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Archive for August, 2008

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Past Feeling

A Review of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Queen of the South by S. Randall TomsHaving read The Club Dumas (later made into the movie The Ninth Gate), I was expecting another book written with Perez-Reverte’s ability to make us feel the aura of mystery coupled with meditative prose.  The Queen of the South bears little resemblance to the style of that book.  This novel reads more like an action thriller in the style of a journalistic writer.  If you are into the thriller genre, complete with murders, chase scenes, and drug trafficking, this may be just the book for you.  The Queen of the South is the story of how a poverty-stricken young girl, Teresa Mendoza, from Sinalao, Mexico, becomes one of the world’s most powerful women involved in drug smuggling in the Mediterranean.  After starting out as nothing more than a marro, the girl friend of a drug dealer, Teresa narrowly escapes death, endures a brief stint in prison, then establishes her own drug ring, amassing a great fortune, buying off judges, police, and  political leaders.  She executes those who stand in her way and gets revenge on those who have hurt her in the past.  There are many exciting scenes involving boat chases in the
Mediterranean and escapes from ambushes under heavy gunfire.  After reading the book, one is convinced that the whole world is involved in the drug trade, and that governments and legal institutions are nothing more than fronts for making many people rich through the manufacture and sale of illegal drugs. 
I never felt much sympathy for Teresa Mendoza, though I found myself hoping that she would escape the various ambushes set for her.  I don’t know why I cared other than that she was the “heroine” of the novel.  Frankly, she deserved to be caught and severely punished for what she did.  Perez-Reverte does a great job of explaining the mindset and worldview of those involved in the drug trade.  For many of us, it is difficult to understand how people can be so cold-hearted as to murder without remorse and put their own lives in such danger on a daily basis.  One day, as Teresa Mendoza is looking at the sea, she thinks to herself, “…the sea was as cruel and selfish as human beings, and in its monstrous simplicity had no notion of complexities like pity, wounding, or remorse” (347).  For Teresa, the world is “impassive, cruel, indifferent” (73).  Teresa Mendoza has reached a point in her life where she, too, is beyond pity, wounding, or remorse; she, too, is impassive, cruel, indifferent.  How a human being becomes such an unfeeling person helps us to understand this cruel world of drugs.Some people, such as Teresa Mendoza, have been downtrodden and abused for so long, they are past feeling.   She remembers her mother as one “who had never kissed her—washed dishes in a tub in the yard and slept with drunk neighbors” (307).  Teresa’s father had left them, and her mother often beat her.  As a young girl, Teresa had been gang-raped.  Two of her romances ended with the deaths of her lovers.  For Teresa, the only way to escape these kinds of heartaches and abuses is to become an emotional corpse.  She comes to believe that the best way to live is to have no hopes:  “It might be that ambition, plans, dreams, even bravery, or faith—even faith in God, she decided shivering—didn’t give you strength, but took it away.  Because hope, even the mere desire to survive, made a person vulnerable, bound to possible pain and defeat” (206).  She liked a line from a book about Aeneas, “The only salvation of the conquered is to expect no salvation” (332).People who been brought up in such impoverished cultures, and who have experienced a great deal of abuse, often develop a fatalistic view of life.  In my opinion, the best portions of The Queen of the South are those that describe Teresa’s fatalism.  .  The narrator speaks of her “Sinaloan fatalism” (99).   She likes one of the Russian drug lords she is connected with because he “looked at work, money, life, and death with a dispassionate Slavic fatality that reminded her of certain men from northern
Mexico” (242).  The best Teresa thinks she can do is “float along, allow herself to be part of a huge cosmic joke as she was swept downstream by the current…  To struggle against anything but the concrete moment…was absurd” (99).  Toward the end of the novel, Teresa says, “I don’t like life in general and mine in particular” (365).    This fatalism, the belief that nothing can be changed, least of all ourselves, ultimately gives people an excuse to commit all kinds of atrocities, since we are nothing more than puppets created by the forces of our upbringing, circumstances, and societal constraints.
Of course, one of the primary motivations  to become involved in the drug trade is to find what seems to be a quick and easy way to escape the cycle of poverty.  Though running drugs is a dangerous business, many of the people have the attitude of one of the characters in this book, Guero Davila, “Better, he used to say, five years on your feet than fifty years on your knees”(38).  In other words, a person can spend a life of poverty, selling watermelon from a cart, or one can become rich by selling drugs.  Many of these people have adopted the philosophy of life expressed in these words:  “Say what you will, dirty money spends as green as clean.  Plus, it gives you luxuries, music, wine, and women.  Then you die fast and rest in peace”(40).  That kind of life, though short, is more preferable to some people than a long life of begging.Perez-Reverte introduces us to a culture that glorifies drug dealers.  The Queen of the South points out that in some sections of Hispanic culture, drug runners become folk heroes.  In a strange way, drug traffickers mix their religion and their crimes.  The patron saint of the drug traffickers in
Mexico is St. Malverde, a kind of Robin Hood of Mexico who robbed the rich to give to the poor.  He is not officially a Roman Catholic saint, but nevertheless, the people pray to him as one.  The drug runners prayer of St. Malverde is “God bless my journey and allow my return” (44).    In this culture, drug runners are praised for their ability to outwit the Federales and make a fortune  There is a whole genre of music, narcocorridos, dedicated to tales of these drug traffickers, just as some  of our rap music does:  “As corrdos had been to the Revolution in those bygone days, so the narcocorridos were the new epics, the modern legends of a Mexico that was there and had no intention of going anywhere, or changing—among other reasons because a not inconsiderable part of the national economy depended on the drugs.  It was a marginal, hard world, of weapons, corruption, and drugs, in which the only law not broken was the law of supply and demand” (382).  The musical groups and singers mentioned in this novel  who perform these narcocorridos, such as Los Tigres del Norte, Los Tucanes de Tijuana, and Broncos de Reynosa,  are not fictional.  Some of the lyrics of these narcocorrdos contain lines such as “Vivo de tres animals—mi perico, mi gallo y mi chiva.  I make my living from three animals:  my parakeet, my rooster, and my goat—which in Mexican slang was coke, marijuana, and heroin” (37). 
Though we can understand how the forces of poverty and culture lure people into such criminal activity, we cannot excuse their behavior.  Whether the motive is money, fame, excitement, or revenge, the pain that drug dealers cause others and themselves can never be justified.  We can sympathize with the hopelessness that people often feel in these cultures, but we also know that there are other alternatives besides murder and addiction.  As I read this novel, I kept thinking of the statement by
St. Paul’s description of those “Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness” (Eph. 4:19). 
St. Paul also spoke of those who consciences have been seared (I Tim. 4:2).  We live in a frightening age in which we are not only producing such people, but also, glorifying them.
Just as an aside, as I was reading this novel, The Queen of the South, I kept thinking of the statement by Jesus, “The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with the men of this generation, and condemn them:  for she came from the utmost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, a greater than Solomon is here.”  The queen of
Sheba was also involved in trade, but hopefully, not the drug trade!  The queen of the south in Scripture was, indeed, a very powerful woman.  Bible scholars debate concerning whether this queen of Sheba was from Arabia or
Ethiopia.  Teresa Mendoza is involved in the drug trade from northern Africa, thus her title, “queen of the south” (south of
Spain).  Jesus said that the queen of the south would arise and condemn the men of his generation.  Teresa Mendoza is a powerful woman who rises to power and rules, condemns, and murders men.  But the one thing this queen of the south doesn’t do is learn the wisdom of Solomon, or the one greater than Solomon.

Also, it helps to have read Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo before reading this book.  This book, in many ways, is a modern retelling of that classic novel.

Works Cited

Perez-Reverte, Arturo.  The Queen of the South.  Trans. Andrew Hurley.
New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004.

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