Thirteen Crime Stories from Latin America – A Review

Thirteen Crime Stories from Latin America
McSweeney’s No. 46
McSweeney’s 2014, pg 270

Maybe I just don’t like crime fiction? I don’t read much of it. Perhaps reading this collection was a mistake for someone like myself? But I’ve read enough fiction with criminality and violence that I can only conclude something else was at work. As much as I tried to like the stories within and find something redeeming, if not in substance at least in style, I failed. I read one story after another and it turns out most of them are not that good. Lazy is a better adjective. I get the feeling that some of these stories are written by writers who don’t read much crime fiction either. Santiago Roncacliolo’s story is a case in point. It was essentially a police officer’s disposition of a crime, told in a linear fashion with little in the way of interesting touches. The subject, too, was just as uninteresting, a murder of a singer over drugs. There is, of course, potential in the subject but other than pointing out the drugs are a problem, the story is flat. Fine. Roncacliolo’s stories aren’t my favorite anyway. I think the best story of his I’ve read was in the the Future is not Ours collection. The next story by the Argentine Mariana Enriquez gave me a glimmer of hope. The narrator of the story is a woman who lives in a run down part of Buenos Aries. She’s a middle class woman, a little naive, who lives in the neighborhood because of the great old art deco mansions. On the street she encounters a dirty street child, the son of a crack addict who lives somewhere near by. She befriends the boy and he seeks her help when the mother disappears. The mother doesn’t want anything to do with the woman and jealously guards her son. Unlike many of these stories, the story resolves back into mystery when the addict disappears and the narrator is fairly certain, but not 100 percent sure, she has seen the little boy’s corpse by the side of  road. Enriquez’s story presents a couple elements missing from most of the stories: narrative mystery (as opposed to a mystery story), subtlety with her characters, and a resolution that is open ended. It is one of the few stories that doesn’t attempt wrap up a crime in easy terms. Another story of note was from Alejandro Zambra. It has his usual narrative adventurousness and is both a story and the story of a story. What makes the story suffer is the graphic sex with a child. As a subject, child abuse is fine, but there was something off putting about the way he wrote it, as if he enjoyed writing it too much. It is a touchy subject where art and crime meet and in the case I think he went too far. Speaking of graphic sex, several of the writers have something for transvestite prostitutes. Fine, but also a cliche. And why do they have to end up dismembered ? At least Enriquez gave her transvestite her own voice. The only other story of interest was Rodrigo Ray Rosa’s account of a drug clinic buried in the Guatemalan jungle. It was interesting, had an air of mystery to it and until the ending was well written. Unfortunately, it had one of the sloppiest endings that was just tacked on to finish it off. Finally, one last complaint: where are the women authors? There was only one Enriquez. A 1:13 ratio is bad. There have to be a few more women who want to write crime fiction. It certainly would have given a little more variation. So, no, I did not like much about this collection. One of the more disappointing things I’ve read for sometime.

 

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Alejandro Zambra Interviewed in El Pais

El Pais has a decent length interview with Alejandro Zambra. It is worth checking out to get a sense of what animates his writing.

—Sí, claro. De ser un niño muy teórico e inteligentoso, la literatura pasó a servirme para explicarme cosas de las que no estaba seguro. En Formas de volver a casa yo sabía lo que estaba narrando, pero pretendía también disolver otras certezas, conseguir una cierta ambigüedad. Que el libro fuera muchas cosas a la vez. Y por supuesto que algunas cosas no sabía que estaban ahí. Eso es lo que tiene la literatura de intransferible: existen fragmentos no calculados. Creo que intenté otra manera de hablar de la dictadura chilena, que a ratos desconcierta. Hay escritores chilenos profesionales que recorren Europa…

—Comercializando el dolor.

—Claro, y bueno, sabemos quiénes son. A veces cuesta explicar en el extranjero que acá existía una vida cotidiana mientras sucedían hechos horrendos. Un periodista francés, a propósito de Formas de volver a casa, me preguntó cómo era posible que un niño anduviera por las calles en ese tiempo, sin saber que los niños de entonces andábamos por las calles harto más que los de ahora.

Los libros de Zambra, no es ni necesario preguntárselo, son autobiográficos. Hurguetean en él mismo. Hay una voz que los atraviesa. Cualquiera sea el conflicto —siempre finalmente íntimo— está el testimonio de un narrador encarnado. “En Formas de volver a casa pagué una deuda con mi infancia. Durante mucho tiempo pensé que mi experiencia no tenía importancia. Era el tiempo en que lo realmente significativo era que se esclarecieran los crímenes, que las víctimas de la tortura pudieran hablar; los que importaban no éramos nosotros —los hijos de la clase media del extrarradio, despolitizada— sino los hijos de las víctimas. Si entonces me hubieran dicho que escribiría una novela sobre la villa en que vivía en Maipú, no lo hubiera creído. Esa novela, más que relatar hechos, lo que quiere es hacerse cargo de la imposibilidad de relatarlos. En rigor, ahí hay experiencias, pero también está la sensación de que no valen la pena de ser narradas, porque hay asuntos que son más importantes. En el fondo tiene que ver con el duelo, cuando este se transformó en algo realmente colectivo en Chile. Esto debe haber pasado hace unos diez años. Dejó de ser un asunto solamente de las víctimas, y la mayoría de los chilenos entendieron que estas cosas le habían pasado al país. Aún quedan muchos crímenes sin resolver, todavía campea la impunidad, pero al menos los chilenos entendimos, la mayoría, que el duelo es colectivo”.

Bonsai – The Movie of Alejandro Zambra’s Novel – A Review

While I thought Bonsai was well written and showed some inventiveness, I thought it was a little juvenile at times. Still I was curious how such a literary novel would be turned into a movie, especially all the references to writing and reading. I’ve long since gotten over the truism that the book and the movie are never the same. What interests me is what decisions they have made. As far as the literary content goes, they handled it quite nicely. The running joke about the main character writing a novel that he is really supposed to be transcribing is in some ways a little more interesting because it is subtle. Where as the narrator has to explain it in the novel, the film just shows it. It is one of those advantages that film can occasionally have. The real plus of the film, though, was it did not seem as juvenile as the book. The change in narrative perspective is most likely what created that feeling. The film it self is serious, the incidents are comic, whereas the narration of the novel is light and jokey. One is certainly not better than the other; they are their own things. The novel is certainly more revolutionary; the film is fairly straight forward. As literary movies go, though, it is one of the better ones. The film makers didn’t try to create a metaphor for the creation of writing, something that is usually tedious. Rather writing is just something one does and reading is something one enjoys. Moreover, they were able to use the same jokes from the book to show the two lovers injecting literature into their lives and constructing literary significances to even the smallest things. That sense of the primacy of literature in the book is stronger because in the movie the characters, almost comically, are often going to puny parties at the college that makes all their pretensions seem funny. So although Bonsai the movie is not Bonsai the book, as adaptations go, it is one of the better ones.

Alejandro Zambra Interviewed in El Pais – How the Cost of Books Shape His Desire for E-Books

El Pais has an interview with Alejandro Zambra on the publishing of his book of criticism, No leer, in Spain. What is interesting about the article, especially in context of some recent articles questioning the structure of the publishing industry in the Spanish speaking world, is that he says he read most of his books in photocopied editions because they were too expensive otherwise. And due to all this, he is looking forward to the e-book which will reduce the cost of the book (although, there is a cost to entry in that you have to have a reader, but I suppose he takes that for granted).

“Muchas grandes obras que fueron importantes para mí las leí en fotocopia. Los libros en Chile son objetos de lujo, carísimos. Parecen diseñados como para que la gente no lea. Las fotocopias me recuerdan los tiempos que uno le pasaba sus poemas a la amiga que estabas conociendo y hacías como un libro, o cuando un amigo fotocopiaba Guerra y paz, de 30 en 30 páginas. Por eso me interesan los e-books. Si finalmente puedes pagar mucho menos por un libro, ¿por qué no? El libro es solo un producto, lo importante es el texto. Y a la vez soy hiperfetichista de los libros. Me interesan todos los formatos. También me gustan mucho los audiobooks, porque creo que un buen texto debiera uno poder escucharlo en voz alta. La prosa tiene que tener ritmo. Y ese ritmo tiene que sorprenderte, provocar efectos específicos. No hay que olvidar que así era la literatura. La costumbre de leer en silencio es relativamente nueva. En las ventas del Quijote se lee una novela para que varios la escuchen”.

Is The Center of Spanish Language Publishing Returning to Latin America?

El Pais had an article recently about La Feria del LIbro de Buenos Aires and a group of Latin American authors who gave their thoughts on where the power base of Spanish publishing is. Historically it has gone back and forth. While Spain was under Franco Latin America was the publishing center. When Spain became a democracy and Latin America had its own problems the center of publishing moved to Spain. Now the question is, is it about to change? Many of the authors consulted hoped it would, pointing out it is silly that to get books published they have to go to Spain, and that if they only publish in their home country their book probably won’t leave their home country. Ebooks, of course, were touted as one of the solutions but it is uncertain if that is going to be as liberating as might be hoped for. Given that Spain refused to put in a large presence in the book fair do to a squabble with Argentina, things are certain to change.

Vale, no hay un nuevo Gabriel García Márquez en Latinoamérica. Ni “rayuelas”, ni “conversaciones en la catedral”. No hay millones de personas en el mundo esperando a que salga el último libro de la porteña Claudia Piñeiro, o de su compatriota Marcelo Cohen, premio de la Crítica en Argentina por su novela Balada. La gente no abarrota las salas donde habla la mexicana Guadalupe Nettel, ni se detiene el tráfico cuando cruza un semáforo con su mochila al hombro el chileno Alejandro Zambra o el colombiano Tomás González. Y sin embargo, a todos ellos les va bien dentro y, a veces, fuera de sus países. La Feria del Libro de Buenos Aires también goza de excelente salud: desde el 19 de abril y hasta el 7 de mayo se espera la asistencia de 1.250.000 personas que pagarán el equivalente a 4,5 euros por entrar en un recinto casi tan grande como cinco campos de fútbol lleno de libros. Los cinco novelistas se dieron cita el viernes en la Feria para hablar ante una audiencia de unas 200 personas no sobre sus propios libros, sino de sus experiencias como lectores. Muy pronto surgió la cuestión de España: ¿Por qué se depende tanto de las editoriales españolas para encontrar a los buenos autores de Latinoamérica? ¿Por qué siguen llegando los libros de otros idiomas traducidos al español de España?

The New Boom: Latin American Non-Fiction?

I actually don’t like terms like the Boom, but El Pais had an interesting conversation about a new collection coming out from Alfagrara: Antología de crónica latinoamericana actual. (You can read an excerpt here – the 42 page introduction) It is an anthology of stories from newspapers and magazines that focus on the way journalistic writing has developed as its own art form among Spanish speaking journalists. I know there have been many excellent journalists in the past so I don’t want to over state the boom idea. But the focus on journalistic narrative, apparently, has undergone a resurgence of interest. The name English speakers might recognize is Alejandro Zambra. El Pais explains the phenomenon:

1. De acuerdo,  la palabra boom huele. ¿Lo dejamos en “explosión controlada de la crónica latinoamericana”? Lo dejamos. Pero también diremos que en los últimos años han proliferado en América Latina las revistas, las colecciones, los talleres y hasta los premios dedicados a la crónica. Además, ahora se publican en España dos amplias selecciones dedicadas a ese género híbrido que llaman periodismo narrativo. Hoy mismo llega a las librerías Antología de crónica latinoamericana actual (Alfaguara), coordinada por Darío Jaramillo Agudelo. El 1 de marzo lo hará Mejor que ficción. Crónicas ejemplares (Anagrama), a cargo de Jorge Carrión. El próximo sábado Babelia -que ya dedicó una portada al género– se ocupará de ambos libros y del fenómeno que representan. Hoy Papeles Perdidos ofrece dos crónicas incluidas en la selección de Jaramillo: El sabor de la muerte, del mexicano Juan Villoro, y Bob Dylan en el Auditorium Theater, del dominicano Frank Báez.