Among the Lost, by Emiliano Monge

Trigger warning for references to rape and torture.

Emiliano Monge’s Among the Lost (solidly translated by Frank Wynne) is a challenging read. I’ll admit that I considered giving up on this book because it was so harrowing, especially since it contains excerpts from people who have been taken by coyotes and human traffickers in Central America. But I felt like I owed it to the victims to listen by finishing the book. So many people didn’t survive to tell their stories. Monge’s novel shows the perspective of two human traffickers, Epitafio and Estela, and floods readers with information that we have to piece together to figure out what’s going on as one of their runs turns into an apocalyptic disaster.

Among the Lost opens in a jungle clearing that some call the Eye of Grass, but that the human traffickers call the Shooting Gallery. A group of people are terrorized by gunfire—which gets them to drop their belongings so that the traffickers partners can steal them—before being loaded into trucks and taken north. This scene sets the pattern for the rest of the book. The “cargo” is repeatedly dehumanized and brutalized while Epitafio and Estela grow even more paranoid than usual about their relationship and their supposed “allies.” More often than not, the book reads like an ultra-dark version of a soap opera because Epitafio and Estela are much more concerned about their love for each other than anything else; their “cargo” is nothing more than a burden to be sold to a series of monsters before they reach the American border. On top of this, Epitafio’s subordinate is plotting against the pair with an old enemy to take over the “business.” (I’m using scare quotes because these are definitely not the right words for any of the characters and events of the book.)

The US-Mexico border between San Diego and Tijuana. (Image via Wikicommons)

The more I read, the more I felt like I was experiencing a form of Stockholm Syndrome. Because I was getting the story mostly from the perspective of Epitafio and Estela (who have suffered in their lives), I started to sympathize with them. I had to constantly remind myself what they were doing to the people they had taken in the southern jungle. The italicized excerpts from survivors served as important jolts to my budding, unintentional sympathy for the pair of traffickers. Whatever they were going through in their personal lives is no excuse for the things they directly do and indirectly cause to be done to their victims.

Among the Lost hit me from two directions. On the one side, I had to push through the victim statements about the horrors they were subjected to. On the other, I had to deal with my unsettled feelings for the main characters. Because I was caught in the middle of this, I ended up thinking about nothing more than the humans that are caught up in human trafficking. I wondered about what might lead people to go through this to try and go north. I wondered about how people become human traffickers and can grow so callous to their fellow human beings. I wondered about how to short circuit the whole thing so that no one ever has to go through this ever again. There are no answers to these questions in Among the Lost. If anything, the book makes it clear that human trafficking is a cycle. Anytime the perpetrators are taken out of the system, either through arrest or death, someone will step into their place. I saw in the publisher’s description of Among the Lost that it references or echoes Dante’s Inferno. I can absolutely agree that, like the Inferno, this book should also come with the warning, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

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