Thursday 30 March 2017
Playing Calavera: a review of Marcus Sedgwick's Saint Death
According to a recent Vice documentary, the cult of Santa Muerte, Holy Death or Saint Death, beloved of narco-terrorists and their victims, is the fastest-growing religion in the world. Attracted by the book's lurid acid-yellow cover, I was soon drawn by Sedgwick into the borderlands of shacks around the murderous Cuidad Juárez, Chihuahua, and the parasitic US twin it serves, El Paso, Texas, a place where he almost has the reader believe, ancient clawed gods roil just beneath the desert floor and smack their reptilian lips in anticipation of the latest blood sacrifice produced by the narco cartels who disappear hundreds of women, grievously torture those who cross them, and grease the wheels of the Yanqui cocaine / maquiladora / coyote machinery.
Over a critical night and day, we meet Arturo, a bone-poor Chicano who re-encounters his childhood friend Faustino, who disappeared a year previously. A Guatemalan migrant with dreams of making it to El Norte, Faustino has made his own pact with the narco devils and the collection date in imminent; in desperation, he turns to Aurturo to save him – and enable his girlfriend Eva and newborn baby to pay the coyotes to smuggle them into the US.
As Arturo's dark fate unravels, he staggers towards a hard-won ethical illumination. Underpinned by an anti-capitalist sensibility that defines the narco-wars and the cocaine / maquiladora / coyote system as coterminous evils, but which never overwhelms the visceral nature of the plot and its naked 80-watt bulb descriptions of descent, we are presented with a modern danse macabre of Faust and Mephistopheles.
Yet Sedgwick's Faustino is a signifier of the world's poor, while his ever-present demonic Santa Muerte is merely the inescapable logic of our decisions as a species to abrogate our pact of brotherhood. And the twist in his tale is the possible, but questionable, salvation offered by Arturo, in trying to discover his Arthurian nobility through self-sacrifice in a distinctly Mexican denouement that is pitiless yet which retains a certain bloody beauty. Well worth the read.