In Samahua, the Mexican novelist Leonardo da Jandra recounts how his search for Eden led him into Hades
Leonardo da Jandra
2005, Almadia Editor
Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez
IN 1979, groovy dude Leonardo da Jandra realised the dream of so many middle-class youngsters: abandoning the excesses of their class and finding their inner shaman to escape the moral and material clutter of the city to a fabulous hidden setting by the sea in harmony with an understanding, gutsy and clever Eve. This Adam ended up in a cove in Oaxaca on the southern Pacific coast of Mexico.
Years later, their love for the land, campaigning and his writing won protected status for the Parque Nacional Huatulco.
Da Jandra was blessed in many ways: the love he found in idyllic Celtic Galicia for the sea, the cult of the dead and German philosophy probably marked his destiny. He became a staunch defender of the minimal utopia (that of a loving couple) and his work seeks to rebuild the natural bridge between the Hispanic peninsular and Mexican cultures.
As for Adam, by rebelling he was seeking to discover more, but little did he expect that, after tasting the fruits of his Mexican Eden, the Devil would turn up with many ordeals: greedy developers; a narrow escape from the bullets of suspicious villagers; allegations that he had built his house on privately owned land; rumours that he cultivated cannabis to supply to the United States; and, finally, the threat of arrest when local federal officers came for him in December 1996.
But Da Jandra managed to escape death with a book: Samahua. In 1997, when it won the Premio Nacional de Literatura IMPAC, his Hell vanished, and the praise and even recognition of those who had once pointed the finger at him poured forth. The backing of big names in literary circles helped him and his wife defend their paradise. It has been reported that the Mexican film director Carlos Carrera is now working on a project to film Samahua.
While portraying some of Da Jandra’s personal findings, Samahua fictionalises his observations about the mindset and ways of the inhabitants of the Huatulco area, better place known to Mexico City types as an extremely posh and unaffordable tourist resort visited mainly by those in power. Da Jandra lived at the nearby beach of Virgen de Cacaluta with his wife, the artist Agar García, for more than 20 years.
Here is where we can slot in the start of the book: “Los invitados” (the guests). In this initial chapter, Da Jandra deals with the cultural shock of the foreign, educated, urban class when juxtaposed against the natives they try to de-stupefy who live in conditions often attributable only to the local fauna. The villagers’ resentment, tensions and the lack of understanding between the two psyches is portrayed in a simple but effective way, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
Reading Samahua makes it clear that the locals’ mistrust of alien, urban forces stems from years of neglect and the lies of those in the upper echelons of power (see “El candidato” – The candidate).
Da Jandra introduces the reader to the beautiful, old-fashioned turn of phrase used by the folk of the coast. All his characters are intertwined by an invisible thread in a similar way to that of A Hundred Years of Solitude, although none has obvious supernatural attributes. Da Jandra has explained that his narrative technique is a reflection of his interest in the German philosophers, and functions to the extent that, in such a place, many of the characters are related or somehow their circles of life are interconnected.
However, the events recounted in Samahua are simply shocking, never happy, and not for the fainthearted, described as they are in the same blasé way as that used by any costeño telling a story.
In “Juvenal”, what persists after the muddy aftertaste of the character is the helplessness of this individual. Other stories, like “Las mujeres de Sedalio” (Sedalio’s women) and “Sirina” display lonely women living in the abject poverty and moral degradation of what is euphemistically called “social housing” while at the same time providing the bond that glues together society. A lonely and vaguely educated woman is seen as a threat by women of the lower ranks, and a married one will wait from afar for the few saved US dollars sent by her man.
Da Jandra never mentions the fact that Oaxaca is one of the largest exporters of wetbacks, or that 40 per cent of Mexico’s population share just 11 per cent of its wealth – with millions of families living on under $4 a day – while it has also produced the world’s richest man. But his tales put this country of contrasts in perspective.
Samahua does not intend to portray a postcard image of the country, but merely to provide a snapshot of the material and spiritual misery of the Mexico outside Mexico City and the reasons why, despite the much vaunted Revolución Mexicana, the evils that have haunted this incredibly beautiful country for the past century remain.
Da Jandra is also known for his comments criticising what he argues is a lack of skill and a distinctive style among young Mexican writers who wish to write novels in London or Paris while knowing nothing about life beyond the concrete walls of Mexico City. He has also attacked the way in which Mexican youths live in a total state of “dont-give-a-shit-ism” derived from the technocratic bias of education and a misguided and sanitised concept of what is to be rebellious due to globalisation.
True to his search for utopian values, Da Jandra currently runs a creative workshop in the small town of San Agustín Etla, Oaxaca.
Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer