What happens when you fall for the mother of your best friend? In this novel a nonsensical chaos with a dark ending.
Do you remember the first time you fell in love? Not the first time you experienced it, but rather the time you realized what love really was. At the start, this love is covered up by infatuation, which moves every single cell in our bodies and disrupts our lives. Does this ring a bell? It probably does, since we all remember our first bittersweet crush. The first crush for many of us is fleeting and intense, filled with blushes and stuttering, but for the select few it is enduring, life changing, and most importantly, forbidden.
The novella we'll delve into today is a Latin American masterpiece that describes a young boy's awakening. Battles in the Desert, by José Emilio Pacheco, is told through the perspective of Carlos, a middle-aged man living in the US, reminiscing about his childhood. He was a middle-class kid living in a run down neighborhood having to deal with a new life after his father's soup factory loses money with the entrance of American products. His family goes through many upheavals and he's forced to enter a public school, and there he introduces us to his new classmates.
It’s a classic childhood story many with Latin American roots will relate to. It chronicles the nature of tightly knit families and social structures that are threatened by the advent of modernity. Carlos mother is a devote Catholic from a good family who struggles to face the loss of her social position and she can't let go of her classist prejudices and upbringing. His father, a domineering man who clutches at the last remnants of his wealth, is too worried about the future that he completely ignores the feelings of his family. Carlos' elder sister has to work to help her family and his older brother, the black sheep of the family, creates constant tension in the family. Carlos is dragged into these complex relationships and situations and in the meantime he's just living life praying that he doesn't end up like his brother.
Lost in the cracks of a dysfunctional family, Carlos becomes friends with a kid named Jim, the son of a young woman in her twenties who everybody knows is dating a married man. Jim, who was born in the US has to move to Mexico with his mother and for that reason he becomes a target for bullies and pranksters. Carlos feeling bad for the boy decides to befriend him and they become inseparable. One day, he is invited to Jim's house and Carlos finally meets Jim's young and beautiful mother and he instantly falls in love.
What follows is a series of events that pit Carlos against society and his own family. Without going into too much detail into his relationship with Mariana, what's gripping about this novel is how society views his feelings, something that is pure and innocent is twisted into something perverted by outside forces. The novel explores how society understands love and how this universal emotion is hypersexualized and twisted.
This novel despite its dark undertones is worth reading given that it is a beautiful journey filled with pure emotions, misunderstandings, and pain. The protagonist who is now an older, wiser man, is still dragged to a past that shows a completely different city and society. So, as we accompany Carlos through his heartbreak we begin to question whether our own views of love have been tainted and corrupted by the perverted thoughts of other and if that pure feeling will never be felt ever again. A tough and bitter pill to swallow but one we need in this life that needs so much love and understanding.
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