The Mongolian Conspiracy, by Rafael Bernal, brings slick Noir tropes to 1960’s Mexico City. Ostensibly a political thriller, the action follows Filiberto Garcia, an aging veteran of the Mexican Revolution and killer-for-hire contracted by the police to investigate an assassination plot. These rumors, apparently originating from Mongolia, send Garcia on the prowl through the city’s gritty Chinatown, and as the plot unravels: farther and farther a field. The scenes trend pulpy: Garcia seduces a possible femme fatale, he shoots up an opium den, and he brings the investigation to a very Sam Spade finish. The novel has the sheen of 60’s political thrillers (The Day of the Jackal, Z, Topaz), especially as Garcia meets operatives from the CIA and KGB. But these encounters, madcap and witty, capture the tone that makes The Mongolian Conspiracy more compelling than any ordinary political thriller.
On the CIA agent: The American was about forty years old, short and strong. This gringo’s got the muscles of a boxer and the face of a sonofabitch. Not a bad combination in a man who knows his trade, and it looks like this one does. And with those little gold-rimmed eyeglasses, that fedora and his colorful belt, he looks like a travel agent. Fucking gringos! They’re always playing some part. Me, even if I wear that little hat and those glasses, I’d still look like what I am: a stiff factory. Even the cigarette broad was horrified that he was friends with me. She must think he’s a tourist and doesn’t understand these latinos, that he’s got no idea who he’s dealing with.
Bernal finds an unlikely protagonist in Garcia, a veteran of revolution and a stiff factory, but one that oozes credibility. In a particularly sordid exchange, Garcia is out on a stake out with the CIA and KGB operatives, and waiting in a dark room they only want to talk about the men they have killed. Far from fixating on the supposed assassination plot, Bernal nails the violence of realpolitik. In his best moments, he catches some of the same absurdism that Denis Johnson brought to the fore in Tree of Smoke. Although The Mongolian Conspiracy reads like a charming pulp mystery, the message is unmistakable.
First published in 1969, The Mongolian Conspiracy defined the translation of Noir aesthetic into the context of Latin American politics. With the emergence of dictatorships in the intervening decades, many more young writers would identify the tragic-comic effect of state sponsored brutality. In his poem, Los Neochilenos, Roberto Bolaño describes a beautiful holster worn by a fascist: “And Vivanco the lawyer/ a friend of don Luis Sanchez/ asked what the fuck we were trying to say/ with all that NeoChilean shit/ “New patriots” said Pancho…And Vivanco the lawyer/ Tucked his pistol back/ in its holster/ of Italian leather/ a fine repousse of the boys/ of Ordine Nuovo/ detailed with delicacy and skill.” Bolaño is heavily indebted to Bernal in his brutal gangsters. And The Mongolian Conspiracy is a hard-boiled gem.