Two days ago I sat in a tent in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square with 100 other people, listening to a conversation between three Mexicans. One, the moderator, was an artist, Gabriel Orozco, who is Mexico’s leading cultural figure and has helped put together the strand of Mexican writing our festival has brought to Edinburgh this year.
The other two were well-known authors, both of whom have written essays and articles about the dire state of Mexican democracy, and in particular the violence perpetrated on the innocent by both the drug gangs and the Mexican state.
Along with Iraq, we learnt, Mexico is considered the most dangerous place in the world in which to be a journalist. Indeed, one of the two writers, Juan Villoro, described himself as being like a war reporter in his own country.
It’s one thing to hear this and absorb it as an abstract piece of information. It’s quite another to sit within 20 feet of two men whose daily work places them under constant threat of kidnapping, torture and death.
Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, the other writer, who is especially known for his writing about the serial murders of young women in Cuidad Juarez, on the US border, has been kidnapped twice and beaten up so badly that he suffered temporary speech and memory loss. Despite the explicit warnings that accompanied this brutal assault, he continued digging and uncovered links to his attack that implicated the police, politicians and drug lords.
Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez has interviewed many criminals; among them a hitman who specialises in decapitating his living victims with a chainsaw. Sergio knows that he got off lightly, that next time he might not be so lucky, yet he continues to investigate and to write. He knows he can count on no succour from the authorities, yet he continues to write.
And on this same day we learn that on the other side of the world Khaled al-Asaad, the guardian of the ancient Syrian site of Palmyra, has been brutally murdered by Islamic State fighters because he refused to tell them where certain treasures had been hidden. Like Juan Villoro and Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, the octogenarian archaeologist also knew the likely consequences of ignoring his friends’ entreaties to leave and choosing to stay in Palmyra where he had been born and raised.
The question it leaves me with is: where do people such as this find their courage? It seems impossible to me to imagine how a sense of moral outrage and desire for the truth can trump that primordial instinct to turn one’s back and flee from such present and grotesque danger. Thankfully I have never been faced with that choice and with luck never will. Were it ever to come to it, my guess is that I would be found wanting.
And yet both Mexican writers spoke of misericordia, or mercy, and the need to understand fully and deeply the positions of everyone on every side of the ’Mexican inferno’. Times of great turmoil, they agreed, can give rise to great creativity. And in an epoch of extreme violence and brutality, the most radical thing one can do, they said, is to write about love.