The Arid Sky. Emiliano Monge. Trans. Thomas Bunstead. Brooklyn, New York. Restless Books. 2018. 209 pages.
To catalog the atrocities carried out in Emiliano Monge’s The Arid Sky is to be reminded that humanity will never run out of ways to inflict harm. The murder weapons wielded in this short, unsettling novel include a pickax, a book of matches, bare hands, and an array of firearms. And it’s not just people who do the suffering and dying. Dogs and horses are targeted, too. The violence is deeply distressing, but it’s not gratuitous. From a narrative standpoint, the rivers of blood are there for a reason.
Monge’s main character is a miscreant named Germán Alcántara Carnero. Conceived in rural Mexico when his father raped his mother, Carnero joins a paramilitary group as an adolescent and commits a revenge murder as a teen. He’s a young man when he seizes control of a government ministry, a post he’ll hold—and ferociously defend—for decades. His life, which spans most of the twentieth century, is primarily a series of horrible events, most of them orchestrated by Carnero himself. Embroiled in disputes over land, religion, and power, he commits murder, arson, and petty theft. His jacket, Monge writes, was stolen “years ago from the first man he ever stuffed in his iron trunk and left to die.” Loads of novels ask us to sympathize with—or at least try to understand—the criminal mind-set. This one, though, stars a character who appears to be incorrigibly evil.
It’s disconcerting to spend a couple hundred pages in the company of such a person, but this isn’t your standard character study. The book’s first sentence announces that Carnero is the personification of “the era in which he lived.” Armed with this clue, a reader can unlock the novel’s allegorical elements. The Arid Sky was originally published in the author’s native Mexico, and it’s no accident that Monge’s protagonist embodies the corruption and predation that, at various times, has plagued his country and many of its neighbors, including the United States. As translated by Thomas Bunstead, Monge’s prose is crisp, and his nonlinear narration creates a heightened sense of unpredictability.
Though this is often a dispiriting tale, Monge is contending with universal themes. His depiction of unchecked power is a warning, one that will always be worth heeding.