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.