A Review of John Vaillant's First Novel: The Jaguar's Children
Anyone who has read John Vaillant's books knows that he is a champion for causes. Be it a rare golden spruce on the West Coast of Vancouver Island in BC or an endangered Amur tiger in the Primorye region on Russia’s far eastern border.
He is also a consummate storyteller who takes facts from his exhaustive research to construct plots with convincing detail and thriller-like tension. Was the missing Grant Hadwin an eco-terrorist who cut down the 500 year-old iconic tree? Was he murdered, drowned or hiding? Was the Amur tiger a man-killer, stalking for revenge? Would the search team tracking the wounded animal's blood in the snow reach the animal before it would have a chance to kill again? Gripping stuff—and this is nonfiction we're talking about!
So when John announced he was working on his first novel, we all waited with baited breath. What will it be about? Where will it be set? Would he succeed in contriving characters and conflict evoked from his imagination as well as those in real life? Of course good story telling is based on something equally as powerful as facts. To make great fiction you must construct truth. For in fiction the reader is looking as hard for mistakes in the logic of your writing as the footnoted sources of your nonfiction. Throw on too much sentimentalism, too much bravado and like a failing movie your audience will not feel safe to suspend the disbelief that carries them to the fateful end.
The Jaguar's Children: A novel is set deep in Mexico in Oaxaca and on the borderland between Mexico and California. Two boyhood friends, Hector and Ceasar have decided to flee their homeland; one for the promise of a better life, the other to bring promise back to the people left behind. They pay a coyote [slang for a person who smuggles Mexican nationals] to weld them inside the belly of an empty water truck along with a dozen other desperate illegal immigrants. The truck breaks an axle
April 05, 2015 — traveling on difficult terrain and the driver and his accomplice abandon their captive charges after filching them of every last penny they've got for a promise to return with help. The remainder of the book is a countdown towards death with the possibility of survival getting dimmer as the pages progress. So why would you read such a dismal book like this? Two possible reasons. The first is a macabre science experiment of storytelling akin to Jim Crace's novel Being Dead. What happens to people contained in a cramped, closed metal vessel abandoned in the desert with little water, food, light and fresh air? Can that nightmare be described accurately, believably?
The second reason compelling the reader to continue is the fact that we are hard-wired as human beings in the face of "the lost cause" to maintain hope. Ill fate without hope is despair. And John would like to take you to the edge of despair to make his point. But he dangles the reader like a cat pawing a toy. There are hard truths in Jaguar's Children. And truth is often likened to beauty. While you are busy getting caught up in the meat of the story, in the remembrances of the main character, Hector, who drifts into weakening dream-states to escape his predicament, you will learn details of his life, his ancestors and his people that drive you forward. These snippets of beauty become your refuge.
Hector's abule (grandfather) is a proud Zapotec, an indigenous man who for a while in his youth worked as a digger on a Mexican archaeology site under an American professor from New York. He discovers a rare artifact and despite feeling its power, gives it over to his boss, Professor Payne, who Hector has come to admire. It is a carving of a man-jaguar which the American archaeologist tells him is likely his direct relative's handiwork from several thousand years ago, before the time of Christ. The jaguar is the spirit animal of his people and exquisite passages describe mythology as well as chance encounters with the elusive feline (pg 161-62:
The jaguar showed himself to me only one time, at the end of our second season [at the archaelogy dig]. It was by the stream in the late afternoon when I was washing. There was a wide place below a small waterfall where the water was deep enough to swim and I was in there floating on my back, looking up through the trees which blocked out the sky so all was in green shadow. To the side of me, in the shallows were hundreds of bololos -- tadpoles--the size of rosary beads with eyes the colour of blood. I had tried to catch some of them but they were fast and I was hot and tired from working.
Ooni'ya, I was floating in the water with my feet against two rocks, to hold myself in the current, when I heard a sound separate from the waterfall. I thought it was one of the men coming to bathe and I looked over, but where I expected to see a man, there was a jaguar. It was the first time--the only time in my life I have seen one, and it was a shock for me, the size of him. He was five meters away, but even so close it was hard to know where the forest ended and the jaguar began. He was not so much a separate thing as he was--how can I say it--una perturbaion, like ripples in water. His spots could be leaves and the spaces between them at the same time, the line of his back a branch or its shadow. All but his eyes--they could be only one thing.
There I was, naked in the water. My throat, my stomach, my privates--everything was exposed to him, but what could I do? One jump and he would have me like a calf. So I stayed where I was and watched him from the corner of my eye, trying not to move, not even to blink or breathe. But I could not stop my heart and you should have heard it then, beating under the water. I had thrown my clothes across a bush and the jaguar was sniffing at them, especially my pants. For some reason these were interesting to him. He was so close I could hear his breath, hear him smelling, even through the water. I wondered what was in my pants that could be so interesting, and then I understood. He was recognizing me--here was the one who had been marking his territory. I wondered if he would be angry and what he would do. Ooni'ya, I found out.
As soon as he finished examining my pants he turned around and sprayed them. It was almost funny until he looked at me. At that moment the water turned ice cold and my body was covered in turkey skin. It was his eyes that did it, they closed that distance between us to nothing. They were green like jade--like the jaguar man, and his pupils were round and black as bololos. He sat down at the water's edge and studied me floating there and his tail was twitching. It was thick and strong and when it hit the ground it made the sound of a heavy step. I wanted to look away--to get up and run, but how could I?
As the book progresses we learn more about the culture, lifestyle and challenges of the Mexican people: their devotions, rituals and dreams; their connection to the land and their crops. But also their poverty, corruption, conflict and exploitation. The ultimate question comes down to human rights and the ways we as citizens of the world have a chance to uphold those rights and to govern with laws that cross all borders and hold man, science and economic progress accountable to the well being and survival of life on this planet.
John Vaillant is a beautiful novelist.