A Review of Pages of Mourning

Kristen Martin
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Diego Gerard Morrison’s winding, meta-fictional Pages of Mourning is both haunted and haunting. Some of the novel’s ghosts are Mexico’s disappeared—people who may or may not be dead, who may or may not return. The novel opens in Mexico City in 2017, just before the third anniversary of the mass kidnapping of forty-three students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College, a real case that remains unsolved. Resounding across Pages of Mourning is the protest cry “Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos”: “Alive they were taken, alive we want them back.” The protagonist, Aureliano Más the Second, can relate to this sentiment. His mother vanished without explanation more than thirty years earlier, when he was an infant; he grapples with the possibility that she might in fact be long dead. 

Other ghosts are literary: Aureliano hails from Comala, the literal ghost town in Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Páramo, and shares a first name with nineteen characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the most famous work of magical realism. His surname, meanwhile, is a nod to his American expat mother’s overidentification with Oedipa Maas of The Crying of Lot 49. She chose the alias Édipa Más shortly after arriving in Comala.

Despite the book’s abundant references to magical realism, Aureliano, who is attempting to write a novel about his mother’s disappearance, is critical of the genre. He sees it as pure fantasy, and questions its purpose in a country riven by unending cycles of cartel violence and forced disappearances, a country that chooses not to confront the likely deaths of the tens of thousands of people who have gone missing. 

In pairing these literary specters with the ghosts of Mexico’s drug wars, Gerard Morrison explores the stories this superstitious country tells itself about death and loss. Through this reckoning with the tendency to “put a scrim of language between [one]self and the brute reality of what’s occurring,” Pages of Mourning takes us on a formally inventive tour through Mexico’s nightmares that looks straight into the face of death. 

The novel begins with Aureliano’s stalled attempt to use fiction to “unearth those that might already be dead.” Beyond the thick cloud of allusions and questions that overshadows his life, Aureliano is stymied by his alcoholism and a related tendency to see ghosts. At his desk in a Mexico City studio, provided to him by his writing fellowship, Aureliano finds himself in an endless editing session with his dead friend Chris. He used to spend whole afternoons drinking rye-spiked espresso at a café with Chris, who painted his manuscript with red ink. “Sorry to break it to you, writer, but there don’t seem to be many narrative possibilities in this literary cul-de-sac you’ve gotten yourself into,” ghost Chris says.

Aureliano might be stuck, but Gerard Morrison has no trouble exploding narrative possibilities. Soon enough, Aureliano’s aunt Rose—his mother’s stepsister and an accomplished novelist—hands him her own attempt at explaining Édipa’s disappearance. It’s a tale that transports us back to the 1980s, when Édipa was a young runaway fleeing the California desert. She finds herself joining Rose and Aureliano’s father at the top of a drug scheme peddling exclusive strains of pot to exclusive customers. This work is bound to attract cartel attention, giving rise to the paranoia that defines both Édipa and her namesake, while providing clues as to why she might have left. But though grounded in fact, Rose’s story is just that—a story. Later we hear Aureliano’s father’s version, which is similarly unreliable. Yet these stories are the only resources Aureliano has to help him understand his mother and her choice.

This book of books has an empty center, standing in for all “those that are nowhere to be found.” Ultimately, Pages of Mourning reckons with how to make meaning out of life when resolution remains forever out of reach, and with how to mourn—how to move forward in time—when there is no body to bury. 

Publisher: Two Dollar Radio Page count: 320 Price: $19.95 Key quote: “In Mexico, nobody ever dies, right? We never let the dead die.” Shelve next to: Juan Rulfo, Roberto Bolaño, Thomas Pynchon, Fernanda Melchor Unscientifically calculated reading time: A whole afternoon spent pounding back double espresso shots spiked with rye whiskey

Kristen Martin
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