Last updated: 27 November, 2010
SAMHITA ARNI 17:55 IST
Mexico, Bangladesh or India — the migrant almost always experiences displacement and isolation. There are so many such novels that, in fact, one could claim that the genre has come close to exhausting itself.
In many novels, migrants leave their homeland, face arduous journeys to foreign countries and endure great trials in an alien culture. Despite varying places of origin — For this reason, it’s delightful to come across Luis Alberto Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North, a refreshingly different novel which is, in many ways, a subversion of the conventional tropes of migrant literature.
The heroes of Urrea’s novel are an unlikely lot — a trio of boy-obsessed, short-skirted teenage girls — Nayeli, Yolo and Vampi — and their gay best friend, Tacho.They set off on a journey of epic proportions, confronting innumerable obstacles, across Mexico and into USA. Their aim isn’t to find jobs, make money or begin a new life. Their mission is far more intriguing. Their village, like all the other towns of Mexico, has a dearth of men. Husbands and fathers, due to declining economic circumstances, have left their homes and ventured under the deadly border fence into the USA, in search of jobs, prosperity and the American dream. None of these men return. Tres Camerones is almost entirely now a village of women. When a pair of modern-day Bandidos, a drug dealer and a twisted police officer, arrive and intimidate the inhabitants of Tres Camerones, the town is under threat. Nayeli, the short-skirted, fierce protagonist feels the need to take action. After watching the famous The Magnificent Seven at the local cinema, she comes up with a startling, wild scheme — she wants to journey into the USA and find the men who have left (her father among them). She plans to persuade them to return and defend their town from the evil intentions of the Bandidos.
And so begins her remarkable quest, accompanied by her two girl friends and the gay Taco, into the beautiful north: the land that has shaped their dreams, given them Kanye West and Dave Matthews, Goth Fashion, YouTube, films like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. It is not just a need for protection that inspires their journey — it is also the yearning of teenage girls for first kisses and boyfriends (impossible to satisfy in a town of women), of women for husbands, and — in Nayeli’s case — for fathers. Cinema is a constant, important presence in this novel. The bandidos are described in terms that make instantly identifiable as the bad guys in any cowboy flick. An eccentric, former soldier-turned-trash picker, the staff wielding Atomiko, is a reference to the ronin of the original Japanese film, The Seven Samurai, that inspired The Magnificent Seven. Also, it’s through cinema that the characters perceive the world — “The girls recognised it at once.
These had seen this in Cine Pedro Infant, during one of the Garcia-Garcia’s endless Steve McQueen film festivals. It was the dirt tunnel from The Great Escape.” And it’s this same tunnel that allows the girls to make good their own escape, into the beautiful north.
At times, however, the narrative feels contrived — as if through the journey across Mexico — Urrea is trying to show as much of the country as possible, and make a comment on current conditions. Nonetheless it’s still an enjoyable, funny read with a truly innovative style — that seamlessly welds together the epic quality of a quest narrative with the culture and language of the Generation Y. As migratory patterns change due to the declining first world economies, those who have departed in search of prosperity abroad are returning home. Into the Beautiful North picks up on this this shift and, for these reasons, may bespeak a new wave — or at the very least, a breath of fresh air — in the literature of migration.