I still need to digest what I´ve just read, and I´m not sure I want to fully dive into the madness that is Zero Saints but I have to get some things off my chest. Once in a while I have the good luck to run into a novel where the immediate thought is, how the fuck am I gonna talk about that. Zero Saints is for me one of those books.
While I have no idea what insanity or confidence drove Iglesias to write a novel half in Spanglish, and there are a ton of Spanish words, sentences and prayers in the book, it did not distract me very much. I don´t speak a word of Spanish, and while I am aware that I didn´t grasp a lot of it, I did at the same time. More out of instinct than any kind of intellectual knowledge as those are so smoothly integrated into the prose that it feels natural. As if there is no other way to tell Fernando´s story as an illegal alien in Austin, TX. And it´s the reality anyway, so no need to smoothen out any kind of "non-understanding", or make it more digestable. Simply let do this hybrid culture that exists do its own talking, and accept it for what it is. The Spanglish/Spanish adds this special flavor to the narrative, and makes the mix of the known vs the unknown slightly scary but even so interesting and rich in all its layers.
Zero Saints starts out with a kidnapping of our main character Fernando by some dudes who really don´t give a shit. This is made clear immediately how they treat him and his less fortunate friend who is already in their hands. The violence is immediate and comes at full force. It´s so heavy with gore it made me want to puke out my breakfast, dinner and lunch all at once.
Then there is this sound.
Those descriptions were unsettling.
What really hit me like a train at full force was the second chapter. This chapter, among others, is written in second person, no less, and Iglesias uses it to describe a backstory of Fernando, but the language used is one of the most beautiful ones that I have seen lately. I still can´t fully grasp what went on there as it is more, much more, than simply a backstory. It´s more like a life lesson, a philosophical treatise how things can be, or how a life should be lived. It´s full of wisdom and warmth. I went back and read the second chapter a second time before I moved on forward to the third. It knocked every single breath out of me, and I can´t tell anyone why as I have no idea what this did to me.
It´s hard to describe what Zero Saints actually is. On the surface it is a rather straight forward crime noir tale of revenge by someone pushed into the criminal underbelly of Austin. How it came to this is as much worth noting. Born out of love, of honor, maybe even tradition to defend the ones he loves; a desire to do right by his family until his actions went awfully wrong and he had to flee his home town to cross la frontera. In Austin he has to become invisible in front of eyes who don´t care about him, which is Fernando´s best defense against what happened, of what is happening in his life as a bouncer and enforcer or small time drug dealer.
A story which is more than a story of crime, but more about how it is to live a life when everything feels wrong in a place where you should not be, but are there nevertheless.
Iglesias wraps different realities around a story of hyperviolence, of fear and danger, and melts them together into a larger context of immigration, crime and superstition based on myths, religion and folk tales. There is an paranormal element in Zero Saints which feels as natural as the Spanglish he uses. It doesn´t take over though, but exists as natural next to any kind of rational motives Fernando and other characters in the book have. Even with those elements it is still a crime novel (for most parts), but firmly grounded in reality, that is what any kind of reality Austin and their more shadowy parts have to offer. It is an angry book, but it also emotional to the core as it touches so many things at once.
Fernando is as a character flawed, bent but not broken, and when he has to act against his enemies he does so with his own sense of justice while living a life based on his own code of honor. Even when he admits to himself that being a coward is what kept him alive all this time. He is instantly likeable, violent actions and all, as the character development is just fine and everything feels right at home. The novel doesn´t take much time for breathing in between. The action comes in waves without a lot of warning, the scenery is descriptive and vivid and some things made me questions if they were based on some real events minus the more supernatural parts. There simply isn´t a single misstep in the book, and if there is a book which just feels right at this time, Zero Saints is it for me.
There is probably some irony in it that a book so heavily with guns and violence left such an impact on me; especially so shortly after the recent massacres of San Bernandino and Paris when everybody talks about guns and violence while being fed up with it. I cannot help but thinking this is exactly the reason why. Sometimes we don´t get the heros we deserve, but the ones we need. Fernando is such a hero and Zero Saints might easily be the novel we were asking and waiting for.
Also, dear Mr Iglesias: I want to see a book about The Russian. If not, I would feel the need to haunt you down, cut off your balls and feed them to some random stray dogs. You´re welcome. And yes, I am very much aware of the hyperirony of that. Whatcha gonna do? Make a pact with Indio to get to me first? :)