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.

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Paco Ignacio Taibo II ‘s Take on the Alamo

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.

Celebrating the 100th Birthday of Mexican Novelist Josefina Vicens

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 by Martín Solares – A Review of a Mexican Noir

New Year's Cartoon from La Jornada

The Black Minutes
Martín Solares
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 .

Daniel Sada Appreciation from Fransisco Goldman

Franisco Goldman has a nice Appreciation of Daniel Sada in the Pairs Review. It is an insightful piece and I think Almost Never is going to be the big book of next year.

http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/12/19/daniel-sada/#.Tu9eCLHG0hU.twitter

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.

The Return of the Mexican Revolution – El jefe máximo by Ignacio Solares – Reviewed in La Jornada

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. 

Carlos Funtes Remembers Carlos Monsiváis

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.