‘Texas: The Great Theft’ by Carmen Boullosa (Review)

A recent addition to the family of publishers translating fiction from foreign languages is Deep Vellum Publishing, a small press working out of Dallas.  The energy behind the venture is Will Evans, a man distinguished by his energy in setting up the project (and his moustache, which would go well with a Stetson).  Perhaps, then, it’s apt that Deep Vellum’s first offering is a book that looks at life in a multicultural society – and also provides a glimpse into the frontier past of the Lone Star State…

Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft (translated by Samantha Schnee, electronic review copy courtesy of the publisher) takes place in 1859, some time after Texas was annexed by the United States.  We’re down on the border in the town of Bruneville (on the American side of the Rio Grande), and it’s high noon in a dusty, sun-baked street.  Now that’s an ominous sign if ever there was one…

and we’re not mistaken:

In the market square, in front of Café Ronsard, Sheriff Shears spits five words at Don Nepomuceno:
  “Shut up you dirty greaser.”
(Deep Vellum Publishing, 2014)

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Nepomuceno, one of the most respected and powerful Mexicans in the region, isn’t likely to take kindly to the insult.  It’s also fairly clear to see that once the shooting starts, it’s going to be hard to stop.  Life in Bruneville is about to become a whole lot more interesting – and, for many people, rather short.

Texas: The Great Theft is a novel that looks at the border region in a time when matters were still unsettled.  The Mexicans are still unhappy about the way their land was stolen, both by force and by legal tricks, while the Americans are in a constant state of unease, aware that they’re living life on the edge.  The high tension evident in the region means any spark can ignite an explosion.

So, a story of Yanks against Mexicans?  It’s not quite as simple as that – this is a rather diverse region:

“On the other side they also have people of all stripes – Indians, cowboys, bandits, Negros, Mexicans, gringos – as well as profitable mines and endless acres of land, but it’s different.  The Río Bravo divides the world in two, perhaps even three or more.  No fool would say that the gringos are all on one side and the Mexicans on the other, with separate territories for the Indians, the Negros, and even for sonsofbitches.  None of these categories is absolute.”

The cosmopolitan towns make for a political nightmare, forcing both the Americans and the Mexicans into shifting, temporary alliances with the various native tribes.  It’s a case of everyone trying to stay one step ahead of everyone else.

From the start, the average reader assumes that this will be a story about gun fights; in fact, the novel takes a good while to get moving in terms of action.  Texas: The Great Theft is much more a description of the world the incidents take place in, and as the sheriff’s words travel from mouth to mouth, through the town, across the river and out to the Indian settlements, Boullosa paints a picture of the time.

Of course, the ‘incident’ is the backbone upon which all of the description hangs, and the Mayor of the Mexican town of Matasánchez isn’t the only one who sees the dangers ahead:

He curses up and down, left and right.
When he’s vented this string of insults he asks loudly, “And now what are we supposed to do?  There’s no doubt that Nepomuceno will retaliate, and how!  Where does this leave the rest of us?”

By the time we return to see what Nepomuceno actually does about the insult, dozens of pages have passed, and we are now acquainted with the majority of the cast who will play out the aftermath.

Eventually, the action does get underway, with Nepomuceno retreating across the Rio Grande/Río Bravo to plan his next move.  There’s tension on both sides of the river, but that doesn’t stop normal life completely – the card sharps keep playing, the drunks keep drinking, the whores keep whoring.  All the while, everyone knows that soon something big is going to happen…

Texas: The Great Theft is a fascinating story, one which is well told.  There isn’t a great amount of descriptive, literary writing, but it’s not that kind of book.  Boullosa’s story is one that balances description with action, and does it well on the whole.  It doesn’t have the magic of some writers, but it’s fascinating enough to keep drawing the reader ever deeper into Nepomuceno’s struggle.

Schnee’s translation is excellent, bringing across the tone of the book, casual, light story-telling (with a dry, disinterested narratorial voice).  Events start off slowly, but they do eventually turn ugly, with atrocities from both all sides.  Interestingly, the tone stays fairly casual, even when the killing increases – this is Texas, after all…

I enjoyed Texas: The Great Theft immensely, but I can’t help thinking that it’s a daring move for a new publisher based in Texas.  This is a book which, despite the bitter actions and language of all sides, probably has the Americans coming off worst (I do wonder if this one might be a hard sell up in Dallas…).  However, it’s well worth trying, and hopefully, Deep Vellum will gather enough support to continue with their plan to bring translated literature to Texas – and beyond 🙂

4 thoughts on “‘Texas: The Great Theft’ by Carmen Boullosa (Review)

  1. Glad you liked it. I read it a while back in Spanish and thought it was a first-class book. Will tells me that he is planning to publish more of Carmen Boullosa's novels in English, which is long overdue.


  2. The Modern Novel – It was definitely an excellent read, although I did think it tailed off a little right towards the end. It'll be interesting to see how she writes on a different topic, especially if it's something more contemporary.


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