A History of Violence


Writing history is a tricky business, one that always reflects the biases and agendas of the author. This holds doubly true for what is not written about, those historical events that almost everyone would rather ignore. Few people are familiar with the events of May 1911 in the La Laguna region of Mexico, when the Maderistas, a group of revolutionaries, took the city of Torreón and slaughtered more than three hundred Chinese immigrants. The Maderistas mutilated their victims’ bodies, looted their businesses, and destroyed what had once been a vibrant enclave.

This “small genocide,” as novelist Julián Herbert calls it, has only intermittently held the interest of historians. When they have turned to the subject, it has often been with an exculpatory agenda. In Juan Puig’s now-canonical 1992 history, Between the Perla and the Nazas Rivers, for example, he reiterates the officially accepted interpretation: The attack was spontaneous, was carried out by the lower classes, and had nothing to do with any tradition of xenophobia in the region. “It is a thesis with which I disagree,” writes Herbert, in something of an understatement, toward the beginning of his new book, The House of the Pain of Others.

This disagreement fuels Herbert’s attempt to find the truth of the massacre, which he first heard about as a child in La Laguna courtesy of a friend’s misleading, gossipy account, related amid “reports on . . . soccer games, tabloid scandals, and stories involving corpses.” He began his search in 2012, when a new edition of Puig’s book was published. “My intention was to write a review,” Herbert recalls, “a thousand words at most. I soon discovered I had too much information and, more importantly, too many different opinions.”

In the end, he decided that a hybrid form was necessary to treat the massacre, and its historiography, in all its complexity. Herbert was inspired by a five-hundred-year-old Mexican form called the crónica, which is, in the author’s words, a mishmash of “literature and journalism, objectivity and subjectivity.” According to professor of Mexican literature Beth E. Jörgensen, crónicas “have always expressed a critical view of society, of the government, the army, or the Church. [The crónistas] could evade censorship and express criticism that other writers couldn’t publish in other media.” A form strongly associated with political and social activism, known for offering up a shadow history of its country’s tumultuous past, the crónica is a natural fit for Herbert’s project.

If The House of the Pain of Others is a work of history, then, it’s a self-aware one, more crónica than objective report. The narrative is filtered through Herbert’s distinct sensibility, one that reveals how stories of the past are actually written—subjectively, provisionally, influenced by the sheer randomness of experience. After the book’s early sections—an exploration of the culture of La Laguna and a discussion of the author’s methodology—the bulk of the remainder is an exhaustive and heavily researched retelling of the events leading up to the massacre. These chapters are occasionally broken up by short sections that detail, for instance, Herbert’s conversations with cabdrivers or his experience teaching a workshop about confronting the legacy of violence.

Herbert gives us his view on the events, but doesn’t insist that it is necessarily the correct one. He always refers the reader back to the original sources. In the middle of his account of the attack, Herbert pauses to note that historians do not always have access to a trove of irrefutable evidence; sometimes they must make do with what is available. He continues:

The declarations that speak of greatest cruelty [during the massacre] don’t come from eyewitnesses but hearsay; yet they are so numerous, appear at such an early stage, and coincide in so many details, it would be irresponsible to discount them. Some are probably exaggerated, but it’s also indisputable that many of the Chinese were humiliated and mutilated.

Although this approach would not pass muster with professional historians, Herbert shows that there is still much to be gleaned from hearsay. If nondefinitive sources provide enough consistent circumstantial evidence, and that is the best evidence we have, then Herbert believes it is the chronicler’s responsibility to draw on it.

Late in the book, Herbert brings himself into the action. Relating the escape of Dr. Walter J. Lim, he notes that the image of Lim fleeing in his car, surrounded by armed men, was “one of the first images of the massacre to be stamped in my memory. I wrote this book like someone attempting to restore a frame from an old film reel.” If most historians remain cagey about their agendas, then Herbert aims for greater transparency, and yet he still leaves the reader unsure of his exact motivations.

Through the stories in The House of the Pain of Others, the genocide begins to seem inevitable, the result of an unholy alliance between a fiercely chauvinistic culture, a thriving foreign population, and a violent revolutionary uprising. Such a situation, Herbert makes clear, is not confined to the early twentieth century. The book ends with an image of Herbert and his family crossing the rickety, vertigo-inducing Ojuela Bridge, which the author is quick to turn into a metaphor. “Holding hands, it was not a city Mónica, Leonardo, and I traversed that day,” he writes, “not La Laguna, not a small genocide, not the Ojuela Bridge: it was the bridge of horrors. And its name is Mexico.” Can Herbert’s story of a “small genocide” stand in for an entire nation? It would take another book to really make that case. For the present volume, rewriting history—or writing something close to the truth for the first time—is more than enough.

Andrew Schenker lives in upstate New York.