The Cartel (Don Winslow)
This book is utterly gripping and irresistibly page-turning, as well as extremely violent. It provides a fascinating contrast to Bolaño’s 2666, which was written pre-Mexican drug war, but is similarly interested in violence, the visual, and the language and structure of thrillers and crime novels.
This book is a highly commendable achievement: a novelization of the Mexican drug war, weaving fact with fiction, bringing news stories to life. I felt like I learned so much from it, that it really “showed” me things that had previously just been headlines or statistics. Talk about proving the power of fiction. The research for this book must have been no joke (I’m definitely going to explore some of the books he lists in the acknowledgements). Most notably, this novel deserves major respect for how it depicts the most troubling of topics: the existence of undeniable, apocalyptic evil. There are some people in this world who are just plain bad. You can try to analyse it: they want power, they want money, they’re messed up in the head from being militarized in the army, violence is all-consuming and soul-killing, etc. But as a co-worker in Nuevo Laredo once said to me, Hay gente muy malo en este mundo. And that’s just the way it is.
Following the news can sometimes feel like plod. On this day, this happened. This guy escaped from prison. This election, this mass grave, this murdered journalist. The advantage that this book has over non-fiction is that of foresight and form. I’ve always loved Bolaño’s quote from this interview about form vs. plot: “Form is a choice made through intelligence, cunning, and silence, all the weapons used by Ulysses in his battle against death.” Through linking together individual stories in an intentional way that non-fiction wouldn’t be able to do, The Cartel is able to use the form of fiction to make us notice wider patterns and causes, to learn things that we might otherwise not realize from simply reading the news.
While the “I don’t play by the rules” DEA Agent Art Keller and his obsessive revenge-plot with the head gangster is engaging enough, and certainly serves as a way of driving the plot forward, the book’s real strength for me are its supporting characters. The stories of Chuy the child-sicario, Pablo the journalist, the borderland ranch owner taking a stand against the Zeta’s seizure of his land, and the solo female police chief will stay with me a long time, and are by far the main reason for reading this book. An interesting parallel to The Cartel would be Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels, which similarly try to turn this massive historical event into this very personal, human-level story driven by person-to-person interactions. The Cartel is as deliciously suspenseful as any classic Michael Crichton novel, but what was notable to me were the individual human stories, and how it turned what would otherwise be an atrocity headline into a narrative.
It’s SO interesting to me that to a certain extent, Bolaño’s 2666 doesn’t do that. The focus in 2666 (at least in the famous Part IV) is on a mass scale, on overwhelming accumulation, as opposed to individual human stories. Bolaño’s fiction is also much more driven by experiences of interruption and suspension rather than narrative satisfaction. There’s a key image at the very end of The Cartel (you’ll know it when you read it–trust me) that emphasizes the “face” of evil being exposed (brutally so). There is undeniably a sense of satisfaction with this ending, despite its terrible violence. It’s the kind of satisfaction that you come to expect (even crave) with thrillers and crime novels–a clear resolution that’s not necessarily happy, but in which major threads are definitely resolved. This is not a clear-cut satisfaction we get from Bolaño, or from authors like Evelio Rosero, whose emphasis is on abrupt disappearances and absences.
The other strength of the book for me was its analysis of the drug war. I found its discussion of the increasing visualization of violence and atrocities fascinating, in terms of gangs now broadcasting their beheadings and tortures online, and the parallels between Central American narco gangs and ISIS, in terms of online propaganda and recruitment. How it’s not enough to commit a violent act anymore, it has to be publicized and broadcast. I also found it very interesting to read about certain gangs’ movement towards trafficking gasoline and oil (and how this has piqued the interest of the U.S. more than if it were “just” drugs), as well as the emphasis on the trafficking route rather than the product.
I’ll definitely read The Power of the Dog, the book that was written before this one (The Cartel is apparently its sequel). Overall, this book is an excellent example of fiction’s ability to make the violence we so often skim over in the news digestible and and undeniably memorable, as well as raising important moral questions about the desire for power and how to do what’s “right.” As one narco puts it, “Someone’s always going to be selling this shit. It might as well be someone who doesn’t kill women and kids. If someone’s going to do it, you guys might as well let someone like me do it.” It’s hard to deny that he has a point…
Quotes from this book:
It’s the new face of the narco gang war, isn’t it? They’re becoming media savvy. They used to hide their crimes, now they publicize them. I wonder if they haven’t taken a page from Al Qaeda. What good is an atrocity if no one knows you did it? And maybe that’s the lede on my story. “The crimes that used to lurk in the shadows now seek the sunlight,” or is that a little too “pulp”? (309)
It’s not so much that we’ve now defined the narcos as terrorists, Keller thought, but that there’s more of a psychological leak from the war on terror into the war on drugs. The battle against Al Qaeda has redefined what’s thinkable, permissible, and doable. Just as the war on terror has turned the functions of intelligence agencies into military action, the war on drugs has similarly militarized the police… Certainly, Keller thought, my war on drugs has changed over the years. It used to be all about busts and seizures, the perpetual cat-and-mouse game of getting the shit off the street, but now I barely think about the drugs themselves. The actual trafficking is almost irrelevant. I’m not a drug agent anymore, he reflected, I’m a hunter. (392)
Americans take their strength in victories, Mexicans’ strength is in their ability to suffer loss. (403)
“Post-traumatic stress disorder”? There’s nothing “post” about it. Nothing is over, nothing is in the past. We live with this shit every day. And “disorder”? It would be a disorder if we weren’t stressed. (474)
America’s longest war is the war on drugs. Forty years and counting. I was here when it was declared and I’m still here. And drugs are more plentiful, more potent, and less expensive than ever. But it’s not about the drugs anymore, anyway, is it? (500)
You North Americans are clean because you can be. That has never been a choice for us, either as individuals or a nation. You’re experienced enough to know that we’re not offered a choice of taking the money or not, we’re given the choice of taking the money or dying. We’ve been forced to choose sides, so we choose the best side we can and get on with it. What would you have us do? (511)