by Mike O’Brien
I have joked, mostly to myself, that if I ever wrote a memoir, it would be entitled “Never Gone Nowhere, Never Done Nothing: The Mike O’Brien story”. Such a lifestyle stands in near-total contraposition to that of Belén Fernández, at least in its status quo ante March 2020. Prior to that, she tells us, she had never spent more than a few months in the same place since leaving college. An American who goes to great lengths to avoid ever setting foot in America, she had arrived in Mexico on March 13 with the intention of setting off to yet another destination a few days later. Covid, of course, had other plans.
Her slim but dense (though never plodding) book, “Checkpoint Zipolite”, is a tale of forced stillness that stops her globe-trotting life in its tracks. The titular locale is, we are told, Mexico’s only clothing-optional beach, and carries the ominous and purportedly well-deserved nick-name of “Playa de la muerte“. Of course, mortality stalks around every corner in the age of Covid, so the “Beach of Death” might be as good a place as any to ride out a shelter-in-place-order. From my snowy Canadian suburb, it sounds downright idyllic.
The book is essentially a travel diary, woven through with frequent socio-political rants, personal reflections and historical factoids. There is a buzzing, over-active and effusive character to her life, her mind, and her writing, and when one outlet is blocked, it spills out through another. The repressed desire to travel is apparent in the daily minutiae (buying buckets, searching for yerba mate suppliers, negotiating space-sharing agreements with domestic insects) that serve as jumping-off points for recollections and rhetorical flights that span centuries and continents. Fernández’s life of incessant travel and political observation has provided ample material for weaving such connections, and though these digressions are conspicuous for their ubiquity, they don’t feel over-played. I could imagine many of the cited facts and events being replaced by equally poignant and entertaining substitutions from among Fernández’s own rich supply.
I don’t know if the events are embellished, the characters are dramatized, or the person of the narrator significantly altered from the facts of Fernández’s actual experiences. I don’t care either. The feeling of truth is as good as the real thing, for the purposes of this work.
Her writing is very much marked by style and personality, and as a result the reader’s own tastes will largely determine whether or not this book succeeds as entertainment. My own stylistic biases flip between an appreciation for parsimony, and an admiration of riffing. Fernández’s appeal lies firmly on the side of riffing. If I were giving general writing advice, I would caution against most of what she does- superfluity, double negatives (employed correctly, mind you), adjectival flourishes and a preference for choosing the most polysyllabic word possible to convey a meaning. Ironic and oblique, not in the service of obscurity but rather of playfulness, I got the sense that Fernández amuses herself by these indulgences as much as she hopes to amuse her readers. In the hands of a less gifted writer it would be quite too much, overly ornamented and trying too hard to impress. But in these pages, the style comes across as authentically her own, and the surplus of energy and expression is of a piece with the author’s mind and voice. She probably could write more sparingly while still saying everything she wishes to say, but why have less fun?
The book is thick with political asides, mostly taking aim at the predations of global capitalism, colonialism of the neo- and old-timey varieties, and (proper to its Latin American setting) the U.S.A.’s ongoing history of bloody imperialism-by-proxy. Fernández’s life of travelling and meeting other travellers broadens this punching-up critique beyond America, to Europe, the Middle East, and beyond. Endemic corruption, a staple of every Mexican tale I’ve read (though usually in nastier manifestations, given my penchant for Cormac McCarthy) is also pointed out, though in a more weary and matter-of-fact manner. This was familiar to me, having heard the same tune from my well-travelled friends. As with the indulgences of style, the effect of these political interventions on the reader’s enjoyment will depend on their own tastes. My own political stances are broadly sympathetic to Fernández’s, and I suspect we share some reading habits, so my reading experience was not jarred by reflexive disagreement with any of these organically arising micro-sermons. I also didn’t find them wearisome and cloying, as I often do when sermonized by people whose opinions I share, but whose preaching I do not care to hear (this applies to most attempts at anti-Trump satire of the last 5 years).
Fernández’s frenetic global consciousness subsides as the book goes on and she adjusts to the new normal of social distance and geographical proximity. As her mind settles down and leaps of geography and history become more tethered to her surroundings, the daily affairs that fill the pages become more cohesive and grounded in a world that is not simply referred to but described in amusing detail. Local characters, such as the police and soldiers manning the roadblock outside her house, or the spirited and opinionated beach companion Javier, give the world life and substance, not merely opportunities to recall past events. The need for movement and novelty (and desperately-craved supplies of yerba mate) still strain against orders to Quédate in casa, but the horizon over which Fernández strains to see is now municipal rather than global, and mental wanderings are directed into the future as well as the past.
Being a memoir of a few recent months of life, the book doesn’t come to any logically or emotionally satisfying ending. This is not a fault. In its brief duration, though, it affords a welcome and entertaining view onto a quarantine experience both relatable and exotic, to me at least. In the coming months and years we will, no doubt, be inundated with quarantine diaries penned by legions of cooped-up writers; I can easily recommend Checkpoint Zipolite as a surpassingly enjoyable specimen of this type. Ironically enough, it provides the reader with exactly the kind of brief vacation that Fernández had expected for herself.