What Goes Unsaid: A memoir of fathers who never were
By Emiliano Monge
Scribe, 2022, ISBN: 9781925849516, $35
As I read Mexican novelist, Emiliano Monge’s devastating book traversing his family history my mind kept going back to a hot and humid night in the poorest area of Valencia, Venezuela, when I was introduced to Las madres del barrio (the neighbourhood mothers).
Traditional macho behaviour in Venezuela was for a man to prove his masculinity by getting a woman pregnant and then moving on, repeatedly, leaving behind a string of single mothers and fatherless babies. The women were poverty-stricken outcasts until the Bolivarian revolution led by Hugo Chávez.
All over the country, such women formed themselves into committees and raised themselves up. The group I met had educated themselves, created an economic cooperative and were the moral leaders of their community.
One of them, a seventy-two year old grandmother, had been taught to read by the Revolution, had put herself through primary and secondary school and when I met her was half way through a law degree. Standing before her was to witness true human dignity.
Monge’s book, illustrating the Mexican experience shows us the other side of this: the felt experience of the runaway men.
Monge writes in a novelistic manner, so it is hard to know how much of this is true and how much is fiction. However, what he ruthlessly exposes is the emotional bleakness of men growing up fatherless in a patriarchal society and their selfish compensation strategies.
He relates the stories of his grandfather, his father and, without sparing the scalpel of revelation, himself.
In 1958, Monge’s grandfather, Carlos faked his own death and deserted his family. His father was effectively raised by his maternal uncle, Polo, who was a provincial politician and gangster.
Monge’s father, a decade later, deserted his family to join one of Mexico’s leftist guerrilla armies.
Monge uses a variety of narrative techniques to expose the inner emptiness from which each of these three generations of men are trying to free themselves.
Why did his father desert, for instance? Because he felt “suffocated, every fucking day I felt suffocated. I felt like I was drowning, I constantly felt I needed to breathe a different air, a warm air.”
Why does Monge write? To compensate for the same feelings.
Each of the men has betrayed innumerable women in their desperation to fill the vacuum of their being. This is the opposite of the dignity I met in Venezuela.
This machismo is a symptom of a deeper Mexican malaise. In the book the interaction of politics and criminality and a description of the Mexico City massacre on the verge of the 1968 Olympics (discussion of which was suppressed for decades in Mexico) bring another dimension.
These are the things that go unaddressed in families and society, the silences that fester and deform individuals.
“In your country, people have nothing but contempt for the truth,” Monge’s father says. “And anyone who thinks otherwise is mocked, harassed, and lynched. It’s a fucking country of intellectual dwarfs and spiritual cripples.”
Monge is not just putting his own awful mistreatment of women on display or revealing his own and his male forebears’ spiritual desolation; he is exposing the whole of Mexican society.