The reconquest is on, and it’s being led by an old man and a clutch of high school students.
Shortlisted for the Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize, this is Toscana’s fourth novel to be translated into English (The Last Reader, 2004, etc.). Ignacio Matus is sick and tired of the United States of America. As a public school history teacher in Monterrey, Mexico, Matus spends most of his class railing against the cruel injustices and depravities of Mexico’s neighbor to the north. But his gripes aren’t just political, they’re Olympic. Matus is convinced that he is the rightful winner of the 1924 Olympic bronze medal for the marathon and not the American who walked away with the prize—this is despite the fact that Matus wasn’t an official competitor and staged his own parallel race through the streets of Monterrey. When Matus is fired from the school for one rant too many, he decides it’s time to conquer the beast. But his call for an invading army is only answered by a few friends and a handful of students. Calling themselves los iluminados (“the enlightened ones”), the dreamers march north with visions of glory and history in their heads. When los iluminados cross the Rio Grande (in only a few steps) and quickly conquer the Alamo (a two-story house), the stage is set for a showdown between the forces of good and evil. If they’re actually in the United States. The novel jumps back and forth between Matus’ ramshackle adventures, his old age, when he attempts one more marathon, and a post-mortem exploration of his legacy, or at least an attempt to find anyone who really remembers him. Like the novel itself, Matus is both compelling and absurd. The novel is funny in a cringe-inducing way and has an undercurrent of sadness and tragedy we can’t look away from. We read almost with our hands over our eyes, anxious for the safety of these dreamers too innocent to fear their own naiveté. Toscana’s postmodern satire explores the darker side of Mexico’s impression of the United States and Mexico’s own place “toward the bottom where the crumbs are handed out.” The jokes are obvious, but the message is subtle and deft.
Absurd and comic but with a bitter edge, this novel takes a unique and refreshing approach to the darker aspects of Mexico’s relationship to the United States.