Myth of Pterygium
(Autumn House Press, 2022)
According to the jacket blurbs, Myth of Pterygium is a novel. It isn’t. At just 126 pages, it’s a novella. Novels create three-dimensional characters who live in a plausible, often historically accurate, reality. The novella doesn’t work that way. The novella is all subordination: characters personify principles, objects are present only to bring attention to intellectual concerns: nothing intrudes that might distract readers from the play of ideas. In other words, novellas are allegories, where readers find themselves reading two texts simultaneously, one literary, the other conceptual.
Cervantes set the parameters of the genre in the seventeenth century, but the fact is that even the most long-winded novelists (Henry James) succumb to the novella and set aside length, heft, and psychologically complex characters in favor of ideas. From Voltaire’s Candide to Goethe’s Werther, to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, to Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, the novella is a tradition unto itself.
Within the context of Mexican literature—Diego Gerard Morrison is Mexican, and his novella is set in Mexico City—the novella has had a central role. The first text to deal seriously with the consequences of the 1910–1920 revolution, Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs (1915) is a novella, as is Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo (1955) an analysis of tyranny and Mexican history. Rulfo’s short work with its wildly chaotic chronology inaugurates modern Spanish American prose fiction: without Rulfo, García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes would not exist. Myth of Pterygium extends and enhances this tradition and, like those antecedents, deals with specifically Mexican issues.
There is, of course, one problem: Gerard Morrison writes in English. But setting aside that fact along with his book’s bizarre title, his novella is only fully comprehensible within the context of Mexican literature. His skein of references, most especially to Homero Aridjis (b. 1940), environmental activist, poet, and—of course—author of novellas, confirms the Mexican identity of his work.
The single idea Myth of Pterygium explores from several vantage points is infection, especially in its etymological sense of disease and contamination. Pterygium is an eye infection, a growth that begins in the white of the eye and spreads to the cornea. It is usually treated with drops, though in some cases surgery becomes necessary. One cause is pollution, and anyone living in Mexico City is subject to pollution of monstrous proportions. Environmental infection becomes personal in Gerard Morrison’s work. But he goes much further. His poet narrator, afflicted with pterygium, is the son of a widow whose business is arms-dealing. Yet another form of pollution, yet another infection. The ultra-violence of drug cartel ridden Mexican life, the mass murders facilitated by high-tech weapons brought in from the United States, is a sickness which, like pterygium, has no cure. Set against this negative progress—diseases “progress” disastrously—is the pregnancy of the narrator’s wife. Pregnancy itself might be construed as a kind of infection: a foreign body grows within a woman’s body until it makes its exit. But in this case, the “progress” of the fetus comes to symbolize hope for a different future, and Gerard Morrison uses the baby’s birth as his finale, ending his novella on an optimistic note absent from the rest of the text.
From the outset, the narrator finds himself in a precarious situation. His eye is infected, his wife is well into her pregnancy, his work as an editor generates a paltry income. His alternatives are scanty, so he turns to his mother and his younger brother, whose arms business is sanctioned by and dependent on the Mexican government. The success of this family business depends on the good will of politicians and bureaucrats, all of whom must be bribed, corruption being just one more infection plaguing Mexican society. But success in this instance is yet another irony since high sales mean adding to the flood of weapons decimating Mexicans every day.
Throughout Pterygium we are made aware of the environmental disaster called Mexico City. Vision, hampered or not by pterygium, is limited because the air is clogged with contaminants. Gerard Morrison even includes a volcanic eruption, so that his narrator can be covered with ash, his vision further blurred. The here and now of Mexico City is apocalyptic, with death from disease or bullets omnipresent. The future, if there is one, will have to be determined by a new generation, the infant daughter who announces her arrival in the novella’s last sentence:
From the deep ends of the room comes the disarming shrill of a new
voice, shrieks of life and redemption. They’re appropriately angry,
full of loathing, teeming with hope.