Víctor Hugo Rascón Banda’s Contrabando tells the story of a playwright and scriptwriter living in Mexico City, much like Rascón Banda himself, who returns to his childhood home of Santa Rosa in the northern state of Chihuahua. He has to write a script, and what better place than this remote former mining village? “You’ll be able to rest, sleep in as long as you like, far from the hubbub of that awful metropolis,” his mother promises him in a letter. “You’ll have the time to write, uninterrupted.” And her son agrees: “here, where there is no electricity or telephone, I can stumble upon the ghosts that become characters and the rumors that turn into plots. All I have to do is go down to the river and listen to the washerwomen [. . .] or pop into the billiard hall and see how the balls run into each other on the green felt to break the tedium” (24).

What the narrator discovers, however, is anything but a rural idyll. It turns out that “death arrived in Santa Rosa, and now it doesn’t want to leave” (97). The place is full of ghosts all right, as well as characters, rumors, and plots. But whatever story he hopes to write is constantly interrupted by other stories, of violence, revenge, and betrayal, that urgently need telling but somehow cannot (yet) be told.

One after another, the tales that this book tells reveal a reality that has yet to make its way to the capital. “There they know nothing,” says one of the first people that the narrator meets, a woman called Damiana Caraveo, on the road to Santa Rosa. Caraveo is described as “the very image of a mournful death, or of the soul in pain of a woman still unburied” (12). Learning that she is talking to a writer (though disappointed that he doesn’t write corridos, the popular songs of the region), she bids his attention: “Just look, though they should know. Here in the Sierra, something bad happened, a whole lot of killing or whatever you want to call it” (12-13). And she proceeds to describe a skirmish in which twenty-four people (including most of her family) were killed, for which she was framed and then jailed as the putative leader of a drug-trafficking gang. Yet having told her side of things, Caraveo wonders why she has bothered: “As for my version of what happened [. . .] why am I telling it, what’s the point? Who’s going to believe me?” (22). And yet she carries on with her narrative, as though in the vain hope that there may be someone to hear her.

Indeed, the stories tumble out, twenty-three of them in total, like a chain reaction: each title picking up on a phrase from the sentence of the story that precedes it. So the final line in Camaveo’s tale is “I remembered the reasons for my voyage,” and the next story is “The Reasons for my Voyage,” which ends with the declaration “I am Jacinta, Jacinta Primera,” in turn setting up the story “Jacinta Primera.” And so on, until the last word of the final tale, which is “contrabando,” looping us back to the title of the book itself.

The various segments of this tightly woven chain, however, often take very diverse forms, with a host of different narrators or none at all: there are first-person narratives, testimonio-style, in the voice of rural peasants; there are the diary-like accounts of the Mexico City scriptwriter, the apparently autobiographical presence of Rascón Banda himself; there is dialogue, stream of consciousness, an open letter “to whom it may concern” that turns out to be a suicide note; there is a playscript, and ultimately also a filmscript, apparently the text that the narrator came to Santa Rosa to write. Each one is laced with the fear, uncertainty, and tragedy of a world in which everyday life has been turned upside down by new flows of capital, new fluctuations of allegiance, and new forms of killing as the drug trade takes hold.

Running through the disparate vignetts are some narrative repetitions and continuities. In particular, we follow the disjoint mystery of the narrator’s cousin, Julián, the town’s mayor, who has disappeared a couple of days before the writer arrives. It looks increasingly as though he has been kidnapped. But by whom? The traffickers or the police? The problem is that it is hard to distinguish the two. Sometimes, in the aftermath of one incident or another, you cannot tell if those involved were “narcos with police ID or police disguised as narcos” (87). And whether for reasons of subtefuge, betrayal, or a pragmatic attempt to survive in an increasingly slippery social landscape, people shift between the different sides such that it is misleading to talk even of “sides” at all: “Nobody knew who was who, local or stranger, poor or rich, narco or authority” (103) But everyone is someone; nobody can escape. Though we never learn Julián’s fate, and he and the narrator never cross paths, at one point it is suggested that the writer’s arrival, even though it took place after his cousin’s disappearance, was somehow to blame:

Julián’s kidnapping, said my uncle grasping me by an arm, has to do with you and these papers. [. . .] Worse still, he added in a serious voice, looking me in the eyes, we could say that you are in part guilty of what happened to Julián. No, not in part, he corrected himself, you are the sole reason why my son is disappeared. Why the Hell did you have to come and screw us over, if we were at peace here. (112)

In the insistent chain of reasons and causes, the narrator suddenly finds himself bound fast. Like everyone else, he is unknowingly responsible in a world in which agency is everything, because you have to be continually on your toes, even as it is steadily annuled by force of circumstance. As Damiana Caraveo observes, “When things are going to happen, there’s no way to stop them” (17). Caught up in what is repeatedly described as a “nightmare,” Rascón Banda comes to partake in a generalized condition of responsibility without power, guilt without either intent or the possibility of redemption.

At the end of the book the final vignette is a coda, written (we are told) three months after the narrator has left town, having departed only by the skin of his teeth as his driver ran a roadblock and soldiers fired on their car. With his right hand in a cast, he has to write with his left, telling anyone who asks about his injuries that he’s been bitten by a caterpillar, “the kind they have in the Sierra” (208). Meanwhile he receives another letter from his mother, this one much less sanguine than the one that originally invited him home for rest and uninterrupted writing. “I don’t want you to set foot in this town again,” she says. “Here nobody knows who is who. [. . .] Damiana Caraveo is right when she says that you look like a narco or a policeman, which in any case is the same thing. What’s more, you dress like them. It’s not worth you running the risk.” Finally, she tells her son to “Forget what you saw and heard here. Pretend that it was nothing more than a bad dream” (209). And in response the narrator tells us that he “will burn everything that I wrote in Santa Rosa, that’s what I promised my mother” (210).

What is more, it seems that the person who commissioned the screenplay that first motivated the journey north does not much like it: he wanted a love story, rather than a narco revenge narrative. The playscript finds better success: the piece will be put on in Mexico City’s chic Zona Rosa, with a mechanical scenography that will produce “real waves” that the audience can actually touch. Yet the narrator hardly believes this will happen: “They say that in the theatre, plans fall through and never become reality” (211). So Rascón Banda ends the book telling us that, so he can “forget Santa Rosa,” all that remains is for him to type up (literally, “mechanize”; “pasar a máquina”) the lyrics of the corridos that will be played in the show. As Sophie Esch observes, “The man of letters is no longer a writer, just a copyist” (“In the Crossfire: Rascón Banda’s Contrabando and the ‘Narcoliterature’ Debate in Mexico” 172). The rest is silence. Except that the last word takes us back to the book’s title and the sequence starts up once more, like some hellish Groundhog Day replaying the dissolution of the letrado subject in the webs of drug war violence.

In the end, Rascón Banda does and does not keep his narrator’s promise to his mother (and himself) to forget all he has seen and burn all he has written in Santa Rosa. The manuscript of Contrabando won the prestigious Juan Rulfo prize for a first novel in 1991. Yet the book was not published for almost two decades, until after its author’s death in 2008. By the time it belatedly appeared, at the height of President Felipe Calderón’s ill-conceived war on the cartels, the level of drug violence in Mexico had exponentially increased, and the scale of the killing was such that it could no longer be ignored or denied. Perhaps stories like Damiana Caraveo’s could finally be told and find an audience. Or perhaps it is that now the entire country finds itself in the bind of disempowered responsibility that Rascón Banda describes, caught in a deadly cycle of causes and consequences that has no clear endpoint.