Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Spotlighting Chicano Novelist Morales

Review: Alejandro Morales. The captain of all these men of death.
Tempe, Ariz. Bilingual Press, 2008.
ISBN 9781931010368 1931010366

Michael Sedano

Alejandro Morales writes literary fiction and will not be familiar to readers of genre fiction nor those who haven’t read beyond assignments in Chicano Literature 1A. 

Scholars and lifelong readers find Morales a worthy author and study subject. Morales’ work is considered “Classic” and is in process of finding a new audience. In fact, the Stanford Chicana Chicano Alumni Book Club of Southern California is reading The Brick People for its May 30 meeting.

General readers of Chicano Literature gravitate to accessible satisfaction they find in contemporary settings, expressed in rhetoric of affirmational nationalism, populated with an ethos of conscientization. Easy accessibility is not Morales, yet readers will appreciate discovering Morales’ exhaustively researched historical narrative and local interest, and will widen their personal understanding of “Chicano Literature.” For sure, readers will be wowed by Morales’ style of Chicano realism and for no other reason writers will flock to his work.

La Bloga, along with our compañera in cultura, Latinopia, will be taking a fresh look at Morales’ novels in coming weeks. You can see Jesus Treviño’s first Latinopia interview below, where Morales discusses The Brick People, his 1988 novel about the Mexicanos who built Pasadena and DTLA, and that introduced Alejandro Morales to English-language readers. (Here's a link to my review of Brick People).

Latinopia Word Alejandro Morales The Brick People from Latinopia.com on Vimeo.

In upcoming Latinopia segments already in the can, Treviño talks with Morales about Rag Doll Plagues, and Little Nation and other Stories. Latinopia uploads new content weekly, on Sunday.

Treviño and I hope to complete video interviews with Morales on Death of an Anglo, Barrio on the Edge/Caras Viejas y Vino Nuevo, and Captain of All These Men of Death. Latinopia is the definitive repository of movimiento and cultura memory with historical videos, musica, cooking, literary reviews and interviews.

Morales bases his stories in Brick People, Death of an Anglo, and Captain of All These Men of Death, on historical events and people--his familia in two--giving his characters substance beyond the page. Readers know where Pacoima is, they’ve driven past the Olive View sanatorium that collapsed in the big earthquake; it’s where Captain of All These Men of Death is set. Too, you can look up stuff on the internet while you read, making a seamless connection between page and fact. Good historical fiction like this is inherently magical, making a wondrous illusion with an appearance of reality on the page, and while you’re reading apace, Morales sneaks up on you and plants you in a nightmarish dystopia before taking you back to your regular picture.

The famous exemplar of this, but not nearly with Morales’ literacy, is read in a late chapter of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. One page you’re sitting at a banquet table the next paragraph, purple-assed baboons are swinging from the chandeliers in a junkie hallucination. Morales recreates the same kind of nightmares in Captain of All These Men of Death, showing us loving surgeons by day become monsters by night, kidnaping and experimenting on poor Mexicanas, cutting up their vaginas, leaving them hooked up to a forest of tubes. 

Scholars call this “magical realism” as if a critic’s vocabulary can encompass the complexities of a novelist’s vision and language’s capacity to connect ideas and create actualities from hazy facts. If it’s fiction, it’s magical. Beyond this, people in the depths of medical despair see the world with a tortured perception. What Morales writes is not literary style but point of view.

Tuberculosis doesn’t bear the weight it once had, the bug has been beaten. Anti-vaxxers take note. Captain of All These Men of Death begins when Robert Contreras seeks to follow his brothers into WWII. The pre-induction physical finds TB. In those days, TB sentenced the patient to isolation and medical care, if they were poor in a county or state facility. Historically, rich people used to run around naked taking in lots of sunshine and fresh air, and nourished their consumption with lots of milk from wet nurses. Poor people just died in droves.

The Greeks had a word for it, Phthisis. And if you had phthisis you were useless as a slave, so Alexander the Great and Hippocrates put the sword to them. The Romans, too. One Spanish Inquisitor wiped out an entire village to prevent its spread in America. The French mob guillotined a guy who cured TB right after they did Marie Antoinette. We are in Auschwitz with Mengele. The world of the novel knits together scenes from a diachronic narrative of medical science defeating TB that all led up to these moments in Roberto Contreras’ life in Olive View hospital.

Love and sex and life go on, TB or not. The love story in Captain of All These Men of Death is the novel’s only predictable element. Of course Mayte is going to die. Gentle, genius, loving Mayte. It’s how she dies, and could have, that adds tension to Morales’ story of a young man’s first feelings of love in the time of tuberculosis.

Morales builds up a romantic vision of the doomed Mayte, a Spanish-speaking biliterate sanatorium journalist. Mayte’s words create a strong ethos for her as a researcher, writer, victim of the dread disease. Parallelling Mayte’s stories, Morales describes horrible deaths from the unmerciful uncontrolled Bacillus. Worse, while patients lie in agony deserving empathy with their putrefying skin bursting and oozing, famous healers take exacting notes to fill encyclopedias. They observe with laughter watching the flesh burst apart.

You won’t find that on the internet about these supercilious medical giants but just imagine. Idols with feet of Morales-supplied clay. Reality hurts, gente. I imagined Morales would use all that information and built-up dread to kill Mayte in some horrible fashion. Realism hurts only when you make it hurt. Morales spares the reader Mayte’s horror.

Sex, on the other hand, isn’t something that Morales “spares” the reader. TB patients are readily available to lecherous doctors. Alexander the Great delights in his female slaves’ genitalia. Readers who’ve met Mary Renault’s Alexander will know a vastly different Alexander at Morales’ hand. Perhaps it’s owing to maleness that Morales’ erotic writing stands out in every novel, and is unlike the sexual congress ordinarily written by Chicana Chicano writers, for example, the ribald exploits in Ana Castillo’s Give It To Me. Interestingly, Morales denies his reader a graphic hookup between Mayte and Contreras, the narrator. They kissed, but did they…?

The Captain of All These Men of Death is an English-language composition, indicating Morales’ audience is the United States reader, that this information about our culture, is for us. Morales says in a 1988 interview that literature is a mirror and his stories are a vision readers aren't used to seeing. Indeed, readers have seen the world of hospital wards in Big Nurse, or Johnny Got His Gun. People live then die in Morales' ward. Ironically, Roberto, who can't get in the Army owing to TB, calls his caring head nurse, The Colonel.

There’s a host of tantalizing questions of rhetorical motive for the author about the Spanish-first novels, as well as investigation of the English translations that are not by Morales’ hand, raising lines of inquiry about language and audience, accuracy in expression and voice in translated literature. For bilingual readers, Barrio On The Edge is published in facing-page format so there’s extra entertainment in ping-ponging your perusal.

The best writers of Chicano Literature, of Literatura Chicana, are Chicana writers. Cisneros, Castillo, Viramontes, Corpi, we can go on all day with female names. Then we have las primas de las chicanas like Julia Alvarez and Isabel Allende, las grandes. And a host of up-and-coming Chicana novelists like Melinda Palacio and Reyna Grande. Quick, name Chicano writers. Anaya. Urrea.

Alejandro Morales’work occupies a venerable place among United States belles lettres, alongside superb craftsmen like Gore Vidal or Upton Sinclair, experimental writers like beats and hypes, but not yet whom people name when listing Chicano canonical writers.

Please enjoy Jesus Salvador Treviño’s current interview with Alejandro Morales at Latinopia (link), and ask your independent bookseller to bring in copies of Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue publications, including Alejandro Morales’ oeuvre. The only way to read it is to get a copy.

Alejandro Morales. The captain of all these men of death.
Tempe, Ariz. Bilingual Press, 2008.
ISBN 9781931010368 1931010366

Mail Bag-Chicago

The National Museum of Mexican Art is proud to announce the roll out of our online searchable Permanent Collection database! Years in the making, we currently have a small, but lovely sampling of our Photography holdings available online. Check it out to see pieces beyond our gallery walls and be sure to visit frequently as we add more. 

See the website for the following details (LINK):

If you feel inspired after viewing our online collection, we encourage you to create your own photos and submit them for a chance to be featured on our social media pages! Photos in the following themes are accepted: Community, Urban Landscape or Conceptual/Collage.

Submit your photo using these easy steps:

1 comment:

Antonio SolisGomez said...

thanks for your wonderfull review that introduces a writer tha i'll have to check out