Errands after death

Cualquier forma de morir by Rafael Menjívar Ochoa is a fatal cocktail of death and corruption stirred vigorously with the blackest of humour


Cualquier forma de morir
Rafael Menjívar Ochoa
2006, F&G Editores
115 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

RAFAEL MENJÍVAR OCHOA’S finely crafted narrative displays all the experience of a writer who has flitted from music and art to scriptwriting and novels, and from El Salvador to Mexico, where he spent many years as a journalist working for critical newspapers.

The first thing that strikes the reader about Cualquier forma de morir (Any Way to Die) is the writer’s crisp and enjoyable prose, but this is constructed within the blackest of humours and Menjívar Ochoa’s own fascinating and very Latin American perception of death.

Clearly set somewhere in Mexico, in this crime story crime is not really relevant. The great majority of Latin Americans see death as something to be expected, a consequence of life, but for Menjívar Ochoa’s characters what counts in their meditations on departing from this world are the ways these reveal one’s true value in life or society or whether one had a say in it or not. Written during different periods of the author’s life, the picture painted by Cualquier forma de morir is not as grim as it seems.

The story unfolds during a night in an anonymous jail, where one of the inmates is murdered under the cover of a noisy party held by drug barons. The main character is a simple ex-policeman who, after being locked up as a sacrificial lamb, tries to indicate who the murderer is to the policemen arriving on the scene but is silenced by blows. He loses consciousness and wakes up outside the jail in the office of a powerful criminal to discover that he is, now, officially dead and must do an errand in order to stay, unofficially, alive.

Dying is just another complication

Although every character has a nickname, face and particular traits, they all remain anonymous, and dying is just another complication when it comes to carrying out a job. The narrator is continuously being told that he has the looks and blood of a victim – and he desperately tries to live to prove the contrary.

Even more interesting are his reflections on death: “That year all committed suicide” – politicians, drug-busting agents, the editor of a paper, drug barons who still after their death run businesses as usual and decide whose will be the next suicide.

“Witnesses say that she stood in front of the bus and was smiling… Mum did not commit suicide. She just didn’t believe that she was to die when the bus was going over her, because death is always in the future, and the future never comes. That is why she was so careful and was so scared. To stop the future from arriving. What arrived was the present and at 50 miles per hour, and her future ended up in the past, and this is what we all go to”.

The narrator is practical, he ignores his supposed fate and even sees the funny side to try to survive until he discovers that his role was not the one of victim, but one of witness.

This is a gripping novel woven with the raw material of suspense and surprise, although the references to the plot to kill a presidential candidate seem obvious and formulaic within the broad theme of drug-trafficking and corruption. Indeed, these topics are so over-represented in contemporary Latin American fiction as to make them barren, and it is surprising that an established writer such as Menjívar Ochoa uses this device to explore notions of death. However, this writer injects such blunt humour into his work that it is highly readable and hard to put down.

Menjívar Ochoa, currently working as a journalist in his native El Salvador, is prolific and has clocked up a number of national and international literary, comic and video prizes. An important part of his work has been translated into French and he has published short stories in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Mexico.

Cualquier forma de morir is the third of a trilogy of novels that began with Los años marchitos (The Withered Years), winner of the Ramón Valle Inclán Latin American Prize of the Institute of Ibero American Co-operation and the Editorial Universitaria Centroamericana (EDUCA), and Los héroes tienen sueño (The Heroes are Sleepy) published by the Direction of Publishing and Print of El Salvador.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican journalist