Books of The Times: ‘The Beast’ by Óscar Martínez Details Immigrant Trek

Early in his travels on what he calls “the migrant trail,” Mr. Martínez wonders how many people have perished on these journeys. A priest tells him that the entire 2,000-mile-plus route is “a cemetery for the nameless,” but Mr. Martínez is not content with that answer. And so he has made it his task in “The Beast” to give not only names but also life histories to the men and women, forgotten and spurned, whom he meets.

That’s how we come to know Jaime, a 37-year-old Honduran who heads for the United States after a hurricane destroys his farm, but loses his right leg when he falls from the train. And Auner, Pitbull and El Chele, young Salvadoran brothers fleeing the gang violence that has already claimed their mother’s life. And at the end Julio César, who sits by the Rio Grande, studying its currents and patiently waiting for the right moment to swim across.

By disposition and training, Mr. Martínez is ideally situated for this task. A Salvadoran, he writes for the investigative reporting unit of the newspaper, one of the best online publications in Latin America. Mr. Martínez, now just 30 and in his mid-20s when he wrote this book, consistently demonstrated physical courage as he traveled back and forth across Mexico and confronted the risks posed by corrupt police officers, drug cartels, the migrant-smugglers known as coyotes, greedy townspeople and the beast itself.

“On top of a train there aren’t journalists and migrants,” he writes, “there are only people hanging on. There is nothing but speed, wind, and sometimes a hoarse conversation. The roof of the cars is the floor for all, and those who fall, fall the same way. Staying on is all that matters.”

When published in Spanish, in 2010, Mr. Martínez’s book bore a title that translates as “The Migrants Who Don’t Matter.” Changing that to “The Beast” may subtly shift the emphasis to the train and away from its reluctant passengers, but Mr. Martínez never wavers in his focus on the Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans and Nicaraguans who travel “without anyone but robbers and kidnappers even glancing in their direction.”

This translation also lacks some of the sizzle of the original, through no fault of the translators, Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington. In the original, Central American peasant Spanish collided with Mexican narco-gangster argot, underlining the difference between the migrants and those who exploit them. It would be nearly impossible to render these distinctive forms of speech without the slang sounding forced and artificial. But Mr. Martínez’s voice, that of an attentive observer who has seen everything but still has the capacity to feel indignation and sympathy, comes through intact.

He describes Tapachula, the first place migrants encounter after they cross the Suchiate River from Guatemala, as “a Mexican town that smells of fritters and lead.” Walking the streets there “is like stepping on a spinal cord, a touchy boundary line between two countries in conflict.” Atop the train, passengers are “clinging like ticks onto its roof struts”; they find that “it’s so cold it feels like someone is whipping us with glass.” But riding a bus is not much better, because the road is “winding like an intestine through a no man’s land of forest and patches of rugged limestone.”

The graceful, incisive writing lifts “The Beast” from being merely an impressive feat of reportage into the realm of literature. Mr. Martínez has produced something that is an honorable successor to enduring works like George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier” or Jacob Riis’s “How the Other Half Lives.”

Dwight Garner is on book leave.

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