Owen (Matt) Rowe is a writer, editor, and translator (from Portuguese and Italian) based in Port Townsend, Washington. Stay tuned for his upcoming transformations into bookseller and audiobook entrepreneur. This is technically the first of two reviews (hence the Aira reference in the first paragraph), and Owen’s Shantytown review will run
Saturday or Monday to keep it all groovy and together. But for now, here’s the beginning of the Bernai half of things:
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.
For the rest of this first part, go here.
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