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Just Don't Take The Little I've Got

Eduardo Antonio Parra's No Man's Land

Last year in South Texas, a truck driver smuggling illegal aliens opened the back of his tractor-trailer to find nineteen of its 74 occupants, including a child, dead of suffocation. In the last decade, as many as three hundred women have been found raped and murdered in the desert surrounding Ciudad Juarez. Hundreds more are missing and unaccounted for. No law enforcement agency seems to care.

I wish I could say that these are merely plot lines that appear in Eduardo Antonio Parra's No Man's Land as phantasmagoric exaggerations. But as violent and blood-spattered as Parra's short stories are, as wretched and abused as his characters may be, they simply reflect the headlines. While the United States and Mexico avert their eyes from the horrors of their shared border, Parra is "the desert's Dante," as author Juan Felipe Herrera calls him on the book's dust cover; he enters a place everyone is afraid to see and examines its cruelties.

The ten tales in the collection are drawn from two Spanish-language volumes, published in Mexico in 1996 and 1999, and display the unevenness that short story collections often do. When Parra forays into the mythic or supernatural, he has nowhere near the impact of his more gritty and realistic stories. "The Christ of San Buenaventura," in particular, a magic-realist gothic tale about a small town's dark secret that owes a debt to both Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," while well-written on its own, is stylistically out of place in the collection.

No doubt translating slang from one language to another is an unenviable task, but I wished that translator Christopher Winks had consulted someone more "down" to find better English equivalents for Mexican street lingo. In stories where gangsters and thugs talk to each other, such as "The Darkest Night," the dialogue rings so false it's comical. (When was the last time you heard a gangster say "supercool"?)

These issues aside, in the best stories Parra's prose spares no stomach-turning details. Ever wonder what it feels like to spend twelve days alive at the bottom of a contaminated well, surrounded by animal carcasses? Look no further than "The Well," the collection's seventh story. "Do you know what the sun does to open wounds?" asks the old narrator as he leads a young man through the desert at night. "It opens them like the rinds of rotten mangoes...and then the itching torments you even worse than the lashings."

Parra's unflinching gore calls to mind those infamous Mexican murder magazines that publish graphic crime scene photos as entertainment. But the violence of No Man's Land is far from exploitative. Parra's compassion for the wretched, tortured creatures that populate the book is clear. Enduring every possible kind of suffering, they survive, and that mere survival is a triumph. "Do what you want with me," says one character, "Just don't take the little I've got."

In "Real Life," a tabloid reporter becomes obsessed with a derelict couple who fall so far outside the realm of normal human existence they have nothing left to lose. But when the reporter photographs them, they pose like newlyweds in love: "She standing, her gaze filled with hopeful dreams...smiling at the camera with mold-covered teeth."

Read the collection as one complete work, and a religious theme emerges: these people, trapped on the lawless and poor side of the border, subjected to every kind of humiliation and injustice, are Christ-like despite their thievery and murder. They bear the pain and sins of the world on their bodies, these illegal aliens and fugitive criminals, they bear the blame for so many societal ills that society needs them there. "That's why he lets himself be caught and tortured," Parra says of a crippled old man who survives endless savage beatings in "The Christ of San Buenaventura." "So that through him they can conquer the ghosts tormenting them...he will be there so that San Buenaventura can immolate their frustration and impotence in him."

After more than 200 pages of relentless pain, Parra ends the book with "How Life Goes," a resurrection of sorts: a man who believes himself to be dead following a car crash is miraculously saved. "You've been born again," the paramedic tells him with bitterness. What kind of existence he's been reborn into is very much open to question.

No Man's Land
By Eduardo Antonio Parra
City Lights Books; ISBN: 0872864294
Paperback: 213 pages (August 2004)