By Arturo Conde
Writers are sometimes compared with oracles and fortunetellers because their books can reveal a glimpse of the reader’s future. And for many Mexicans, Javier Sicilia’s 2012 novel El fondo de la noche (The Depth of Night), which describes the horrors of 1941 Auschwitz, is like a premonition for the ongoing drug war violence in Mexico.
Sicilia himself describes the book as a portent of his own family’s tragedy — his 24-year-old son was murdered in drug-related violence a year and half ago while the poet was revising the novel. As a result, the book has helped Sicilia dig beneath the layers of evil and cruelty that have arisen from extremes in both 1941 Auschwitz and present-day Mexico; in the book as in life, he’s searching for hope, a value he finds in the quality of compassion. This profound understanding has led him on a 6,000-mile trip across the United States with the Caravan for Peace — visiting over 25 cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, and more recently New York — to call for an end to the drug war.
El fondo de la noche is a fictional narrative that recreates the real-life story of Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan friar who gave up his life to save another prisoner in Auschwitz. But while the harsh reality of World War II may seem removed from contemporary American life, Sicilia’s ability to put himself in his character’s shoes, and address life-changing problems from the friar’s perspective, makes the novel both extraordinary and universal.
“I read many biographies about Kolbe, and many books about Auschwitz and Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland,” said Sicilia in an exclusive interview with Univision News. “But I always develop my literature by looking at myself in the mirror of those characters. And while Kolbe is present in the novel, he is a Kolbe who is meticulously characterized by my own concerns and obsessions. And in this way, Kolbe’s character is also a reflection of a larger reality that is entrenched in the world that we live in today.”
This deep introspection allows Sicilia to draw parallels between the atrocities of World War II and the suffering of Mexico’s drug war victims. In a country where at least 60,000 people are estimated dead, 10,000 have disappeared, and more than 160,000 Mexicans are displaced from their homes over the past six years, the survivors of this atrocity can find certain kinship with the survivors of other wars, and discover in Kolbe—who was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982—a patron saint or hero for all difficult causes.
One of the most poignant passages of the novel occurs when Claussner, a fellow priest and prisoner, tells Kolbe that during a time when God is “absent or dead,” one has to betray his or her principles to survive.
“I believe, father, that we have reached a time when… only by betraying can one love and save one’s honor, one’s country and the lives of others,” Claussner tells Kolbe. “This time, unfortunately, is marked by the collapse of reason… a period when we have to pay for choosing the side of evil and the dark night that it projects to save others, and when possible, take revenge. Otherwise the night will be absolute.”
In his last encounter with Claussner, Kolbe confesses to the priest that he has been afraid of betraying Catholic doctrine, incapable of “dirtying his hands” and “filling himself with worldly experiences.” But it isn’t until Kolbe consciously chooses to be human, to see himself in the disfigurement, pain, and misery of other prisoners, that he understands the true meaning of Christ—not someone who personifies perfection, but a “being thrown to the last of his misfortunes.”
The prisoners of Auschwitz, Sicilia reminds us in Kolbe’s last sermon, did not die as heroic martyrs who were conscious and committed to their destiny. They died like criminals—“scum”—in a ridiculous and absurd way that stripped them of their humanity. Sicilia, however, gives Kolbe some redemption, and imagines the priest huddling next to other prisoners in a final act of love. “I don’t want to die like a dog,” Kolbe says suffering from dehydration and starvation. Then he slides his body next to a prisoner who already looks like a mummy, takes the man’s hand, and just like he had done in the freight car that transported him to Auschwitz, begins to sing.
During a visit to New York last Thursday, Sicilia called on both Americans and Mexicans to look at the victims of the drug war with Kolbe’s affection. Following in the Polish friar’s footsteps, the Mexican poet marched with the caravan through low-income neighborhoods in Upper Manhattan to see and feel the drug war through the eyes and skin of African Americans, Latinos, and other residents in these communities. One caravan organizer described these neighborhoods as places where New York City’s prisoners are “harvested.” But through empathy and solidarity, Sicilia emphasized, both Mexicans and Americans can find a light that will illuminate even the darkest moments of humanity.