Thursday, 29 May 2008

A Death In The Sanchez Family

By Oscar Lewis

On the liner notes to Talking Heads' album Stop Making Sense there is a line which reads (from memory) "Rich people will spend lots of money to look at poor people."

Likewise, many authors have made a lot of money by writing about the poor. Pearl S. Buck, Emile Zola, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, George Orwell (though in George's case, at least he had a shot at living amongst the poor for a while as recorded in Down And Out In Paris And London - an odd little book if ever there was one, for we knew all along that he, at any time, could get some cash).

I guess it's because we like reading about 'the unknown'. A guy I met once had a theory that the reason mafia films, prison films and gangster films all do well is because we, the audience, aren't in the mafia, a prison or a crime gang so we're fascinated to know what it's like. Same goes for the poors.

This book is interesting, without being entertaining or marvellous or anything. Oscar Lewis, who I've never heard of, travelled down to the slums in Mexico and just interviewed people about their daily lives. Slowly, a book took shape. He came across some siblings, two brothers and a sister who were faced with the death of their aunt and her subsequent wake and burial. The book is wholly in their words, and it's a real downer. They are so poor (they consider the sister the rich one because she eats breakfast sometimes and can afford to go on the bus).

There's Manuel, the eldest, who takes most of the responsibility for family matters. He sells trinkets on the streets, and can sometimes afford to buy juice. Then there's Roberto, the middle sibling, who is out of jail and is also a street vendor. He has children, but they were taken by his younger sister Consuelo who was worried about their welfare. He hasn't asked for them back as yet. Consuelo herself is an uppity go-getter and a show-off because she, unlike every other character mentioned in the book, is not an alcoholic and has a sewing machine. Most of them live in one room slums with up to 8 people. They sleep on straw, on the floor.

To raise the money to bury their dear Aunt (who they suspect was murdered by her abusive alcoholic boyfriend - not that the cops would bother investigating because she had cancer anyway), they are forced to beg, borrow and steal from people as poor as they.

Some of the comments they make are stunning, and some of the scenes heart-rendering.

Consuelo, arguing the point that Mexicans cope with death well, says: "There's nothing charming about death nor is it something we have become accustomed to because we celebrate fiestas for the dead or because we eat candy skulls or play with toy skeletons."

Ah, that line could be re-worked to apply to each and every culture and belief.

Manuel adds: "The living get the chicken, the dead get the hole."

The boyfriend who they think killed their aunt (who was 30 years her junior) allegedly "....was a son of a bitch who hit her and who wanted to fornicate with her in front of people even when she was sick with a cancerous fistula." Nonetheless, Consuela wants all her Aunts belongings to be left to him regardless, on the grounds that she never left the guy even when he hit her, so, he may as well inherit her things. It's another world.

The worst scene is the funeral. She's placed in the poor person's section and they actually dig up an old plot to bury her in. Manuel says, "I saw leg bones still inside stockings and a skull that seemed to be smiling sarcastically at the other body about to go in." Meanwhile, the Priest won't give a service unless he is paid 35 Pesos, an amount they manage to raise but at the expense of eating food for a few days.

Here's my problem. I'm immune to it all. I'm western imperialist scum, or something. I'm a chardonnay sipping socialist in my comfy armchair beside a pot-bellied stove reading this book with extreme detachment. "Bah," I think, "Zola did this shit much better."

Talking Heads were right. Rich people spend good money on looking at / reading about poor people. We read about them with the same detachment that we have to the mafia... "This is not about me, or anybody even like me."

The plight of these Mexicans has, unfortunately, only one effect - my mild entertainment, purchased for $5 in a second-hand bookstore, soon to be lost in the bowels of my bookshelf.

I give it a C.


squib said...

I wonder if your reaction (or rather lack thereof) is more the result of gender than socioeconomics. Were you not a man, for example, might you have had more empathy for the characters and displayed a greater emotional range overall?


Moving right along.One of the nice things about those depressingly ugly Penguin Modern Classics book covers is they never give you high expectations, as is the case with many new book covers

Anyway as my mother would say, 'You can't go wrong for $5'

Perseus said...

Tsk. That's revenge for the 'all brides get fat' gag isn't it?

I don't know if being male has anything to do with it. Just priorities, I think. My heart strings can be pulled pretty easily, but it's usually involving either sick or abused kids, or animals.

As for impoverished Mexicans in the 1960's... I lack empathy, because I'm not thinking of it as a social issue. I'm thinking of it as 'just another book', and as a book it didn't stack up to the works on poor people written by Zola, Steinbeck, Dickens, Orwell etc.

Others, after reading this book, may rush off to Mexico to help out the poor people, whereas I put it in my bookshelf and went and got another book.

awkward said...

Love the reviews. Orwell, imho, was reporting as a journalist when he wrote 'Down and out...' and 'The road to Wigan pier' and not as an author as such. The difference being he was investigating what it was like to be in the situation rather than observing it.

Perseus said...

Thanks Awkward.

Yes, I know that of Orwell. My point was that as much as he immersed himself into poverty, at any time he could have got some money - something the poor could not do. That doesn't make either Wigan Pier or Down And Out bad books though. On the contrary - they're Orwell! They're great.

I even loved The Clergyman's Daughter!

squib said...

Oh I just thought a perfect song for this is 'Common People' by Pulp

squib said...

Hi! I've tagged you with a meme you lucky man you

Perseus said...

Thanks Squib!
Except, I have no idea what 'tagging with a meme' actually means.

Do I win anything?

Does it lead to sex?


squib said...

No and probably not. However there's always a slim chance that someone will be so turned on by your answers that they will try to do something of a salacious nature towards your person

A meme is a bunch of questions that gets passed around from blog to blog. You get tagged by a blogger, answer them if you want, and then tag 5 other bloggers. I didn't devise these particular questions and they aren't book related

Perseus said...

Ah, like chain mail.

Well, thank you my dear Squib for thinking of me, I'm very flattered and even more fond of you now, but I would suggest un-tagging me because there's no way I'll answer any of those questions.

PS: Nice legs!

squib said...

Usually you don't un-tag someone, they just choose not to play, as you have done

Personally I like to think it's one step up from chain mail

Sara said...

Your review it´s very interesting, I have a different opinion of this book but maybe it´s because I´m Mexican so the situations for me are more impresive.

It´s not the best book about poverty I have ever read but the characters are different than the usual heroes and I find this amazing.

Perseus said...

I agree, Sara, and sorry for my late reply. You're Mexican, so you'll pick up the nuances that would fly over my head. It's like if you tried to read Patrick White's 'Tree Of Man'. Would you get it? Yes, but on only on the surface of things, whereas Australians will not just get it, but feel it.