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On Juan Villoro's "The Guilty" [BTBA 2016]

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

In the last few years I’ve read a lot of literature in translation, much of it in Spanish and much of it from Mexico. To try and describe the range and diversity of writers from this country would take forever and it may simply be impossible. There are magical and elemental writers (Guadalupe Nettel), master historian writers (Sergio Pitol), and clever,
philosophical writers (Valeria Luiselli). One thing I’ve also noticed is that Mexico produces some very funny writers.

Take these lines from Juan Pablo Villalobos’ English language debut Down the Rabbit Hole: “I like French people because they take off the crown before they cut off their kings’ heads. That way the crown doesn’t get dented and you can keep it in a museum in Paris or sell it to someone with lots of money.” See? Funny. Did I mention the narrator is a seven year old who collects hats and happens to be the son of an infamous drug lord?

Mexico is constantly derided for its violence and corruption; the government, the political process, the police force and drug cartels, all rife and seemingly in cahoots or, perhaps worse, in conflict. This is not something lost on its inhabitants. It faces them every day when they open their eyes. A gritty and absurd fatalism is abundant in the humor of Mexican literature. This might come from the seemingly endless contradictions their homeland contains, a complexity of contemporary life impossible to ignore and, incidentally, who would want to? The Guilty, Juan Villoro’s incredibly compelling short story collection, displays these complexities to a thrilling degree. The writing is razor sharp, the satire brilliant and biting. There is hope. There is misery. There is optimism shaded by fatalism. You see? Everything is complex.

A celebrated journalist and novelist, Villoro’s English language debut presents seven expertly crafted stories that are funny and agile but also illuminating, exploring the paradox of being a Mexican in Mexico. Can everyone relate to the world-weary humor of these stories? Just about. There is a universality to these damaged characters laughing from the abyss because, as one quickly discovers, they are all of us.

The protagonist of the first story is a mariachi who is tired of being a mariachi and gets involved in adult films in order to find himself, only to further lose himself. The title story features two screenwriting brothers, one a trafficker in border crossers. “Holding Pattern” focuses on a bottled water salesman circling endlessly over London in the hopes of making a connecting flight. Villoro’s stories are populated by the exhausted and the desperate, people at the end of their ropes, all connected seamlessly by the world-weary humor of the condemned. In fiction, just as in life, levity is often a succor for anguish. It sustains us. It tells us we’re less alone. Humor is a form of grace. Villoro understands this. As tragic and hopeless as the subjects and characters may be, there is always the humor to keep us going. What at first appears to be a collection of curious and offbeat characters—soccer players, window washers, mariachis—quickly becomes the bleak and hysterical kin of the everyday. It’s not that these people are exciting to read because of their occupations; they’re exciting to read because, like us, they’re trying to survive.

Injured, but still playing soccer, the narrator of “The Whistle” remarks:

I got used to playing through the pain. Then I got used to the injections. I played on painkillers more often than a normal body should. But my body isn’t normal. It’s a kicked-in lump. When she was feeling for my nerve with the needle, the doctor talked about my calcified flesh, as if I were turning into a wall. I like that idea: a wall the opposing team smashes into, where Argentinians crack open their heads.

But even the world of soccer is teeming with violence and corruption. Keeping one’s sense of humor might be the only way of keeping one’s sanity. Later he considers heaven:

Heaven for strikers is full of balls, I guess. But for midfielders, heaven is an empty field where there’s nothing to do and you can finally scratch your nuts, the balls you haven’t been able to touch your whole career.

The interplay of flippancy and frustration is adroitly translated by Kimi Traube, who clearly understands the tone and nuance Villoro is going for. Finding the balance for expressing the downright unpleasant from the lips of a detached but likable narrator is no easy task. And, incidentally, why are these characters likable? Because they’ve been down hard roads. Life has dealt them bad hands. They’ve seen things. You just know it. And translating this feeling can’t be easy. Sometimes the effort involved in artfully translating a book is discernable, other times the art lies in its subtlety. The translation of The Guilty is striking in the sense that the reader distinctly hears the voices of Villoro’s characters, senses their desperation and disquiet; the perception of impending violence that’s palpable.

Another subject in this collection is Americans, or gringos. Reminiscent of the stories of Álvaro Enrigue, the give-and-take between Mexicans and Americans is a topic of fascination and comedy. Mexicans often look at their northern neighbors with a sense of charmed befuddlement and genuine perplexity, sometimes both at once. Samuel Katzenberg, the gluten-free gringo reporter in the story “Amigos Mexicanos” asks the narrator to be his contact in Mexico City as he searches for an “authentic” Mexico, after having done his “bazillionth story on Frida Kahlo.” Katzenberg, of course, asks about the violence: “How violent is Mexico City, really?” And the narrator reflects: “I remembered something Burroughs wrote to Kerouac or Ginsberg or some other big-time addict who wanted to come to Mexico but was scared he’d get jumped: ‘Don’t worry: Mexicans only kill their friends.’”

The stories in The Guilty not only delve into the psyches of Mexicans but into the shallow perceptions “gringos” have toward Mexico. In fact, “Amigos Mexicanos” showcases the way we as neighbors perceive one another, chiefly through misunderstandings and shallow abstractions, seldom if ever correct, like a married couple continually misinterpreting the other, as if language were a hindrance more than a tool. At one point the narrator says: “The planet had turned into a new Babel where nobody could understand anybody else.” Yet these stories do the opposite by deciphering the myriad attitudes of its Mexican characters.

One of the most important aspects of translated literature, I think, is the glimpse we get of people in other places, how they think and feel and conduct their lives. If one doesn’t visit a country or speak its language there is simply no other way but through translation to open the door to these places. Do I think translators are magicians of a sort? I do. When I look back at the last ten years of books I’ve read, the stack would be largely diminished if translations were taken out. This wasn’t something I sought out, at least not at first, but after reading three or four Thomas Bernhard novels and just as many by Roberto Bolaño and an equal amount by Elena Ferrante and Javier Marías I was compelled to seek them out.

The service translations do isn’t easily summarized. It’s art. It’s literature and history. It’s a million unseen decisions oblivious to the reader. Sometimes, by default, it’s political. But it allows a person who’s willing to take the time a portal into the intricacies of another place, sometimes distant, other times right across a border. A collection like The Guilty displays the diverse challenges and staggering contradictions a country like Mexico embodies but without relying on gun-toting narcos or the simple cliches of good and bad. And lucky for us, this is done through the transcendent act of comedy.

I decided to write my first post about The Guilty for several reasons: it is a slight book (in size) and could easily disappear in the deluge of great books we’re getting sent and lucky enough to read. It is also a debut (in English) and like any debut, the future of that author’s works rests heavily upon its success. Although Villoro is highly regarded in Mexico (and has a large body of work in Spanish) it is often the success of that debut that determines if readers will see any more books by that writer in translation.



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