The Devil in Texas

by Aristeo Brito

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 597

Aristeo Brito's 1978 novel of life in Presidio, a border town between the US and Central America, plays with the theme of the border between life and death, as well as the border between developed and developing nations. At one point, the narrator speaks of Presidio as a town where there is "nothing to remember except clouds and the devil." Here, "clouds" are not so much a meteorological phenomenon as they are a metaphysical conceit—a figure of the unknown. The use of metaphysical motifs such such as clouds and the devil casts the overall narrative into the genre of magical realism, in which fantastic symbols, motifs, and themes create an extra-worldly imaginative terrain. Brito uses the concept of personal memory in counterintuitive ways. "Clouds and the devil" are metaphysical concepts rather than individual experiences. Thus, the effect of saying that visitors to the prison of Presidio can only remember clouds and the devil is to say, in fact, that visitors will remember nothing at all. The perceptual residue of being in the Presidio is null in terms of emotional and experiential memory.

Within this terrain, Brito situates the anonymous narrator as being located between two worlds:

I come from Presidio. . . . It rises up dry and barren there in the farthest corner of the earth. I'd try to describe what it's really like to you, but I can't, because it appears in my imagination as an eternal vapor. I would also like to capture it in an image . . . but my mind becomes filled with long shadows, shadows that whisper in my ear, telling me that Presidio is a long way from heaven. Being born there is like being born half dead.

Notably, all the references here to spaces beyond Presidio only serve to further destabilize and defamiliarize the environment. Presidio appears only as a "an eternal vapor," for which there is no fixed, geographical referent. It may be captured only by virtue of its distance from "heaven" rather than some location on earth that has a name and a location on a map. Here, as in the novel's treatment of objects of remembrance, Brito effectively undoes his narrator's claims. He employs a narrator who can only describe what he cannot describe. In keeping with his attention to meteorological metaphors, he describes the place as being vaporous. Repeatedly, the solidity of Presidio as a place on earth is dematerialized, with the effect of rendering it an imaginative construction or even a fantasy. The cultural and rhetorical logic of negation means that the claims made by the narrator about what he cannot disclose are all that the reader is left with. Yet the novel's aesthetic is ultimately one of abundance rather than absence. The very dryness and barrenness are made to manifest a minimalist, austere aesthetic of sharply defined meanings.

Within Presidio (which means "prison"), the inhabitants live in a figurative underworld. While the dominant motif is that of confinement, however, Brito uses the narrative voice to carve out narrative gaps and spaces of invention and critique. The town contains "houses of poorly tended adobe, houses that beg God for mercy." Strikingly, in this passage, Brito conceives of a region of the material world in which inanimate human constructions (in this case, "houses") themselves have voices. Oppressed as the human residents of Presidio are by the forces of exploitation and dehumanization, the houses are in effect more vocal than most of the citizens. The quotations from the text suggest the subtle verbal texture of a world in which material conditions are, in and of themselves, evocative of dispossession and erasure.

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