When The Cerdito Flies: On Fernando A. Flores' "Tears of the Trufflepig"
Fernando A. Flores | Tears of the Trufflepig | FSG Originals | May 14, 2019 | 336 Pages
In the past few decades, a wild variety of things have crossed the U.S.-Mexican border. These include, but are not limited to: cartel-made opioids and fentanyl lodged inside car doors, Nafta-backed automobile parts for Ford and GM, Day of the Dead skull candies, AK-47 rifles and flak vests, avocados and monarch butterflies.
But in Fernando A. Flores’ debut novel, Tears of the Trufflepig (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the items in question are prized animals—not just any kind of beast, but Frankenstein creations called “filtered” animals. Set in the near future in South Texas and Northern Mexico, Flores lays out a fictional map of Mexican-American surreality made real: a burgeoning black market economy composed not of South American cocaina but of lab-made unicorns, tigers or, at the center of the story, the mysterious Trufflepig, a mythical swine once worshipped by the (fictional) Aranaña tribe of Mexico, a people that “live in three worlds of Past, Present and Future.”
And so does Trufflepig’s main character, the aging tejana Esteban Bellacosa, a native of Reinahermosa, Mexico living in MacArthur, Texas. He’s also an Odysseus-like wanderer increasingly paranoid due to drug traffickers and big bosses like “El Gordo” Pacheco--those who draw (with his prison buyouts and racketeering) obvious comparisons to El Chapo and his demise. A widow of a wife and daughter, and distant to his lost brother Oswaldo, Bellacosa’s life in South Texas is blown up after Pacheco’s death (his ostriches eat him), an event that leads him to a chance meeting with a reporter investigating “underground dinners” featuring prix fixe meals of filtered animals, the type of animal Pacheco once “smuggled out of the country and sold to rich collectors and enthusiasts, bored and eager to show off their wealth.” They’re, in essence, the new cocaine.
These “aficionados of ancient cultures,” Bellacosa learns, are the new elite driving the new cartel: eager to collect everything from shrunken Indian heads, to towering Olmec statues, to the filtered animals of the Aranaña people. In Flores’ future, ancient culture fetishization is turned up to eleven. Collectors from as far as Venice and Switzerland hike up the value of these illicit items based on proven authenticity—a fact that drives Mexican syndicates to commoditize their own (often indigenous) people. In one scene, Bellacosa’s confidante Tcheco observes a cook in the diner, saying, “He knows that he’s worth more with his head cut off… than as a slave in the kitchen.”
Right before Act Two, Bellacosa is finally invited to one of these illicit feasts near the border, where Trufflepigs with “the dark green skin of a crocodile” and a “beak like a rooster’s” walk around on leashes to entertain guests. Bellacosa is stunned, eyeing the re-created animal. He touches it, and it’s breathing; it’s warm and it’s real. Women come and go, talking of Olmec heads, but there’s something lasting to Bellacosa about the Trufflepig. Is it the fact that it was once a deity called Huixtepeltinicopatl? Or that it lives only a matter of weeks? Or maybe that these underground chefs were set to serve it alongside dodo bird? He leaves the dinner, at the end of the act, stunned.
As Flores’ novel progresses, the contraband of the new Mexican syndicates rises to the surface of international media, a deal on the Border gone awry: a confiscated shipment of eighteen Olmec heads are stolen in an armed robbery. The result—a national outcry centered at the Angel de la Indepencia—brings Trufflepig into an homage to Orwellian irony, where the theft, by military force, of ancient statues gains nearly more attention than the twenty-one missing biology students from the Universidad de la Reforma. Flores is asking us, with a strongly implied answer, sometimes too heavy-handedly: isn’t it terrible that we’re devaluing human life due to greed? The further Bellacosa pursues the filtered swine of question, the more Flores wants us to be aware of his.
The continued pounding and re-pounding of contemporary Mexican strife may be the book’s drawback, but Flores’ creativity in rehashing each unfavorable part of Mexican society—paranoia, corruption, impunity, fear of highway robbers—and mixing it with cultural pride often saves Trufflepig from political screed. But Flores, a South Texas-born writer known for publishing against the grain (his first book of short stories on South Texas’ punk scene led to a near fist-fight), is easily the author to break the mold of traditional, staid Latin magical realism. He mixes together a mulligan’s stew of Border Wall policy, Tejana markets and Norteño characters, doing so under the auspices of writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Valeria Luiselli. In short, if Trufflepig tells us anything in its 322 pages, it’s that the U.S.-Mexican Border will always be anything except “real.”
Upon returning from a brief trip to Mexico, Salvador Dali now famously remarked, “There is no way I am going back to Mexico; I can’t stand to be in a country more surreal than my paintings.” As someone who lived in Puebla and Mexico City for a year and a half, I can attest to the notion of Mexico being an “irrational” place, a series of 31 diverse states—from indigenous Chiapas to upper-class Puebla City—often times wrapped up in never-ending cultural conflict. The Porsche-owning fresas of La Condesa. The Zapotec women knitting ponchos in Oaxaca. And then the U.S. Border Towns calling to the north. It’s something about the contrast of regions snuggled up right next to each other, the tension of repelling magnets in a dance—a blanket one could remove to ultimately find the peso and the dollar. A tension Flores sources like a sponge for Trufflepig.
In the midst of a U.S. political debate about the “Border Protectors” and “the U.S. sending troops into Mexico,” Bellacosa, returning to the house in MacArthur where he believes Oswaldo is, is captured and awakes in a laboratory run by two members of contrasting parties. He’s hooked up to an EKG machine, and so is the Trufflepig next to him. He’s being experimented on, it seems, and as things go black, Flores takes us through a Dickensian voyage into Bellacosa’s past—with the appearance of the present day—where we see him at the table with his wife and daughter, eating pan dulce and getting ready for elementary school. We learn it was Bellacosa’s American Dream to leave Reinahermosa, Mexico for MacArthur, Texas, to escape the crime. It’s his life before the fall, and its poignantly told. When he awakens, everyone around him is dead from gunshot wounds, and Bellacosa and his new companion find themselves the center of attention. It was, like most things now, a dream.
If there’s any moment of elucidation in Flores’ colorfully dense book, it comes from a conversation between Herbert and Bellacosa, at the same diner in MacArthur. Paco Herbert, the reporter, has found his story now that the originators of the stolen Olmec heads and Trufflepigs have been revealed. The scrambling reporter spits, among a three-page burst of insight: “The Trufflepig was some kind of mirror. A mirror reflecting who we are as people beyond time and space. A creature that reflects the ugliness of reality and embodies it in its being, by being just the way it is.” Bellacosa takes it all sparingly. Is the pig really an ancient god, able to transcend time and space, or just a human re-creation? But more direly to Bellacosa, it showed him visions of the real, only truth: of love, of family, of life devoid of greed.
If there’s one book to take to the border, to read passages of aloud on both sides, I think that Flores’ debut would hold up well. Like Paco Herbert says, as a “mirror.” A mirror for our times in the present. And what, god forbid, is to come in the future.