Sympathy For Several Devils In 'Among The Lost'
The Mexican novelist Emiliano Monge's Among the Lost, newly translated by Frank Wynne, takes two phenomenal risks. First, Monge's plot centers on two human traffickers in love. Its protagonists, Estela and Epitafio — Gravestone and Epitaph, in English — are human traffickers working in a hellscape that seems to be a Mexican jungle, transporting truckloads of migrants while worrying about the state of their relationship. This puts Among the Lost in a strange moral place right away: Why should readers care about Estela and Epitafio? Why should their emotions matter, when they buy and sell human lives?
Monge is far from the only writer to enter this ethical gray area. Crime, as a genre, relies on readers' and viewers' ability to invest in Tony Soprano's therapy sessions or to hope Tom Ripley gets away with his identity theft. But most crime writers don't quote from Dante's Divine Comedy. This is the second big risk Monge takes: Among the Lost is written in a combination of slang and high literary diction, and draws frequently and explicitly from both the Divine Comedy and testimonies given by Central American migrants traveling through Mexico to the United States.
Monge borrows Dante's language to describe Estela and Epitafio's nameless victims, and uses the real-life testimonies to give his fictional migrants a voice. They interrupt the traffickers throughout the novel, functioning as a Greek chorus. Alongside Monge's elevated language and his habit of giving characters Homeric epithets as well as names, the testimonies transform Among the Lost into a 21st-century epic of sorts.
On a linguistic level, this is a total success. The language in Among the Lost is both striking and strikingly easy to read. Monge's collaging works flawlessly, and he is expert at shifting from high language to low. Before long, though, it becomes clear that he always shifts for the same reason: Beautiful prose is reserved for the disenfranchised. The Dante quotations primarily describe the migrants Estela and Epitafio are trafficking, and Monge is at his best when he imagines the migrants' thoughts. At one point, a dying man "resigns himself to being no more than the silence of his passing through the world." Monge would never give Estela or Epitafio a sentence that lovely and sad.
This is, perhaps, a moral choice. In Paradise Lost, Milton reserved his best poetry for Satan, but Satan is the Great Seducer — he has to be charming. Estela and Epitafio are just bad guys. Monge alludes to rough childhoods and gives them an evil priest as an enemy, but at no point does he excuse their livelihood, or their violence. The reader's not supposed to be charmed, and so instead of the omniscient narrator's gorgeous prose or the migrants' prayers and reflections, Estela and Epitafio speak in sentence fragments, most of which contain some combination of "I want," "Let's go," and "Hurry up," strung together by a lot of swearing.
And yet Monge spends over half of Among the Lost in Estela and Epitafio's heads, a place the reader might prefer not to be. Often, listening to them talk to themselves is like listening to lovesick teenagers. Estela and Epitafio rarely worry about money, or their henchmen, or the migrants they buy and sell. The problem driving them through Among the Lost is far simpler. Estela needs to tell Epitafio something; he's scared he's about to get dumped.
Monge's language collaging was a gamble that paid off ... beautiful, fast-paced, and completely his own. But it might have distracted him from his moral questions a bit too much.
Both are on the road, and they keep missing each other's calls. There's a lot of "Why didn't I say something?" and "S*** ... I had a decent signal a minute ago!" and "You're going to think I don't care." Their self-absorption is abundantly clear, and it gets old.
Luckily, Monge doesn't limit himself to Estela and Epitafio. The evil priest has two henchmen, El Topo and El Tampón — the Mole and the Tampon — whose banter is as entertaining as it is stupid. The trafficking organization employs two young brothers whose descriptions of the jungle, with its "croak of frogs in the river that spews from the vast caverns, the screen of hundreds of bats inside the caves, in the distance a panther of these latitudes roar[ing] while a stubborn bird pecks at the soft trunk of a towering avocado tree" never fail to be beautiful. Epitafio tries to hire a boxing champion who he names Mausoleo, or Mausoleum, whose inner struggle becomes Among the Lost's one true moral conflict. These characters all function as counterweights to the protagonists, and keep the novel moving toward its brutal conclusion.
The result is a novel both made and broken by its risky intelligence. Monge's language collaging was a gamble that paid off. He channels the full spectrum of written expression, and the result hits the trifecta: beautiful, fast-paced, and completely his own. But it might have distracted him from his moral questions a bit too much; Among the Lost closes in the same moral space where it opened. Why should we care about Estela and Epitafio's love story? Like most of Monge's characters, the answer gets lost.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.