In Alberto Fuguet’s autobiographical novel Missing: Una Investigacion, he follows the story of his estranged uncle Carlos who, after a jarring move from Chile to the United States when he was 18 years old, eventually decides to abandon his family and “disappear.” Twenty years later, Alberto, who lives in Chile, hires a detective to hunt his uncle down, and is able to find him working in a hotel in Denver, Colorado—poor and overweight, but seemingly happy with his lot in life. Just the continuous movement of the author between Chile and the United States, and his interactions with Latinos, largely Mexican Americans, throughout the novel makes it a transnational work, but especially interesting are the complex and often conflicted relationships to US culture and ideas that Alberto and Carlos profess throughout the novel. Especially in light of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, these ruminations on what it means for something (or someone) to be American are intriguing.
In one scene in the novel, Alberto and his father get into an argument about a certain word: “drifter.” The detective tells Alberto’s father—who has lived in California for thirty years—that Carlos is probably a drifter, and that is why they haven’t been able to find him. Alberto notes that the concept of a “drifter” is distinctly American, then his father berates him for having a negative view of the United States. This scene is interesting on a transnational level for numerous reasons. First of all, the very fact that Alberto thinks a drifter could only be an American seems to relate to our discussion of cosmopolitanism, and the American feeling that borders do not apply. Interestingly, while being a drifter is usually considered a negative attribute, it is also the marking of someone who does not belong—and who does not want to belong—to a specific region, much the same way the cosmopolitans like to assert the fact that they do not belong to any one place, and can traverse borders as they please. This idea of Carlos as a drifter—someone who does not have to pay attention to borders or familial ties, the way Alberto insists a Chilean would have to—is complicated by Carlos’s impetus to leave his family behind. On the one hand, Carlos leaves his family because they will not allow him freedom, another seemingly American desire for independence and self-direction separate from his family. However, Carlos is also fleeing the law—he steals a car and drives to Las Vegas, and so part of the reason he must be a drifter is because he does not want to get caught. Fleeing from the law makes Carlos more of a reluctant cosmopolitan than a cosmopolitan in the sense that he feels that borders do not apply to him. This conflict in Carlos’s reasons for being a drifter mirrors his overall feelings about his lifestyle and his status as an immigrant: he is thankful for where he has ended up, but is not particularly gratified by how he got there.
In another instance, before he has completely left his family behind, Carlos is drafted into the US army and serves at an army base in Texas. On his first free weekend, he and his friends decide to cross the border into Mexico. Upon arriving at a whore house in Mexico, Carlos speaks only English to the prostitute, throughout almost their entire interaction, until the very end when he accidentally speaks to her in Spanish. The prostitute, excited that Carlos is a native speaker, tells him her whole sad story in Spanish, after which Carlos leaves the brothel immediately and returns to Texas, not even waiting for his friends. After this episode, he buys a Big Mac at McDonalds and vows never to cross the border again, feeling for the first time truly American. This instance, in which Carlos is able to flee the poverty that he sees in Mexico, refusing to relate to the prostitute despite their shared language, he feels that he has become truly American—and it seems he has, at least in the sense of an American as a cosmopolitan. For the first time, Carlos has the luxury of crossing the border and returning to the US, effectively negating any ties he might have with the Mexican woman. Unlike her, Carlos has the luxury of a US citizenship, and the possibility to cross borders that are completely inaccessible to the Mexican prostitute. It is fitting, then, that this marks his first identification as an American—it is the first time he is able to take advantage of this particularly American trait. This scene, too, complicates Carlos’s status as an American, and as a cosmopolitan. Even as Carlos is able to take advantage of his privilege to cross the border as he pleases, he is so threatened by what he sees on the other side that he vows never to leave the US again. It is interesting to consider whether Alberto, his nephew would consider this decision as “American” as his status as a drifter.