January 2015

Matt Pincus


Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated by Samantha Schnee

Carmen Boullosa's masterful new novel, Texas: The Great Theft, is a timely piece of historical fiction amidst the deep political unrest in Mexico over the forty-three students taken by local police, handed over to local drug gangs, and killed. Bolaño's dissection of Santa Teresa in 2666 extends to a history of crimes on the border back to the annexation of Texas in 1846. Boullosa terms it "the Great Theft." The story takes place in the towns of Bruneville and Matasánchez based on the towns Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros of the state Tamaulipas in Mexico. Don Nepomuceno, based on Mexican rancher and folk hero Juan Cortina, is in Bruneville's town square when Sheriff Shears says to him, "Shut up, you dirty greaser."

The narrative tells of the ensuing consequences of this statement among the citizens of both towns. Boullosa shows, unlike television or film, how a text can omnisciently enter the minds and bodies of hundreds of citizens, thus taking a collective pulse of social, racial, and political tensions. The people of Bruneville believe, as quoted from President Polk, and said at a party hosted by Charles Stealman, a corrupt businessman and his wife Catherine Anne, "Anglo-Saxon blood can never again be dominated by anyone who claims to be from Mexico." Ironically, Mexico had given the land to Americans under the condition, as Boullosa says, "To be perfectly clear: they made them sign contracts swearing to abide by the Catholic faith and pledge their allegiance to the Mexican government." However, Americans, as Glissant would say had an "arrow-like nomadism," which would settle to establish legitimacy and possession of the territory now known as Texas.

What is both moving and also lucid about Boullosa's prose, though, is her ability to take one in and out of a scene fraught with disorder and violence, and place one back in the rich spirit of humility encountering sublime beauty. Before the Sheriff's infamous words, the text takes us to the landscape: "The sun bears down, piercing the veil of shimmering dust." Again, later in the novel, after tensions have risen to violence, "The buffalo hunter, Wild, leaves Mrs. Big's Hotel to take a piss and get some fresh air. Santiago's body is hanging heavily from the icaco tree without swinging, like a mangrove root searching for the earth. A blackbird lands like a stone on his shoulder." The body almost melds into the landscape through the similes as one also sees the atrocity of the recent lynching, the corpse, and also Wild's apathetic reaction. The text continuously expands on these moments, letting them accumulate for the reader in opacity of deferred fabulation, which does not point towards interpretation or totality, but rather frees one into possibility.

Boullosa warns the reader at one point in Texas: The Great Theft, "Not even in a fairy tale!" However, although it is historical fiction, the text opens up to possibility through vignettes such as,

The roots of Ms. Big's icaco tree don't know how to sleep, and therefore can't dream. Rigid, they extend through the muddy earth, thinking always of the Eagles [Bruneville vigilante militia] because the Eagles are always going on about how, 'it's so important to defend our roots,' etc.

The fantastic is left to expose the wounds left untreated in the wake of territorial aggression and racial violence. The text for Americans can be eye opening, illuminating how Texas was taken, rather than given by Manifest Destiny. Samantha Schnee's excellent translation and Deep Vellum, a publishing house for translations of contemporary fiction and creative nonfiction writers, has given another platform to a great novelist.

Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated by Samantha Schnee
Deep Vellum Publishing
ISBN: 978-1941920008
336 pages