The Beast Within: wandering the mythical environment of your own mind
El Salvaje (The Savage), by Guillermo Arriaga
Volens-nolens, Arriaga took me back to the Mexico of the late 1960s — early 1970, somewhere between personal (?) memories, a fantastic dreamworld or a totalitarian dystopia. A world I assumed to know already, both from his “Night Buffalo”, and from Bolaño’s books, that took me over by surprise in the summer of 2017.
The similarities between the social and political context — mostly the systemic corruption — of Mexico ‘69 and the country I live in, Romania, as it presents itself today (2019) struck a very sensitive chord. There are also the “good boys” (I read the Romanian version of “The Savage” so any English translations are my own), a far-right religious group devoted to cleansing Mexican society from sin — mainly beating up or outright murdering non-Catholics, Jews, criminals or anyone else they considered to be outside Christian values — almost identical to the organization that operated in Romania in the 1930s and early 1940s, The Legion of Archangel Michael.
But the novel is not outright political; nor it claims to be historical, biographical, or retelling “real life” events; it is a story about obsession, madness, about the world between the confines of one’s own mind, dominated, as it is the case here, by our beastly nature. The beast within.
The casual, homely, microcosm where we find the hero, or, better said, the non-hero of the book, Juan Guillermo (JG from now on), is struggling to breathe amongst all the opposing external factors — including the ones mentioned above. It fails miserably, as all he ever cared about falls to pieces, and JG finds himself in a conflict with everything around him, including reality itself.
Nevertheless, JG is not a tragic hero, at least not in the classical acceptance of the term; true, tragedy follows him almost everywhere, but mostly as a consequence of his, or other’s, bad decisions. He is even in conflict with God, or better said with god, as he refuses the capital “G” due to the deity’s incompetence and non-existence. But the supernatural is — oh — so present in JG’s troubled existence, through the wolf he saves from his neighbor’s attempt of “putting to sleep”, a wolf whose origins can be traced to a mythical hunt in the wilderness of northern Canada and a series of more or less fortunate events.
The wolf that JG saves, named Fang (see Jack London) triggers inside him an almost lethal obsession, and from that point on, his sole purpose is setting the animal free, the real one (which is taken back to Canada to his feral roots) but also the metaphorical wolf, the beast within, that can be madness, a sickly fixation, childhood, or even identity, the identity linking JG to his previous existence, the skin he has to shed just to become his own man. A reverse taming, as the captive wolf goes back to his salvage state, while JG, freed from his own inner animal, starts turning into an (almost) normal human being.
The narration focuses on the beast for then most part (or the most important part) of the novel, as (worldly) things around JG start to settle. He accepts a compromise with the corrupt chief of police to bring his brother’s murderers to justice (after beating the main one, Humberto, to a pulp), he gains access to his brothers secret accounts and technically becomes a rich man, only to leave for the far north along with his girlfriend and his father-figure and carer, the friendly circus lion-tamer. But the real world is not rebuilt; it fades away, as the main characters fade north, first to the USA, then to Canada, not to find themselves, or anyone else, but to let go.
Even though he is the main narrating voice of the novel, I consider JG to be a non-hero just because he always refuses to play any part but that of himself, or the beast he hides within. He is hot-headed, headstrong, stubborn, and tragedy only makes him accentuate these (negative?) traits, sometimes to the extreme. A seemingly minor betrayal leads to his brother’s death; the brother’s death leads to his parent’s car crash/suicide; JG lives surrounded by ghosts, in a ghostly world that becomes real only when the beast is freed. Not to be confused to the “real world”, that he abandons without remorse.
Only after he goes “On the Road”, but not to search for an elusive old Dean Moriarty (the father never to be found in Kerouac’s novel), but to let go of the past, JG feels free. Only after releasing the great beast, and accepting the beast within.