I’ve already received a (less than charming) email asking why I have a gay couple running the bar in Saint Death. So here’s my answer: why not?
That ought to be the end of the story, I think. But of course, it isn’t. There may come a day when such a thing causes no fuss but I fear we’re still a way off from that at the moment. So, not because I feel I ought to justify it (since that would validate the question), but more because there’s more to the couple than first meets the eye: who are Siggy and Carlos, and what exactly are they up to in their bar, El Diván, in Colonia de Anapra, Mexico?
There are some clues in their names. Siggy, we learn, is also called el Alamán (‘the German’) by the locals, but we later discover he’s actually from Austria, and emigrated from there to the US as a boy, before finding his way to Mexico. Carlos is Mexican, from Juarez (the city to which Anapra is umbilically attached). The bar they run is called el Diván, or ‘the Couch’.
In one chapter, Arturo, the hero of the book, makes his way to the bar and there starts to discuss his troubles with Siggy. On the couch.
If these clues aren’t enough, the fact that chapter titles in the book refer to the work of the two great founders of psychoanalysis should make it clear that Siggy and Carlos are in fact Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Freud’s ideas are often spoken of rather dismissively these days. We focus on the weaknesses in his work, rather than remembering that he, and Jung, and others like them such as Spielrein, Bleuler and Rank gave us an entirely new language and with it a new way to see the world. As I always say, we may think we’re finished with Freud, but Freud is not yet finished with us.
Freud and Jung were mutual admirers before they became friends. They knew each other by reputation and through the papers they published, and it was inevitable that one day they would meet. When they finally did, Jung recorded in his diaries that they spoke for 13 hours straight, without knowing that so much time had passed. It was an intense friendship, but it was one not destined to last. Cracks appeared in their relationship, until finally, a series of (perceived) slights led to the friendship foundering after seven years. (A mystical number that must surely have touched a nerve for Jung, who was interested in things such as numerology.)
There’s more Freud than Jung in Saint Death (and I confess that Carlos is also a touch of another Carl; Carl Marx) but that’s because I wanted to focus on some themes from two of Freud’s most powerful pieces of writing; Civilisation and its Discontents, and Totem and Taboo.
In these two works, Freud looks at many things. He looks at our place in the world, about the ‘contract’ we make with society (remember that word?). He discusses ‘the deal’ we made with the state, to hand the right to kill to our governments, while making it illegal for ourselves. Above all, he wonders how we ended up so often feeling lost, and perhaps with lives that have no meaning.
What’s all this doing in Saint Death? It’s a book about drug wars, migrants, the poor and powerless. It’s a book about belonging and sacrifice. The efforts that Arturo, Faustino and Eva go to, the efforts that their parents went to, are at the heart of what it means to love someone, to care for them, and above all, it’s in my book because I think there are two fundamentally different ways to look at the world.
The first way is the way that says we are all individuals, that we act selfishly, that genuine altruism is an impossible lie. That the world is divided into winners and losers and that’s how it should be. This is the way that I suspect spawned the email I received, and is the way all too often visible in below the line comments streams about migrants.
The second way is the way that says we’re all together on this planet, for better or worse, and that this will be better if we remember that fact, and consider ourselves one family. To help us understand ourselves, and other people, I think we could all do with a chat with Siggy and Carlos from time to time, on the couch, tequila in hand.
Mexico is a wonderful country, with many wonderful people. It has many problems at the moment, such as the violence created by the drug trade, inequality, and corruption, and it still has a way to go in terms of equality for women. Same sex marriage is still only legal in Mexico City and 9 of the other 31 states of the nation. Yet wherever you look you can see signs of hope; signs like the actions of the 12-year-old boy who recently protested single-handed at an anti-LGBT rally in Guanajuato, an act of bravery that tells us we can still believe in those who put love ahead of greed and fear.