Brutal, mercifully short novella of life inside a Mexican prison.
Himself a former political prisoner who died in 1976, Revueltas served time in the Palacio de Lecumberri, perhaps the worst of the worst of Mexican jails, where he wrote this roman à clef. His story recounts the struggle of three inmates caught up in an ugly, unwinnable war against their guards, for whom they have a simian name: “They were captive there, the apes, just like the rest of them,” Revueltas’ story opens. That the apes get to wear uniforms and badges and go home at night is about the only thing that distinguishes them from the prisoners, and everyone involved is a violent sort except for “The Prick,” a half-blind junkie whom two other prisoners, bearing the Shakespearean names Polonio and Albino, are angling to implicate in a plot by which “The Prick’s mother—amazingly just as ugly as her son,”—would smuggle drugs inside the prison, carrying them deep within her person. What could go wrong? Everything, as it turns out. As the story, told in a single onrushing paragraph for no apparent reason, unfolds, we learn the backstories of the characters, none of them remotely pleasant or honorable except of the honor-among-thieves variety; Albino had been a soldier and a pimp, but his addiction is so strong that he cries “from the lack of drugs, but stopping short of slitting his wrists, something all the addicts did when the anxiety got too tense.“ He and Polonio share a girlfriend, who “was an honorable woman, a tramp sure, but when she slept with other men it wasn’t for the money, no….” Meche is the brains behind the operation, but that’s not saying much, and the whole thing ends in a bloodbath. There’s no hint of the magical realism that characterized Latin American literature at the time; Revueltas’ story is realistic, period, and deeply unpleasant.
If hell is other people, then being locked up with these three is its deepest chamber. Of interest to students of Latin American literary history.