Noir is not an easy genre to define—or if it once was, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; as a quick guess, maybe Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 1935. When two books as different as Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy (Mexico, 1969) and César Aira’s Shantytown (originally published in 2001 in Argentina) can both be labeled “noir,” there’s something funny going on. Both are translations from Spanish, published late in 2013 by New Directions, but the similarities end about there. Does the label mean anything useful anymore, or is there a better way to describe these books and their merits?
As near as I can make out, the essential elements of noir are 1) there’s no clear good or bad, just shades of gray and 2) the bodies pile up so fast everyone (reader, protagonists) loses track. As a corollary to these two axioms, the central mystery is often left unsolved, or replaced by a larger and murkier one—so readers with a taste for the traditional pleasures of the whodunit will go hungry. But fortunately there’s element 3) it’s done in a tone or voice so compelling that the most grisly and relentless events become entertaining, sometimes moving, even funny. Bernal and Aira both meet all three criteria, though in very different ways.
Rafael Bernal, born 1915, was a seasoned writer of mid-brow local color and detective tales (and, like so many great Latin American writers, a diplomat) when he wrote The Mongolian Conspiracy in 1968. After the 1910 revolution, Mexico had never really settled into a functioning democracy, and with the Tlatelolco student massacre the country seemed to be headed in the wrong direction fast. Somehow knowing this would be his last novel, Bernal tore the roof off The Mongolian Conspiracy.
Filiberto García is Bernal’s antihero, a ready-to-retire police detective who’s never quite broken out of low-level cleanup (i.e. killing) assignments for one corrupt government department or another. The KGB, in Mongolia, has heard rumors of a Chinese conspiracy to assassinate the US president on his upcoming trip to Mexico City. The Americans and Russians both send agents to uncover the plot, and García is assigned to be their local guide. Or as he puts it, “Now I’ve been promoted to the Department of International Intrigue. Holy shit!” The world-weary government thug thus finds himself called out day and night to try to pick apart the threads of a delicate geopolitical clusterfuck. Meanwhile, he’s made his first emotional connection since forever with Marta, a girl from Chinatown who may herself be implicated in the plots and counterplots—but to sleep with her, he’ll first have to get a chance to sleep at all.
There are some fantastic set pieces, like the conversation where the Russian and the American compare memories of the coups and conspiracies they’ve staged around the world, while the Mexican listens on in envy—he’s only ever been involved in home-brewed trouble. The Russian asks, “An electrical cord is very effective. Don’t you think so, Filiberto?” and that sends García into a reverie worthy of Sam Peckinpah:
It was in Huasteca, and I was carrying out orders. Puny old devil who spent the whole day in his rocking chair on the porch of his house. The Boss gave the order. I came up behind him with the cord. . . . When he stopped moving, I put him in a coffin we had brought, and we took the main road out of town. The best way to carry a body discreetly is in a coffin. A laborer coming down the road with his oxen even doffed his hat when he saw it. Then, suddenly, as we turned a corner, the fucking old man started kicking. Like he wanted someone to notice. We had to lower the coffin, open it, and give him another squeeze with the same cord. Fucking rowdy old man!
Francisco Goldman, in his Introduction, says “the real action [of The Mongolian Conspiracy] springs from its language.” The narrative often slips directly inside García’s thoughts as he tries to piece together a moral stance from the shit surrounding him. Like the distinction between mere “stiffs” and a real “corpse” (the kind of body that might once have harbored a soul): “Fucking stiffs! You don’t only have to make them, you’ve also got to carry them as if they were children.” The old killer begins to suspect he has a heart after all. Or worry that he’s had one all along.
But Bernal’s García doesn’t quite hang together as a voice, for all his vigorous cursing. The language stumbles from the stiff and formal to tough-guy talk that would make Philip Marlowe blush, without (to my ear) settling into a vernacular consistent and believable for the time and setting. I don’t fault translator Katherine Silver—I’ve seen her skill at a remarkable range of registers in other works—so I wonder whether Bernal was just a little out of his depth. It must have been a tough assignment, an insider-turned-outsider inventing a language for someone who is just crossing that line himself. There’s no doubting why its plot and characters make it a “revered cult masterpiece,” but forty-five years later the lasting punch of The Mongolian Conspiracy may be not in its own language, but in the language it paved the way for, from Roberto Bolaño to Álvaro Enrigue and . . . “César Aira“http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=9592.
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