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.
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.
The Mexican author Paco Ignacio Taibo II has a new book from Planeta coming about the Battle of the Alamo. La Jornada has a write up of it. I don’t know If I’ll read it but it is interesting to see a Mexican take on one of those founding moments in American history. The facts are necessary revealing if you, as I have, read any kind of revisionist history. But history via pop culture never really dies and for some the history of the Alamo in the films is still true. (I think there is an error below. The constitution they are referring to is 1824.)
Dentro de cientos de libros, filmes y series televisivas que los estadunidenses han hecho a lo largo de 175 años, no faltan la westernización a lo John Wayne en la película The Alamo, los filmes “aptos para Hollywood” y la waltdisneyzación de héroes que no lo fueron nunca. Una épica elementalísima que historiadores y escritores, cineastas y gente de la televisión han dado como proteínas a la media de los estadunidenses y en especial a los texanos. Taibo II muestra aquí que la verdad histórica es mucho más ardua, disímil y aun opuesta. Por ejemplo, que los héroes mayores de la resistencia en El Álamo (William Travis, Jim Bowie y David Crockett) eran estadunidenses, y que, como muchos otros de los defensores, tenían en la Texas mexicana menos de cinco años, en suma, eran tan texanos como Santa Anna cherokee. En la Texas mexicana, en la que por la Constitución de 1924 no había esclavitud, los tres “héroes” eran esclavistas y especuladores de tierras, y algo esencial: ninguno de los tres tuvo una muerte heroica como se ha querido mostrar. Travis murió de un disparo en la frente apenas iniciada la batalla; Jim Bowie, el del famoso cuchillo, tenía días enfermo y lo remataron en uno de los cuartos del fuerte, y David Crockett, que John Wayne elevó a la categoría de ángel de la independencia texana, estaba de paso en San Antonio, se refugió en el fuerte ante la inminencia de la batalla y, al terminar ésta, junto con otros pidió clemencia, pero Santa Anna enseguida los mandó fusilar. El cerco y la batalla terminaron con una carnicería. Las banderas rojas y el toque “a degüello” en los días del sitio ya amenazaban con lo que terminaría por pasar. Pero si de los sitiados no se salvó casi ni el perico, los mexicanos tuvieron mayores bajas, lo que llevó a exclamar a Santa Anna una frase digna de Pirro: “Con otra victoria como ésta nos lleva el diablo.” Una carnicería como la que haría poco después el general José Urrea, por órdenes de Santa Anna, con los rebeldes capturados en la batalla de Coleto, y la que harían las tropas de Sam Houston con los mexicanos en San Jacinto.
La Jornada has a piece on the Mexican writer Josefina Vicens on the occasion of her 100th birthday. She only wrote two novels and one short story, but her work was highly regarded by people such as Octavio Paz. She sounds interesting (and I like a little bit of obscurity). Her last book has been translated into English: False Years (Discoveries).
Desde la publicación de El libro vacío, la crítica la miró con beneplácito; en la segunda edición, la obra se publicó con una carta-prólogo de Octavio Paz, quien califica la obra de Vicens como una “verdadera novela”, que habla sobre la nada con un lenguaje “vivo y tierno”. Para Paz, la primera novela de Vicens destaca por la presentación del “hombre caminando siempre al borde del vacío, a la orilla de la gran boca de la insignificancia”. Con esta obra, se muestran las inquietudes autorales por el tema de la creación literaria, el conflicto de la “página en blanco” y la condición individualista del artista al que le angustia no tener nada que decir y que piensa en la primera frase para iniciar una novela.
Por su parte, Los años falsos plantea el tema del patriarcado mexicano, pues en la obra el hijo varón se convierte, a la muerte de su padre, del mismo nombre, en el proveedor económico y en el encargado de proporcionar el tradicional “respecto de varón” a su madre y hermanas. Se trata de una metamorfosis de hijo a padre, así como de un rito de asignación, pues el patriarca ausente le hereda no sólo la carga familiar, sino el trabajo, el grupo de amigos y, de forma extrema, la concubina. Aunque la mirada narrativa pone énfasis en las relaciones entre los géneros, en la obra destacan las alusiones a la política mexicana emergida de la postrevolución; a esa nueva época en la que la corrupción, la mentira y las influencias son privilegios de unos cuantos.
The Black Minutes
Black Cat 2010, pg 436
If you’ve read anything about Mexico in the last few years then you know something about The Black Minutes by Martín Solares. The Black Minutes is one of a growing trend of crime novels that, in some ways, are replacing the novel of the cacique as the literary image of Mexico. I know there are plenty of other novels written in Mexico, but the Black Minutes reflects a moment in Mexican history that is wracked with incredible violence and corruption and it only makes sense for Mexican authors to turn to that theme. The question, though, with such overwhelming violence and mind-numbing numbers of disappearances how does a fiction writer address the subject without seeming shrill or a journalist with a few obscured details? Can a novelist make compelling fiction without falling into polemics? Of course that assumes the goal of the writer is to make compelling, entertaining, or what every adjective you want to use that suggests there is an artistic end to the novel. Solares has decided not to write directly about a specific event—the femicides in Juarez—but create his own version of Juarez, a smaller, more manageable one, that exists both in the past and in the now. It is a strategy that makes for a good novel, not just a good crime novel, which it most certainly is, and Solares’s skills as a writer move it beyond genre.
The Black Minutes opens in the present with the brutal murder of a journalist. It is a resonant crime ripped, as one might say, from the headlines. A crusty old policeman, El Maceton, is put on the case. Little by little he follows the footsteps of the late journalist as he gets closer and closer to what had happened. Along the way he interviews people who tell him to stay away from it all, that it isn’t worth it. Chief among them is a Jesuit priest who knows more than he is willing to say, but gives the story an already sinister edge of coverups and corruption. Paralleling the story is the constant powerlessness of Meceton in the face of the crime boss’s son who continually threatens him because he took away his gun. Meceton, a man who’d rather watch TV than have sex, is the typical middle aged civil servant, tired, getting headaches when ever there’s trouble around. Just as Maceton is getting close to finding out what happened the crime boss’s son rams his car a few times, before he is killed in traffic.
At this point the story goes back 30 years to follow Vincente Rangel, a failed rock musician and nephew of a long time detective for the police department of Paracuán, Tamaulipas. At first Rangel is just a rookie—intern might be a better word—who follows his uncle around to get on the job training. He has no formal training, no one does, nor does he have a gun. He is part of a police force that works through favors, friendships, and bribes. When the bodies of mutilated and murdered school girls start to appear around town, his uncle is given the task of finding the killer. It falls to Vincente when his uncle dies of a heart attack. As the story unfolds, the level of corruption and old-boy-networking that goes on makes it almost impossible to find who the killer is. Rangel is constantly dealing with people in his own force who want to stop him, with the seemingly endless number of judicial agencies that want him to stop, local officials who what something to happen as long as it doesn’t snare one of their people. And the police force is completely inept, made up of untrained lifers like his uncle, who most are just in the business to get bribes, and the unofficial helpers that each cop has and who they pay to do some of the grunt work, including bringing them coffee. Yet Rangel some how is able to figure it out and more amazing, perseveres in the hunt despite the ever present threats. Just as Rangel is about to bring the killer in, the story switches to the present and Solares wraps the story up tiddly, closing all the chapters where he left a character hanging.
One of Solares’s strengths is the ability to weave this story of corruption and lies through the two different time periods and leave each section unanswered until the very end. The sense of mystery and dread that that evokes through out the novel starts just the background fear surrounding any crime and grows as Rangel and Maceton find themselves, in typical detective fashion, the lone forces of good. But the real power in the novel is his depiction of the chaotic town of Paracuán as a reflection of a larger Mexico. Readers can be forgiven if they begin to think at some point, it’s a wonder anything gets done in Mexico. Solares’s depiction of every last member of society as somehow corrupt begins to wear the reader down until all that is left is the same foreboding that runs through out the novel: any second I could get it. Yet the Rangel and Maceton don’t succumb and despite the terror that runs throughout the book, and its antecedents in the press, there is some sort of hope still there.
The Mexican writer Jorge Volpi (one of Solares’s friends according to the acknowledgements page) has said more writers should create political novels, novels that meet the actual. The Black Minutes is one of those few cases where the political—and how a society deals with crime is political—and the novelistic are perfectly tuned.
P.S if you want to feel better about Mexico you might try listening to this interview about Mexico City here .
Bolaño compared Sada’s baroque writing style to Lezama Lima’s, by way of making the point that because the Cuban Lezama’s baroque reflected the crowded natural effulgence of the tropics, Sada’s baroque is a more impressive verbal invention, a baroque of the desert. It, too, came only from “the efficacy of words.” In Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe (Because it seems like a lie the truth is never known), Sada’s huge, dense masterpiece (a novel routinely referred to as Joycean, with 650 pages and 90 characters, narrated almost entirely in alexandrine, hendecasyllabic, and isosyllabic verse-prose), the desert and its sparsely populated towns teem with all the political turbulence, corruption, and violence of modern Mexico. Sada is to Juan Rulfo—author of only one, hundred-page novel, the Mexican desert ghost-town masterpiece Pedro Páramo, voted by readers of Spain’s most important newspaper, El País, as the greatest Spanish-language novel of the twentieth century—what Beckett was to Joyce, only inverted. Beckett’s minimalism was his response to Joyce unsurpassable maximalism. Sada’s maximalism was his response to Rulfo’s unsurpassable minimalism.
It has been years since I’ve read the many of the founding works of fiction about the Mexican Revolution. Still on my list is La sombra del caudillo, de Martín Luis Guzmán, but otherwise I’ve read and loved these fictional explorations of the Revolution through the stories of the big boss. Now Ignacio Solares has a book about about the assassination of Alvero Obregón through the end of the Cristeros war. It sounds interesting, although, perhaps already covered somewhere.
Podemos distinguir dos momentos fundamentales en la novela de la Revolución mexicana: un principio mítico donde podemos encontrar las obras de los participantes y testigos. En esta primera etapa destacan Los de abajo, de Mariano Azuela; Vámonos con Pancho Villa, los cuentos de Nellie Campobello y, entre muchas de sus obras, La sombra del caudillo, de Martín Luis Guzmán. La segunda etapa, siguiendo al gran especialista francés Georges Dumézil en su libro Del mito a la novela, se abandona el mosaico del mito, con sus caudillos, asesinos y titanes, y se construye una etapa novelística cuyo imaginario aún hoy sigue vigente. A este repertorio pertenecen obras como Al filo del agua, de Agustín Yáñez; Pedro Páramo, de Juan Rulfo; La muerte de Artemio Cruz, de Carlos Fuentes, para sólo mencionar unas cuantas y, por supuesto, la novela que hoy comentamos: El jefe máximo, de Ignacio Solares, quien ya nos había entregado una obra maestra anterior. Me refiero a Madero el otro, novela fundamental sobre el iniciador de la Revolución mexicana.
Como afirma Rafael Tovar y de Teresa, El jefe máximo comienza justo donde termina La sombra del Caudillo, de Martín Luis Guzmán, el período que hoy conocemos como el maximato, que abarca desde la muerte de Obregón y la entronización de Plutarco Elías Calles, la guerra cristera y el nacimiento del pnr, la matriz de la que surgiría el Partido Revolucionario Institucional, una de las maquinarias políticas más eficaces de dominación que gobernó al país durante setenta años, la dictadura más larga de la era moderna, superando al Partido Comunista de la Unión Soviética, a la dictadura de Franco y a muchos otros gobiernos totalitarios.
El Pais has an interesting reflection from Carlos Fuentes about his friend, the late writer Carlos Monsiváis. He sounded like quite the iconoclast, at least, as Fuentes saw him. A man of diverse passions and a seeming voracious appetite for knowledge. Worth the read or Google translate.
Me inquietaba siempre la escasa atención que Carlos prestaba a sus dietas. La Coca-Cola era su combustible líquido. No probaba el alcohol. Era vegetariano. Su vestimenta era espontáneamente libre, una declaración más de la antisolemnidad que trajo a la cultura mexicana, pues México es, después de Colombia, el país latinoamericano más adicto a la formalidad en el vestir. Creo que jamás conocí una corbata de Monsiváis, salvo en los albores de nuestra amistad.
Compartimos una pasión por el cine, como si la juventud de este arte mereciera memoria, referencias y cuidados tan grandes como los clásicos más clásicos, y era cierto. La frágil película de nuestras vidas, expuesta a morir en llamaradas o presa del polvo y el olvido, era para Monsiváis un arte importantísimo, único, pues, ¿de qué otra manera, si no en el cine, iban a darnos obras de arte Chaplin y Keaton, Lang y Lubitsch, Hitchcock y Welles? Y no se crea que el “cine de arte” era el único que le interesaba a Carlos. Competía con José Luis Cuevas en su conocimiento del cine mexicano y con el historiador argentino Natalio Botana en películas de los admirables años treinta de Hollywood.
La Jornada has an long appreciation for the Mexican poet Chocha Urquiza, who died young at the age of 35. Her story is turbulent and full of activity as seems to happen with many Mexican artists of the time. At first writing poetry with vanguard poets and joining the communist party, she latter moves to the US to work in the publicity department of MGM. Returning to Mexico a few years latter she returns to the university, and later allies herself with Catholic groups. In 1945 she drowns off Ensinada. Her work is marked by a conflict between mysticism constrained and directed by Catholicism and her ideas about physical love, androgyny, and other transgressive ways of living. The brief description below describes her ideas well. In her poems (which you can read here in Spanish), you can get a sense of that. Of course, nothing is in English and probably never be.
La explicación es obvia. La irrupción de Dios en el alma es un acontecimiento inefable, para el que no existen palabras. Se encuentra, como lo dice ese espléndido tratado de la vida mística, La nube del desconocimiento, “entre el silencio y la palabra”. Mientras el empleo de cualquier vocablo “presupone –dice Borges– una experiencia compartida de la que el vocablo es símbolo. Si nos hablan del sabor del café es porque ya lo hemos probado, si nos hablan del color amarillo, es porque ya hemos visto limones, oro, trigo y puestas de sol”. Para sugerir la inefable experiencia de Dios, los místicos se ven obligados a recurrir a la tradición que reescriben con metáforas prodigiosas que hablan de embriaguez y de amor carnal. Esa experiencia lleva el impreciso y ambiguo nombre de deseo. Todos lo experimentamos, pero sólo los místicos que tienen el don de la poesía, encuentran en él el signo de Dios y de nuestra trascendencia. Raimundo Panikkar decía sabiamente que “Santa Teresa se enamoró primero del cuerpo de los hombres para luego enamorarse del cuerpo de Cristo”. Podríamos decir que a Concha le sucedió lo mismo. Al igual que Santa Teresa, Concha sintió en el deseo por el otro la resonancia carnal de lo inefable que la llamaba a la unión trascendente –de allí su atracción por el mito platónico del andrógino original–; al igual que ella, también, descubrió que esa realidad era sólo una imagen de la encarnación que sólo adquiría su pleno sentido en la carne de Cristo. A diferencia de ella, sin embrago, Concha no logró reordenar su rompecabezas interior y sentir la plenitud espiritual y carnal que Santa Teresa logró con el Cristo y de la cual su “Transverberación” es su expresión más acabada. Incapaz, por el dualismo de la espiritualidad católica de principios de siglo –en donde la sexualidad y la sensualidad quedan excluidas como realidades pecaminosas– de llegar a unir su yo interior con su yo orgánico, atrapada en esa ambigüedad de la mejor tradición cristiana que, como señala Eugenio Trías, percibe, a través de la encarnación, la “inspiración (mística) de un espíritu material vinculado con el amor sensual y físico (y, a su vez, por la ausencia física del Cristo,) el influjo de la idea origenista de un espíritu desencarnado.” y dotado, por lo mismo, de una sensualidad indirecta y travestida, Concha se movió siempre entre el enamoramiento del cuerpo de Cristo y sus resonancias en el cuerpo de los hombres. A través de ese arrobo ambiguo y desgarrador de la pasión intentó acercarse a ese estado en el que, para decirlo con Octavio Paz, “la muerte y la vida, la necesidad y la satisfacción, el sueño y el acto, la palabra y la imagen, el tiempo y el espacio, el fruto y el labio se confunden en una sola realidad”, y la hicieron descender a estados cada vez más antiguos y desnudos.
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.
Letras Libres has a new short story form the Mexican author Daniel Sada. Since not too much of his work is available in English (and as an exercise) I have translated the first paragraph, including some of his stylistic peculiarities. I like his style, although, it can be difficult to read in Spanish: not for the novice. It is a Borges-like story with its focus of books, something a little different than the last story that was in Letras Libres.
With something of a boast he arrived and put the book on the table: Here you have what you were looking so hard for: the phrase was said at full volume so that it resonated through the whole restaurant, he saw it immediately, a damaged edition, but complete, the only one in Spanish. Gastón, who was seated at the cabinet, put on his glasses and yes: That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, by Carlo Emilio Gadda, the Italian Joyce that Italo Calvino cites en his Six Suggestions for the Coming Melenium, as an example of the supreme multiplicity. Like that the surprise. Even more when Atilio Mateo described to him the grueling pilgrimage that he made through a score of antiquarian bookstores. Dangerous streets at all hours, stinking, and scattered through the most horrible and snorting parts of the city. There were five days of searching. Many lazy people sent him north. Strange people well informed. Fantastic circumstances, or not? And speaking of Atilio Mateo: what a show of friendship! During five days he stopped going to his job as a bureaucrat so he could dedicate himself to a search for a book that is difficult to find. In the first four days he worked 12 hours (from 9 to 9) in his inquires, but it was the beginning of the fifth when he ran into a rarity named Bookland and found it finally and: You don’t have another copy? I could take two or three copies at one time, even if you have more I could buy more. But the book seller, raising his eyebrows, told him: Sorry, I only have this one. In sum: too much time for the find. The Atilio Mateos advantage was that both his immediate boss and his boss’s boss let him be absent for what ever reason he fancied. If someone from higher up asked them about the fugitive both of them would say that he was doing an investigation, more or less. In addition, both admired the intellectual: an unappreciated genius and, since then, deserving of constant caresses. Yes. An enviable job for a profound being.
Con algo de jactancia llegó y puso el libro sobre la mesa: Aquí tienes lo que tanto andas buscando: la frase fue dicha a todo pulmón para que resonara a lo ancho del restaurante y, lo visto al instante, una edición estropeada, pero completa, la única en español. Gastón, que estaba sentado en el gabinete, se colocó sus gafas y sí: El zafarrancho aquel de via Merulana, de Carlo EmilioGadda, el Joyce italiano que cita Italo Calvino en sus Seis propuestas para el próximo milenio, como ejemplo supremo de multiplicidad. Así la sorpresa. Más aún cuando Atilio Mateo le describió la extenuante peregrinación que hizo por una veintena de librerías de viejo. Calles peligrosas a toda hora, malolientes, y desperdigadas por los rumbos más horripilantes y bufos de la ciudad. Fueron cinco días de búsqueda. Mucha gente vaga le dio nortes. Gente fachosa bien informada. Circunstancia fantástica, ¿o no? Y hablando de Atilio Mateo: ¡qué muestra de amistad! Durante cinco días dejó de ir a su trabajo de burócrata para dedicarse a la busca de un libro difícil de hallar. En los primeros cuatro días empleó doce horas (de las nueve a las nueve) en su indagatoria, pero fue al comienzo del quinto cuando se topó con una rareza llamada Librolandia y halló por fin aquello y: ¿No habrá otro ejemplar?, de una vez me puedo llevar dos o tres, incluso si tiene más se los compro. Pero el librero, alzando las cejas, le dijo: Lo siento, sólo tengo éste.Total: demasiado tiempo para el hallazgo. La ventaja de Atilio Mateo era que tanto su jefe inmediato como su jefe superior le permitían ausentarse por la razón que se antoje. Si alguien de más arriba les preguntaba por el fugitivo, tanto uno como el otro decían que andaba haciendo una investigación, o más o menos. Además, ambos admiraban al intelectual: un genio desperdiciado y, desde luego, merecedor de constantes apapachos. Sí. Un trabajo envidiable para un ente profundo.
The Mexican novelist Daniel Sada read a short story, The Ominous Phenomenon, at the PEN World Voices festival recently. It is a good chance to hear a great writer who has yet to have much translated into English. It is only in Spanish, though.
Archivosonoro.org has two recordings of Juan Rulfo reading his two short stories, Luvina and Diles que no me maten (Tell Them Not to Kill Me). The way he reads them really gives a different color to the stories than I originally envisioned. Luvina is my favorite Rulfo story and it is great to hear him read it. The recordings are a little scratchy, but certainly listenable.
I read this because of a review—a good one—but a review that focused on the style of the writing whose clarity and precision showed a master stylist at work. Emilio is certainly sparse and there are few pharagraphs of more the five sentences. Most of the book is given over to short moments of dialogue, a dialogue of inquisitiviness that makes the book concise and interesting.
The book follows Emilio a 12 year-old boy who has moved to a new neighboorhod in Mexico City and as he doesn’t know anyone, he begins to spend time in a cemetary looking for his name on the grave stones while carrying a joke detector (a metal tuble that plays recorded jokes). He meets a woman who has lost her son and comes weekly to place flowers on his grave. Her son was about the same age as Emilio so they strike up a friendship after Emilio guards her emgerency trip to the bushes to urinate. From the story continues as a strange menalnge of youthful infatuation as Emilio falls in love with the woman, the loneliness of devorced women as Emilio’ mother and the woman began a tentative friendship initiatied by a message, and a sexual discovery. Yet in the same maner that the language is brief, the exploration of these themes is brief. It is as if the novel is the unfolding of a child’s understanding, which leaves the same questions that the child has, but unlike the child has a few ideas of what is happening. Unfortunately, that approach, too, can lead to a fractured story that doesn’t quite seem to finish.
The growth of the child is evident when he and the woman slowly draw closer and he asks to kiss her and latter touch her breasts to ‘see if they are bigger than his mother’s’, which he saw during the message. The boy’s curiosity is understandable, but what makes the woman let him touch her? Is Emilio the surrogate for her late son, and if so what was their relationship? It is never clear what drives her friendship—it is one of the many intriguing mysteries of the novel—but it is fairly clear that Emilio has begun to leave boyhood. Yet as the story ends it takes a different turn as Emilio descends into a cave under the cemetery with the androgynous altar boy he has seen at all the interments. The altar boy who has been sexually abused in some manner by the local priest asks if Emilio wants to kiss him. The altar boy who knows what the joke detector really is and likes to smoke, is older than his years. But Emilio, too, is searching and he wants to kiss the boy to see if he is gay. They kiss, but it is inconclusive and when the altar boy falls in the river the novel closes as Emilio is running from the dark cavern to the light of the cemetery.
The novel leaves many questions unanswered, but many of those are intriguing, such as what motivates the woman. But the ending seems a little week. Sure, one could say that as he leaves the cavern he is moving into a new phase of life. And what can one say at the end of a coming of age story: he triumphed in the end? However, its concision is a puzzle that leads to a strange novel, yet one that seems to end abruptly. You can’t help but wanting to know more about Emilio’s adventures. He is such an intriguing boy.
I just finished writing a review of Season of Ash for the Quarterly Conversation. I won’t say much, since that is why I wrote the review. I will say that it was an interesting book as a work of history, but I was a little disappointed as a work of fiction. However, if you’ve thought that Mexican writing was only about Mexico, the Revolution, or some other stock theme of Mexican writing, this novelized history of the Cold War is definitely worth reading.
KCRW’s Bookworm has an excellent interview with Uribe and Cristina Rivera-Garza about their new book Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction (Dalkey Archive). It is an interesting conversation about the state of Mexican fiction, especially for post Boom authors. One of the good things about the book is that it is bilingual, a rarity in fiction. It is definitely a book worth reading and an interview worth listening to.
The New York times has a moderately sized profile of Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin. It is a little hard to say if I want to read his work, but it looks like he may becoming a little more known.
In one index of his growing international reputation, Mr. Bellatin recently signed a multibook deal with Gallimard, the prestigious French publisher, that calls for his next several works to be issued in France before they appear in Spanish in Latin America. As usual he has seized on that opportunity to make mischief: rather than publish his original manuscript here, he intends to have someone else render the French translation back into Spanish.
I will be curios to see if he creates his own language. As the quote below notes, so many writers are said to have created their own language and I find they very rarely do.
“I am enamored of and very much struck by his way of managing to condense narrative down to a very minimal form of expression, so that at his best, every word is sealed with more weight, suggestiveness, meaning and poetry,” Mr. Goldman said. “Everyone talks about inventing your own language, but he really does it. Every Mario Bellatin book is like a toy, dark, radiant and bristling, like a Marcel Duchamp construction in words.”
Some older critics in Mexico have little use for Mr. Bellatin’s transgressive style and seem flummoxed by his blurring of fiction and reality. “I try not to be involved in any literary group,” Mr. Bellatin said, noting that “my books are most warmly received not here in Mexico but abroad, in Argentina and France.”
Elena Garro is not well known in the English speaking world, or if known, she is unfortunately known as the wife of Octavio Paz. She has been called the most important Mexican woman writer after Sor Juana, but for the most part her importance has dimmed over time so that only two books are in print in English. La semana de colores is not one of those books, although the story Es la culpa de las tlaxcaltecas (It Is the Fault of the Tlaxcaltecas)is quite famous.
The stories in La semana range in style from magical realism to stories of criminal twist. Es la culpa de las tlazcaltecas is the best story in the book and shows a mastery of the magical and historical in a story that blends 500 hundred years of history. Garro tells the story of a woman who meets an Indian on the side of the road. He is dressed for battle and keeps mentioning battles of in the distance. Margarita, a woman domineered by her husband, talks with him, but doesn’t understand what he is doing on the side of the road. Latter she sees him in Mexico City and around her home. The Indian, though, is just more than an aparation of the past, he is her cousin and husband, and Margarita continually says she has betrayed him. Yet she has to wait for him in the home of her husband in Mexico City and even tells him about the Indian, which makes him think she is crazy. Throughout the story Margarita shifts between these two realities: the modern Mexican life, and the Indian who is running from a defeat in battle; a loveless and violent marriage, and the true husband. Es la culpa de las tlazcaltecas plays with the idea of a golden past, the past before the Spaniards came, to create a work that criticizes the macho world Margarita lives in. In the house she is a prisoner; outside she is free. The link is made all the more clear by the repeated references to the Tlazcaltecas who were the tribe who helped Cortés defeat the Aztecs. And when she says she was a traitor she plays on the story of La Malinche who helped Cortés and became his mistress. Garro uses these elements to create an opposing world where she would be free from the machismo of her house in Mexico City. There is also a longing to correct the mistake La Malinche made in becoming Cortés mistress. For Margarita to free herself of her husband, to do what she wants to do, is the way to break with the last 500 years of history and return at once to the past and the future.
If Es la culpa de las tlazcaltecas masterfully blends the magical and the historical, some of the other stories are not quite as well rounded and tend towards a mix of peasants and ghosts or peasants and crime that is tiring. More than a few times I thought I was reading a mix of Juan Rulfo and Edgar Allen Poe. An example of the latter is Perfecto Luna where a man who was so overcome with guilt about killing a friend and disposing of the body parts in the adobe of his home he begins to hear him everywhere. Finally, he has to flee his home and town. As he is fleeing he finds a man on the side of the road and tells him everything. The next morning they find the killer dead. Perfecto Luna like other stories has several elements that run through many of the stories and grow a little tedious: peasants who believe in spirits and which manifests itself as a simple mindedness. While these stories were written in 1964 before Magical Realism became the dominant style, at this point to read stories about ghosts or devils or superstitious people who believe in them seems to insult the characters.
The other story that had some real merit was El arból. El arból while using a twist device at the end shows class tensions between an upper class woman and an illiterate woman from the country. The story, of course, shows the classest and racist attitudes of the rich woman, but it dwells more on how those fears become self fulfilling. However, there is, as always in these stories, a question of whether the attitudes bring on the rich woman’s violent end or was it something super natural. Where as some of the stories rely on the simplicity only of the characters, El arból allows for a broader range of thoughts and emotions between the two characters which makes it a richer story. Unfortunately, the ending is a little bit of a one liner that seems a little easy.
While the stories seem uneven, except for the Es la culpa de las tlazcaltecas, there are sufficiently well written to warrant reading one of her few works that are translated into English.
There is an excellent, if writterly, appreciation of José Emilio Pacheco in this Sunday’s cultural supplement in La Jornada. It is certainly worth a read if you have an interest and know Spanish. Pacheco is the author of Las batellas en el desierto (The Battles in the Desert) which I reviewed sometime ago and remains one of my most popular posts. Poniatowska focuses on three things: his relation to the past; why young people are so dedicated to him; and what has made him the writer he is. On the first count he is an other of memory but not nostalgia: “José Emilio cree en la memoria, a la nostalgia la repudia.” Which Poniatowska points out in quoting from the end of Batallas en el desierto
They demolished the school, they demolished Mariana’s building, they demolished my house, they demolished the Roma neighborhood. That city is gone. That country is gone. There isn’t any memory of Mexico form those years. And it doesn’t bother anyone: who wants to remember that horror? Everything goes like the records on a record player. I will never know if Mariana is still living. If she was a live she’d be 70.
Demolieron la escuela, demolieron el edificio de Mariana, demolieron mi casa, demolieron la colonia Roma. Se acabó esa ciudad. Terminó aquel país. No hay memoria del México de aquellos años. Y a nadie le importa: de ese horror, quién puede tener nostalgia. Todo pasó como pasan los discos en la sinfonola. Nunca sabré si aún vive Mariana. Si viviera tendría sesenta años.”
Second, the youth like Pacheco because he is like them and respects them. Part of this is his focus on youth and part of it his willingness to meet with them. When his conferences have filled up he has given two conferences, one in the conference hall and the other outside where the students are waiting for him.
The young who still live their memories of childhood find themselves in El viento distate, El pricipio del placer, Las batallas en el desierto (The Battles in the Desert) and through Condesa neighboorhod of Moriras lefjos and they celebrate the novelist and short story writer with never ending gratitude. It is rare to feel gratitude for a living writer but Jose Emilio gathers all their devotions. When the boy Carlos in Los batallas en el desierto confesses, “I never thought that Jim’s mother was that young, that elegant, least of all that beautiful. I didn’t know how to tell him. I can’t describe what I felt when she shook my hand,” readers relive the torment of their first love. The same occurs with the stories in La sangre de Medusa written between 1956 and 1984. Jose Emilio touches fibers in which they recognize themselves, in which you and him and I and we identify with. On reading it, everyone rewrites “Tarde o remparano”. His is ours. We make the book with him, we are his part, he changes us into authors, he reflects us, he keeps us in mind, he completes us, and the reading takes away our problems. We owe him being readers, as much as we owe him for life.
According to him, those truly unhappy loves, those terrible loves are amongst the young because they have no hope. “In any part of your life you have some little possibility of reuniting with the person you love, but when you are young your history of love has no future.”
Los jóvenes que todavía viven sus recuerdos de infancia se encuentran a sí mismos en El viento distante, El principio del placer, Las batallas en el desierto y hasta en la colonia Condesa de Morirás lejos y le brindan al novelista y al cuentista un testimonio de gratitud interminable. Es raro sentir gratitud por un escritor vivo pero José Emilio reúne todas las devociones. Cuando el niño Carlos de Las batallas en el desierto confiesa: “Nunca pensé que la madre de Jim fuera tan joven, tan elegante y sobre todo tan hermosa. No supe qué decirle. No puedo describir lo que sentí cuando ella me dio la mano”, los lectores reviven el tormento de su primer amor. Lo mismo sucede con los cuentos de La sangre de Medusa escritos de 1956 a 1984. José Emilio toca fibras en las que se reconocen, en las que tú y él y yo, ustedes y nosotros nos identificamos. Al leerlo, cada quién escribe de nuevo “Tarde o temprano”. Lo suyo es nuestro. Hacemos el libro con él, somos su parte, nos convierte en autores, nos refleja, nos toma en cuenta, nos completa, nos quita lo manco, lo cojo, lo tuerto, lo bisoño. Le debemos a él ser lectores, por lo tanto le debemos a él la vida.
Según él, los amores verdaderamente desdichados, los amores terribles son los de los niños porque no tienen ninguna esperanza. “En cualquier otra época de tu vida puedes tener alguna mínima posibilidad de reunirte con la persona que amas, pero cuando eres niño tu historia de amor no tiene porvenir.”
Finally, he is a writer whose history has been influenced by some of the greats of 20th century Mexican Writing. Moreover, his family had been part of the great events of the 20th century, his father escaping execution only through the intervention of President Obregon.
Some of these family friendships were liberal like Juan de la Cabada and Hector Perez Martinez and most of all Jose Vasconcelos. Carlos Monsivais remembers that Jose Emilio used to invite him to eat at his house and they would both listen seriously and quietly to Vasconcelos, an absolutely fascinating personality. Together they would also go to visit Martin Luis Guzman who both of them admired, and don Julio Torri who would tell them in a low voice the secret history of Mexican pornography.
Algunas de esas amistades familiares eran libertarias, como Juan de la Cabada y Héctor Pérez Martínez, y sobre todo José Vasconcelos. Carlos Monsiváis recordó que José Emilio lo invitaba a comer a su casa y ambos escuchaban muy serios y callados a Vasconcelos, personalidad absolutamente fascinante. Juntos iban a visitar también a Martín Luis Guzmán, que es una de las admiraciones de los dos, y don Julio Torri les hablaba en voz baja de la historia secreta de la pornografía mexicana.
Carlos Fuentes has won the González-Ruano prize for journalism for the article El Yucatán de Lara Zavala which is a book review of Península, península, by Hernán Lara Zavala. The article is interesting if you are interested in Mexican history and literature and gives a brief history of the Mexican authors who have used history in their works. The also sounds interesting. You can read another review at Letras Libres too.
I just finished Fernando del Paso’s News from the Empire which I will be reviewing for The Quarterly Conversation in the fall. However, I do have some brief thoughts. It is a sprawling novel that is worth the read. It may help if you know something about Mexican history. A quick read of a few pages a Wikipedia would suffice. To call it a novel, though, might give the wrong idea. A better name might be fictive history. A times the book is purely novelistic, at other times it reads like a history book. Either way the breath of the novel is impressive and is an achievement.