The tourist buses flow as easily as the rain sluices down the colonial cobblestone streets of San Cristobal de las Casa in the center of Chiapas. Meanwhile Mexico’s South is vociferously challenging the 2006 presidential election in the streets and attempting to force out a draconian governor in nearby state of Oaxaca for going after the teachers and their union after the thrall of the World Cup in Germany has worn off. So you happen to be renting an apartment in the midst of all this “history.” May you contemplate the role of the subjunctive mood in the English language while you take Spanish classes every morning amongst the sancristobolenses, hearing the susurrus and tatter of Tzotzil and Tretzal and other diphthonic and consonantal summersaults as you harbor your English by reading Sesshu Foster’s recent novel Atomik Aztex.

 

            Published by City Lights in late 2005, the action revolves around Zenzontli, a mid-level Aztec warrior, and spirtual guide of the House of Darkness sect within the revised world of the Aztex empire writ large in twentieth century revisionist conquest where the G-8 countries become the global South under the foot of Aztex supremacy. There may be Philip K. Dick’s High Man in the Castle playing with the inverted what if of World War II but Foster’s wild ride not only places the Aztecs in command of this New World Order but the novel internally shifts our narrator Zenzontli into a contrasting, confused alternate reality as the unfortunate inheritor of a nightshift meat worker in and East LA industrial plant. This worker begins to feel the weight of capital H-history as he finds the means to not only furtively organize a union but the means to get rid of his nemesis supervisor Max and backstabbing co-worker Weasel. The novel shifts between inventive inversions of the Aztex dominance, weaving popular references to “our reality” like the success of Juan Lennon, trade talks with the Zapatistas, and back page newspaper ads hawked as gospel for curing those addictions, increasing the size of your sex organs, and all other panaceas of the insomniac and striving under any empire’s demands. Zenzontli’s sommentary navigates this mirrored world to ours while also demonstrating his inability to accommodate the demands of his wife Xiuhcaquilt and the machinations of the Party maintaining power like any management team on message. The genre of the war platoon story is mixed with workplace woes paralleled in schizo-frenetic crossing forcing the reader to share Zenzontli’s mightmarish experience. Atomik Aztex inverts the five hundred years of colonial rampage with its own proclaimed twist as a codex and testimonial that makes you laugh hysterically (in English) in one of those cafes where Manu Chao’s music is as requisite as the Mayan tapestries often placed beside an Aztec sun calendar.

 

            Certainly the Aztecs were not kind when they colonized Lake Texcoco back in the day but that inconvenient fact does not interfere with the witty reversals that ring throughout the endless flow of unbroken paragraphs crosscutting between a technologically advanced Teknotitlan Aztec empire saving Europe from its self-destruction and the protagonist Zenzontli peripatetically occupying the role of the harassed immigrant worker in Vernon, California. Zenzontli lacks sleep in both time periods and becomes further isolated by his ability to explain the mores and function of all the rituals while begin trapped within these social constraints. These controls may be the economic and spiritual need to capture Nazi prisoners for ceremonial sacrifice or the keen understanding of how Farmer John manipulates the work floor and FDA inspections to get the most out of their product where pigs flow down the chute in numbers on par with Aztek demand for sacrifices to their gods. Of course, Zenzontli recieves the worst job assignments in both worlds because he is suspect for his questioning.

 

            Zenzontli pulls no punches, so to speak, by revealing the Aztex loopholes in technospiritual babble while rhetorically ripping into the barbarian European Others as backward, depraved, and obviously requiring the power of the Aztex intervention. Then, in true war platoon style, he satisfyingly provides th quick rip of flesh when Zenzontli kicks into the deft warrior mode, single-handedly surmounting a machinegun nest, and giving a ceremonial war poem before the battle to instill confidence in his rookie troops. Zenzontli is right to state that it is all about the amount of thought that goes into the aesthetiks —the manner in which one performs these rites and actions — something not enough non-Aztex consider.

 

            However the Aztex Imperium merits its own criticism when the novel’s furious italics shift to the counter-reality of the meat processing plant, under daily attack of an asshole boss, rampant nepotism, and an union organizer that never shows up for meetings when you’ve been lurking around to organize for the now defunct CIO. The castigating humor reveals a dissonant continuity between the pride of the Chicano Movement’s poetic use of Aztlan as the homeland of the Aztex in pre-columbian America while Latino (and other immigrant) communities are contstantly forced into crap jobs under the threat of so-called immigration reform. As multiply-displaced Zenzontli considers the implications of the lack of aesthtiks, the need to understand one’s necessary ornamental feathers, or shall we say, how the Aztex in Foster’s heavily coded warp ride and refigured codex simultaneously comment on the current North American empire. The universalist belief that the Aztek economy would still follow the myopic and self-centered point of view of all empires cannot go unnoticed. Foster’s novel promotes a fast-paced commentary to reel within wordplay and bombastic style, simultaneously proffering a counter history to our times while commenting on that mimicry of power and how ridiculously inhumane it would still be under a different where power and domination are concerned.

 

            The rewritten history reverberates with your stay in San Cristobal amoung several indigenous communities converging at the market and the reticent mestizo middle class. This is there an attempted alternative but the Zapatistas continue not only the rhetoric of over 500 years of resistance but also the lived reality of several indigenous groups demanding recognition and self-governance with some success. There is that insurmountable mic of video games and internet cafes where the lighter-skinned cannot see the indigenous man asking for money at their feet. For example, in a non-yuppified yoga class, the tension in the mestizo sancristobalenses could be felt when a woman from San Juan Chamula joins the class, laughing and enjoying downward dog and sun salutations as the other locals become obviously discomfited by her presence. The colonial legacy of racism even in the tiny liberal city of San Cristobal where the youth play jazz-oriented improvisational music (where few gringos could talk about Foster’s use of Thelonius Monk’s “Misterioso” popping into Zenzontli’s sleep-talking) can be felt despite the Zapatista graffiti and the Che Guevara t-shirts. You can easily enocounter cooperatives trying to find a way to fit into the tourist economy while not becoming a coopted product, when you meet Beatriz Aurora who painted the illustrations to some of Subcomandante Marco’s stories. The gallery deliberated mixes artisan folk art with her paintings to challenge our categories of aesthetik value and consumption of the Zapatista movement in poster form. This is where Foster’s inversions in the Aztex Empire along with the detail of the meat plant scenes (especially the greasy spoon diner) all match your tourist gaze in odd synchronicity. The ridiculous M-16 and skushy body armor of the bank guard yawning just like the child nearby strapped to her mother’s back without complaint; she is unarmored though far more melanin is in her skin that the guard. You put down the novel and encounter the same two boys getting high up near the Templo del Guadalupe above the city, their giggle fits, the passing taxis below, the sun reaching its cradle on the other side of the city, becoming night, where all people stroll to be in the commons. The steamed corn with lime-flavored mayonnaise (by the McCormick Corporation), hot sauce, real lime juice, or ice cream and balloon toys meant to only last the afternoon before popping —all provided on a stick. Discern the indigenous woman  (where are the men?) with different shirts and wool skirts as a town emblem unsleeping while carrying an entire economy on her back because one must trust the ground upon which you walk. Bougainvillea crawling walls and shining fuschistically. The damn dogs treating you as a giant threat while imploring a lick of your dinner dust. Tagged in spray paint: the call for freeing the prisoners of San Salvador Atenco market, an end to all the recent wars (you pick), and a cry for Zapatismo amidst the civil society split by the machinations of an election where less than half a percentage point benefits the ruling party. The same handful of children talking to the same German woman, braiding her hair as she searches again in continental research on their labored lives asking tourists for their names to written on a piece of paper, their fingers and beads caught in her hair. The screeching steel rings chained to the gas delivery truck, chiming their fierce alarm, which everyone ignores until the tank is empty again. The rain always coming in the afternoon when the mountains relieve the sky of its burden and the hill where the Chamulans fought the conquitadors becomes its ghostly self, unwritten on the map but looming. The coffee roasters and the touristic calls, the bands playing in the zocolo, and the shoeshine slap and smell. You settle your gaze on the tiny Zapatista doll standing tall in the grandmother’s open hand—a stick for a rifle and two sewn black eyes looking up at you from the mask mounted on the four-pegged horse. This is just one site where modernity has no meaning without the indigenous resistance equally modifying its supposed imposition.

 

            Throughout the text of Atomik Aztex the strange carriage of the hard c in English is replaced by a slew of ks which become the register of how grammar is the transport of the occupying army’s intellectual arsenal while poking fun at the common reaction of English speakers the Nahuatl, which means “to speak clearly”, though few make the effort to learn the pronunciation. The same language produces one of the best conceptions of poetry in the Nahuatl “in xochitl in cuicatl”, which became floricanto in Spanish, meaning “flower and song”. This cannot be denied as poetic knowledge rooted in the language of Zenzontli’s aesthetiks. One can easily use the work of Walter Mignolo and even Norman O. Brown’s comment to John Cage about the etymology of the word syntax as “army” to further complicate Foster’s playful and potent style on this aesthetic front but it is not necessary because the reading experience demands that the reader occupy this new language. The effect and affect will be apparent enough. The orthography, use of italics, underlining and bold typeface, do not strike the reader as emperimental devices as much as they whir as a kinetic technique to expose your reading habits of what constitutes appropriate Aztex spelling. You are implicated as a discriminating reader, intellectual enforcer of what’s permissible thot. Though all these ks have the odd resonance of the Ku Klux Klan, Krispy Kreme, and other horrible named k-alliterative businesses, which you know is arbitrary, but still it makes you uncomfortable when reading Atomik Aztex. Some of the reading in San Cristóbal substitutes with the k, where por que? Becomes “por ke” and the blogging youth type quickly online as they comment on the endless loop of Shakira hip undulating videos at the bottom of the MTV screen with such subtle substitutions without the KKK connotation. But somehow it sticks when images of the Hurricane Katrina constantly return.

 

            Atomik Aztex transports the reader to a teknologized indigenous empire at its peak of the world dominance and bears witness to the cultural arrogance of power while satirizing the ways in which conquered cultures are so easily dismissed. The novel balances this ability to counter official history while also questioning the more fundamental arrogance of any cultural judgment from the position of the conqueror. For example, when Zenzontli is asked to take an inexperienced combat team to the Stalingrad front, an undesirable assignment largely due to the party politics,  Zenzontli mimics the befuddlement of the tourist gaze looking at the poor culture asking, “Whatever happened to German civilization? Did they just disappear or did they go away? Were they good looking or were they goofy like polka music? How could a people who built stirring monuments like cathedrals, autobahns, stadiums, printing presses and draft beer just vanish as a civilization? Were they sad when they left or did they just get the hell out like they were told? The modern day tourist who walks among the ruins of the ancient civilization of the Aryans finds himself filled with questions. “Who were these people? How did they live? What were their weird beliefs? What strange religion or goofy nonsense caused them to build all this stuff? Why did they plan and execute this massive system of freeways on such an immense scale when the safest, cleanest and most efficient system would have been mass transit, pedestrian walkways and canals like ours?” (108-109)

The ethnocentric and nonplussed  Zenzontli cannot imagine how all these cultural accomplishments could not arrive at the point of his Aztex beliefs. There is liberal appreciation and genuine recognition of human value coexisting with the condescension and the absolute belief that these Germans had wiped out in order to arrive at this point in history, the triumph of the Aztex Socialist Imperium and another sense of decadence permeating the culture’s insatiable drive for more lands to conquer. This questioning is no longer cast at the Aztec pyramids or Mayan cities in a tour of Mesoamerican ruins as some necessary step toward modernization. Atomik Aztex not only meets your desire for the pleasure of imagining the persistent pain of war re-placed on the colonial perpetrators during World War 2 privileging the Aztek legacy while consonant with the struggle of the particularities of the Zapatistas in Chiapas. Sesshu Foster’s frenetic novel flows endlessly in torrents of unceasing paragraphs, like these wet colonial streets, and like any good reader and truly open tourist, you must accept the manner in which the text transports you through the possible Aztek Imperium and how you can recognize your own position on what is taking place at the G-8 summit while another war ensues. You too may find yourself informing a Lebanese woman, who is also studying Spanish in San Cristóbal, that her country was just invaded by Israel. You ashamedly know who built, sold, trained, and delivered the mass supply of weapons that made it possible, profitable, and predictable policy. And your anger at the obvious separation between your mestizo Spanish teachers, your fellow privileged gringos, the strong phantom colonial connection between the Philippines and Mexico that recieves blank stares, the middle-class family you stayed with that refused to go to the open air market in favor of the crap produce at the supermercado, and the city pocket of the autonomous indigenous zone on the outskirts of town, fulminate in your reading of surviving hero Zenzontli, the inveterate critic but staunch warrior veteran in Atomik Aztex cum militant union organizer stuck in a dead end meat plant job. How all these positions and images carry some psychic weight or the inheritance of defiance—though Foster constantly mixes lingo, Vietnam-era Spanglish, indigenous historical inversions with pop references while converging these times—you begin to fall into this warp and can feel the insistence of these five hundred years aching in your hands holding the book.

 Though the book’s preface proclaims that the reader should look elsewhere for a plot, the plot is the possibility of not just an alternative to the colonization of the Aztecs and consequently the rest of the mainland of the Americas by the Spanish and now American subsidy-for-us-but-absolute-freemarket-for-you arrangements. The plot, too, is the role of cultural heritage and the wellspring of anger that causes those wonderful hallucinations of sliced and diced Nazis by Zenzontli’s authoritative hands who has come to balance history back in favor of those damn Latinos who marched with their allies on March 1st across the U.S., some of whom may work in a large scale slaughterhouse where the wage work is the mass slaughter of animals for an economy whose scale is not unlike the demands of an economy based on military production. The scale that Zenzontli frenetically occupies in his own alternate reality in mid-20th century East LA is the dissonance of our own immigrant communities constantly working under these conditions where the slaughter without sleep is warlike and the fight to improve these conditions is treated as seditious, unsanitary, and freakishly absent from the happy graphics of the Farmer John brand. What is really ground up and extruded in that tasty ballpark hotdog you’re eating? The novel is one of correspondence between these periods and how Zenzontli plays the role of the native informant who naively informs readers of their own nativism in the U.S. Reading Atomik Aztex may resolutely confound that desire to know what really happened all these years, not only with that hot dog production, but also ourselves and what we refuse to consider in our colonial inheritance of the New World.

 

J. Guevara teaches writing and creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he is a Phd graduate student in the Literatura Department.

 

Amerasia Journal, Volume 32, No. 3, 2006, UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press.