"The Guardians" (2007)

Regina took her teenaged nephew Gabo into her home on the border between New and old Mexico when it became clear that, if he continued crossing the border illegally with his father according to the availability of work and their financial need, he would never finish his education. Gabo is not only smart, but painstakingly religious to the point of unostentatious martyrdom. She hopes that, after finishing high school, he will be able to legalize his status in the U.S.; he hopes (ignoring his tía's hostility towards the Church and his father's militant Marxism) to become a priest.

They go about their lives with infinite care and not a little ingenuity. Gabo befriends his parish priest (who is considering leaving the Church for a more human variety of love), as well as the younger brother of a nasty, whale-like local gangster. Regina works (well below her abilities and well beyond the contractual demands of her job) as a teacher's assistant, flirts with teacher/activist Miguel, and conjures up a startling array of ways to make extra money.

But, as the novel begins, Gabo's father goes missing, and the "coyotes" who he hired to take him across the border claim they know nothing about it.

Ana Castillo's new novel uses this loss -- all the more painful because the disappearance is so complete and plausible, leaving no body and dozens of explanations -- as a platform for her investigation of what it means to be a guardian. Vigilantes, who may or may not feel empowered to kill, guard the American border against a threat that everyone feels but few understand. While it is increasingly difficult for workers to cross the border illegally, violent criminals seem to pass with effortless ease through national boundaries, facilitating intimidation, killing, kidnapping, gang warfare and drug trafficking. Many of the characters in the novel carry the names of saints (from Regina - the queen of heaven, to Gabo - Gabriel and even Regina's friend Uriel), but that is not all they carry. Each is oppressed by the weight of guardianship, of reconciling personal will to responsibility, both that of politics and for friends and family.

This theme, the book's most (literally) crucial, is too much in the shadows, however, left to the the unambiguous allegory of character names. Although the characters are rich here, and the plot moves forward with remarkable force, what is lost is a sense of theme expressed through the richness of incident. Without this, the encounters of the novel seem just, well, incidental. This makes Castillo's endgame (don't worry, no spoilers) somewhat hard to bear, transforming into empty iconography what should have been rich with ambiguity and lost possibility.

The novel is told in four entwined voices: Regina's, Gabo's, Miguel's, and, lastly, Miguel's grandfather Milton's. The result is a novel similar in tone to a theatre of monologue (think Anna Deveare Smith's Fires in the Mirror or Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues). While the voices that emerge are vivid and distinct, there is not the kind of choric play (I mean that the musical, rather than the theatrical sense) between them that could create narrative instability or tension to drive the piece (one character's account calling another's into doubt, for instance). Rather, the voices seem to be chosen for their ability to tell a part of the story not witnessed by anyone else; a different narrative segment rather than a different point of view. The closest we get to this is in the character of Miguel, who conceives of himself as a progressive of the highest order, but emerges (as his actions are recounted by others) as a mild misogynist who gathers a not insignificant pleasure from exerting his power as a man and an American citizen over others. It is a credit to Castillo that she evokes this subtlety of dislike in presenting Miguel without making him ultimately unsympathetic.

In Miguel's macho pronouncements on the state of the world we encounter another stumbling point for the novel: when characters hold forth on politics they tend to sound like a single person, ranting forth rather commonly held views on a blog or discussion board. Although this is indeed increasingly how people talk about politics (or how we perceive their discourse: a group of indistinct voices disembodied from character by the anonymous medium of the internet), in a novel it seems poorly integrated and motivated.

Castillo is also playing with language here, attempting to fuse English and Spanish through devices that (unlike a lot of Spanish-inflected English literature) are successful without necessarily being lyrical. This polyglot technique, in all its more or less poetic forms, should only become more common in our national literature, a literary dialect of hybridity that is available to speakers of both languages, without ostentatious contortions of translation. It is a matter of great irritation to me that this sort of strategy is not more widely used in mainstream television, creating a false gap between Spanish language channels and English language ones that doesn't reflect the linguistic tendencies of the viewing public, but may help to create a false sense of binarism in our culture (you are either one or the other, and your identity and loyalties will be determined by the choice). Ah well.

Castillo's characters, especially Regina, continually wonder over the complexity of the words their minds produce, particularly in their second language. Bilingualism (and the influence of one language upon another - which so many conservatively herald as an attack on the purity of English, as if it weren't by its very nature a mongrel language) doesn't simplify or compress language - it enriches it, providing us with an array of new linguistic choices, none of which could ever be perfect synonyms or duplicates.

This is an ambitious novel, filled with allusions that seem only incompletely realized. Consider, for instance, the naming of Miguel's abuelo Milton. What are we to make of this evocation of the great - if not appreciated by me - puritan poet in a novel filled with fallen angels, apart from the obvious? In the end, this seems a very intelligent outline of an allegorical novel dipping its toes into character-based realism (and perhaps too precipitously fallen into its eddies) - a sketch rather than the full expression of Castillo's theme.

The Guardians (2007)
Ana Castillo

  • You can find The Guardians at Powells, Amazon (The Guardians: A Novel), or many other bookstores and libraries.
  • Thanks to Random House and LibraryThing for sending me this Advance Reader's Copy through the latter's Early Reviewers program. To see the reactions of other Early Reviewers, visit LibraryThing's page for the novel, and scroll down to read their reviews.