Review: The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal

By Ho Lin

That .45 was part of him, part of Filiberto García, as much as his name and his past. Fucking past!
  — Rafael Bernal, The Mongolian Conspiracy (1969)

 “You say ‘fuck’ a lot.”
  —Kim Basinger, L.A. Confidential (1997)

conspiracyThe word “fuck” is deployed fast and furious by Filiberto García in Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy — easily hundreds of times — and given that Filiberto is a public dick whose Christian name also means “dick,” this all might seem excessive to certain discerning readers. But to García and Bernal, the f-word, in all its vulgar, existential aggravation, is the only sane response to a Mexico City reeking with corruption, drug lords, would-be revolutionaries, lecherous Chinatown kingpins, payouts in fifty-dollar bills, and, yes, conspiracies. A former revolutionary himself, García now toils as a cop (read: hitman) for the ruling party and has plenty to be steamed about: within the next two days, he must investigate wild rumors of an assassination plot against the U.S. President by the Mongolians (fucking Outer Mongolia!), play nice with American and Russian agents who have their own Cold War priorities (fucking gringos!), and ferret out the truth from a thicket of untruths, secrets, and misdirection (fucking mission!), all the while babysitting and lusting after an illegal immigrant from China who may not be so innocent but is too comely to ignore (fucking Marta!).

Like García, Rafael Bernal knew what it meant to be an apparatchik mashed up in the wheels of progress. A former right-wing-revolutionary-turned-diplomat for a Mexican government that had lost its way, he wrote The Mongolian Conspiracy at the end of a halcyon decade in a halcyon country, and thus created a pivotal work of modern Mexican fiction. Bernal salutes noir conventions even as he sweeps us up in a whirlwind of sixties geopolitics and nihilism.

Decked out in a Stetson and trenchcoat, the middle-aged García would be at home in a classic Hollywood thriller, but his one discernible skill (making people dead) and the collision of his grubby amorality with superpower intrigue play like James Bond spliced with a Sergio Corbucci spaghetti Western. Within this new world order of superpower games and quick bucks, the hangdog García, no one’s idea of a shining knight, is a stand-in for modern Mexico as a whole: irredeemably down-at-heel and crude, but unclouded by illusion. No flowery Latin passages or lofty sentiments here — instead we get chop suey dives and fleabag hotels and corridors of power, all of them equal in scumbaggery. Yet for all the labyrinthine twists and turns of the plot, García’s ongoing inner dialogue reigns supreme. Relentless and lacerating, nothing escapes its scorn, including García himself, and as he muses on kills, lost ideals, and former lays, the beast that is Mexico City convulses before his (and our) eyes. In this world, it should be no surprise that the sins of the past and present coexist and feed off each other, and the obvious “bad guys” — like those scheming Chinamen — are ultimately bogeymen used to hide greater evils closer to home.

Written in slabs of pulp that spray like machine gun bullets, The Mongolian Conspiracy could have been just another entry in a long line of macho thriller fiction. Think James Ellroy, with his two-fisted heroes and more than a few rabbit holes’ worth of conspiracies, after one too many benders. Fortunately, Bernal is both feverish and playful. Talk about literal gallows humor; the novel is at its funniest when the corpses are freshest. There’s the uncomfortably amusing passage in which García, afflicted with nobility, tries to be fatherly with Marta even as he longs to take her on the spot —- if only the body of the man he just offed moments before wasn’t cluttering up the carpet….

Or behold a later bit in which García holds vigil with FBI and KGB agents over a dead hooker, the American and Russian proclaiming their grudging admiration for the other’s weapons of assassination (détente indeed). And lest you have the notion that sex and death aren’t related, we have a final killing that’s akin to a cherry being popped: “It’s like with women. The first time is tough, but then you start to like it.” Like Daniel Craig’s 007, García is a human bulldozer with a habit of erasing malefactors before they can be brought in for questioning, and a penchant for disregarding orders in favor of just getting the job done. Fucking job!

The Mongolian Conspiracy may be tough sledding for some. A scorecard is needed to keep up with all the plot and character machinations, and the staccato riffs of García’s inner monologue can get repetitive. But Bernal knows how to finesse his narrative, and for all the brutality on display (at least a dozen corpses by the finale), he prefers not to linger on the slaughter. In the end, it isn’t so much about reveling in the muck as it is about putting up with it, and García emerges from the gutter with something approaching dignity. He may portray himself as a pistolero who sticks his neck out for nobody, yet his touching devotion to the truth makes him a True Detective after all, while his shambling, chaste romance with Marta suggests a soul underneath the simian exterior.

As befits a city of liars, assassins, and other assorted riff-raff, any thought of a Hollywood ending soon gives way to betrayal and a final catharsis that feels like a defeat. Still, Bernal lets melancholy have the last word, with a wake presided over by a soused lawyer who can’t even recite a prayer correctly. Fucking solitude, thinks García, which is as close as this novel comes to a hard-boiled cry in the wilderness. One would never have guessed the f-word would generate such pathos.

The Mongolian Conspiracy
By Rafael Bernal
Translated by Katherine Silver
New Directions (November 25, 2013)
ISBN: 9780811220668