Call Him Mine blows open the corruption and political violence that grinds lives
The murder of journalists in his adopted Mexican home compelled Tim MacGabhann to write a political thriller
Tim MacGabhann: While I was stressing out about my stories, my neighbours were being tortured and beaten and finally shot to death.
Call Him Mine began as a feeling of guilt and frustration.
First the guilt. In the early hours of the morning of July 31st, 2015, Veracruz-based photojournalist Rúben Espinosa was murdered, along with activist Nadia Vera, domestic worker Alejandra Negrete, student makeup artist Yesenia Quiróz, and aspiring model Mile Virginia Martín, at Vera’s house in the middle-class neighbourhood of Narvarte.
There’s not much to see in Narvarte – some nice bakeries, a few good cafes, maybe the Juan O’Gorman murals on the façade of the old Secretaría de Comunicación y Transportes, looming high and vivid over the red-and-white striped tarps of the taco and torta stands on Avenida Xola. The pictures are incredible: farmers tending cornrows, railroad workers directing engineers, students in pristine lab-coats, telegraph wires crackling with lightning, and the skin-tones and faces and races and genders up there on those murals are as diverse as those of the people hurrying past you to get to the MetroBus.
It’s hard to remember what I did on July 31st – probably refreshed my inbox a few times, hoping I could will an editor’s reply into appearing, maybe half-watched a choppy pirate site, definitely drank one coffee too many and wound up biting my nails way past the quick.
The next morning, I looked at the news, saw the address that the police had released to the media, and felt a huge ball of guilt rise up under my ribs that I don’t think has ever fully gone away. Rubén, Nadia, Alejandra, Yesenia, Mile – they’d died two blocks from my apartment. While I was stressing out about my stories, my neighbours were being tortured and beaten and finally shot to death.
That weekend, all I did was read about the case, look at the pictures, watch the videos on Rompeviento TV where Nadia and Rubén – in separate interviews, weeks before their death – tell the camera that if anything happens to them over them, it’s because of then governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte.
You can still pull both videos up on YouTube. For most of the conversation, they’re clear and calm, talking about how their coverage of a protest in Xalapa – the capital of Veracruz state – led to them being followed around, harassed and finally forced into exile in Mexico City. When they’re asked if they feel safe, though, their precision takes a knock. Nadia gives a little shrug, pokes at her lip-ring. Rubén gives a self-deprecating cough of a laugh, like he can’t quite believe he’s saying something surreal. Then both of them say, “No, not at all.”
The day after the murders, I went to the protest with a friend of mine. We stood at the Ángel de Independencia under a muggy sky and I saw a bunch of friends from other foreign media outlets – the New York Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post.
You kind of got the feeling, being there, that we weren’t sure whether we were covering the protest or participating in it. People hung Xeroxed pages of the victims’ faces from a long piece of string and ran through the usual gamut of protest chants, because the Ángel de Independencia is a weekend destination for two demographics – girls in candy-tone quinceañera dresses posing for photos, and protests.
That’s where the frustration started. We’d cover this protest, we’d invoice our stories, and in a few weeks we’d be back again to cover the next one. After all, Nadia and Rubén weren’t the only Veracruz-based reporters and human rights defenders to die during Javier Duarte’s term. That figure hit 20 by the time he went on the lam, in late 2016, fleeing charges of embezzling that had bankrupted the state.
Rubén and I, we had a lot in common. Like any freelancer, he’d been broke and stressed, overworked and underpaid by his outlets, scrabbling around for whatever gigs he could find, trying to convince himself that doing a job he loved was payment enough.
Of course, the main difference was that he was Mexican, and I was foreign. That meant he was better at his job than I could ever hope to be. It also meant that there was no comfy expat bubble for him to hide in once he got too close to the truth.
But there’s no place in a news story for feelings like that. It’s subjective. It’s colour. It’s assumption. OK, so you feel bad about skating blissfully around an ice-rink of nice bakeries and cool parks while the majority of people bob around stewing in the volcano right underneath, but where’s the hook? That’s just what being a foreign correspondent looks like. You want to do something about it? Do something else. That’s just how it is.
There’s a dialogue between Michel Foucault and some students in Los Angeles, recorded in May 1976. He talks about the difference between art and crime, madness and creativity, revolution and philosophy. He closes with a riff that builds to the following climax: “Books should be a kind of bomb and nothing else. That means books that are useful just at the moment in which they are written or read by people. Then they would disappear.” The beauty of such a text, he says, is “the beauty of a fireworks display”. But its effect is rupture, detonation, some kind of breaking.
Heaney talks about that, too, in an early poem, for surrealist painter Colin Middleton, In Small Townlands. Here, “loaded brushes” and “honed” and “pared” stylistic shrapnel burst as “a bright grenade” that bare crystal in rock, ruck up layers of stone, splinter vision. There’s pain “[like] a wild heart attack”. You see bone, you see cinders. A new world cools out of the wreck.
For me, that “disposability” aspect is what attracted me out of news writing and into the thriller form. You read thrillers, you’re buzzed by them, you forget them. But if the author loads that form with enough sharp political points, maybe they can blow something open – both in themselves, and into some hidden bedrock the time they’re trying to explode into visibility, like in the forensic social analysis of Martin Beck mysteries, or the scalpel-thin novels of Jean-Patrick Manchette and Pascal Garnier.
If it works, then Call Him Mine blows open the corruption and political violence that grinds human lives – those of indigenous people, of poor people, and those of the people who try to stand up for others – into the bank balances of that class in Mexico which owns everything and still wants more.
What I want to become clear as the smoke of explosion clears, though, are the complex layers of privilege and complicity that underlie comfort and political inertia, and the new set of complicities that people step into when they want justice but have to settle for revenge.
Call Him Mine by Tim MacGabhann is published by W&N in trade paperback on July 11th at €14.99