Published in January of this year, The salt of the earth, original title American Dirt (American dirt), has achieved rapid notoriety, perhaps mainly because of the crawl space of protests that has sparked. Written by the American Jeanine Cummins, tells of a Mexican bookstore and her eight-year-old son, who flee a fierce cartel of drug traffickers after their family has been exterminated. In this escape they become migrantes. That is, they join that vast group of men and women who from various countries of South America try to reach the United States. A trip made largely on the roofs of running trains, where it is easy to get sucked in by the speed and remain amputated. A journey in which everyone suffers violence and you can die at any moment.
Jeanine Cummins she lives in New York and before becoming a full-time writer she worked in publishing for many years. His book was at the center of a fierce controversy. She has been accused by a group of Mexican authors and critics, not so much of having appropriated a culture that does not belong to her, as of not knowing it, of not knowing things that every Mexican knows.
The history of literature provides us with many excellent examples of the fact that a writer can write about a culture that is not his own. The problem, according to Mexican authors, is that Cummins does not know this culture enough and the novel contains inaccuracies and stereotypes.
These cultural distortions are known to greatly affect susceptibility.
Let’s take an example. To Rome with Love is a 2012 Woody Allen film – perhaps the ugliest – in which you see old women dressed in black, in mourning, walking through the streets of Trastevere, while at home you warm up the water to wash on the stove and then it is poured with jugs in a tub. This Rome, which did not exist even a century ago, lives only in the head of the American director and it is a very annoying stereotype for an Italian who watches the film.
Mutatis mutandis, Cummins is accused of writing a melodramatic story, thinking of American tastes, starting with the protagonist and her son who look like two Americans.
The presenter Oprah Winfrey, after declaring that she appreciated the novel very much because it revealed the terrible reality of the migrantes to her, she later organized an episode of her famous Book Club, inviting Cummins together with some Mexican writers for a comparison.
Not having the tools to take a position, I will limit myself to talking about the novel regardless of the problem, however not indifferent, of cultural coherence. However, I would like to specify that I read the criticisms of the novel only after I finished it, so as not to be influenced by it.
“There are sixteen corpses in the courtyard, almost all the people Lydia loved the world most.”
Among them is her husband, her mother, her beloved granddaughter, basically the whole family. We quickly discover that the rate of unsolved crimes in Mexico exceeds 90 percent. In practice there is a kind of total impunity. Powerful cartels of drug traffickers act unchallenged, leaving severed heads in the middle of the road. They have affiliates everywhere, many in the police too.
So if we think that Acapulco is a holiday resort for rich people, between the sea and skyscrapers, it is an idea definitely worth reviewing because “the signs painted it red”.
The city has the highest murder rate in all of Mexico and one of the highest on the planet.
“Whole neighborhoods had emptied, people abandoned the ruins of their lives and headed north. For those who left, the north was the only destination. If a tourism Mecca like Acapulco could fall, then there was not a single safe place in Mexico. “
Among these fierce signs, those who seek Lydia and her son Luca are the Jardineros. They are called “gardeners” because they only use firearms to kill if they are in a hurry, otherwise they prefer to use more land-based tools such as spades, scythes, axes, machetes and hoes.
© Alejandro Prieto, Mexico. Roadrunner Approaching the Border Wall. A road runner (a bird species) approaches the Arizona border wall. The wall along the border with Mexico, wanted by Donald Trump, will cross the richest and most diverse area of North America, interfering with the movements, habitat and access to water and food for animals. The barricades for now occupy one thousand of the more than 3 thousand kilometers of the border and Trump’s will is to build another 800 kilometers by 2021. The photo is currently at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, among the winners of the World Press Photo 2020.
Thus began the escape of mother and son, initially by bus because it is too dangerous for a woman to go alone in the car. Especially since on the streets of the country there are checkpoints manned by drug traffickers, or by policemen who are sometimes drug traffickers, or by militias formed by inhabitants to defend themselves from drug traffickers.
Theirs is a path full of obstacles and every action, even the most ordinary like moving or withdrawing money from an account, becomes very risky. Mother and son are in shock and move like hunted animals without even time to mourn their endless family. Above all, what moves them is fear.
It would seem that the only solution for them is the north, the north. But they are warned by a priest they meet at the Casa del Migrante:
“This path is only for those of you who have no choice or other possibilities but only violence and misery behind them. … Some of you will fall off the trains. Many will be mutilated or injured. Many will die. Many of you will be kidnapped, tortured, sold, kidnapped. Some will be lucky enough to survive all of this and will come to the border of the Estados Unidos, only to have the privilege of dying alone in the desert. “
“Only one in three will arrive at their destination alive.”
Yes, because not only does anyone worry about punishing these murders, but the migrants who disappear are not even counted.
“The Beast”: this is what migrants call freight trains that take them to the north, towards the border with the United States
A gender problem …
Will the two protagonists make it to reach the United States and get to safety? Or will they be joined by the terrible sign of the “gardeners” who wants to kill them?
The salt of the earth it’s a novel built like a thriller. It is the story of a chase. It has a fast pace that takes you from the first moment, but it is not enough for a novel to be a novel page turner for being a good novel. For this type of plot-based book the question inevitably arises: beyond the enthralling curiosity, in the end what remains?
I don’t go into detail in order not to spoil the pleasure of reading, but the final solution has not convinced me. I wondered why and what was wrong. I also thought about how I would end it. Until I understood: what’s wrong is that it’s a romance thriller.
The character that doesn’t work is Javier, the drug lord in charge of the cartel, the one who leaves heads cut off. Yes, because we only see him reciting poems. He is presented to us as a cultured, refined man who makes the best readings, with a sweet and mild character.
Without denying that a drug trafficker can also be a cultured and refined person, let’s say that he will also have other aspects of the personality that are not included in the picture that is given.
The problem is the triangle with the “narco-dandy in love”, rather than the background of the author. Beyond cultural coherence, there is a problem of narrative genre and I think it is this current romance that undermines the credibility of the novel, because Javier is not a credible criminal. Hence the difficulty of finding a satisfactory end.
The salt of the earth is published by Feltrinelli and I wonder why the publishing house chose the same title as the beautiful film by Wenders on Salgado, generating not a little confusion.
I think it is still a novel to read because it runs as fast as a train, puts the spotlight on what happens to reach that coveted frontier, revealing the terrible reality of migrants who are willing to lose their lives in order to reach it. It is certainly not the new Furore, as they wrote on the band on the American cover.
It tells of desperate people who move knowing what they are facing, which means that they leave even more desperate situations, just like migrants trying to get to our shores.
In the past there has always been an elsewhere to go and for centuries America has represented the land in which to start a new life. The United States is made up of emigrants from all over the world, especially Europeans. But now we are at a saturation point. The countries close their doors and there is no longer somewhere else to go and look for luck.
In this regard, I was very impressed by a character who arrives among the migrantes towards the end of the novel. She is a Mexican lady who has lived in the United States for many years. She and her husband moved regularly to California because he – an engineer – had found work there. They lived in San Diego with their daughters. Then the husband died and the woman’s visa expired. However, she went to the immigration office every year for routine checks, until they suddenly expelled her. A middle-class woman, with perfect English, owner of an apartment, a job in the health sector, who arrived legally, with two underage daughters waiting for her at home.
The impression is that the United States of America has lost a few trains.
The article American dirt “Salt of the earth” by Jeanine Cummins comes from Literary Chronicles.