Andy Mulligan’s novel Trash argues that corruption is society’s most disgraceful form of stealing. Mulligan’s story revolves around theft: impoverished children have to steal to stay alive, bribes are necessary transactions in day-to-day life, and the plot revolves around the theft of millions of dollars from the wealthy Senator Zapanta’s private vault. Despite the prevalence of theft throughout the story, Mulligan argues that theft that’s intended to help poor people stay alive isn’t theft at all, since such people are owed a basic level of subsistence by society. In contrast, Mulligan believes the true theft is committed by society’s corrupt elite, which he exemplifies through vice-president Zapanta’s actions. Senator Zapanta steals millions of dollars of personal wealth by siphoning off government funds intended for the poor through bogus business deals, forcing the city’s poor to live amid rotting waste in slums built on landfills and cemeteries. Zapanta also maintains his wealth by imprisoning or killing anybody who threatens his fortune, dooming several characters to untimely, often violent, deaths. The book thus portrays corruption as the most unforgivable transgression a person in power can commit because it robs others of their freedom—or even their lives.
Mulligan implies that theft by and for society’s poorest is not really theft at all, because the poor are owed a tolerable standard of life by their society. For instance, Rat (a young malnourished boy who sleeps among rats in a landfill called Behala) regularly lifts small amounts of money from the charity-run Mission School on site. Yet Mulligan portrays Rat’s thieving as justified because Rat merely dreams of affording train fare home where he can become a fisherman away from the “stink” of Behala, where no child should be condemned to live. Mulligan similarly describes José Angelico—a poor man who steals a fortune from Senator Zapanta—as “no thief” because José Angelico intends to distribute the fortune among the poor. Mulligan depicts José Angelico’s theft as an act of justice rather than theft, because Zapanta’s fortune came from government aid money, meaning it actually “belongs to the poor” and so it is merely being returned to them.
Mulligan contrasts the children’s and José Angelico’s arguably justified theft with Senator Zapanta’s corruption, through which Zapanta hoards government aid money, condemning countless people to hopeless poverty. A political prisoner named Gabriel Olondriz explains that the aid money Senator Zapanta “spirited away” was intended for “hospitals and schools,” but that “the city remained poor” while Zapanta grew absurdly wealthy. José Angelico similarly accuses Senator Zapanta of stopping “a nation in its tracks” and preventing their country from “making progress” so that Zapanta could fill his personal vault with “dirty money from his crimes.” Mulligan exemplifies Zapanta’s crimes through an article in the “Star Extra” newspaper, which describes a court case questioning Zapanta’s attempt to recover debts from his bankrupt company by raising taxes on rice, which likely affected countless people who struggle to afford the rice on which society’s poorest subsist. When Raphael, Gardo, and Rat—three young scavengers who live on the landfill—discover the $6,000,000 that José Angelico stole from Zapanta, Raphael remarks that the money looks like “food and drink and changing my life.” Essentially, for the “trash boys” who live in the landfill, this enormous sum represents freedom from a deplorable life of poverty. Since Zapanta’s vault was full of aid money, his unethical hoarding means that he is directly responsible for the suffering of those forced to live in slums, graveyards, and landfills.
Senator Zapanta’s attempts to protect his stolen wealth also result in the deaths of several characters, which demonstrates how government corruption has a direct effect on society’s most vulnerable populations—particularly those who speak out against an authority figure’s wrongdoings. Mulligan shows how people who attempt to bring corrupt politicians to justice are killed for their efforts, enabling corrupt figures like Zapanta to keep exploiting government resources for personal gain at the expense of the poor. Gabriel Olondriz, for example, is unjustly imprisoned after attempting to expose Senator Zapanta’s theft of government aid money and he eventually dies after spending countless years in the squalid Colva Prison. Zapanta’s corrupt efforts to keep his hands on the money he has stolen are also directly responsible for the deaths of several characters, such as José Angelico, who is killed by police during a violent interrogation when he is suspected of stealing Zapanta’s fortune. Additionally, two of Olondriz’s servants are killed when Olondriz’s house is burned to destroy evidence against Zapanta.
Thus, even though the poorest people in Mulligan’s fictional city steal a little to get by and José Angelico steals a fortune to return it to the city’s poor, their theft is nothing in comparison to Zapanta’s. Mulligan contrasts these examples of theft to demonstrate how corruption is actually the greatest form of theft in a society, as it either robs people of the hope for a better life or it ends their lives entirely.
Corruption, Power, and Theft ThemeTracker
Corruption, Power, and Theft Quotes in Trash
I was told once about runaways, and it made me sick. How if a new kid shows up with nowhere to go, and the police get him—they wait till night, break his legs and put him on the tracks.
His final act—the one that killed him—was to expose three senators who’d been siphoning off public taxes and stowing them off-shore. They all resigned and the prosecution rumbles on. Pascal Aguila was shot to pieces in a taxi, on his way to testify. Twenty-six bullets—the same caliber as a policeman’s gun —and his murderers were never found.
It sounds crazy, but there was some part of me sure I’d never found it, and some other part of me begging me not to give up—maybe for José Angelico, because we knew more about him now.
What matters is that forty years ago I came upon information that Senator Zapanta had spirited away thirty million dollars of international aid money […] But no schools or hospitals were ever built, and the city stayed poor.
I had so much evidence. Unfortunately for me, I was naïve. My office was raided. The same night there was a terrible fire at my house. I was away but both my maid and my driver were killed in it. And every scrap of evidence went up in smoke.
Once again, the trash boys were ahead of the trash police.
And that is when we saw the brightest light.