- "Democracy Against the State" in The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal
This essay began as a presentation for a colloquium about crime fiction in Mexico.1 The theme of the gathering was open, and I chose to discuss the novel that is arguably considered to be the first novela negra in Mexico, Rafael Bernal's El complot mongol (The Mongolian Conspiracy) (1969). It was an auspicious moment because we were meeting in the year of the semicentennial of the novel's publication, which was marked by increasing interest in the novel after years of relative disregard (Torres-Rodríguez 2019, 163).2 Commemorative gestures aside, a common theme was evident in the various presentations, which concerned violence in Mexico. Though the papers at the colloquium were principally focused on contemporary Mexico, Bernal's novel offers an insightful treatment of [End Page 155] violence and its relation to the postrevolutionary state in Mexico that continues to be relevant, particularly as the heralded transition to democracy seems to offer not change but more of the same.3 Indeed, the continuities between the 1960s, in which The Mongolian Conspiracy takes place, and today may explain, in part, the renewed interest in the novel.
If Bernal's novel is now considered a significant work in Mexican literary history, it was met with a tepid reception when it was published. In his work La otra literatura mexicana (The Other Mexican Literature), the critic Vicente Francisco Torres recalls that when he encountered The Mongolian Conspiracy in the 1980s, the novel and the rest of Bernal's work were virtually unknown, except to a small number of people in the know (Torres 1994, 11). The years of neglect of The Mongolian Conspiracy may be due to the low estimation of crime fiction. Bernal's widow relates that Bernal himself did not hold the genre in high regard (Torres 1994, 37). The reception of the novel can also be attributed to the fact that Bernal spent a good deal of his life outside of Mexico, and he made little attempt to ingratiate himself with any literary clique or scene. Nevertheless, Bernal wrote and published novels, poetry, theater, and historical works.
Another factor that may play a part in the reception of The Mongolian Conspiracy has to do with Bernal's affiliation with the far right-wing Catholic Sinarquista movement, so anathema to both the dominant liberal currents represented in the discursive realm (if not always in actual policies) of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, as well as to the left-wing politics of many artists of the era. As Bernal's widow relates, though, the writer later distanced himself from sinarquismo (Torres 1994, 40). Even after this break with sinarquismo, and long before the publication of The Mongolian Conspiracy, Torres notes a religious current in the author's work. The Mongolian Conspiracy, however, denotes a shift, according to the critic: gone are the Christian thematics that underlie Bernal's oeuvre up to this point. Additionally, Torres perceives a cynicism and a sense of humor that distinguishes The Mongolian Conspiracy from the preceding work (35-36).
These changes are, nonetheless, related to a persistent conviction throughout Bernal's work that the postrevolutionary government has failed [End Page 156] to make good on the promises of the Mexican Revolution. Indeed, there is a consensus in the secondary literature that The Mongolian Conspiracy mounts an acidulous critique against the postrevolutionary order. According to Ilan Stavans, the novel forms a part of a more politically conscious cultural production that emerges out of growing discontent with the state in the 196os(1997, 25-30). For Persephone Braham, the type of crime fiction that Bernal's novel inaugurates features a critique of power and the discourse of national identity that follow the instituting of the governing apparatus that will rule uninterrupted for 71 years. In The Mongolian Conspiracy "Bernal set out for posterity the vital subject of the Mexican detective novel: the failed Mexican Revolution" (Braham 2004, 72). In one more detailed analysis, Fernando Fabio Sánchez reads The Mongolian Conspiracy as a critique of the postrevolutionary state. The novel "exposes the tensions and ideological fissures that the governing regime...