By Carol Polsgrove
For anyone who has lost a child or has one to lose, El deshabitado—a true account in novel form—cannot be an easy read. The prose is often lyrical, the people undeniably real, but the steady beat of sorrow is always there: not only Javier Sicilia’s sorrow but also the sorrow of thousands who have lost loved ones to death or disappearance in a Mexico devastated by “la violencia” unleashed by a government war against drugs.
Two years after his son’s death, arriving in an ancient abbey in France that is now a retreat from modern life, Sicilia still feels trapped in a diving bell, suffocating. Even with family and friends in this haven, he is as one returned from the dead, stripped of his human self – to use the French word, a revenant, or, as the title suggests, el deshabitado: the uninhabited.
Long before the murder of 24-year-old Juan Francisco and six friends, Sicilia had thought deeply about the nature of evil. He was, after all, a life-long Catholic and wide reader; throughout the book he conjures up other writers who have faced evil – Hannah Arendt, Dante. Now he holds ideas about evil up to the firelight of his abbey room and finds them wanting.
Explanations fail, evil remains – “as brutal and concrete as the body of one murdered, dismembered.” He no longer prays and has abandoned any idea of God intervening in history. He wrote his last poem after his son’s death, for how is poetry possible in a world where political speech has emptied words of their meaning? Yet he finds he cannot abandon words altogether, and now, by the wood stove, he blows embers into flame, takes out a notebook and begins to write.
The book he has written to bring himself back into life is a powerful narrative embodying not only his own story but the stories of other mourners who have joined with him in the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity. You can watch YouTube videos of their processions in Mexico and the United States. You can see Sicilia in his Indiana Jones hat addressing the crowds. And in El deshabitado you can go behind the scenes, listen to the conversations of men and women planning these processions and walking side by side in them, joining in a river of grief and protest that flowed into the very heart of Mexico City.
It is impossible to suggest, in a few paragraphs, the depth of the book that has emerged from Sicilia’s clinging to words as a man might cling to a raft in a storm. Sicilia has spent a lifetime reading, thinking, joining with others in intentional communities, writing poems, novels, and essays. El deshabitado, more than 400 pages long, opens a window onto the spiritual life of a cosmopolitan man, who, with the death of his son, feels this lifetime of meaning-making crumbling around him and yet goes on, carrying his little grandson on his shoulders, the light of love flickering in the darkness.
It is unfortunate that, as we in other countries experience our own violencia, for the time being only readers who know Spanish will be able to read his story.