As I have likely mentioned before, I’m a sucker for a short story collection–something about unraveling the thread that links the seemingly disparate characters and tales– so I all but jumped at the chance to review Josh Barkan’s Mexico: Stories. In it, Barkan, a celebrated writer and Creative Writing professor who lives part-time in Mexico City, portrays a land of rich culture and beauty marred by crime and violence. He presents a dozen first-person narratives that illustrate the vibrancy and danger of the land from an outsider’s perspective.
Before diving into the collection, I was afraid Barkan may have gone the unfortunate path of Rachel Dolezal in claiming a culture not his own. Yes, his wife is native born and the two divide their time between Mexico and the States, according to his jacket bio., but that does not a Mexican make him. However, my fears were alleviated once I began reading and discovered that each of narratives were told from the perspective of someone from the outside of the culture looking in- an American chef who opens up a restaurant south of the border, a young architect who spends more time in the states and traveling to other countries than in his homeland and so emanates a marked distance between himself and his native land. The outsider as storyteller proves an effective choice in illustrating cultural differences and traditions, as well as the surprising prevalence of cartel violence in the lives of everyday citizens.
The tales juxtapose somber happenings with absurd details and vise-versa. Though there is a richness to the landscape, Barkin allows a tacky, seediness to seep in. The stories are often uncomfortable and at times horrific. I liked that, because they are told from the perspective of a series of narrators, there is the question of honesty. How much of what our narrators are telling us is true and how much embellished, misunderstood? It makes for quite an interesting meta-narrative.
I have to admit that I had difficulty with Barkin’s prose. I found it to be a bit awkward and clunky throughout, as if meant to mimic what is lost in translation. He also seemed to repeat the same term within the same or within back to back sentences quite often, making me again question if this was by design- meant to evoke the mild confusion and agitation of a foreigner attempting to struggle with the language- or if I am simply a neurotic linguist. Perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive. I also found most of the characters to be off-putting. Some are intentionally cast as villain or anti-hero/heroine but most, regular folks in less than regular situations, simply did not come off well to me, for whatever reason. (Perhaps it goes back to the prose.)
Though it wasn’t my stylistic cup of tea, I admire Barkin’s ability to craft a well-connected series of short stories that embrace elements of the familiar and the foreign, the believable and the extraordinary, and that give voice to the inherent vulnerability of all beings, regardless of religion, occupation, or side of the law.
*- I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.