Sorghum Justice: Murder and Vengeance in Mexico

Murder Scene: "The sky was a cloudless blue, the rust-colored stands of sorghum" partially hid the body.

As he enters the ripening sorghum field, Ramón sees an unclothed girl lying face down her own blood. He takes off his shirt to place it over the girl’s nakedness.

He approaches closely: he recognizes her face; it is Adela his make-believe girlfriend. He scarcely knew her, but she had asked him to pretend to be her boyfriend so her parents would let her out of the house.

She wanted freedom to meet a man, but now she was dead. Who was she meeting? If it wasn’t Ramón, then who was her murderer?

This is the opening scene of Un Dulce Olor a Muerte (A Sweet Scent of Death) by novelist-screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. This rural crime drama takes place in the farmlands of eastern Mexico inland from Tampico.

The local authority, call him the constable or sheriff, arrived at the murder scene and ordered a villager to get a cart to carry the victim to the schoolhouse where the body was placed on a straw mat on the floor in one of the school’s two rooms. Votive candles were lit at the four corners of the mat. The teacher decried the use of her classroom by the townspeople for the death vigil, but where else could the body be taken.

In the intense summer heat, the body began to decompose, so they called on the town’s butcher to embalm the corpse. He used a mixture of rum, alcohol and distilled water. Soon the room became unbearable for the crowd of locals that wanted to see the body. The author writes:

“Quedó en el aire un dulce olor a alcohol, ron, muerte y sudor.”
A sweet scent of alcohol, rum, death and perspiration hung in the air. English translation by Alan Page.

I think the translators language is much to formal and polite—imagine 20 to 30 farmers and shopkeepers in a poorly ventilated schoolroom with a rotting corpse; the “smell of sweat and the stench of death” surely pervades the room. No “perspiration” in this room. Never the less, this is a powerful scene, and the book derives its ironic titles (English and Spanish) from the quotes.

The constable, his duty done, departs the scene. He will quietly gather facts about the murder and keep tabs on the villagers. In this matter, the constable will let the locals discover who was guilty and the constable will let them exact revenge—that was the way it was done in Loma Grande. But, the burial cannot be delayed.

The corpse is taken to her small home where Adela will be prepared for burial. Adela’s shoes and Sunday clothes are missing; she will be buried dressed in her everyday skirt and blouse without shoes. In this poignant scene, a schoolmate must dress the now bloated corpse when the mother collapses. The author has an unfailing instinct for the visual and the dramatic—this is strong writing.

After the burial, the men of the village meet in the store to discuss the murder. They will determine the murderer and select the villager who will carry out the vengeance. A contraband dealer called the Gypsy appears to be the likely murder and the boyfriend is the obvious choice to carry out the sentence. Ramón, a teenager himself, has become the protagonist is this crime story without police.

Guillermo’s sparse, direct story telling makes for dramatic reading, but the writing doesn’t translate well. The literal translation by Alan Page seems overly formal, somewhat choppy and lacks the power of the original. So, if you can, read this book in the author’s Spanish edition.

This novel is an excellent profile of life in the rural Mexican countryside, before the proliferation of AK-47s and drug cartels–drug dealers and drug use do not play a part in the novel. Read and enjoy Arriaga’s first novel; written long before he became famous for his movie work (Amores Perros, 21 Gramos and Babel).

Day 63: Un Dulce Olor a Muerte (A Sweet Scent of Death, tr. Alan Page), Guillermo Arriaga (Mexico, 1994).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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