When Edmundo Paz Soldán started writing Norte, he soon ran into a problem. He was too nice to get into the head of a serial killer. “In the first versions, Jesús was someone who did bad things but was always feeling guilty about it. That was something I was projecting from my own personality,” Paz Soldán says. “My partner read the first draft and she said, ‘Look, if you’re writing about a serial killer, I need to feel the horror.’ ”
Just a few pages into Norte it becomes clear that Paz Soldán found the horror.
Norte contains multiple narratives that stretch across Mexico and the United States from the 1930s to the present day. One narrative follows Martín, a character based on the schizophrenic “outsider artist” Martín Ramírez, a Mexican immigrant who spent most of his life institutionalized in California but who is now lauded as a major artist. Another story follows Michelle, a graduate student in Texas trying to navigate a troubled relationship and find her artistic voice. The other main narrative follows Jesús, who’s based on Angel Maturino Reséndiz—more famously known as “The Railroad Killer.”
The opening chapter shows us Jesús’ troubled childhood and his first murder as a teenager. Later chapters reveal his grasp on reality slipping away as he begins to cross the border between Mexico and the U.S., committing violent rapes and murders near train tracks.
Tying these two together is Michelle, who’s struggling to write a graphic novel that incorporates pop culture with Latin culture. She toys with zombie stories or other dystopian themes but cannot pick anything. “For me, Michelle was going to connect Jesús and Martín. She’s writing graphic novels, she’s trying to find stories to write about,” Paz Soldán says. “So the idea in the back of my mind was how do you create myths for your community?”
For better and for worse, Martín and Jesús have become both American and Latino myths. Norte is a rare book because it’s about immigrants and heavily focused on the act of immigration, but neither of the immigrant characters are held up as models.
“They are part of the complex history of Latin immigrants to the U.S.,” Paz Soldán says. “As a community we’ve matured enough to incorporate myths that aren’t just positive role models. It’s complex stories, positive or negative, that say something about these struggles and what it means to be here.”
This tangled, daring novel isn’t just about violence—it’s about roaming, missing home, and trying to find a place in the world.
“These people are all part of the history of the Latin community in the U.S. but also—not to sound too pretentious—the history of the human condition. In The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler writes, ‘I’m supposed to understand what makes people tick. I don’t understand one damn thing about anybody.’ For me, the function of a writer is to find what makes people tick.”
Paz Soldán is part of a new breed of writers from Latin America: fascinated by America, aware of its contradictions, concerned with the role of immigrants in our society, but not willing to go over the same well-trod narrative ground. Norte isn’t your typical immigrant story, but that’s what makes it all the more powerful.
Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His work has appeared in the Rumpus, the Morning News, Cosmonauts Avenue, the San Antonio Express-News, and many others. He is working on a novel.