Jorge Volpi on the Latin American Noir and Drug Novel

In part five of Jorge Volpi’s excellent lecture on Latin American writing he delves into the world of the narco novel. It is a fascinating list of works and it is a bit of a shame that they won’t make it into English, but since Americans would rather avoid the South than admit they are part of the problem when it comes to drugs, I doubt many will be translated, which only highlights Volpi’s emphasis on the otherness of Latin America.

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.