(Un)happy endings

I wrote before how, upon launching a new book, the same question starts to be asked about said book. With Saint Death, set in and around the somewhat infamous city of Juárez on the Mexican/American border, the first question that came up was ‘have you been there?’

Now that the book is published, and actually being read, the question seems to be being supplanted by another one; ‘why does it have such an unhappy ending?’

I don’t think I’m giving much away in terms of spoilers to admit that yes, Saint Death does not have a happy conclusion. Even if that is a spoiler, I hope I will upset no one by saying I’m happy for people to know it has an unhappy ending before they read it.

So what’s with happy endings, and unhappy endings, and why does this book have pretty much the bleakest end to anything I’ve written?

Here’s the short answer; anything else would have been a lie.

If you want a longer answer, read on.

Life in Juárez, and Anapra, the shanty town on its outskirts that is the starting point of the novel, is better than it used to be. A few years ago, Juarez was officially the most violent city on the planet, with an estimated minimum murder rate in 2010, for example, of 335 per 100,000 capita per annum. (To give you some comparison, New York’s rate is typically around 6, London’s around 1).

Anapra, Mexico on Midsummer Day 2016


Right now, the murder rate has fallen. There are competing explanations for this, none of which feel as if they will be very permanent solutions. The government likes to claim that its policies, in particular that of the head of the municipal police, army colonel Julian Leyzaola, who was appointed in 2011, have brought the drug barons under control. Not many people buy this theory. Many locals believe that Juárez has quietened down because ‘Chapo’ Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel have wiped out the local cartel, the CDJ, or at least that they have reached a stand off of some kind. And then there’s another theory, which says that the arrival of the army on the streets of the city was itself the cause of the much of the violence. Its partial withdrawal has resulted in less violence. (The army was noted for using death squads, and has been accused of numerous human rights abuses.)

Whichever theory is correct, it could be argued that Juárez has found its happy ending. It doesn’t feel that way to me, however. Every reason, every ingredient if you like, that drug violence and related crime occurred in Juárez remains present or lurking in the shadows. There is no real reason to believe that things have improved long term in Juarez, and until drugs are legalised (which would destroy drug cartels’ power overnight), or borders declared open (which would remove the need for violence), that’s unlikely to change.

Witness the latest horror in Juarez – the violence has moved east into the valley alongside the American border.

There’s two ways to write a book set in a place like Juarez, and here’s an anecdote to explain why I chose the way I did.

Terry Gilliam, ex-Python and the maker of wonderful and eccentric movies, tells a story about two other film directors: Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick. It’s well known that amongst the un-made movies of Kubrick was a project about the Holocaust, called Aryan Papers. Kubrick had gone a long way in the production of this film; he’d casted some actors, he’d filled filing cabinets with research as he always did, he’d been struggling for funding. It wasn’t proving to be an easy project, despite his wish to make a film about what was obviously a very personal subject. When he heard that Spielberg had bought the rights to turn Thomas Keneally’s book Schindler’s Ark into a film, Kubrick apparently gave his friend his blessing to go ahead and make that film, while he shelved his own project, for good, as it turned out. Spielberg made Schindler’s List, and it’s a fine film, but here’s where Gilliam comes in. Schindler’s List is a movie about 600 Jews who survived the Holocaust. Whereas the Holocaust was about 6 million Jews who didn’t. And that, says Gilliam, is the film that Kubrick would have made.

Screentest of Johanna ter Steege, casted in the lead role by Kubrick for Aryan Papers


So in writing about a difficult subject, we can choose to tell a story of optimism, in which our heroes more or less survive, and everyone ‘lives happily ever after’. The audience go home happy, the reader closes the book with a smile. We feel better about the world. Or we can believe that the situation demands we tell a more general truth when terrible things occur in the world. In which case, the only honest way is to choose the difficult, ‘unhappy’ ending.

Ultimately, it’s a choice. A choice by the writer of the piece to decide what kind of truth they want to tell. And by the reader to decide what kind of stories they want to read.



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks, I’m glad you see it that way. And of course, it’s fine sometimes to watch a ‘feel-good’ kind of piece, because sometimes we just need that boost. But I think there’s a problem if that’s all we are being fed, for just the reasons you point out. Fiction is as powerful way as any (perhaps the most powerful) of opening people’s eyes to things we ought to be thinking about. Or, as you say, we can just sit on the side of the volcano, kidding ourselves everything’s fine, until that moment when…


  2. vellissima says:

    Thank you for putting this into words and adding clarity to such a prickly topic. Almost everyone wants to go home from a film feeling good, hopeful and optimistic. I think this is because life isn’t, especially these days. I prefer the cold harsh light of day, along with strong black coffee. Is this a failing? I don’t know, but I know that living in a world of make believe and fairy tales is, for me, disingenuous. If people leave the book or the cinema thinking “problem solved,” and life is resolved in such a perfect story arc, then they aren’t motivated to do anything. The problems in Juarez may be fewer today, but if we don’t deal with the root causes, they will be back, or move to another venue. Right now it feels like we are dancing to the end of the world.


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