Fernando A. Flores was born in Mexico and grew up in South Texas. His debut novel, Tears of the Trufflepig, is set in the borderlands between the USA and Mexico. It is dedicated to “all the disappeared.” This sets us up for a story that is post-apocalyptic in a way I haven’t really come across before outside Philip K. Dick’s work, and always highly political. This is even, and maybe especially, true of its depiction of the little details of its characters’ private lives and how they are being invaded by restrictive policies and their enforcement. The story is set in the very near future, approximately 5 years from now, which we can deduce from the fact that a character who is described as being thirty-three years old (p. 101) says that he was born in Yugoslavia (p. 105), and from other aspects of the worldbuilding. There are now two border walls between the USA and Mexico, lining the Rio Grande on both banks. A third wall is in the process of being approved despite continuing immigration and “zero positive results” since the construction of the first one (p. 191). In addition to installing a heavily armed border police force called the Border Protectors, the US government is actively encouraging its citizens to hunt down any and all refugees:
[I]f you’re a person with a gun standing here, and see somebody trying to cross in this little valley between the two border walls, you can pick them off, like the immigrant is a plastic duck at a carnival game. It’s not at all against the law. Even if you’re not a Border Protector. Any American citizen could do it. A colleague of mine wrote a report, about how Arizona gives tax breaks for people killing immigrants trying to come here. (p. 277)
In the foreground of all of this, Flores is telling a story that plays out in the everyday spaces of the people who live in the borderlands, who cross the border multiple times a day for business or cheap outlet shopping, who frequent the small diners and bodegas, and who converse fluently and casually in what the author calls “border Spanglish” (p. 62). In the face of economic collapse, they work too many jobs in order to save their families from encroaching debt (p. 57). Many of them are uncertain about their legal status. Even when mistreated, they are afraid of calling the authorities for fear of being deported (p. 62; p. 74). They have little altars in their houses to honour their ancestors and departed loved ones (p. 48), they read each other’s fortunes from tarot cards (p. 67), tea leaves, or coffee grounds (p. 69), and they try and work the land to be able to survive in what’s becoming more and more a dying Earth reality. While the numbers of natural animals and plants are decreasing, cheap vegetables are being created in laboratories by a process called “filtering” (p. 21). (One such method, which is described as the most effective way to filter fruits, vegetables, and animals, is referred to as the Rosokhovatsky Filtering Method [p. 164], a reference to Ukrainian SF writer Igor Rosokhovatsky, who among other things wrote about artificial brains, but more often about how people are separated from each other in a capitalist society.)
The scientific method of filtering seems to largely be controlled by criminal cartels, who—while claiming that they only provide jobs, “something this country has promised and never delivered” (p. 24)—abduct scientists and force them to create artificial short-span life, so that after a few weeks of maturing, fur, horns, beaks, or whatever brings the most money in, can be harvested. The only consequence this seems to have on an international level is that laws are passed that “the filtering sciences can only be used to harvest vegetables and fruit, and no human has the right to play God” (p. 25). This obviously does nothing to stop the illegal production of rare pets and animal products. The synthetic nature of the product sources reinforces some of the main effects of consumer capitalism—alienation of the worker from their product, alienation of the worker from the act of production, alienation from their Gattungswesen (“species-essence”) and from other workers—which Karl Marx categorises under the umbrella term of “the worker’s alienation from their humanity” (in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 ). Indeed, animal and human rights seem to count as nothing, as shrunken heads of indigenous people appear on the international black market, sold as conversation pieces to rich white collectors (p. 35). They have to be “harvested” from people while they are still alive (p. 141). People disappear all the time, implicitly for dissent, or to provide more forced labour for the cartels, or for being more valuable dead.
As the character introduced as Tcheco (later identified as the investigative journalist Paco Herbert—by profession also part of the big repression-machine, but evidently a person who retains some of their humanity) observes, drawing a parallel back to Marx and the alienation of the consumer from the product and the work that produces it.
I bet those people look at a shrunken head and can’t even imagine that it was once a living, breathing human, with desires and loves. That poor cook back there knows he’s worth more with his head cut off and sold on the black market, with a plaque of authenticity and everything, than being a slave here, working in kitchens, sending money back home to his mother and father, and probably wife and kids, too. Hoping it makes a difference. Meanwhile, in his village, all the young people keep vanishing. Either to be slaves up here, or slaves for the syndicates, or killed by the syndicates, or lost as shrunken heads […]. (p. 94)
But people appear without official reason too: There are reports that the long-disappeared Aranaña people have reappeared after four hundred years, allegedly emerging from a hidden tunnel in a place called the Ballí Desert (p. 192). Speaking neither English nor Spanish, they are labelled immigrants, but they have arrived from within the country, which was their home before any of its contemporary inhabitants turned up. Nobody knows why the Aranaña have returned, or from where exactly. Is it because of some ancient prophecy? Is it because of the end of the world? Or have they, as subtly implied here and there, been manufactured, “filtered,” like they tried (and increasingly succeeded in) filtering extinct and potentially even mythical animals?
As Herbert remarks to our protagonist Esteban Bellacosa, “Well, here now, we no longer need machines, vivisection, or whatever it’s called. Here, we watch men just naturally become beasts. It’s no miracle of science, either. Maybe a miracle of nature. We see people every day just turn into beasts. Exceptions get more and more rare by the day, exceptions like you and me, Bellacosa” (p. 18). After this, accompanied by a well-placed direct reference to H. G. Wells’’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, Bellacosa “looked down at his bowl of soup like it was a steaming tortoise on its back” (p. 19). This can easily be interpreted as a reference to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which, much more than its screen adaptation Blade Runner, focuses on synthetic animals as commodities and status symbols. And indeed, as implicitly suggested by Herbert, Bellacosa would pass the Voight-Kampff test: out of empathy he’d put the metaphorical tortoise back on its feet. He is shown to stand up to a group of bullies who treat a diner waitress like their personal property and sexually harass her, pointing out to the bullies that disrespecting a woman also means disrespecting themselves (p. 181), even though he is clearly outnumbered and quickly overpowered as well. He also makes a point of getting back out of his car to put out a still-burning cigarette butt, thus removing a wildfire hazard (p. 70f).
In a side-plot development, Bellacosa’s estranged brother Oswaldo turns up at his house, suspended between life and death after escaping an attempt to turn him into a shrunken head artifact. (The stream-of-consciousness account of his flight from the syndicate [p. 79f] is one of the most spectacular passages of the novel and reads much like Thomas Pynchon.) The process wasn’t completed but cannot be reversed. In addition to illustrating the atrocity of turning live humans into collectible conversation pieces, this provides a hint at the Bellacosa brothers’ cultural origins, since “[o]nly a pure-blooded Aranaña native could be involved in the process, if the shrunken head was to have any street market value” (p. 269). Neither of them ever brings this up. In fact, we have observed that Bellacosa perceives people as people first, and only likes or dislikes them based on their behaviour.
Putting aside old differences and grudges, Bellacosa’s reaction to his brother’s crisis is to give the Grail Knight’s reply: “I’m very sorry about everything, Oswaldo. Tell me what I can do” (p. 144). Over and over again he proves that he is the example that potentially saves and absolves humankind. Like Flores points out again and again in various versions, “[i]t wasn’t some monster or cheap science-fiction alien conquest, but people creating all the horror, enslaving one another at all cost in a world where more and more syndicates and absolute power reigned supreme” (p. 128). But as long as there are people like Bellacosa, and by extension like Herbert (who, it is alluded on p. 296, may be writing or have written this novel or a fictional version of it inside the story), all is not lost. There is still space for hope and optimism.
The real thriller-like part of the story starts to take shape when Herbert asks Bellacosa to come along to one of his journalism gigs: an invite-only underground dinner for the rich and privileged. It is said that at these events the haute-cuisine dishes served up are prepared from filtered extinct animals. Bellacosa, using the same logic as Goethe does in the prologue to Faust (i.e., the Devil having been created by God, the Devil’s deeds only end up serving God’s will), argues, “If you think about it, we are God-made. You and me. Humans. Everyday people. Even these people in the filtering syndicates. So even if they are creating these animals artificially through filtering, then God, he has a hand in that, too. The animals have to be God-made as well. Wouldn’t you think so?” (p. 111)
At the diner, among other things they are being served dodo meat, which reminds Bellacosa “of American children name-calling one another.” A young white girl at the diner has brought along a filtered pet: a Trufflepig, later identified as a creature from Aranaña mythology, el cerdo de los sueños, the pig of dreams (p. 160). It is described as a curious chimera: “it looked like a pig with tiny ears, but it acted very doglike […]. A slurping, salivating tongue hung out of its mouth, which was actually a beak, like a chicken’s or rooster’s. It had the dark green skin of a crocodile […]” (p. 115). And it really likes carrots (p. 116). It also produces milky tears, which in the course of the plot (Naked Lunch reference or not) could be interpreted as hallucinogenic (albeit in very ambiguous contexts).
On a side note, the posh white girl at the dinner provides a great example for the thoughtless harm inflicted by the privileged when she decides that her pet is a “she,” as if gender could be assigned from the outside. Laughing, she adds, “No, I don’t believe they have a sex, actually. She just seems very girlish to me. Look at her. How happy she is. Such a sweetie” (p. 116).
This brief encounter with a potentially filtered dream-pig deeply connected with the cultural and spiritual history of the lost-and-returned Aranañas—according to obscure historical texts every one of them has their own personal Trufflepig, which they have to find and retrieve from the dreamworld, which is said to be one and the same with our reality—quickly spirals into a hallucinogenic suspense-story. Bellacosa is kidnapped, drugged, and connected to a Trufflepig, “the shepherd of dreams” (p. 291), with electrodes, escapes cartel killers with the Trufflepig under his arm, and sees glimpses of what really is being filtered in secret warehouses. And the reader has plenty of occasion to speculate about the origins of the Aranaña, the Trufflepig, and even Bellacosa himself. Flores never ties all the threads, never gives us full explicit answers, even about the nature of dream and reality. There are various ways to interpret what befalls our protagonist(s), and we’re provided with all the necessary tools to choose our explanations, including scientific approaches (even though all we get is a scientific-sounding term to describe what, in a different tradition of SFF, could also be described as magic) and the option that all of the more disturbing and less sense-making visions Bellacosa encounters are the product of hallucination (p. 236). And if, as the Aranaña myth says, dream and reality are one and the same world, then can filtering also draw out things from the collective unconscious? What the Trufflepig can undoubtedly do is draw out things and events from its human’s personal unconscious and send them into a speculative parallel reality—in Bellacosa’s case a world in which his wife and child have never died. The reason that Bellacosa can establish a connection with the Trufflepig may or may not be that he is Aranaña. But the novel invites us to question whether it matters whether Bellacosa is really Aranaña, Mexican, American, or any genetic or legal combination thereof. In the context of what we know about his personality, his statement “I’m an Indian too” (p. 5; p. 194) could also be read as a statement of solidarity with the dispossessed, and the Trufflepig—metaphor or not—is a sign of his lasting humanity. In the end, the reptile dream-pig is a sign of optimism. “[Bellacosa] felt that if a Trufflepig could happen, that anything could happen” (p. 243f).
And instead of clinging to the stale nostalgia of the hallucinated world, Bellacosa finds closure and new strength through the Trufflepig’s dream. He leaves the past in the past and feels more connected to his own life. “Looking into the eyes of the Trufflepig, he saw his daughter, his wife, his entire family, and then the Mexican and American people. And crouching behind all of them was the native Aranaña tribe, always moving toward a singular prophecy” (p. 318). To me this dream-vision vividly recalls Frida Kahlo’s painting The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego, and Señor Xolotl, a powerful work rich in symbolism, with multiple layers of meaning. Above all, it conveys a strong sense of unity and harmony, uniting the various inhabitants of Mexico (and surroundings) in a vast motherly embrace by the personification of their country, even if the Universe’s face seems stoic and uncaring.
In the end, Bellacosa drives towards the Ballí desert, the place from which the Aranaña (his people?) reappeared, with the Trufflepig strapped into the passenger seat. The general atmosphere Flores has built up to is very similar to the ending of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris. We don’t know what is going to happen, and neither does Bellacosa, but he is making a deliberate choice and a deliberate universal affirmation. And the ending of the book closes a circle with a sentence from the very beginning about “the rooms where we are born […] giving birth to us forever” (p. 4). It leaves us with a feeling of hope in the face of atrocity (which always strikes very close to home), and with the sense that it is possible to retain one’s humanity even in a state of constant crisis. Where a Trufflepig is possible, anything is possible.