To celebrate the recent release of Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash, all this week we’re going to serialize a speech that Jorge gave this past summer on the Future of Latin American Fiction.
And, as a special offer, for the next 20 people who subscribe to Open Letter—either a 5 book or 10 book subscription—will receive a signed copy of Season of Ash. These won’t last long . . .
LATIN AMERICA, A HOLOGRAM
By Jorge Volpi
Territories of Evil
Instead of worrying about what is going wrong in the new democracies—too predicable and boring—the Latin American writers interested in the present situation of their nations have preferred to occupy themselves with the enemies of the system, the criminal bands and drug dealers that are waging a war against the states and their rivals. This new contemporary epic, whose main influence is found in the Westerns and in the blacksploitation films, with touches of The Godfather and Pulp Fiction, has become an authentic literary sub-genre in the region and has even contaminated writers of the international mainstream, like the Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte, who transformed a drug dealer from Sinaloa into the main character of The Queen of the South (2002). As opposed to the realism of other times, the narco-literature teaches no lessons, passes no moral judgments, and is barely an instrument of criticism, but as its authors have felt compelled to recreate the speech and habits of their protagonists, their out of control lives, and their atrocious deaths with pinpoint accuracy, it has ended up becoming the social art that remains nowadays.
For evident reasons, Columbian literature was the first to explore this territory: the war between the government, the drug dealers, the different guerrilla groups, and the paramilitary quickly inspired a literary explosion. The already classic La virgen de los sicarios (1994) by Fernando Vallejo, centered in the desolate lives of young hit men at the service of the drug barons, pointed a way for the next generation: main characters that seem motivated only by bitterness, inertia, reproduction—or, as in this case, reinvention—written in the language of criminals, and in a style that, thanks to its dryness and distance, emphasizes the protagonists’ alienation. A little bit later, Jorge Franco finished defining the conventions of the genre when he incorporated a vigorous feminine figure into a world that up to then had been ruled by men in Rosario Tijeras (1999). It barely surprises that both novels were quickly adapted into movies: La virgen de los sicarios by the Belgian Barbet Schroeder in 2000 and Rosario Tijeras by the Mexican Emilio Maille in 2005.
As the violence associated with drug dealing started to invade other Latin American cities, writers hurried to incorporate drug dealers in their texts, first as backdrop and then as the center of the action. In an aseptic and unremarkable era, dominated by mistrust of the political, these powerful forces at the margin of the law acquired an almost mythic aura: poor adolescents, enlisted by the mafias until they become professional killers; beautiful young ladies used as exchange currency (girls from Caleña and Sinaloa must be the most beautiful in their countries); gunmen confronted with existential emptiness; pathetic heroes and villains, who are difficult to distinguish from each other; a universe dominated by danger, improvisation, and death; clumsy and underpaid (and almost always corrupt) policemen; and of course, a few multi-millionaire drug barons, who are capable of committing the biggest atrocities. Overnight, all of the elements of an eccentric and harrowing thriller arrived on the table of the Latin American writers: new cavalry novels where nobody knows why they fight; where, as the song says, ”life is worth nothing”; where acts of heroism are rare; and where survival past forty years old is a victory in itself.
If it is true that in Mexico drug traffic has operated, in a more or less quiet manner, since the fifties, its legends were incorporated into literature much later than into popular music, where its leaders have been praised in hundreds of Mexican ballads. The credit for creating a literary universe based on drug traffic falls to Élmer Mendoza from Sinaloa. From Un asesino solitario (1999) to Bala de plata (which won the Premio Tusquets de Novela in 2007), Mendoza has mixed aspects of the black novel with the criminal—and, therefore, political—environment of the North of Mexico. His influence has been felt in the new generation, to the degree that a link to drug traffic is now considered one of the essential characteristics of fiction written in the North of the country. Writers from other regions, such as Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez and Mario González Suárez, have extended this exploration, the first with an unsuccessful combination of the criminal and the supernatural in El vuelo (2008) and the second with the delirious interior monologue of a criminal rogue in A Webo, Padrino (2008), but among the dozens of tales of this sub-species Trabajos del reino (2004) by Yuri Herrera is one of the best.
Narrated with a firm prose that scarcely permits itself a lyric moment, Herrera tells us about the arrival of a Mexican balladeer to the intimate circle of a drug baron, as if he was writing of a bard and a medieval lord. The metaphor works surprisingly well and, without needing to reproduce the clumsy jargon of its characters, it says in a few pages what would take less talented writers hundreds: a miasma of loyalties and treason surrounds the chiefs; the vileness, inexperience, and fear of the hired assassins; the unavoidable corruption of the environment; and the way in which art becomes an accomplice to crime. A novel of narcotics and implicit criticism, Trabajos del reino shines as a small literary jewel in a genre dominated by clichés.
No matter how saturated we are by the reports in newspapers and on television, violence in Latin America is not limited to drug traffic, and other types of criminals have also inspired numerous novels. They’re almost all about political violence—I insist: the only bastion of social novel—although they are devoid of the ideological compromise that marked Paco Ignacio Taibo II. I will confine myself to pointing out three examples. Satan, by the Columbian Mario Mendoza (winner of Premio Biblioteca Breve in 2001), and effectively adapted to film by Andres Baiz in 2007. It recreates the madness of a veteran of the Vietnam War who assassinated ten people in a pizza parlor in Bogotá in 1986. The Mexican Martín Solares investigates police intrigues through his very acute sense of humor. Solares considers himself the heir of Jorge Ibargüengoitia, and, escaping the solemnity of the genre, he leads us through the tangled investigation of a tropical detective, the Macetón Cabrera, utilizing a tone that brilliantly combines satire and intrigue. And, finally, Al otro lado (2008) by Heriberto Yepez from Tijuana, holds a distorted mirror up to the border between Mexico and the United States. Located in an indeterminate future, he takes us a step further into the conditions of life on the border, and his Ciudad del Paso, with its avalanche of ”half castes”, immigrants, drug dealers, and hired assassins, looks very much like Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez. A Tex-Mex Under the Volcano, the novel follows the fate of Shark, a miserable hired assassin who is dulled by phoco—a fashionable synthetic drug.
While the plot twists and tangles without end—a natural effect of the phoco—Shark’s hallucinations offer the best point of view to describe the rarified atmosphere in this no man’s land. These are the exceptions; the truth is that the Latin American police novel only rarely manages to escape cliché: stupid and perverse anti-heroes, writing that reads like a film script, foreseeably colloquial language—sometimes disguised as avant-garde experiment—and indifference toward the socio-political context. Nothing close to the masterpiece of the genre: Bolaño’s harrowing reconstruction of the Santa Teresa crimes in 2666.
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .
Like any good potboiler worth its salt, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Gun wastes no time setting up its premise: “Last night, I found a gun. Or you could say I stole it, I’m not really sure. I’ve never seen something so. . .
Heiner Resseck, the protagonist in Monika Held’s thought-provoking, first novel, This Place Holds No Fear, intentionally re-lives his past every hour of every day. His memories are his treasures, more dear than the present or future. What wonderful past eclipses. . .
If you’ve ever worked in a corporate office, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “Perception is reality.” To Björn, the office worker who narrates Jonas Karlsson’s novel The Room, the reality is simple: there’s a door near the bathroom that leads. . .
I recently listened to Three Percent Podcast #99, which had guest speaker Julia Berner-Tobin from Feminist Press. In addition to the usual amusement of finally hearing both sides of the podcast (normally I just hear parts of Chad’s side. . .