The Zoological Nightmares of Rafael Bernal

The Zoological Nightmares of Rafael Bernal

The Zoological Nightmares of Rafael Bernal

The Mexican writer’s 1947 novel His Name Was Death dramatizes humanity’s ecological arrogance through the story of a mosquito swarm with plans of world destruction.


What method, what power, what labyrinthine perfection is displayed!” So wrote Pliny the Elder, marveling over nature’s design for the mosquito in his Natural History. But the rest of us—or at least the approximately 4 billion people regularly exposed to the deadly diseases the mosquito carries—are more likely to agree with Edmund Spenser, who bemoaned its “sharpe wounds, and noyous iniuries” in The Faerie Queene.

Malaria, yellow fever, Dengue, Zika, West Nile—these terrors roll easily off the tongue of schoolchildren around the world. (Less common, though no less frightening, are encephalitis, elephantiasis, and chikungunya.) And even in the absence of disease, annoyance rules the day where mosquitos are concerned. No quick fix—candle, spray, lotion, coil, or good old slap—is quick enough for their darts. Think only of the ancient Egyptians, who, according to Herodotus, built tall towers to try to escape their nightly torment. (That was the plan for the rich, anyway. The poor apparently wrapped themselves in fishing nets.)

But literature loves a good villain, and in an age when a warming climate makes more places increasingly hospitable to the mosquito—and increases the virulence of mosquito-borne diseases—we might well see more novels in which they play a central role. Mosquitos and their deadly “fevers” are the invisible stagehands that assist Namwali Serpell’s 2019 novel The Old Drift as it rambles across 200 years of narration. “We’ve been needling you for centuries untold,” they announce early in the book. “Or perhaps we should say centuries told: you certainly love your stories. Your earliest tales were of animals, of course, beastly fables carved into cave walls. Well, it’s time to turn the fables, we say, time for us to tell you what we know.”

The mosquitos in Rafael Bernal’s novel His Name Was Death (translated by Kit Schluter) are significantly less given to whimsy. They have little interest in human foibles and belong to a strictly hierarchical organization in which the collective will supersedes the individual. And once they discover that a human—the novel’s unnamed narrator—can understand their language, they set out to enlist him in their plan to dominate and enslave the human race entirely.

First published in 1947 in Bernal’s native Mexico, nearly forgotten for half a century, and only now appearing in English, His Name Was Death is a parable about the horrors that await human arrogance. And given what we now know about the relationship between habitat destruction and the emergence of new zoonotic diseases, it’s an eerie (and almost on-the-nose) message for the Covid years.

The unnamed narrator of Bernal’s novel is a middle-aged white man who has abandoned society for the Lacandón jungle in Chiapas, Mexico. We never learn what exactly spurred his rejection of “civilization,” nor about his childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood. Instead he emerges fully (mal)formed from the very first page. “In the eyes of the world,” he writes, “I was a despicable booze hound, the object of brain-dead laughter, but I considered myself more the victim than the offender—if I was a drunk, it was the world’s fault.” The novel’s quick pace is established from its first line, equal parts ominous and melodramatic: “Perhaps all my work will come to nothing, perhaps it’s already too late to start these memoirs; death has me surrounded, and I don’t know how much time I have left.”

The story begins with the narrator’s early time in the jungle. He spends his days hunting jaguars and his evenings drinking rotgut, increasingly embittered, disgusted by and obsessed with the “cruelty of mankind.” The jungle offers a way out. “Whoever would live inside her can find peace, so long as he submits to her laws and doesn’t mind being a lowly admirer of such magnificence, so long as he doesn’t mind setting aside his human pride and becoming no more than an unwelcome guest, a fledgling stripped of his rights, content to vegetate in the shadows of the jungle’s goodwill.”

His journey deeper into the forest eventually brings him into contact with a small tribe of native Lacandóns: “Indians,” as he terms them, “miserable” people who “know nothing of our civilization beyond its murderous liquor and the endless predations of the colonizers.” The tribe’s leaders allow him to build his shelter near theirs and eventually help him kick the booze. Together they flee even deeper into the Metzabok reserve (rendered by Bernal as “Metasboc”) when the hunters and traders appear.

But no matter how deep they go, they cannot escape the mosquitos, and it’s here, far from the predations of chicle and lumber hunters and mostly cured of his addiction, that the narrator begins to study the endless whine of the anopheles. Soon enough he is able to distinguish varieties of tone; a few more months of study and he masters the “mosquil” language. Before long the narrator is communicating directly with the mosquitos’ Supreme Council, which lays out their plan: With his help, the mosquitos will finally take their place as the unchallenged masters of the world. They demand a constant, uninterrupted supply of human blood—they reckon a caste of some 3 million “suppliers” will suffice—and the absolute abandonment of any resistance. (The punishment for killing a mosquito will be death.) In exchange, they promise to make the narrator the “most powerful human on Earth.”

“In an instant, images from those forty years of bitterness, sadness, and humiliation flashed before my eyes, and I felt an intense hatred rising up to my throat and filling my entire being,” the narrator writes. “I would be the most powerful man on earth—my revenge would be perfect, absolute.”

The plan encounters a hitch when a small group of anthropologists intent on studying the Lacandóns arrive at the isolated settlement. By this point, the narrator has set aside his reservations and is more or less completely committed to the Supreme Council’s plan. The Lacandóns have begun referring to him as Kukulcán or “Wise Owl,” a god “come to reinvigorate the roots of the Mayans” and “return them to their ancient splendor”—a transformation that begins when he provides them with quinine early on and is solidified when he negotiates directly with the mosquitos for the tribe’s protection from malaria.

The researchers, needless to say, are skeptical of his claims. One of them, a blond secretary named Johnes, is amused by the narrator, and she attributes his success at keeping the mosquitos away to a secret stash of insecticide. A romantic triangle between Johnes and two of the male researchers is knocked off-kilter by the narrator, who—desperate to demonstrate the truth of his claims—has Godínez, a musicologist and Johnes’s fiancé, killed by a swarm of mosquitos. The narrator thinks that he will win over the lead researcher, Wassell, by eliminating this rival to Johnes’s affections. Instead, Wassell is terrified and threatens to kill him, but he is swarmed and blinded by the mosquitos before he can make a move; the remainder of the expedition is hunted down that same night. Only Johnes—plunged into a coma by grief and fright—remains.

But when the mosquitos, determined now to wipe out any resistance, demand that Johnes become a supplier for the local High Council, the narrator finally balks. He reaches out to a lowly “supplier” mosquito and, in a sort of eschatological frenzy, organizes a revolutionary uprising against the Supreme Council in the name of God. The uprising is crushed, though at great cost to the council’s plans. Sentenced to death by the council, the narrator staggers back to his cabin—only to discover that the Lacandón leader he’d tasked with carrying Johnes off to safety has killed her instead, offering her “russet heart” in a tribute to the great Kukulcán. The narrator cracks open the anthropologists’ abandoned booze and starts to write down his story.

If all this sounds a bit campy, well, that’s because it is. Bernal, who was born in 1915 and died in 1972, is best known for his noirish 1969 novel El Complot Mongol (translated as The Mongolian Conspiracy by Katherine Silver in 2013), which features a hard-living police detective tasked with uncovering an international Cold War conspiracy taking root in Mexico City’s tiny Chinatown. Generations of Mexican writers have praised the way Bernal transformed the hacky conventions of hard-boiled detective thrillers into high art, while offering a caustic indictment of power politics—be it of the Mexican, Soviet, or American variety—along the way.

His Name Was Death does something similar with the alieninvasion pulp novel, a tradition that more or less began in 1898 with H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Like Wells’s novel, Bernal’s is ready-made for serialization in cheap magazines: It is broken up into 22 bite-size chapters and devoid of any elaborate structural mechanics. The diaristic conceit perfectly matches the narrator’s fervid tone and dashed-off pronouncements, as well as the almost complete absence of flashback or any of the other tools that novelists rely on to promote character development; one could enter the story at any moment and get a more or less complete understanding of the novel’s stakes within a page or two. The only gesture to a world outside the narrator’s mind comes in the novel’s epilogue, when a Colonel Pérez finds “the diaries or memoirs of some raving lunatic whose real name he couldn’t include in his police report because no one actually knew it.”

Like most of the Latin American writers of his generation, Bernal dabbled in political radicalism. However, unlike those who took to socialism, he joined the Synarchists, a reactionary Catholic movement associated with the Spanish Falangists and Italian fascism. According to an essay by his daughter Cocol, Bernal was jailed 18 times for “social dissolution”—including once for putting a hood and a noose around the neck of a statue of Benito Juárez, the 19th-century Mexican president who constrained the power of the Catholic Church.

By then Bernal was writing as well, publishing his first novel in 1945. An extended stay in Chiapas in the 1940s led to His Name Was Death (originally published in 1947 as Su Nombre Era Muerte) and the novel Caribal, el Infierno Verde (Caribal, the Green Hell, 1955). The latter openly embraces what appears in His Name Was Death as something of a theological plot twist: a belief in the Christian God as the solution not only to the depredations of capitalist extraction but also to the perversities of all human ambition. That the jungle is his stage to play out these beliefs leads to Bernal’s making the Indigenous inhabitants of Chiapas—those furthest, presumably, from the church—the flimsiest characters in a novel full of them.

Yet the apparent simplicity of His Name Was Death belies the subtlety of its themes. Behind the horror of the mosquito “invasion” are the nested invasions of the apparently “civilized” humans in the book. Chicleros, loggers, miners, and hunters are continually invoked as an ever-present but often invisible alien species capable of immense harm. The anthropologists wish to study the Lacandóns in order to “incorporate them into civil society”—consume them, in a sense, in the same way the metropolitans consume mahogany and rubber. Slyer still is Bernal’s critique of the narrator, who in rejecting the barbarism of modernity manages to wreak its worst impulses on the community that takes him in. In a kind of photonegative representation of the self-made man of American mythology, it is the narrator’s delusional sense of self-reliance that ultimately leads to the arrival in the Metzabok of the police—the representatives of the murderous state that Bernal would later satirize in El Complot Mongol.

After accepting that his rebellion has failed, the narrator of His Name Was Death is summoned before the victorious Supreme Council of the mosquitos to be judged. “You betrayed us, and you are going to die like all the mosquitos you persuaded into evil. The damage you have caused is grave and one hundred years will pass before we have overcome it,” the swarm tells him.

One hundred years from 1947 is not so far off; indeed, it is well past the date at which the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we need to cut carbon emissions by half in order to prevent an even more catastrophic global warming. What remains to be seen is whether Bernal’s strange short novel is merely a warning, or a sign of things to come.

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