I’m sitting in a beachside bar with Sputnik. The beer is cold, cheap, and plentiful. The sun is high and hot, waves lap against eroded coral, a cool breeze floats off the Gulf of Thailand. It’s all good. We’ve indulged ourselves with a series of treatments provided by beach beauticians, we’re both much less hirsute and dead skin cells are just so gone. There are dozens of small terracotta stoves arrayed on the beachfront, seafood on skewers, lots of seafood. Seafood I can’t even name, it smells good. Slight young men wander along the boardwalk selling sunglasses and spruikers offer temptations that don’t tempt. It’s all decidedly lovely.
And then he’s there, a silent man between me and another beer. He’s standing but not straight. He has no left arm below the elbow. He has no right leg below the knee. He’s holding out a hat. He doesn’t say anything but I can feel Sputnik look up and clock him. And then I turn and greet him with a nod “loak-da.” He stares and I feel myself fumble with all sorts of cross-cultural courtesies. It’s a begging situation. All around us are a number of signs in a number of scripts telling us not to give to beggars. Or deal with child vendors. Or buy bad things. Or encourage bad people to sell bad things.
But there is a man in front of me and I’m a long way from home. I reach into my pocket. I have a wad of local notes and drop them into his hat. He frowns and leaves the bar. The paper money was not worth anything to me, change from US dollar transactions. Small change that made no difference to me but nor, I suspect, to the men to whom I gave it. Maybe they got themselves a beer or a feed, maybe they bought some of cheap plentiful painkillers, maybe they took it home and it went into consolidated revenue but I’m sure it didn’t make any substantive difference to their day or their lives. It wasn’t about me; those amputees haven’t given me a second thought.
There were a number of other amputees over the next few days who wandered between the beer huts and the buff Russians and the pinkish Frenchwomen, all with hats held out. I gave them all a chock of paper money and tried hard not to be too hard on myself for doing such pissant charity. Sputnik and I eventually wander off, in search of prawns and rice. Days of sun and daiquiri follow until we roll up our swag and head back to the airport. I read quietly on the plane home, Charles Bowden’s Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields, thinking about the one-armed, one-legged man.
Bowden is not a writer you can feel comfortable with, he’s doesn’t do seduction and he doesn’t do cuddly. I’ve read quite a few of his books over the years and they are explorations of how ordinary, how base the act of living can be on the Mexico-US border. For a crushing exposition of our wanton and shallow civilisation you can’t go past Blues for Cannibals and Blood Orchid, they’re both terrifying (and somehow loving) examinations of how natural the unnatural way we live is. Bowden makes our world of dirt, water, sex and food truly frightening.
In Bowden’s books there is no safety, in his previous book on the Mexico-US border (Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family) Ciudad Juarez is configured as being the focal point for danger. Not danger for the US, not dangerous to Mexico or the economy or children or justice: but danger of itself, a living danger. Bowden appraises precariousness, exposure, vulnerability, and jeopardy as qualities of being. In both Murder City and Down by the River the practical upshot of these qualities is the proximity of horror and loss.
Bowden writes with a desert-like dryness and his accounts of horror and loss are flattened layers of reproach. The lack of hysteria in these reproaches is a romance: an enchantment he can’t ignore; a story he can’t stop telling; a quest for which there is no grail; a parable with no lesson; the quiet surrounding the horror, the lack birthed by loss. His prose is curt and his gaze unwavering. At one point he remarks “I don’t know what is going on, nor do the dead or the living. But there are these stories of the killings, there is the tortured flesh, the individual moments of horror, and I rest on those moments because they are actual and beyond question.” The stories are continuances, they are the ongoing, they are the sun also rising and the land stretching out past the river. The stories just look like more Texas, to recall Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, the imperialism of global capital reaching out and ensuring the long-term viability of investment and return.
The bodies though, they’re something else, sites of mark and script. Bodies are a fever, a shivering ague of hard and soft, present but temporary, transient and consuming until exhausted. Sergio González Rodríguez and (of course) Roberto Bolano have explored this transience too, mapping the hollows and clefts of exhaustion. 2666 is a grand embrace of being doomed, being within the machine that kills and accepting the horror of choosing that: “The pain, or the memory of pain… was literally sucked away by something nameless until only a void was left…pain that turns finally into emptiness…the same equation applied to everything, more or less.”
Sergio González Rodríguez is not sure doom cannot be evaded. Juarez and its culture of killing, as described in Rodríguez’s The Femicide Machine, is a black hole: a “certainty devoid of optimism or pessimism … simply a negative inertia that grows and expands.” Rodríguez sees two possibilities in this circumstance “the evolution of anew, unforseen model of organization or the further devolution into a state with no functional order at all.” This is surprisingly hopeful, given the imposing statistics of murder in Juarez over the last fifteen years, but that’s his point about corruption I guess, only trust can be betrayed. Faith, hope, charity and righteousness are all available, resources that might still find a way.
Charles Bowden wants to invoke these too. He wants to tell a story that might end and maintain the possibility that there might be a real demarcation on the far side of which is a domain of safety. Bowden can’t see it, by the end of Murder City he feels himself to be ill, unable to look on another corpse. He wants to be faithful to a greater good, he wants to like the killers he interviews, and he wants to hope that the horror and loss might end. Bowden wants it to be explained “as if it were a flat tire and I searching the surface for a nail,” and by that explanation overcome the sense that all around him pain was turning into emptiness. But it didn’t happen, the story keeps on.
I finished Bowden by the time we were over Australia and I recalled that Kevin Rudd was again Prime Minister. Shortly after that the Prime Minister announced that asylum seekers travelling by boat would no longer be accepted in Australia. There was a crisis, said a thousand tabloid voices, a crisis of boat people, but faux boat people. Economic refugees, said the radio, aren’t the same as oppressed people needing protection. Hungry people don’t need protection either. Economic refugees are just jobseekers who don’t have the qualifications, queue jumpers. For a week or so I tried to read the papers and figure out how there was a crisis, what had happened that required urgency and stringency. There was nothing. There is no crisis.
Bowden came back to me as I thought this through, lots of poor and hungry people in Juarez I thought. Lots of people dying, lots of harm being done. Christmas Island is Australia’s Juarez, a space filled with horror and loss, pain turning into emptiness. Another bit of land that looks like more Texas. I cast around for faith, hope, charity and righteousness to refute the crisis and find something with which to bat away my shame at Rudd’s Crisis. But on the weekend I found myself reading Zizek (in the London Review of Books) reflecting on the round of protests in Greece, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere.
He said the obvious. In wanting to “keep alive the idea of a society beyond capitalism” it is necessary to be aware that “failure may be inherent in the principle we’re fighting for.” Zizek wants a politics that “takes into account the complexity of over-determination” and recognises that “democracy can itself be a form of unfreedom.” Juarez and Christmas Island are products of that complexity, over-determination, and unfreedom. My petit-bourgeois soul searching regarding our prospective Bonegilla in the Torres Strait, or our state-sponsored shantytown on Nauru (depending on who gets elected), is exactly as it is supposed to be. It’s built in, if the roof is on fire it’s an electrical fault.
And so, that one-armed and one-legged man begging in Cambodia. My charity was inadequate. It had to be, I had nothing worth as much as an arm or a leg. He knew that, he’s staring at me because I could pretend. I could go through my money belt and find heavyweight US dollar notes or I could hand it all over and claim it on travel insurance. I could make my gesture grand, I could give everything I had but it still wouldn’t be an arm or a leg.
The harm endured by that man was built in, his injuries were acquired (by whatever means: war or work or accident or torture) by result of the inherent horror, loss, pain and emptiness at play in the world we’ve made. The politics of these meant I sat drinking beer and he stood on one leg begging. We’ve got to make these politics visible, render horror, loss, pain and emptiness as the dark-hued bling of unfreedom, seen and known. We’ve got to ensure, as Michael Serres wrote, that “it is no longer incomprehensible that the world is comprehensible.”