The conquest of Mexico is over, and Juan de Toñanes is just one of the many inglorious soldiers living a small existence on the land he helped conquer. When he receives one last mission, to hunt down a renegade Indian who’s called the Padre and who preaches a dangerous heresy, he realises it may be his last chance to create the future he’s always dreamed of. But as he moves deep into the unexplored northern territory, hot on the Padre’s trail, Juan discover the traces of a man who appears to be, in fact, a prophet destined to transform his own time and even eras to come. Not Even the Dead is the story of a pursuit that transcends territories and centuries on a hallucinatory journey from 1500s colonial Mexico to Trump’s Border Wall.
The settlement lies a half day’s ride away, at the base of a rock formation Juan has the sense of having camped beneath just days before. He looks at the stony stretches of land glittering in the sun and the craggy cliffs that rising in precarious balancing acts against the horizon and the rocky spires that look like scales on a gigantic dragon, if one believed in such things, and he feels that each image touches him intimately, in the way we are touched by the features of a face we have already contemplated. And yet, he’s never been here before: how could he have been, and not seen the hundred or two hundred huts scattered across the slope. A pack of children scamper around him, laughing and shoving. Every so often, they pluck up the courage to come close enough to the stranger to touch a fold of his chamois cape, or one of his extraordinarily white hands, only to run off again, laughing and howling like coyote pups.
In the shade of the huts, young girls naked to the waist mend fabric or conscientiously chew mesquite pods. They glance up from their labour shyly, as if they hadn’t intended to. Juan slows in order to observe their faces, their breasts bathed in sunlight. He is surprised to find beautiful women and common women and ugly women, too, just like in all regions of the world.
‘All virgins. All María,’ murmurs one of the old men who accompanies him, pride and reverence in his voice.
Then they lead him inside one of the huts and offer him mouthfuls of strange and not entirely unpleasant delicacies.
‘You lots of bread, lots of wine. Lots of bread, wine, bread, wine, bread, wine, bread …’
One by one they point to all the bowls, the unfired clay pitchers. They call all the liquid concoctions wine and all the solids bread, whether referring to red beans, venison steaks, or boiled prickly pear. And so Juan eats bread of many shapes and flavours and drinks a warm, thick wine.
‘Lots of bread, lots of wine … Good bread and wine …’
The Indians know the words bread and wine and good. Now and again Juan hears these words surface in their chatter, the words almost unrecognisable in their mouths, intermixed with many more unfamiliar words, words that sound less human and more like the bellowing of beasts. He attempts to follow the flow of their conversation, skipping from one Spanish word to another, like the individual stones that permit the crossing of a river. He’s not certain of having managed. He hears or believes he hears the word Hell, and Heaven and kingdom and God. The word love. The word Christian. That word, above all. Because they are Christians, they say or seem to say, and they repeat it three times, beating their chests with open palms. Christians, not savages.
Savage, for some reason, is the word they pronounce best.
‘Who taught you all this?’
‘Padre … Padre teaches.’
But they have questions, too. They speak clumsily, like birds attempting to reproduce the human voice, and their hands are always poised to bolster their meaning, at a slight delay after their words. They want to know where he has come from, and to indicate where they pretend to scan the horizon in all directions. They want to know if he too is a disciple of their Padre, and with the word disciple they remain standing and with Padre, they kneel. They want to know his name, the name his mother chose for him, and to accompany mother, they mime breasts and briefly cradle the air. And when Juan finally replies, when they hear Juan say the name Juan, they bend docilely once more to kiss his hands, his shirttails, the tips of his boots.
‘Padre, Padre,’ they repeat.
Juan gently moves them off with a light shake of his hand. Yes: he is also named Juan. And he is there to find their Padre, at any cost. Can they help him? Might they be able to tell him where he is hiding?
They are silent for a moment, as if weighing his words. Finally, an old man, his body covered in shell and piercings, steps forward. He points north.
‘House,’ he says. ‘House of God.’
‘Take me there.’
by Juan Gómez Bárcena
Translated by Katie Whittemore
From NOT EVEN THE DEAD
By Juan Gómez Bárcena
Translated by Katie Whittemore
Published by Open Letter Books (2023)
Buy books from The Spanish Riveter through the European Literature Network’s The Spanish Riveter bookshop.org page.
Juan Gómez Bárcena is the author of five books and the winner of numerous prestigious literary awards,
including Spain’s Premio Ojo Crítico. A staple on Spanish cultural media programmes and in the press, Gómez Bárcena is widely considered one of the best young novelists writing in Spain today.
Katie Whittemore is a literary translator from Spanish. Her most recent translations include Bad Handwriting by Sara Mesa, Mothers Don’t by Katixa Agirre and Wolfskin by Lara Moreno. She lives in Valencia, Spain.