My first encounter with the work of Mercurio D. Rivera was back in the days when I was part of the Interzone editorial team, and the wonderful “Longing for Langalana” turned up in my Inbox via Andy Cox. This story from Black Static #18 shows that Rivera is as adept at horror as he is at science fiction, though I have my suspicions, given the author’s track record and the near-future setting of “Tu Sufrimiento” (I don’t do foreign languages, but my best guess is that it means “Your Suffering”) that it might originally have been intended for a science fiction market.
Edgar, the protagonist of the story, is a refugee from the Dominican Republic, making a life for himself in the United States, while his old home is ripped apart by civil war. Mention is made in the story of other conflicts, of gang warfare and a police force that has lost control of the streets, of shortages and blackouts, and the omnipresent menace of the chinos. Terrorism is a constant threat, and the building where Edgar lives has a security guard and a device to sniff out explosives. By these means a picture emerges of a world where the divisions evident in our own societies have been cranked up to the max, albeit the ‘enemy’ is no longer Islam but the growing power of the Chinese.
The story opens with Edgar ‘involved’ with a lady who is rather more into s&m practices than he is, with coitus interruptus a definite problem as the landlady walks in right after the ball gag has been put in place. Edgar fears that he will be evicted, but actually Dona Guerrero has other things in mind, and his flair with the fetish objects of s&m has convinced her that Edgar might be a suitable helpmate.
Edgar does not believe, but he comes from a culture in which religions like santeria and belief systems that involve sympathetic magic hold sway. He doesn’t believe, but he wears an azabache, a charm given him by his mother, all the same. And this allows him to see what others cannot, that there is a basement to the building in which he lives, and to hear what they do not, the screams of a tortured man.
The Guerreros have taken a chino prisoner and are torturing him in their basement, in the belief that his suffering will protect them all, and they want Edgar to aid them. At first aghast, he tries to spare the prisoner, but when he does so a nuclear strike takes out the city in which his mother and sister are living, and he holds himself responsible for this, and in an orgy of guilt takes on the role of torturer to ease his own pain by inflicting pain on someone else.
Other reviewers have picked up on the political subtext of the story, tying it into such things as Guantanamo Bay, arguing that a similar magical thinking permits us to torture prisoners, and also making the link between the s&m willing Mercedes, whose behaviour is rooted in her personal psychology, and the way in which we conduct ourselves as a society, but such theorising ignores the most fundamental question. At bottom the story is about the concept of the scapegoat, and what we have to consider is the possibility that such a barbaric ritual might actually be effective, the implications of that.
Edgar’s first awareness that something is awry comes when he sees Mr Guerrero rising up through the floor like a ghost. In reality, he is coming up stairs from the basement, the same basement that Edgar has been entirely unaware of, and so the magic appears to work at least to that extent. What about the rest?
When the chino is being tortured, the country is safe. When the torture stops, Albany is wiped out by a nuclear explosion. This may be simply coincidence, but for Edgar whose family is killed in the blast the case is made.
My first thought on finishing this story was of the Ursula K. LeGuin classic, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. The people of that city are blissfully happy, but their happiness is purchased at the cost of a child left alone in a room to wallow in her own filth and sores. That is the bargain they made with the powers that bestow such ease on their lives.
The situation in “Tu Sufrimiento” is similar, with the suffering of one the cost paid for the safety of the many, albeit a somewhat more active role is required from Edgar, who is appalled at first, but doesn’t shrink from torture when he experiences directly the consequences of not acting.
And so, while the story might take side swipes at the legacy of the Bush administration and the moral contortions of the so called “War on Terror”, it also does something far more basic, by turning the mirror on the reader and asking exactly what we would be prepared to do to protect ourselves, our loved ones. What do we do when such questions aren’t simply intellectual conundrums but as here, as for Edgar, vital concerns that require us to steep our own hands in blood, to rend and tear the flesh of another, to sacrifice our own innocence on the altar of pragmatism so that others will be spared.
The last line of the story is, “‘We’re safe,’ he says.”, and it’s left for the reader to wonder at the terrible cost of that security, whether life at any price is a bargain well made.
Rivera doesn’t have any answers to give, and perhaps there aren’t any, but he poses the question in powerful terms, with no turning away from the savage and appalling consequences of the story’s dialectic, and for that he is to be commended.