Broken River Books (20 Oct. 2015)
I finished Zero Saints about a month ago. Since then, I’ve been struggling with how best to write about it.
I mean, I can tell you I think it’s amazing. I can tell you that barrio noir may just be my new favourite sub-genre in fiction. I can tell you that this fast paced crime novel is bleak, violent, and hums with a live wire tension from opening word to closer. I can say that Iglesias is, on the evidence of this novel, a talent as ferocious as Ellroy and as pacy as Wimslow, with an added horror/magical realism streak that is woven seamlessly into the gritty realist setting and characters, such that the whole is frighteningly assured.
And it’s all true. This is, first and foremost, a cracking short crime novel, that should be of interest to anyone for whom the notion of latino crime splatterpunk magical realism might appeal. I don’t want to sell it short on that front. However, it’s also not the only reason I bought the paperback for my father for his birthday, or why I’ve been burbling incoherently about it ever since I read it to anyone who cares (and just possibly some people who don’t).
The truth is, I think Zero Saints is something special. It feels like a tectonic plate shift. This could well be my own naivety, my own ignorance of the wider genre talking, but I really can’t remember reading anything quite like it. For starters there’s the obviously genius move of making the lead character an illegal immigrant and petty criminal. I mean, this guy is, on paper, a poster child for the Trump wall gang - he is, in many ways, the personification of the fear of the immigrant that’s so dominated political discourse, in the UK as well as the US.
And it turns out, he’s also a human being. A real, flesh-and-blood, sympathetic person. Not some cartoon gangster, not some saintly, misunderstood tragic figure of fate, but rather a living, breathing, sweating, flawed, scared, angry, powerful, weak, damaged, defiant, brave person.
There’s essentially two qualities that will draw me to a book. The first is obvious - story. I’m a narrative junkie, and I like seeing a well paced story play out. But the second is that the book will put me there - wherever ‘there’ may be for the purposes of the story. Zero Saints has both these qualities, but it’s the second that makes it, IMO, such an astonishingly good read.
One of the ways it achieves this is in it’s use of Spanish. Throughout the book, the lead character, bi-lingual as he must be, frequently slips into Spanish. Sometimes it’ll be a stray word, sometimes he’ll switch mid sentence, and on rare occasions you might get a paragraph of dialogue. As a non-Spanish speaker, I found it to be a thrilling and powerful technical choice. Often with either context or due to exposure to the background radiation of Latino culture that’s made it across the pond (Cypress Hill and Dora The Explorer spring immediately to mind, and let’s just take a second to enjoy the profound oddness of that particular pairing) I could parse what was going on. Occasionally, though, I just couldn’t, and those moments were in a way the more interesting, even enjoyable.
Because, for just a little while, I was forced to confront what non-native speaking/reading immigrant must feel when confronted with English. By refusing to compromise on the language integrity of his characters, I was allowed just the merest of hints as to how profoundly alienating language can be, when it’s not your own, and it’s that experience in particular that my mind has returned again and again. It’s an overused word, these days, but I think there’s a hint of genius in that choice by the author. The visceral experience of being confronted with a text I couldn’t understand, in the context of a story I was deeply invested in, challenged me in the best possible way to think about my own limitations, and gave the whole book a blistering authenticity that frankly gets my blood pounding. Because that’s ultimately what I come to the fiction I come to for - to be made to feel.
Zero Saints made me think. Zero Saints made me feel. Zero Saints is punk as fuck, and I have a new name to add to my very short ‘must-buy’ list.
Basically, I’ve fallen in love.
I think there’s every chance you will, too.