Una novela criminal (A Criminal Novel) by Jorge Volpi – A Review

Una novela criminal (A Criminal Novel)
Jorge Volpi
Alfagura, 2018 493 pg

Jorge Volpi’s Una novela criminal is a novela sin fiction, that is a novel without fiction, a book that tries to examine the complexity of Cassez-Vallarta case that roiled Mexico and France during the second half of the 2000’s and, in some ways, is still not resolved. While the case itself may not be familiar to English speakers (I hadn’t heard of it before), the story of a justice system failing the accused and the victims is a troubling one. Volpi’s precise analysis not only takes apart the flaws in the case, but paints a wider picture of Mexican, and to some degree, French society. He reveals a world of corruption, police misconduct, and indifference to truth that resonates beyond Mexico.

In practice, the novelization in Una novela criminal is not like famous true crime works such as, Cold Blood. Volpi is not using many techniques of a novelist. There are changes in style, and minimal scene setting, but most of that is done in clearly journalistic sense that sticks to factual details. Volpi comes in and out as a narrator, but, again, it is the voice of an essayist. The novel is the story itself, the interweaving of lies and counter lies, ellipsis and lacuna that fill the book and make the idea of justice a capricious and infuriating process.  The book is not so much a novel, but an examination of how a narrative is constructed. And constructed is the right word. From the beginning of the case, the lives of Florence Cassez and Israel Vallarta were put on display. Volpi writes how when they were apprehended by the police for kidnapping, the tv crews were there. Except, that they had been apprehended the day before and the  police were staging, not even restaging, the capture. Time and again, he shows how the beatings, extra judicial maneuverings, and unreliable witnesses create a narrative that is pure fiction and full of holes.

Yet there is more to the case than just injustice. For Volpi, Vallarta is difficult to understand. His testimony changes throughout the course of the book. While he is sure Cassez is innocent, in part because her testimony has always been consistent, he is unable to get a read on Vallarta. Is there something he is hiding? It is not clear, but at the level of the novel, it leaves questions open. It is in these mysteries, despite one’s belief in how bad the law was abused, you can understand why this is called a novel.

It can also be a bleak book, one that captures our times:

Hoy, que tanto se habla de la posverdad —un término tan elástico como inconsistente—, pienso que el caso Vallarta-Cassez, como quizás la mayor parte de los asuntos criminales en México, prefiguraba su lógica. Si la posverdad existe, tendríamos que imaginarla no como el ámbito donde los poderoso mienten, y ni siquiera donde mienten de modo sistemático, sino aquel donde sus mentiras ya no incomodan a nadie y la distinción entre verdad y mentira se torna irrelevante.

Today, there is so much talk about post truth—a term so elastic it is doesn’t mean much—I think that the Vallarta-Cassez, like the majority of criminal cases in Mexico, predates it. If post truth exists we have to imagine it not as the place where the powerful lie and not even where the powerful lie systematically, but where their lies don’t bother anyone and the distinction between the truth and a lie have become unimportant.

It is this sense of injustice, runaway state power, and arbitrary use of the law that makes Una novela criminal a book for our times, not just Mexico.

Jorge Volpi Has a New Book

The Mexican author Jorge Volpi has a new novel, Memorial del engaño (The Memorial of a Fraud). It is a political-economic novel with various narrative games, including the use of an alternate J. Volpi as narrator.

Así, la novela no la escribe él, sino un tal J. Volpi, nacido en Nueva York en 1953 y no en México, en 1968; y no es un reconocido escritor, sino el fundador y director general de JV Capital Management, en paradero desconocido y prófugo de la justicia tras defraudar 15.000 millones de dólares en 2008. El estafador ha entregado una especie de memorias a su agente literario A. W., seguro el temible Andrew Wylie (exagente real del Volpi escritor), que ha dado pie a este trepidante relato, con traducción de un tal Gustavo Izquierdo y precedido por entusiastas críticas de supuestos grandes expertos internacionales que se reflejan en la contraportada y en las solapas del volumen.


La génesis de Memorial del engaño es triple, lo que se refleja en otras tantas líneas del relato, construido con estructura de ópera. Por un lado, la crisis de 2008 que se inició con la caída de Lehman Brothers: “No sabía que no iba a golpear a México, pero como he vivido ya tantas crisis, quería entender qué pasaba; luego ya la viví en directo en Madrid entre 2011 y 2012”. El segundo incentivo fue conocer la historia de Harry Dexter White, creador del Fondo Monetario Internacional, pero que fue llevado ante el Comité de Actividades Antinorteamericanas acusado de espiar para la Unión Soviética.

La tercera pata es la más literaria: “Me interesan los engaños familiares y la relación padres-hijos”, dice el Volpi escritor, marcado por “el carácter poderoso pero a la vez frágil” de su progenitor. Por ello hace que su Volpi financiero vague por la obra buscando a su padre, en una estructura que recuerda la del mítico Pedro Páramo de Juan Rulfo: la madre que cuenta al hijo sobre el padre y este sale en su búsqueda. “Mi Volpi engaña toda la vida, pero al final él es el engañado”, resume.

I’m always a little doubtful about his political novels but, still, it sounds interesting. The more I see his canon I think he is the heir of Fuentes.

Quarterly Conversation Winter 2013 Out Now

The Quarterly Conversation for Winter 2013 is out now. It looks quite interesting. On first glance what catches my is an interviews with Jorge Volpi. Below are just a few that caught my eye.


The Latin American Hologram: An Interview with Jorge Volpi

Interview by Diego Azurdia and Carlos Fonseca

Certainly there is some provocation to this statement, a small boutade like the ones Bolaño loved so much, but there is also something true to it. Bolaño seems to me to be the last writer that really felt part of a Latin American tradition, the last writer that responded with a knowledge of those models. Not only did he have a battle with the Latin American Boom but with all of the Latin American tradition—in particular with Borges and Cortázar—but that extends back to the 19th century. His was a profoundly political literature that aspired to be Latin American in a way different from that of the Boom, but that was still Latin American. I believe that this tradition stops with Bolaño. After him, my generation and the subsequent generations, I don’t see any authors that really feel part of the Latin American tradition, or that might be responding to these models.

“The Thoughts of Other People”: James Wood and the Realism of “Mind”

By Daniel Green

Certainly there is room for disagreement about what is considered the “proper” purpose of literature. Some readers (and some critics) want “content” from the fiction or poetry they read, indeed want works of literature to “say something” about human experience depicted either through the behavior of individual characters or through their interactions with social and cultural forces. It is also true that such “saying” can be direct or indirect, as James Wood probably believes is the case in those works he praises for their psychological acuity. Such fiction in a sense unwittingly, through the formal and stylistic choices the author has made, reveals the operations of Mind. In remaining faithful to the perceptions and the cast of thought projected on the characters they have created, writers of fiction use the resources of fiction in a way that illuminates the nature of consciousness. In either case, however, these readers and critics are turning to fiction for what it is “about,” although not necessarily in the most reductive sense in which this means preoccupation with “the story.” Most of the novels James Wood approves most enthusiastically, in fact, are notably short on plot, which only gets in the way of providing depth in characterization.

The Obituary by Gail Scott

Review by Jan Steyn

In a world where most stories are produced under severe restrictions of time, space, and genre, and where their emphasis is on accessibility, digestibility, and instantaneous appeal, serious literature goes against the grain. Surely this is a fact known to Gail Scott, who before turning to literature was a newspaper reporter in Montreal, where much of her fiction, including The Obituary, is set. Far from the easy unity and confident voice of journalistic prose, The Obituary makes both the narrative and its narration into puzzles.


The Planets by Sergio Chejfec

Review by Brad Johnson

The books of the Argentine writer Sergio Chejfec defy easy classification, but we can say that he writes for walkers: those for whom each step signifies something both taken/found and lost/forgotten. He writes about wanderers: those for whom destinations are rarely known, where every recognized face and remembered story proves too heavy with significance, slipping the grip of its proper naming. This is especially true of his recently translated novel, The Planets. Originally published in Spanish in 1999, Chejfec’s meditation on friendship, loss, and memory defies easy summation. This is fitting, for these also inform the fluid bounds of reality lived and described by his characters. Here, dreams are recited alongside the real events they anticipate and/or create; characters from dreams slide into the parables of protagonists; and iconic females blur within the slippages between vowels (e.g., Lesa/Sela) and consonants (e.g., Marta/Mirta). The Planets, in short, is a strange novel. It is made stranger still by the absence of its principle character, known only by the narrated memories of others, the enigmatic, nearly nameless M. This strangeness is fitting, then, for each story told about or by him is born of a gap—between dream and reality, past and present, cause and effect—and manifests the trauma of his absence.


March 2012 Words Without Borders: The Mexican Drug War

The new Words Without Borders is out now. It is an issue I’ve been looking forward to for sometime, especially since I donated to the Kick Starter campaign. The issue is a mix of non-fiction and fiction all addressing the drug war. I’ve read Volpi before and he can be insightful. I’m looking forward to reading the Juan Villoro. I’ve seen his name several times in the collection of reporting that was recently published in by Anagrama.

Guest Editor Carmen Boullosa

What is it like to grow up in a country where the only safe place you can gather with friends is in your own home? How do you raise a family when going to the supermarket is fraught with the danger of being kidnapped?  This is the situation in Mexico, where the drug wars have transformed the country into a living hell. Guest editor Carmen Boullosa has assembled compelling essays, interviews, fiction, and poetry from Mexican writers on the impact of this bloody conflict. In their eyewitness reports, Luis Felipe Fabre, Rafael Perez Gay, Yuri Herrera, Rafael Lemus, Fabrizio Mejia Madrid, Hector de Mauleon, Magali Tercero, Jorge Volpi, and Juan Villoro document the crisis and demand the world’s attention.

From the other side of the world, we present poetry commemorating last year’s Japanese earthquake, and launch a new serial about an unexpected pig.

Jorge Volpi Wins the Planeta-Casa de América

Jorge Volpi has won the Planeta-Casa de América for his book La tejedora de sombras. It is about the psychiatrist Christiana Morgan. Not sure when it will come out.

“La historia de Christiana Morgan me fascinó por ser una mujer adelantada a su tiempo, sumida en una búsqueda continua de la libertad absoluta y el amor por su amante, el también psicoanalista Henry Murray. Una búsqueda que chocaba con lo tradicional de su tiempo y ponía en peligro su integridad y su vida”. Así describe Jorge Volpi La tejedora de sombras, la novela con la cual ha ganado hoy el V Premio Iberoamericano Planeta-Casa de América de Narrativa. Una historia de amor atormentada premiada justo en el día de san Valentín.

72 Migrantes Artists and Writers Remember the Murdered 72 – Includes Work from Volpi and Poniatowska

72 Migrantes is a site dedicated to the memory of the 72 immigrants murdered in the desert in northern Mexico. Each of the 72 are remembered by a photographer and writer.The photos can be disturbing, but show the realities of the dangerous journey not only crossing the American border, but moving through Mexico from Central America. I’m not familiar with all the writers, but both Jorge Volpi and Elena Poniatowska have contributed pieces. Poniatowska has long been a journalist and advocate against violence. It is a very interesting site. The only thing is the way you find a particular writer’s work is by cycling through the all the stories. A little annoying.

From the piece by Poniatowska

Quién sabe cuanto faltará pero otros han cruzado a Estados Unidos y han encontrado trabajo y hasta mandan traer a su familia. No soy el único en atravesar, soy el 57 de 72, pero no caminamos juntos los 72, llamaríamos demasiado la atención. Caminamos a buen paso, cada quién con su pensamiento, caminamos de sol a sol, caminamos sin detenernos casi, otros lo han hecho. Seguro, ya pasó lo más duro. Tamaulipas suena a flor, a tulipán, a buena sombra. A pesar de los huizaches se puede caminar, claro que cuesta trabajo llegar pero se llega. A los demás no los conozco y se me hace más fácil platicar con las mujeres, sobre todo en la noche, cuando andamos con un pocillito caliente en la mano e intercambiamos unas cuantas palabras. No muchas, las indispensables. Son como catorce las mujeres pero apenas si levantan los ojos. Guardan todas sus fuerzas para el camino. Son anónimas. Toda la vida, conviene ser anónimo. Mejor no tener nombre, allá me lo voy a hacer, allá lejos de El Salvador y Honduras, lejos de Ecuador y de Brasil, lejos de la favela y la inundación, de las aguas negras y del techo caído, lejos de la intemperie y las armas de fuego, los rifles, las carabinas, los cartuchos y los cargadores, lejos de la policía y de los cárteles. […]

From the piece by Volpi

soy nadie mi nombre es nadie mi nombre no yace sepultado junto a mi cuerpo mi única pertenencia lo única único que tenía robado arrancado por la fuerza vuelto jirones como mi piel como mis vísceras sepultado aquí en este lugar que tampoco tiene nombre o no lo tiene para mí o nunca lo tuvo llegar aquí desde tan lejos a este lugar sin nombre para terminar sin nombre sepultado en esta tierra idéntica a toda la tierra a la tierra que dejé atrás a la tierra que perseguía a la tierra prometida caminar en mi vida sólo supe caminar nunca hice otra cosa andar desde niño con las botijas de agua al cuello andar con los adobes con los terneros con los pollos caminar por el lodo hacia el riachuelo caminar del riachuelo hacia la casa caminar cuatro kilómetros a la escuela caminar cuatro kilómetros de la escuela a la casa caminar las jornadas a la milpa caminar la milpa de arriba abajo con las semillas en la mano sobre la tierra sin agua esa tierra tan parecida a esta tierra sin nombre donde me hallo sepultado a esta tierra donde me fue arrancado el nombre como quien arranca una muela caminar siempre supe caminar nadie camina como yo caminar de la niñez a la juventud de la juventud a la madurez con eso basta caminar bajo la sequía y la tormenta[…]

Jorge Volpi Interview and Political Problems with His Diplomatic Post

First the good part of the post. Canal-l has an excellent interview with Jorge Volpi ostensibly about his new book Dias de ira, but actually turns into more of a political discussion and a conversation about El sueno de Bolivar, his book about Latin America. I always find what he has to say interesting and he is a good speaker. I’m not yet convinced about his fiction but I ought to read more before I say much more.

On the other hand, it looks as if he has lost his post in Rome as a cultural attache. Apparently he offended a powerful Mexican diplomat when he was at a conference in Spain in April. He had to do a lot of sleuthing to find out it was the Ambassador to Spain who requested the removal. As he noted on his blog (via Moleskin Literario)

  A partir de ese momento, inicié una investigación propia de una (mala) novela de espionaje, hasta llegar al fondo del asunto, confirmado por numerosas fuentes cuyos nombres no estoy autorizado a revelar. En realidad, la anulación del puesto fue en represalia por las opiniones que expresé en la presente conferencia, dictada el 12 de abril de 2011, en la Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, para inaugurar su ciclo de Bicentenarios dedicado a México. El texto desató la ira del embajador de México en España, Jorge Zermeño. A continuación, la secretaria Espinosa decidió cancelar el nombramiento, enmascarándolo detrás de un falso “recorte presupuestal”.

I’m curious to know what he said. You can read further developments here.



Jorge Volpi’s Días de ira Reviewed at El Pais

El Pais has a review of Jorge Volpi’s Días de ira. It is a favorable review, but I’m going to need more convincing before I read on of his shorter works.

Volpi no le da mayor importancia al detalle y admite que, vistos los ejemplos que él mismo enumera –La metamorfosis, Los muertos, Pedro Páramo-, no se trata de un género con mala reputación sino mal definido: “La media distancia ha dado obras maestras a la literatura universal. Para muchos, Aura es la obra mayor de Carlos Fuentes. Y tiene 62 páginas”. El autor de En busca de Klingsor dice que no escribió los tres “híbridos” reunidos ahora buscando un sentido unitario. Solo al verlos juntos reparó en que tenían algo en común: “Hablan de relaciones de pareja que terminan de forma turbia por la intervención de una tercera persona”.

El primero de ellos –A pesar del oscuro silencio– se centra en la obsesión del protagonista por el mexicano Jorge Cuesta, poeta y químico, loco y suicida. Volpi recuerda que el primer texto que publicó en su vida fue un ensayo sobre ese enigmático personaje, al que Octavio Paz consideraba el hombre más inteligente que había conocido. “Por entonces, finales de los ochenta, todavía no se hablaba de autoficción, pero algo de eso hay”, cuenta el novelista. ¿Algún autor que ahora cause en él el mismo efecto que Cuesta hace 20 años? “Sí, J. M. Coetzee”.

Por su parte, El Juego del Apocalipsis, el relato que cierra Días de ira narra el viaje de una pareja, otra, a Patmos, la isla en la que san Juan escribió su famosa revelación. La cercanía del 31 de diciembre de 2000 dota a ese viaje de un halo, efectivamente, apocalíptico. “Estuve en Patmos, sí”, dice el escritor, “pero el resto es ficción”. Esa ficción es un paseo por el delirio de la verdad: “Su exceso lleva a la muerte o a la locura”. Las tres historias de Volpi hablan de locos. También de lectores. Como se dice en el texto central, que da título al volumen: “Crees que eres lector y eres personaje”.

Jorge Volpi and Rosa Montero on El Publico Lee

Jorge Volpi and Rosa Montero on El Publico Lee this month. I haven’t watched the Montero, but the Volpi was quite interesting and the “public” had some good questions (the show varies in quality based on the quality of the public). Volpi has recently republished three early novellas, which to my ears, sound a little more interesting than his more political works. I didn’t like Season of Ash too much as my review can attest. You can watch the shows here.

New Spanish Language Fiction of Note for Spring

El Pais has a two post overview of the new and noteworthy books of spring. There are some big names, probably the most famous is Javier Marias and Jorge Volpi who has had three early novellas reissued by Paginas de Espuma, and Alejandro Zambra. An authors of note not available in English of note is Rosa Montero with her book Lágrimas en la lluvia (link to El Pais). I don’t recognize many of the other authors but a few sound interesting. Read the posts here and here.

This one caught my eye, mostly because I can’t seem to get enough of short stories these days.

Cuentos rusos (Mondadori), de Francesc Seres (Zaidin, España, 1972). En 2008  obtuvo con el libro de cuentos La fuerza de la gravedad  varios premios. La traducción al español de este nuevo título también viene precedida de premios importantes en Cataluña. Me remito a un pasaje de la crítica de Lluis Satorras en Babelia: “Es uno de sus mejores libros que se compone de historias cortas pero posee una unidad fundamental, una estructura muy definida, como un raudo travelling hacia el pasado mediante la lectura de unos cuentos de supuestos autores rusos, de ahora y de muchos antes. Para dar fuste a sus propósitos, el autor construye una maquinaria precisa aunque ligera, un par de prólogos, uno de la supuesta traductora y antóloga rusa, espejo en el que se miran los relatos que vendrán a continuación, y otro del propio Serés, testimonio vital y entusiasta. Y no faltan las falsas biografías de los supuestos autores, un procedimiento ya bien arraigado en nuestras literaturas. Todo ello proporciona un plus de verosimilitud al conjunto y casi podemos creernos que estamos leyendo una pequeña historia de la literatura rusa”.

Writing Lessons From Jorge Volpi and Rosa Montero During the Guadalajara Book Fair

Jorge Volpi and Rosa Montero are taking questions from the public on writing for 2 hours every day until the Guadalajara Book Fair ends (December 5, 2010). If you would like to get their opinions on matters of writing here is your chance. I’m too busy, but ever since I was disappointed by Vopli’s most recent book in English, I’ve be curious about his approach. On the other hand, I have no patience for the 10 items Montero outlined in El Pais, they are rather tied and basic points.

La escritora española y el autor mexicano Jorge Volpi imparten un cibertaller de escritura durante la Feria del Libro de Guadalajara. Cada día, de 16.00 a 18.00, hora peninsular española, charlan con los lectores sobre los entresijos de escribir. Montero se ha estrenado con el método de la creación literaria. Estas son sus 10 claves a preguntas, también clave de los lectores.

¿Para qué se escribe?

“Uno no escribe para decir nada, sinopara aprender algo. Escribes porque algo te emociona y quieres compartir esa emoción. Y tú sin duda sientes esas emociones que son más grandes que tú, y por eso quieres escribir, ¿no? No se trata de soltar mensajes sesudos”.

¿Cómo empezar?

“Toma notas de las cosas que te llamen la atención o te emocionen. Y déjalas crecer en la cabeza. Luego, escribe un cuento en torno a una de las ideas… Para hacer dedos, también hay ejercicios. Por ejemplo, escribe un recuerdo importante de tu vida contado por otra persona. Puedes hacer ejercicios como escribir algo que hay sido muy importante en tu vida, quizá en tu infancia, pero contado desde fuera por un narrador real (por ejemplo un tío tuyo) o inventado, e incluyéndote como personaje”.


BabeliAmérica Spain-Latin America On-line Literary Conference Starts Monday

Babelia y El Pais have created an on-line conference that will from Monday October 4 to 10. It will feature authors and artists from Latin America. Babelia will have interviews, profiles, conversations, and other digital means of getting to know the invited artists from Latin America as they discuss the different paths of culture in Latin America. Those participating are the film makers Claudia Llosa (Perú), Marcelo Piñeyro (Argentina), Paz Fábrega (Costa Rica) y Óscar Ruiz (Colombia); the folk singer Jorge Drexler (Uruguay);  the writers Martín Caparrós (Argentina), William Ospina y Héctor Abad Faciolince (Colombia), Iván Thays (Perú), Élmer Mendoza y Jorge Volpi (México); Wendy Guerra (Cuba); the artists Carlos Garaicoa (Cuba) y Miguel Calderón (México); the historian Felipe Pigna (Argentina) and the Puerto Rican Band Calle 13. Carlos Fuentes will open the proceedings.

Except for the time zone issue, it looks like a good conference:

BabeliAmérica. Maloca cultural-virtual es un escenario digital multimedia e interactivo a través del cual invitamos a todos los internautas a disfrutar y vivir, del 4 al 10 de octubre, dos eventos clave en la capital española: VivAmérica, organizado por Casa de América, y Ágora. América Latina, 100 voces diferentes. Un compromiso común, organizado por la Fiiapp (Fundación Internacional y para Iberoamérica de Administración y Políticas Públicas).

Con una programación propia y variada, por BabeliAmérica pasarán más de veinte personajes que están marcando los derroteros culturales y artísticos de América Latina. Entre ellos los cineastas Claudia Llosa (Perú), Marcelo Piñeyro (Argentina), Paz Fábrega (Costa Rica) y Óscar Ruiz (Colombia); el cantautor Jorge Drexler (Uruguay); los escritores Martín Caparrós (Argentina), William Ospina y Héctor Abad Faciolince (Colombia), Iván Thays (Perú), Élmer Mendoza y Jorge Volpi (México); Wendy Guerra (Cuba); los artistas Carlos Garaicoa (Cuba) y Miguel Calderón (México); el historiador y experto en el bicentenario Felipe Pigna (Argentina) y la banda de música puertorriqueña Calle 13.

BabeliAmérica te acercará a todos estos y más personajes y a sus obras a través de vídeos, entrevistas, conversaciones, encuentros digitales, crónicas, diarios de la jornada, álbumes fotográficos, reportajes y una mesa redonda basada en las preguntas que ustedes formulen a los invitados, en la sede madrileña de EL PAÍS, y que podrán seguir desde sus computadores en vivo y en directo; o en el lenguaje del medio: en streaming. Será el viernes 8 de octubre y el nombre de los tres invitados lo revelaré mañana.

Como ya he dicho, la inauguración de esta fiesta en la Maloca cultural-virtual corre por cuenta de Carlos Fuentes desde Nueva York. Un día antes de que el casi centenar de creadores y otras tantas actividades entre exposiciones, foros y mesas redondas invadan Madrid. Pero antes, a las 11 de la mañana, ELPAIS.com lanzará en la Red ese escenario cultural y digital, donde se presentará toda la programación propia que llevaremos hasta sus computadores, basados en la oferta de los eventos madrileños. También se explicará en que consiste cada una de las seis secciones o salas previstas cada día, con sus respectivos horarios, que se irán llenando de contenido a medida que avance la semana, y que usted podrá consultar cuando quieran. Esas secciones son Autorretrato, Protagonistas, La cita, Diario del anfitrión, Encuentro digital y Sesión Eskup América.

Sólo basta entrar en ELPAIS.com o en este blog de Babelia, Papeles perdidos, a partir de mañana, para conocer las diferentes actividades y vivirlas desde cualquier lugar del mundo.

Martín Solares’ Mexican Noir Novel Reviewed at NY Times

Martín Solares novel The Black Minutes was reviewed by the NY Times. It is a positive review and for a crime novel it sounds a little atypical. Perhaps one of the reasons it was translated was it has a sense of the urgent with characters involved in the drug trade and corruption, something that is plaguing Mexico. While I don’t read much crime fiction, done right it can transcend the genre and become a report on its times. Considering Jorge Volpi’s call for a more committed literature, perhaps this novel is a good example in the Mexican context.

The best detective novels are those that go beyond the limitations of genre and a specific story to limn the broader society in which they take place. Mr. Solares does that in a profound but entertaining fashion here, revealing the surprising subterranean linkages that give politicians, the police, labor unions, drug cartels, the Roman Catholic Church, business interests and sectors of the press an interest in covering up the truth of the two cases.

To that end he makes especially effective and clever use of the separate time frames, one of whose purposes is to show how chronic, endemic corruption erodes the desire and ability of the individual to do the right thing, or even to act at all. Current-day Paracuán’s duplicitous police chief, Joaquín Taboada, is thus shown as a young, somewhat bumbling officer in the 1970s with the hilarious nickname El Travolta. There is also Fritz Tschanz, an immigrant Jesuit priest who knows so much and has heard so many sordid confessions over the years that his world-weariness has paralyzed him.

Over all it sounds good, but I’m not sure what ethnic types he is talking about:

But Mr. Solares is a graceful, even poetic, writer, especially in his hard-boiled dialogue and his descriptions of the wildly varied landscapes and ethnic types of northern Mexico. Though the world of “The Black Minutes” is one to inspire fear and revulsion, Mr. Solares’s descriptions of it are oddly beautiful and fascinating in the same way that overturning a rock and observing the maggots beneath can be a perversely edifying spectacle.

Jorge Volpi Interview at El País: History Is Often More Important Than Fiction in a Novel

El País offered readers a chance to submit questions to Jorge Volpi for a form of on-line interview. I took the opportunity to submit a question about Season of Ash which I reviewed for the Quarterly Conversation and found to be more interested in writing history than a novel, sacrificing character development to his thesis. I wanted to know if he thought the history was more important than the fictional elements:

When you write fiction mixed with history, what do you think is more important: the narrative and characters, or the history? I noticed in Season of Ash that at times the narrative served more to explain the history, and the characters became a method for arriving at the history.

My intention is for history and fiction to complement each other, though it is certain that in this novel I wanted the History in capital letters to have an importance as clear as the history of the characters, perhaps this provokes the sensation that the characters serve the grand History.

¿Cuando escribes ficción mezclada con historia, cual piensa es mas importante: la narrativa y los personajes o la historia? Noté en ” No será la tierra” que a veces la narrativa sirve mas para explicar la historia y los personajes se convierten en un método para llegar a la historia.

Mi intención es que historia y ficción se complementen, si bien es cierto que en esta novela quería que la Historia con mayúsculas tuviese una importancia tan clara como las historias de los personajes, acaso eso provoque la sensación de que los personajes ficticios “sirven” a la gran Historia.

It is an honest answer and confirms to his interest in writing politically engaged novels. Many of the other questions in the interview make it obvious that he is a political writer, by which I mean he wants to comment on politics and history and use fiction to explore ways of getting at these ideas. He doesn’t write from to serve a specific political base, such as the PRI or PAN, which would make him a hack. He is certainly not a hack and his commitment to working with politics and history is commendable, but it comes with risks. I think Elias Khoury from Lebanon use politics and history in his works with much better affect. Or Fernando Del Paso’s News from the Empire which has the grand sweep of history that Volpi wanted, is also a good example of how to mix the two.

As he mentioned in his lectures for Open Letter Press, he sees the younger generations as less politically engaged:

How do you see the lack of political literature and authors, lets say, or how they called it during the Boom “committed” on a continent that in the midst everything it is very political in those countries that often only breathe politics?

In effect, if we compare the present Latin American literature with that of the 60s and 70s (and after), we find an absence of political literature. On one hand, the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the USSR contributed to the disappearance of committed literature. And on the other hand, the gradual democratization of our countries made it so that politics stopped being regular material of those intellectuals and passed to the political scientists and political analysts that are part of the media. In addition, the latest generation are not only apolitical, but very apolitical. However, there continue to be examples of political literature in Latin America, you only have to mention the novel of Edmundo Paz Soldan, Ivan Thays, or Santiago Rocagliolo. And, in one sense, the literature about the violence that fills a good part of the region should also be considered political. Even this way, it is certain that writers don’t have a direct interest in contemporary politics, even the most authoritarian and picturesque.

¿Cómo ves la poca presencia de literatura política y autores digamos o como se decia en la epóca del boom “comprometidos” en un continente que en medio de todo es muy político en los países muchas veces tan solo se respira política?

En efecto, si comparamos la literatura latinoamericana actual con la de los sesentas o setentas (e incluso después), nos encontramos con la ausencia de literatura política. Por una parte, la caída del Muro de Berlín y el fin de la URSS contribuyeron a que desapareciera la literatura comprometida. Y, por la otra, la paulatina democratización de nuestros países hizo que la crítica política dejara de ser materia habitual de los intelectuales para pasar a los politólogos y a los analistas políticos de los medios. Además, las últimas generaciones no son sólo apolíticas, sino un tanto antipolíticas. Sin embargo, sigue habiendo ejemplos de literatura política en América Latina, baste mencionar las novelas de Edmundo Paz Soldán, de Iván Thays o de Santiago Roncagliolo. Y, en un sentido, la literatura sobre la violencia que prevalece en buena parte de la región también debe considerarse política. Aun así, es cierto que no parece haber un interés directo por parte de los escritores hacia nuestros políticos actuales, incluso los más autoritarios o pintorescos.

Finally, he talked about his latest novel, a free verse novel that is part fable, part history of the Holocaust. Mixing the Holocaust with non realistic elements could be interesting, or just lend itself to silliness. Hopefully, it isn’t the latter. It is an interesting approach and I would like to look it over someday, if not read it.

What made you write Dark Forest Dark, your latest novel, like a fable?

Dark Forest Dark is meant to reflect on the way everyday people can become an active part of a genocide, with Nazism in the background. However, in this meditation about innocence it seemed to me I could establish a connection between the massacres of Jews in the forests of Poland and the Ukraine, and the forests in the stories of the brothers Grimm, stories that Germans read obligatorily in those years. From this starting point I included many of their stories in the book.

¿Qué te llevó a construir Oscuro bosque oscuro, tu última novela, como una fábula? Gracias por tu literatura.

“Oscuro bosque oscuro” intenta reflexionar sobre la manera en la que la gente común se puede convertir en parte activa de un genocidio, con el nazismo como telón de fondo. Sin embargo, en esta meditación sobre la inocencia me pareció que podía establecerse una conexión entre las masacres de judíos que se producían en los bosques de Polonia y Ucrania, y los bosques de los cuentos de Grimm, que los alemanes leían obligatoriamente en esos años. De allí la inclusión de muchas de sus historias en el libro.

Forget Magical Realism-It’s The Narco Novel in Latin America

El País and Global Newsroom Americas have an articles on the boom in narco novels in Latin America. From countries like Mexico and Columbia and places like Puerto Rico, the narco novel is replacing the novel of the dictator and, instead, replacing it with stories of drug lords and the violence that comes with it.

“If we are talking about violence we are talking about narco violence,” says Cabiya while Élmer Mendoza notes that it is about the second most important business after arms trafficking: “It is not something exotic, but daily life.”

“Si hablamos de violencia hablamos de narco”, dice Cabiya mientras Élmer Mendoza apunta que se trata del segundo negocio más importante del mundo después del tráfico de armas: “No es algo exótico sino la realidad cotidiana”.

The story is all to familiar and the United States, unfortunately, is part of the problem. It seems problems never end and get recycled in fiction:

What the Paraguay of José Gaspar Rodrígues de Francia, the Dominican Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, the Guatemalan Estrada Caberera or the Chilean Agusto Pinochet represented for he authors of the boom, today the leaders of the mafias from Medellín or Ciudad Juarez represent for their heirs. The capos of the drug traffickers have been substituted for the dictators en Latin American Literature. The military jeeps had given way to fleets of four by fours with tinted windows and the violence has stopped moving in the sense of vertical to colonize horizontally the entire society.

Lo que para los autores del boom representaron el paraguayo José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, el dominicano Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, el guatemalteco Estrada Cabrera o el chileno Augusto Pinochet lo representan hoy para sus herederos los jefes de las bandas mafiosas de Medellín o Ciudad Juárez. Los capos del narcotráfico han sustituido a los dictadores en la literatura latinoamericana. Los jeeps militares han dado paso a una flota de aparatosos cuatro por cuatro con cristales ahumados y la violencia ha dejado de moverse en sentido vertical para colonizar horizontalmente la sociedad entera.

The Global Newsroom Americas has a similar story in English. In both there is the notion that magical realism has out lived its usefulness, which probably over states the power of magical realism and plays into the stereotype of Latin American literature.  They do raise a valid point: when does art describe and when does it celebrate? Although they don’t make the connection the world of naro-corridos is the extreme end, where drug gangs and their members are celebrated in song. Much as gangster rap described the tough world of the streets then became a self reinforcing parody of themselves.

“Overnight, all of the elements of an eccentric and harrowing thriller arrived on the table of the Latin American writers,” says Mexican writer and scholar, Jorge Volpi. Latin American writers “hurried to incorporate drug dealers into their texts, first as a backdrop then as the centre of the action.” The traffickers acquired an almost “mythic aura,” he said, speaking last year to an audience at the University of Rochester, USA. Stories tell of poverty stricken adolescents struggling up through the ranks of drug gangs, of young hit men, as portrayed in Colombian writer, Fernando Vallejo’s novel, La Virgin de los Sicarios, (Our Lady of the Assassins), of women more beautiful than any other and of the police; underpaid and almost always corrupt.


This style of fiction is a world away from the Latin American style of magical realism, with its tales of morality and fairy stories, seen in literature such as Gabriel García Márquez’s, One Hundred Years of Solitude. The contemporary novel finds its influence in westerns and films such as The Godfather and Pulp Fiction. And writers draw on what is happening around them. Dictators have fallen out of favour, says Volpi, what interests them now is, “the enemies of the system, the criminal bands and drug dealers that are waging war against the state and their rivals.”


But for some members of the public it is not only the characters of narco-literature who are the bad guys, it’s the writers. Drug traffickers have gone mainstream. No longer are they just constrained to Mexican ballads. They are now regular stars not only in books but also in films and soap operas. And with this new found popularity comes concern. Groups such as, No more Narco books in Colombia and No more Violence nor Narco Books on Facebook, talk about social responsibility and the danger of glorifying violence and drug traffickers. Writing on, No more Narco Books, Series and Films, one member said, “With all the damage that drug trafficking has done us, television now wants to glorify it. They want to damage us with more and more violence.”

Jorge Volpi on Secularlism, the Church, and Mexico

El País has an interesting article from Jorge Volpi on secularism in Mexico. Normally I wouldn’t note a strictly policical article, but it seems to me from what little I’ve read that Volpi makes a good historian and cultural critic to the detriment of his fiction. In the article, he compares the polarizing effects of religion in politics in the US, Spain, and Mexico. Here is his brief history of the issue in Mexico.

Since the middle of the 19th century, Mexico has been characterized by possessing one of the most secular governments on the planet. The Laws of Reform separated the state from the church and confined the later to the private sphere of citizens. Without a doubt, one can blame an infinite number of defects on the Mexican government that have happened since, but secularism is one of its few genuine achievements, which permitted the development of a society more open and less dependent on the otherworldly blackmail. But in 1992, in a move to form new alliances,  President Carlos Salinas de Gortari decided to reestablish relations between Mexico and the Vatican, and since this moment the Catholic Church pressed to regain its role as the guardian of conscience and began to express itself each time more emphatically over public matters.

Desde mediados del siglo XIX, México se había caracterizado por poseer uno de los regímenes laicos más sólidos del planeta: las Leyes de Reforma separaron al Estado de la Iglesia y confinaron a esta última a la esfera privada de los ciudadanos. Sin duda se les puede achacar una infinita cantidad de defectos a los Gobiernos mexicanos que se sucedieron desde entonces, pero el laicismo es uno de sus pocos logros inequívocos, pues permitió el desarrollo de una sociedad más abierta y menos dependiente de los chantajes ultraterrenos. Pero en 1992, en un intento por conseguir nuevas alianzas, el presidente Carlos Salinas de Gortari decidió reestablecer las relaciones entre México y el Vaticano y, desde ese momento, la Iglesia católica se apresuró a retomar su papel de guardián de las conciencias y comenzó a opinar de manera cada vez más enfática sobre asuntos de interés público.

His point, which isn’t too surprising, is that religion should stay out of politics and that secular parties should strive to insure the liberty that comes from secularism.

El insomnio de Bolívar (Bolivar’s Insomnia), by Jorge Volpi Reviewed at Letras Libres

After reading Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash and some of his criticism I have been looking forward to seeing his prize wining El insomnio de Bolívar in print. Letras Libres has given it a mixed review. The basic point is Volpi says there is no national literature and Latin America isn’t filled with strange characters, except that it is. I’m sure it is an interesting read, but it does look flawed.

The problem, almost too much to say it, are not the provocations, large or toothless according to the sensibility to who reads them. The problems are the incoherences: he wants to rescue Latin America from magical realism and in the following act proclaim that Latin American literature has ceased to exist; celebrate that the region has normalized and immediately after proceed to inventory all its abnormalities; protest against the expectation of otherness that the international market has pushed on the Latin American writer, but writing a book in Latin America continues being a field radically different characterized, oy, by its fertile chaos.

El problema, casi sobra decirlo, no son las provocaciones, tremendas o desdentadas según la sensibilidad de quien las lea. El problema son las incoherencias: querer rescatar a América Latina del realismo mágico y, acto seguido, proclamar que la literatura latinoamericana ha dejado de existir; celebrar que la región se ha “normalizado” para, inmediatamente después, proceder al inventario de sus “anormalidades”; protestar contra la expectativa de otredad que el mercado internacional le impone al escritor latinoamericano, pero escribir un libro en el que América Latina sigue siendo un ámbito “radicalmente distinto” caracterizado, ay, por su “fecundo caos”.

Vindication: The NY Times Doesn’t Like Season of Ash Either

Perhaps I’m being a little snarky, but when you write a negative review and NPR and the like says it is one of the best translated books of the year, you might feel a little annoyed. But now Scott at the Quarterly Conversation points out that the NY Times has given it a bad review, too.  It is a harsh review, harsher than I thought needed, but funny. One cannot not get any harsher than this, “Instead, he has written “Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’: A Novel.”

John Updike once opened a review with this cruel gallantry: “I wanted very much to like this book, and the fact that I wound up hating it amounts to a painful personal failure.” The Mexican writer Jorge Volpi’s latest novel, “Season of Ash,” is also a book one very much wants to like. It is thoughtful, has epic sweep and contains many notionally appealing characters. What it is not: surprising, involving or at all interesting. What it lacks: any occasions of arresting language or appreciable drama.

“Season of Ash” is about nearly everything that has happened over the last 50 years: Chernobyl, the collapse of Communism, the rise of biogenetics and environmental terrorism. Other, equally significant events make their way into the narrative as well. Hello, Challenger explosion. Greetings, AIDS. Salaam, Soviet war in Afghanistan. Wassup, W.T.O. riots. Volpi is a leading member of the so-called Crack group, an upstart literary movement of Mexican writers understandably bored by the devices and expectations of magical realism. Until one actually reads it, “Season of Ash” looks poised to become a foundational repudiation of everything one has come to expect from the literature of the Spanish-speaking Americas. From his novel’s first sentence (“Enough rot, howled Anatoly Diatlov”), Volpi attempts to be the first great Russian novelist who is not actually Russian. Instead, he has written “Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’: A Novel.”

I will say I think Tom Bissell missed the Homeric references in the book. Although, Bissell rightly points out they don’t add much to the story.

Volpi additionally insists on saddling cities and walk-on historical personages with weird, mock comic agnomens: Moscow is not Moscow but “Moscow, that city of wide avenues.” Berlin is not Berlin but “Berlin, the island surrounded by cannibals.” Mikhail Gorbachev is “Gorbachev, shepherd of men.” Andrei Sakharov is “Sakharov, maker of light.” Ronald Reagan is “Reagan, sovereign of heaven.” Why Volpi does this for the novel’s entirety is as impossible to fathom as so many of his other decisions. “Season of Ash” may well mean to challenge fiction’s conventions. Instead, in its failures, it grimly confirms them.

Season of Ash Review Available at The Quarterly Conversation

My review of Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash is now available at the Quarterly Conversation. I wrote the review before many reviews had come out and it has been interesting to see how much positive press he has gotten. NPR named it one of the best books of foreign fiction this year. As you will see from the review I thought the book had some flaws, but it has its moments.

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.