian and political terms. If nothing else, it brings home to us just how fortunate we are to be born and living in a first world country. Despite our own niggles!
Oonagh has also recommended Valeria Luiselli as a contemporary Latin American writer, if you are interested in exploring US / Mexican writing further.