On love and moral ambivalence: A stenographic account

IMG_4578It’s 1948, we’re in Mexico City, the Second World War is just a few years behind and still fresh in everyone’s mind; the State of Israel has just been established, igniting a war with the neighboring Arab states; USA companies are hijacking several sectors of the Mexican market effectively pushing many local companies to bankruptcy; meanwhile, President Miguel Alemán promises a brilliant future of progress and abundance. Such is the atmosphere in which Battles in the desert, by José Emilio Pacheco, takes place.

In an stenographic account, consisting of short and precise sentences, Pacheco tells us eight years old Carlos’ love story. On the playground of the school his classmates divide in two groups and fight each other, emulating the fights between Muslims and Jews at the Middle East; accordingly, the kids of actual Muslim and Jewish families despise each other categorically while rich reject their national ties and poor kids denounce their snobbishness; in the same fashion, Carlos’ mother rejects his friends for equally unjustified reasons based on ethnicity, religious affiliations and income.

His world is divided by hate and rejection but Carlos himself doesn’t find sense in such reasons and befriends Jim, a kid born in the USA raised by  a single mother. The first time Jim invites him to his house, Carlos falls hopelessly in love with her. But when hate, disloyalty and segregation are the norm, his innocent infatuation is bound to be seen as an aberration and responded to with punishment and degradation. Indeed, “love is a disease in a world in which the only natural thing is hate”[*]. In roughly sixty pages Pacheco accomplishes the astonishing feat of describing the precarious situation and social values of the time along its perils, while focusing on a moving story that fleshes them out.

*Given the lack of an English source, the translation is mine.

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