The themes and images found in Julián Herbert’s “The House of the Pain of Others: Chronicle of a Small Genocide” will be familiar to most American readers in 2019: a persecuted immigrant community, tensions on a long national border and eruptions of shocking violence. Yet the events that Herbert describes in his book may be unfamiliar to most American readers: He chronicles what he refers to in the book’s subtitle (and throughout) as “a small genocide”: the 1911 killing of more than 300 Chinese immigrants in the Mexican city of Torreón.
Herbert meticulously describes the societal circumstances that led to this, from the Mexican government’s policies regarding immigration at the time to the civil war raging within the country which further inflamed tension in various communities. And he also incorporates a literary component to his work, including discussion of how the killings have been written about in various histories over the past century.
Herbert also includes a thorough reading of Francisco Luis Urquizo Benavides’ 1937 novel “The Old Troops,” which drew on the author’s own recollection of contemporary events to provide something close to a firsthand perspective on the moods and violence surrounding them.
As readers familiar with Herbert’s earlier book, the 2011 novel “Tomb Song,” may recall, Herbert has a propensity for unique structures. Here, too, he weaves together several temporal strands, looking at the historical events and his own efforts to determine how they are remembered in Torreón — if they’re remembered at all.
Early on, Herbert refers to his book as “an ambiguous story, a stylized cross section of history that would bring together the events of the past, and the dents they have left in the present (and in me).”
This approach also incorporates other aspects of the region’s history and culture — the book’s title, for instance, references a nickname for the stadium housing local soccer team Santos Laguna.
This is a frequently chilling read, given Herbert’s descriptions of the casual racism that befell many Chinese immigrants (to Mexico and the United States) in the years before the massacre, and in his description of a city whose residents are often unwilling to reckon with their city’s history.
And while his book is very much about a specific series of events, Herbert never loses sight of the larger implications of this behavior, or the way in which it echoes across nations and cultures.
Late in the book, he makes this clear, writing, “Repressing (and even eliminating) a particular group within the population, under the pretext of serving the public good and law and order, is nothing more (even when it has to do with criminals) than a schizophrenic illusion: the surreptitious legalization of chaos.”
“The House of the Pain of Others” stands as memorial and warning, and its reach crosses borders and oceans.
Tobias Carroll is the editor of Vol. 1, Brooklyn.