A man sleeps as he travels by bus towards the city of Paracuán, Mexico. In a nightmare a stranger visits him, delivering the following cryptic message: “Isn’t it true that in the life of every man there are five black minutes?” From the opening passage of this enigmatic debut novel, The Black Minutes, Martin Solares establishes a dark premise about the dangerous fate awaiting the inhabitants of Paracuán.
In Solares’ fictitious Paracuán—“the city so small and with such murky depths”—it is impossible to escape the legacy of violence and corruption. From the chief of the municipal police, to a journalist seeking to uncover hidden truths, Paracuán’s townsmen live in constant fear that death awaits them at any wrong turn. Solares effectively combines literary styles in a surreal approach to the crime-fiction genre, and in doing so touches poignantly on the real, the subconscious and the imagined. Just recently released in English translation, the story is sure to resonate across borders through its exploration into the universal depths of human psychology, and the challenges of a society haunted by the legacy of corruption and the volatile politics of survival.
When young journalist Bernado Blanco is discovered dead, investigation into his death unearths inconsistencies regarding a murder case that was supposedly closed twenty years earlier. Thus the story unfolds across these two periods in time, and is told through the various accounts of Paracuán’s inhabitants. An inefficient police force, questionable municipal government, and sensationalist newspaper reporters form the largely corrupted social system of Paracuán; however, the narrative most closely follows the ill-fated detectives assigned to the case—Ramón Cabrera, Vicente Rangel and Dr. Alfonso Cuarón—as they attempt to track down a serial killer nicknamed the ‘Jackal’ and end up fighting for their own lives in the process.
In “Book 1” we meet detective Ramón Cabrera. Described as “a macho pig” by his wife, the detective is completely consumed by playing politics, but ultimately answers to the chief of the police. Just as Cabrera begins to uncover promising leads, the chief pulls the case from him. Shortly thereafter, Cabrera is hospitalized when a pickup truck crashes by no coincidence into his car. This is the first of many instances where the detectives’ attempts to find the murderer only leads them into the path of a more sinister and powerful adversary.
After Cabrera’s hospitalization, we go back to the original 1970s investigation assigned to Vicente Rangel, a musician turned detective who wants most of all to leave the force. Rangel goes from one gruesome murder scene to the next, and instantly gets caught up in the muddy politics of the investigation. He is soon harangued by the insatiable local media, like the crime-beat reporter Johnny Guerrero, whose sensationalist coverage of the case only serves to exacerbate the situation. In one article the reporter claims that “the authority’s ineptness is what laid foundation for the Jackal to emerge,” and in doing so, blames the corrupt system of Paracuán for the very occurrences of the violence. Guerrero’s commentary of the situation urges the reader to question if the reporter is right. Is all this violence just a reflection of the system itself? It seems what Solares is ultimately saying is that yes, it is.
The constant friction between the police and the local media around issues of violence exemplifies the context in which the murders have occurred, and is a compelling reflection of the challenges in present day Mexico where corruption and sensationalism have constantly thwarted the efforts to abate the drug wars. The Black Minutes is a portrait of ordinary citizens struggling against this dynamic. In one of the most memorable exchanges in the novel, even police officer Vicente Rangel laments about this to the seasoned criminologist Dr. Alfonso Cuarón: “Sometimes I don’t know why we’re in this, if everything is going against us.” “Perk up,” Dr. Cuarón responds. “Sometimes the isolated actions of an individual can change the society at large. That’s what I said to him,” Cuarón tells the reader, “and I still regret it. Enthusiasm can provoke delusions.”
As Solares’ characters are caught in the incessant battle between hope for social change and the disappointment of trying to do good (and failing), the only solace that they have is in dreams of escape from the system. But escape can only be achieved by obtaining more power and money, which of course only serves to perpetuate the cycle. The detectives live with this guilt, this hopelessness, and as the pressure of the relentless murder cases rise and the politics of corruption grow more complicated, it is only through the subconscious that some sense of tangibility can be found.
In Latin American literature, mysticism’s place alongside daily life has come to be largely known as Magical-Realism, with authors such as Gabriel García Márquez approaching the fantastic with the clarity that they approach the mundane. While Solares’ writing may be reflective of this literary approach, surreal and obscure passages in the novel, occurring in the characters’ unconscious and dream-states, are mostly used uniquely as a device for character illumination. Take a passage leading up to the pickup truck crash—the attempt to scare detective Ramón Cabrera off the case:
Cabrera couldn’t move. For a second, he was under the impression that there was an argument going on in his head, but then he looked in the rearview mirror and saw that no, he wasn’t the one arguing, it was two girls sitting in the backseat: a dark-skinned girl and a redhead. The first girl, the morena, was saying, Here comes the pickup, we gotta move…
Characters in The Black Minutes don’t arrive at conclusions through the rational or the logical; instead they must go to the depths of their unconscious to escape the confusion of a corrupt system. One ‘Aha’ moment that gives Rangel a lead on the case comes to him in an alcohol-induced ardent dream where his dead uncle appears to him in the guise of a monkey. Similarly, it is in one of the most captivating and surreal passages in the novel that Dr. Alfonso Cuarón comes to grips with death while the reader discovers Cuarón has successfully solved the case. Brought on by the police force to aid the investigation, the criminologist Cuarón quickly uncovers the truth, but is poisoned before he can disclose this to anyone. In the passage we at first believe him to be still alive, but realism soon diverges into a dream-like sequence with the presence of a stranger following him through the streets of Mexico. Dr. Cuarón confronts the stranger in a panic: “Two minutes,” he says, “just give me two minutes, and you’ll know what really happened”—but it’s too late; the stranger tells Dr. Cuarón he is already dead. It is through passages such as these that Solares explores the multiple layers of life, and it is in these alternate realms of existence where the characters ultimately find meaning and an escape from perpetual violence.
In all its cryptic twists, conclusions are never black and white in this story, but must be largely inferred by the reader. This ambiguity may leave some readers a little lost in the complexities of the narrative; however, I suspect most will find it a daring debut, compelling in its dramatic plot and its topical exploration of the struggles of Mexican life.
It may take generations of detectives and a myriad of deaths to track down just one murderer within a corrupted system, but in the end Solares ties all the pieces together in a satisfying crime-fiction conclusion. Of course, the Jackal’s identity is finally revealed, but you could find yourself turning the last page—like this reader did—with the feeling that this is hardly the point: the future for these cursed inhabitants of Paracuán is far more ambiguous.