REVIEW: The Route of Ice and Salt by Jose Luis Zarate

Much of what passes for social justice is actually nothing more than the effects of the market. This is quite evident in the realm of representation where calls for greater inclusivity inevitably come with unspoken caveats about the kinds of stories and the kinds of sensibilities that people want to see represented.

Indeed, people will get worked-up about gay kisses and non-white faces in Marvel movies but they would never take it upon themselves to seek out the work of non-white LGBT writers and directors. People will spend years obsessing over sexually ambiguous glances between characters played by straight male actors but they would rather shit themselves in public than sit through a film by someone like Lino Brocka.

I say this not to ‘gate-keep’ concerns over queer representation but to stress that while people may be interested in stories about gay characters, they are only interested in certain kinds of stories told about certain kinds of gay characters in certain kinds of ways. Indeed, stories about gay men told by straight men and women are going to be very different to stories about gay men told by gay men. The ideas that straight women have about gay men are likely to be far more palatable to straight women than the ideas of gay men about themselves. This is why straight men watch girl-on-girl porn but might not watch the films of Lisa Cholodenko. This is why straight women will spend hours reading Yaoi and BL comics but will not necessarily think to seek out the novels of Christopher Isherwood.

While we all like what we like and there’s no accounting for taste, it is interesting to think about the differences between the representation of people and events and the different sensibilities that can inform that representation. Where do those sensibilities come from?

Jose Luis Zarate’s The Route of Ice and Salt is a Mexican novella set aboard the ship that transported Dracula to Whitby in Bram Stoker’s original novel. It is about yearning, loss, and the predatory nature of the male gaze.

In Zarate’s novella, the un-named captain of the Demeter is not only gay but also quite possibly the thirstiest man in Northern Europe. Terrified of being discovered, the captain refuses to indulge any of his impulses and makes a point of rarely talking to or making eye-contact with any of the men under his command. However, rather than suppressing these urges, the captain’s attempts to keep himself under control have resulted in a permanent obsession with the sweat and the salt that covers the sailors bodies. Aware that this self-denial leads only to extended bouts of fantasising, the captain starts to control his environment resulting only in his filling the ship with muscular hairless white men who cover their bodies in restrictive clothing in an effort to keep the salt from collecting along their lean, supple bodies. Zarate describes the captain’s longing and hunger in vividly carnal terms… the captain tries not to look at his men because when he does, he looks on them with the eyes of a predator.

Frustrated to the point of out-and-out madness, the captain spends his time locked in his cabin desperately trying not to think about inviting in one of the sailors and asking if he can lick them clean. This sense of barely-constrained repression sets the tone for the novella as a bunch of Tzigane warriors turn up with some crates full of soil bound for Whitby. With the first mate busy preparing the ship for sailing, the captain watches the Gypsies load the crates, marvelling at their lean, disciplined bodies right up until the moment when his resolve cracks and he finds himself licking the neck of a highly-trained murderer in the service of some savage mountain warlord. Initially, the captain is horrified at letting himself go but the Gypsy just lets it happen… almost as though they are used to having strange men suck at their necks.

When I heard of this novella and the fact that it was a queer story set aboard the Demeter, I half expected some kind of AIDS parable about men living in close proximity to one another and looking on helplessly as their friends wither and die. While I think it would be fair to say that The Route of Ice and Salt is at least partially about loss, I think a more interesting way of viewing the novella is to read it as an interrogation of the male sexual gaze and the role of oppression and repression in shaping marginalised sexual identities.

The Route of Ice and Salt is a story about a man who is alienated from the people around him out of fear that they will see him as a monster. It is also a story about a man who appears to be driven entirely by his base appetites and as a result sees everyone around him as something to be consumed. This is a novel about prejudice, our willingness to submit ourselves to the forces of de-humanisation, and what happens when we encounter someone who is a literal monster.

As the novella progresses, we are treated to glimpses of the captain’s life outside the ship. At first, these glimpses are all about the captain performing heterosexuality when in port, but then we are allowed to learn a bit more about the captain’s ex. A young man named Mikhail who awakened the captain’s desires only to wind up getting killed by an angry mob.

The novella comes with an introduction by the publisher Silvia Moreno-Garcia as well as an afterword by the legendary queer vampire novel writer Poppy Z. Brite. Citing a piece of academic research, Brite argues that Stoker’s Dracula can be read as a gay novel in so far as Stoker was friends with Oscar Wilde and may have been inspired by the details that surfaced about Wilde’s love-life in the court-case that saw him sent to jail. While I wasn’t completely convinced by Brite’s argument, there are definite similarities between the life of Zarate’s captain and the narratives attached to Oscar Wilde by a homophobic British establishment. In particular the vision of the gay man as a predator who spends his time seducing younger men and infecting them with the desire to live a lifestyle incompatible with respectable hetero-normative society.

The more the novella progresses, the more we learn about the captain’s feelings of guilt and loss over the death of Mikhail. There is also the suggestion that the captain’s obsessive, predatory hunger might well be a product not only of obsessive self-denial but also of being called a monster and seeing his lover treated like something inhuman and monstrous. The point of the novel is that the captain thinks of himself as some kind of vampire before Dracula even comes abroad. This riff recalls William Friedkin’s film Cruising in which the role of the murderer is assumed by a variety of different actors thereby collapsing the boundaries between murderer, victim, and innocent by-stander who just happens to be a part of the 1970s New York gay scene.

Once the crates are loaded onto the ship, the voyage begins and every day feels like an impending disaster. At first, the sources of this unease are difficult to pin down: Is it the officials who conduct inspections and demand bribes? Is it the tension between the controlling first-mate and the increasingly distant captain? Is it the captain’s ever-expanding difficulties keeping his desires under control? Things really start moving when the crew notice that the ship-board rats have started to disappear as Zarate uses the rats not only as manifestations of the Vampire, but also of sinfulness and unspoken desires. The more people disappear and the worse things get, the more the captain struggles to act as he sees himself in the things that is stalking the crew. He sees himself, yet he also sees the differences and a lot of the horror in the book comes from the sense that while the captain would like to imagine that all of these weird events are nothing more than darkly erotic fever dreams, they are also real and profoundly other because the captain is not a monster.

The Route of Ice and Salt is a beautifully poetic and spell-binding novella. Arguably closer to the gothic than conventional horror, it nonetheless ripples with a sense of impending doom whilst asking all sorts of interesting questions of characters and readers alike. I must say that I am delighted that Innsmouth Free Press decided to translate and review this novella, I hope it is the sign of things to come as I could read this kind of stuff all day long.

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