Illegal, I propose to read this book in an unusual manner



Illegal, Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant; José Ángel N.; UIC Press, 115 pp.




I propose to read this book in an unusual manner. Although it is presented as a retelling based entirely on true facts, let us try to read it as if it were fiction. Choosing this path is not difficult: it is known that memory transforms what has been lived, just as it recovers the debris of the past to create a new reality. It is also known that to write a book like this, the author selects certain facts, ideas, and narrative structures in his eagerness to bring order to where chaos reigns. There is nothing more natural than the symbiotic coexistence of memory and imagination. The imagination doesn’t lie; it sums, adds, gives relevance to a reality that otherwise would not go beyond the scope of a copy. The best personal testimonies are precisely those in which the author himself becomes a character, a sort of archetype that transcends the circumstances of his narrow, individual reality. José Ángel, it seems to me, is precisely that: a character. To create that character the author of Illegal has carefully selected aspects of his life and his being, and he described them in such a way that his truth is no longer the narrow truth of objective testimony, but the greater truth of literary work. In the best memories there exists not only what we were and what we are; the embodiment of a secret dream peers out from the shadows, a lookalike that wistfully covers the simplicity of our unimaginative being.


IllegalIt doesn’t surprise me that in one of the most brilliant parts of the book, José Ángel compares himself to Yanko Goorall, the endearing character of Joseph Conrad’s story Amy Foster. Like Yanko, José Ángel arrives in a country that doesn’t correspond at all to the country of his dreams. Both march toward an idyllic America, generous with the humble ambitions of immigrants from around the world. But they arrive in hostile territory that permits them to live, to work, and even to marry, without ever fully accepting them. As in the case of José Ángel, the fundamental problem for Yanko at the beginning of his adventure is the language. Coming from a small European country, a castaway who stops at a backward and prejudiced English village, Yanko is like a newborn, hurled from the belly of the sea with no more talent than the basic instinct of survival. His words, to the villagers, are mysterious mutterings, sounds that evoke madness or evil. José Ángel’s helplessness is similar: at first he doesn’t speak, he mutters, and his shaky dialect suggests another territory of transgression: illegality. Grand, the official who humiliates José Ángel is not so dissimilar from those villagers that see something demonic in the vitality of Yanko Goorall; he lacks the spiritual openness that allows him to find  the possibilities for mutual enrichment in their differences.


Perhaps the most remarkable in N.’s book is the presence of English as a recurring topic. In many parts of the book it appears as an instrument of self-improvement. However, in the moments when the character delves into his experience, English stays stripped of its utilitarian nature and becomes the obsession of an individual with literary sensibility. José Ángel really wants to learn English, but not like the majority of us. What he is looking for is an intimate relationship with his new language, not to merely learn it. He doesn’t just try to learn new words, syntax, idioms, and slang. He tries to learn the impossible: the pulse, the physical heartbeat, the outward appearance of the language that emerges only from phonetic relations. He tries, in short, to feel the new language like a living entity, and not just as a simple instrument. This is evident in the moments when English becomes the subject of a lyrical discourse. José Ángel confesses his desire to succeed in having the words flow from his mouth like “honey.” That is to say, with a precise rhythm, with neither the rush of water nor the slowness of mud; without the mistakes of a foreign accent. Fluency is sweetness, sensual harmony, the ideal consummation of an amorous encounter between a sensitive immigrant and his new language. The love that establishes an intimate relationship with words, as much in English as in Spanish, appears in an apparently trivial conversation that happens in the final pages of the book. After a brief exchange with his wife regarding the word “leafy,” José Ángel screams this word, leafy, emphasizing each syllable, in front his daughter’s shaken face, with that transparency of soul with which Yanko Goorall spoke to his little baby in the language of his ancestors. José Ángel, however, is more fortunate: Dawn is not Amy Foster.




Another constant in the book is philosophy. It does not, however, deal with it as a supporting element, as the pages dedicated to the university of Lake Forest deceitfully suggest, wherein the narrator, contemplating the grayness of the evening, imagines that the undefined ambiance is ideal for understanding the ambiguities of German philosophy. No, philosophy descends from its abstract Olympus and accomplishes the simple task of enlightening the existence of an anonymous man, offering myths, metaphors, principles, and ideas, which José Ángel appropriates to explain the singularity of his circumstances. As soon as he crosses the border, the man transforms into a phantom: he is how a resident of Plato’s cave, prevented from accessing not the world of ideas, but the concrete world of cultural, political, and financial transactions, simply because he lacks voice, vote, and capital. The Platonic duality is used by José Ángel to denote the wall that defines his life with all the power of myths, and his life becomes a permanently dilemmatic course, plagued with oppositions: cave-open sky, darkness-light, UIC-Lake Forest, kitchen-dining room, Spanish-English, Mexico-United States. And the wall is always in the middle, like an insurmountable obstacle that impedes the free flow of being.


human-conditionThe only way to leave the cave is by learning English. To migrate is not only to conquer a territory; it is also to conquer a language. The narrator transforms the Cartesian formula to synthesize the moment of such a revelation: “Thus out of a pressing need to exist I realized, in a very Cartesian fashion, that first I must learn to speak, and only then could I be.” To remain stuck in Spanish, like the family members who offer him asylum in Chicago, is a conformist and limiting option, a way to prolong the past. The rational, Cartesian decision is to be born again, here and now: to learn to walk – and speak – until finding the light that waits outside the hole. The turn to Descartes is doubly significant. In the arduous task of constructing his own method, the French philosopher raised a wall between his past and his future. All that he learned, in school, at university, in his home, was validated, while his reasoning lacked the strength necessary to become independent; with maturity, the moment had arrived to question the inherited wisdom, doubting everything from the ground up. In Illegal, the narrator longs for his past, but he senses it saturated with innocence; he sees, then, the need to grow, to migrate not only in terms of territory, but also in terms of conscience. His journey becomes an existential exploration, and the dream that in principle seems limited to material aspirations, widens and now encompasses the promise of a cultural heritage that knows no borders.


Descartes defines the starting point of hope. Pascal opens the path to disillusion. Overwhelmed by the obstacles that all the undocumented find in American society – the humiliations to which they are subjected by authority, the semi-clandestine life, the constant terror that involves using false documents almost daily, the impossibility of accepting jobs that require travel – oblige the narrator to objectively evaluate his new circumstances:

“In a strange twist of irony, this last descent of mine started simultaneously with my climb toward the American middle class. Pulled in both directions, I have become a hybrid creature of darkness and hope, one who can scratch the heights of prosperity but who remains permanently rooted in misfortune… Blaise Pascal wrote that all the problems of a man come as a result of his inability to sit quietly at home. I felt a bittersweet sensation of guilt and satisfaction. If it was true that in leaving Mexico I had summoned all the want, humiliation, and gloom that surrounded me, then it was also true that staying put in Chicago would spare me the remaining evils of the universe…Going forward, Pascal’s maxim would be my guiding principle.”



Pascal’s original text is much more than a maxim, and is focused primarily on the torments of conscience and self-absorption that harass precisely the man who knows to stay at home, totally still. The narrator of Illegal transfers the abstract concepts of Pascal to a palpable world, susceptible to being geographically corroborated. As in Pascal’s text, the absence of displacement does not guarantee a truce; anxiety and material problems continue multiplying, in the room as well as in Chicago. Life teaches José Ángel that Pascal’s principle is paradoxical: one must flee, one must move, in search of the “remaining badness of the universe,” as though the only way to ward them off is by making them take the blame.




As with all interesting stories, José Ángel’s is a story of a failure that in its intimacy has something of triumph. José Ángel is still illegal, despite marrying an American citizen and having a daughter with her. Immigration law reform is a remote illusion, and José Ángel remains stuck in a sort of limbo: an invisible city where memory of the past and anguish of the future converge, a point where English and Spanish, disillusion and hope, intersect. But that useless decision to study philosophy and literature, to penetrate English beyond what is strictly necessary, has a moral reward whose proof is this book. Language is, before everything, a transporter of culture.  As soon as one reads Emerson in its original language, one forgets that language is a tool for social advancement. The seduction has begun, and now there is fortunately no way back. I suspect that this is the profound reason for which this book is written in English. Unlike those trained writers who learn to write in English with the ultimate goal of establishing a methodical distance with respect to one’s origin and native language, José Ángel penetrates the labyrinth of language with the curiosity and enthusiasm of a child. His choice of English is not, as he himself on many occasions has thought, a cold and rational decision. It is more an act of love and faith.


Review written in Spanish by Marco Antonio Escalante, member of the Editorial Counsel of contratiempo and author of the book Malabarismos del tedio. 
Translated to the English language by Kate O’Brien, M.A. candidate in Writing and Publishing at DePaul University.

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