Pancho Villa toma Zacatecas (Pancho Villa Takes Zacatecas) by Paco Ignacio Taibo and Eko – A Review

Pancho Villa toma Zacatecas (Pancho Villa Takes Zacatecas)Pancho villa toma zacatecas 01
Paco Ignacio Taibo and Eko
Sexto Piso illustrado, 2013, pg 305

Paco Ignacio Taibo and Eko’s graphic novel Pancho Villa toma Zacatecas (Pancho Villa Takes Zacatecas) is a fictional retelling of Villa’s campaign against Zacatecas during the Mexican revolution. The Zacatecas campaign was the middle phase of the war when Villa, Zapata, and Carranza were all allied against Huerta and his federal forces. Zacatecas was the last big northern strong hold for the federal forces and its defeat would pave the way for the eventual invasion of Mexico City.

Paco Ignacio Taibo, the script writer, uses Colonel Montejo as his entry point into the story. It is he who narrates the events of the march to the city, the siege, and the eventual victory against the federal forces arrayed amongst the hills of Zacatecas. Montejo is a brave leader, wise, and intemperate. As stories go, there isn’t much to say. Villas forces take the city. The only real issue at hand is the brutality of the war. It is a brutality that has no room for missteps and plays heavily on personality. Montejo’s eventual fate only serves to show how brutal the war was, even amongst supposed allies.

The real focus of the book is the art. The jacket describes the  drawings as work inspired by German expressionism, the graphic socialism of the New Masses, the Mexican populism of the Taller de la Grafica popular, and the drawings of the calaveras. All of it is true. The two strongest influences seem that of the work of Franz Masereel and those of Mexican folk art most often associated with the work of Posada. Printed against black paper the drawings come to you as negative images that reveal everything as a shadow. Drawn with rough and strong lines the elements of the drawings seem to emerge out of a fantastical dark, where movement and being are quick and elemental. It is a style that emphasizes movement, and the momentum of war. It also turns each image into an iconic moment that is less about the precision of a picture and its complexity, but its bold presentation of an image. The iconic nature makes the book much more interesting and its story telling is as much in line with the works of Lynd Ward and Masereel.

My only criticism of the book, as is often the case with graphic novels, the actual story seemed a little light. For all the work that goes into such a book, there is always a feeling of let down when it comes to the briefness of what I’m reading, as if it can’t quite hold up to the drawings. Sometimes words are not enough.

What ever the case, it is a beautiful book that must be read.

Pancho villa toma zacatecas 04

60 Years of The Burning Plain by Juan Rulfo

El Pais reminded me that it has been 60 years since The Burning Plain (El llano en llamas) was published If you have not yet read Juan Rulfo’s collection of short stories (or his novel Pedro Parama) it is something you must do. All these years later I still love his work. Even in translation, which is how I first read him, it his work has great power from economy and stories that seem as dry and strange as the barren landscapes they describe. He, along with Fuentes, Yañez, and Azuelo, was my entry in to Spanish language authors and he has remained the one who has remained as intriguing as ever, someone who’s work you would like to return to over and over. For good and bad he only published those two books (there are some film scripts, too). I’ve always wanted more, which is the best way a writer should leave a reader. What I didn’t know, is that in 1970 he added two stories to the collection. I’d be curious which they were as the article didn’t mention them.

“Descubrí a Juan Rulfo en orden inverso. Llegué a él por Pedro Páramo y me dejó asombrada. Luego leí el llano en llamas, y fue como una prolongación del entusiasmo que había tenido con su novela”, dice Cristina Fernández Cubas.

“Con los cuentos logró una nueva representación del campo mexicano y la miseria en la que viven sus personajes. De manera emblemática, uno de los relatos lleva el título de ‘Nos han dado la tierra’. La herencia que reciben no es otra cosa que un montón de polvo. Los ultrajes y la violencia de estos relatos revelan una realidad devastada por la injusticia social. Lo peculiar es que Rulfo narra estas desgracias con hondo sentido poético. Sus cuentos están escritos en un doble registro: las acciones son vertiginosas y la vida mental de los personajes es demorada, de una reflexiva intensidad. Esto establece una peculiar tensión: lo que sucede es rápido y su efecto es lento. En estos cuentos, Rulfo renovó el lenguaje de México. Ningún campesino ha hablado como sus personajes pero ninguno ha sonado tan auténtico. Un milagro de la autenticidad que sólo puede ser literaria”, explica Juan Villoro.

Guadalupe Nettel Has Won the Ribera del Duero Prize for Short Stories

Guadalupe Nettel has won the Ribera del Duero prize for short stories. The judging panel was Enrique Vila-Matas, Cristina Grande, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, Samanta Schweblin, and Marcos Giralt Torrente. I’m not familiar with her work but if a panel of authors I respect have selected her, I think her work might be worth looking at. The Press release says the book is 5 long short stories that uses a structural device to tie the stories together: the presence of a domestic animal which partly represent the complex links that exist between humans and animals. This is from the press release at Paginas de Espuma:

Cinco relatos extensos forman Historias naturales, un libro con una excusa estructural: en todos ellos coincide la presencia de un animal doméstico (desde peces a insectos, pasando por gatos o serpientes), que intenta por una parte representar los complejos vínculos que existen entre animales y seres humanos, pero que, sobre todo, sirven como metáfora o comparación de determinadas actitudes de los personajes

El Pais has a little more about the book. I think the invasion of cockroaches that starts a class war sounds funny:

Un matrimonio convive en un pequeño piso de París mientras espera el nacimiento de su hijo. Ella pasa las horas mirando a sus dos peces. Es tan exhaustivo el ejercicio que termina por encontrar una serie de paralelismos entre sus mascotas y su vida de pareja. Una familia burguesa y mexicana sufre una invasión de cucarachas. La epidemia termina por convertirse en una lucha de clases en una gran casa-laboratorio social. Estos dos relatos forman parte de Historias naturales, la obra –de título provisional- con la que la escritora mexicana Guadalupe Nettel (Ciudad de México, 1973) ha ganado el III Premio Internacional de Narrativa Breve Ribera del Duero que organiza la editorial Páginas de Espuma, especializada en el género del cuento en español, y que entrega al ganador 50.000 euros. La obra se publicará a comienzos de mayo y se presentará oficialmente en la Feria del Libro de Madrid.

“Aún sigo atónita”, dice la escritora. “Supongo que me presenté por el prestigio que ha adquirido el premio en pocos años y por el dinero, claro”, ríe. Nettel no tenía muchas pistas del jurado y tampoco confiaba mucho en poder ganarlo, menos cuando se enteró de que en esta convocatoria se habían presentado 863 trabajos, provenientes de 26 países diferentes. Luego descubrió que entre los encargados de juzgar sus cinco relatos largos estaría Enrique Vila-Matas, acicate suficiente para correr el riesgo. “Los cinco relatos destacan por la alta calidad de su prosa, impecable tensión narrativa y unas atmósferas en las que lo anómalo se aposenta en lo cotidiano”, ha dicho el escritor, a la postre, presidente del jurado.




Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos – A Review

Down the Rabbit Hole
Juan Pablo Villalobos
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, 70 pg

The voice of a child has the power to undercut all the foolish tropes of adult life. Handled well it can reframe one’s perception of an idea, done badly and it can descend into cloying sentimentality that is no better than didactic moralizing. Juan Pablo Villalobos in Down the Rabbit Hole has taken on the tricky task of balancing a child’s voice against the violent world of the narco, attempting to find the absurd in a culture whose surreal violence and savagery has become come to dominate Mexican life.  Using the voice of a younger child (it is unclear how old he is and Villalobos has noted that was intentional), Villalobos narrates the story of a precocious son of a drug boss that is a once funny, ridiculous, and horrifying.

The power of the voice in Down the Rabbit Hole is that it takes what has become so common place and shocks one again with the freshness of its observations. Tochtli, the boy, is one part savant one part drug king pin. His wisdom, though, comes from his narco side, so he is given to constructing his world with narco ideas. The most absurd are his digressions on how people die because they have orifices. If you have a large orifice you will die, if you have a small one you might live. The orifices, naturally, come from guns, and the boy has theorized and a whole science of death without relying of ballistic terms. His strange way of describing the world comes from his isolation within his father’s mansion. He only talks about six people with any sense of closeness, although he states early on that he knows 13 or so people. Disturbingly he has seen close to 20 corpses and at least the last moments of a man who peed himself out of fear. His father never lets him see the actual killing, but the boy has been close enough that he thinks making orifices and feeding corpses to their pet tigers and lions is perfectly logical.

He is still a boy, though, and is full of boyish ideas. His favorite movie is the Way of the Samurai and he walks around the mansion in a dressing gown in lieu of  Japanese clothing and refuses to talk because a samurai is a figure of mystery and control. Throughout the book he talks about his desire for a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. His father even takes him to Liberia to find one. It is the most absurd on the many absurd things the boy asks for. It makes perfect sense: in a world where there are no limits, how ridiculous can one’s desires get. Still, he also collects hats (pith helmets, sombreros and any other kind of useless hat), something simple that kids fixate on and wear at the most inappropriate times. Villalobos never misses a chance to contrast the child against the narco, and in one horrifying statement, Tochtli mentions that you shouldn’t wear your hat while creating orifices because you can get blood on them and they are hard to clean.

What runs throughout the book is parody of all the pop culture tropes that surround the drug lords. Villalobos turns every cliché into a a joke when Tochtli reinterprets what is supposed to be a macho culture of bling and power. Reinterpreted through Tochtli the drug lords don’t seem as powerful, but just ridiculous clichés. Everything that he and his father know seem to come from movies, whether they are samurai or gangster. They don’t live the life of gangsters so much, as imitate the life of gangsters. Where does the culture of the drug lords come from: within, without, or a reinforcing mix of popular culture and gang life? The elevation of these tropes to the level guide to life for small boys makes the whole culture absurd and horrifying. If all you have are these shallow images with which to build yours life, then you turn become a movie cowboy or samurai.

The book isn’t without it’s hard edges. Tochtli continually calls anyone who is week faggot and like Huck Finn it is a narrow line between art and stereotype, which Villalobos handles well. Similarly, the trip to Liberia could have been an occasion for easy charactures  of Africa. Since Tochtli’s world is so small, he has no chance to see beyond his father and friend. It keeps Liberia at a distance and the hipo hunt paints the narcos as just more outsiders coming to exploit Africa and return nothing. They are so consumed in their own world, they don’t see people, they see the bullet holes in buildings and spend their time counting them. It is Liberia that is father from violence than Mexico, yet the narcos think they are the enlightened ones. The contrast is forceful and pulling the narcos out of their mansion, weakens them and shows how unimportant they are away from their compounds.

Down the Rabbit Hole is one of those books that perfectly captures the absurdity of a way of life that has caused so much death and destruction. The humor and the voice are disarming, but they also have the power to avoid humanizing the gangsters. They are just creatures who act according to script. Villalobos has mentioned that he initially wrote the book from the point of view of the father, but it didn’t work. Had he done that he would have had a much more difficult task. Moreover, his book would have probably been subsumed in the tidal wave of naro literature instead of becoming a fresh and exciting novel.

Si viviéramos en un lugar normal (If We Were to Live in a Normal Place) by Juan Pablo Villalobos – A Review

Si viviéramos en un lugar normal (If We Were to Live in a Normal Place) (English title: Quesadillas)
Juan Pablo Villalobos
Aanagrama, 2012, 188 pg

 Si viviéramos en un lugar normal is the second offering from Juan Pablo Villalobos’ in his loose trilogy the failures of Mexico. Villalobos isn’t interested in heavy and overwrought  realism that all the problems Mexico faces might inspire. Instead,  Si viviéramos is a black comedy often dry, but always making fun of the politicians and well to do that control Mexico’s politics. At the same time, the futile gestures of those who disagree are also a source of humor. It is a humor that paints a Mexico that is neither functioning nor magical, but questions all the tropes of Mexican society.

Orestes, Oreo for short, is one of 8 children who live in a small home on the outside of a small town during the 80’s when Mexico had severe financial problems. His father is a teacher at a preparatory school whose big passion is to shout at the TV during the news programs calling all the politicians that appear corrupt. Orestes spends much of his time wondering why they are so poor. Their home is outside of town and made of the cheapest materials and they have very little. In a theme Orestes returns to over and over, they eat quesadillas of varying quality depending on how much money the family has and how bad inflation is. The family even has a whole cheese rating scale depending on the type of cheese they can afford. The town is a hopeless place with long lines for food, an ineffectual police department, and an occasional rebellion that is so badly run and easily put down that years later the symbols of the rebels are still painted on walls because no one cares.

Against that back drop Orestes has a series of adventures that show how dysfunctional everything is. When the family gets new neighbors, rich Poles who build a giant house next door, Orestes is both awed by their immense wealth and his firs taste of Oreos, resentful that his parents haven’t done anything to remedy the situation, and completely unsure how he should behave. Yet the voice is immature, lashing out at anyone that has kept him from getting money. He has an innocence that runs up against its own powerlessness and can only resort to saying everything is fucked up.

Villalobos throws a wide attack and makes fun of religion and the culture of religious peregrination. At one point Orestes runs away from home to go to the hill where his older brother says space aliens have landed before and kidnapped their younger bothers. They march out their with a group of religious pilgrims to a shrine. Its an obvious substitution of one deus ex machina for another. It also smashes any fantasy of magical realism the reader might have. In Si viviéramo there is nothing romantic, just one absurd disappointment after another. The idea of family does not fare well either. The brothers always fight, the grandfather refuses to help at a critical moment, and when his twin brothers disappear Orestes is so nonplussed, it is hard to believe he has brothers.

Those disappointments are not only thrust on the characters from the out side, but withing, as if even given a chance to succeed, Mexico will screw it up. Towards the end of the novel the Polish family suggest Orestes’ father sell their home so a new housing development can be built. It would be the payout Orestes has been waiting for, but his father refuses. It is a futile gesture, because the government just moves in and destroys the house (it was not his land to begin with) and they are homeless and broke. If it was bad enough that political power is against them, when offered a chance to profit the family refuses. Yet they are unable to make a sensible response. There is no way out for the family, because they are unable to find a way out. They are so used to the situation they just accept it.

Those disappointments, though, can make the novel feel episodic, which might be a better way to structure realistic novel since lives are just a series of episodes. However, when it comes to concluding it all the little episodes don’t tie together. It is not necessary that everything come together, but the episodes don’t really go anywhere. It’s as if Villalobos got to a certain point and said to himself, I need to finish this. He does it in his dryly comedic fashion as a UFO comes to reunite the family. It is a ridiculous conclusion, but one that is no more ridiculous than a work of magical realism. The difference is Si viviéramos treats Mexico in less exotic terms. It is a reality informed by the then and now, the fallow pop culture of Omni magazine and cowboy movies. When looked at as a whole, the conclusion makes sense, but during the reading, working your way through each episode, knowing that the pages are running out and the episodes just keep plying on, the conclusion is a sudden stop. Had he been able to take the novel father somehow, to go beyond the comedy that feels superficial at times, he could have really written something interesting. As it is, the book feels a little light. Perhaps taken together with this first book and the as yet unwritten third, it will all make sense.

Elena Poniatowska on the Tlatelolco Massacre

La Jornada has a lengthy piece from Elena Poniatowska about the Tlatelolco Massacre. La noche de Tlatelolco is one of her most important books and a new, updated version has been brought out. The massacre was a pivotal moment in Mexican history, one that showed Mexico had a long way to go on civil rights.

Cuarenta y cuatro años más tarde, el 11 de Mayo de 2012 surgió un movimiento que tomó por sorpresa a nuestro país con su espontaneidad y su frescura: #YoSoy132, y Ciudad de México sacudió sus telarañas y su desesperación y todos respiramos mejor. Nació “una pequeña República estudiantil”, como lo dice Carlos Acuña.

Durante esos cuarenta y cuatro años, ¿qué había pasado en el país? Después de Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Luis Echeverría impuso a López Portillo; éste impuso a De la Madrid, quien a su vez impuso a Salinas de Gortari por encima del verdadero ganador, Cuáuhtemoc Cárdenas. Seis años más tarde, su candidato, Luis Donaldo Colosio, fue asesinado en Tijuana, el 23 de marzo de 1994, en Lomas Taurinas, Tijuana, y este crimen propició el asenso al poder de Ernesto Zedillo, quien a su vez le entregó la banda presidencial a Vicente Fox, del PAN (partido de oposición), que defraudó a los mexicanos como habría de hacerlo su sucesor, Felipe Calderón. (Una joven estudiante del #YoSoy132 refutó a la candidata del PAN, Josefina Vázquez Mota, y le dijo que cuando ella hablaba de estabilidad económica tenía que recordar que “vivimos en un país con 52 millones de pobres y 7 millones de nuevos pobres en este sexenio: 11 millones en pobreza extrema”.)

Durante estos cuarenta y cuatro años surgió una ciudadanía nueva, alerta, crítica y desencantada, cuyo punto de referencia era la masacre del 2 de octubre de 1968. Varios jóvenes se convirtieron en guerrilleros, varios maestros rurales inconformes canjearon la pluma por el fusil y se refugiaron con sus seguidores en la sierra de Guerrero. (Habría que recordar la mejor novela de Carlos Montemayor, Guerra en el paraíso.) El gobierno persiguió a los contestatarios y conocieron la tortura. A doña Rosario Ibarra de Piedra le “desaparecieron” a su hijo Jesús e inició el movimiento Eureka con otras madres que gritaban: “Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos.” Los desaparecidos mexicanos eran aún más invisibles que los argentinos, porque México había sido el refugio de todos los perseguidos políticos de Chile, de Argentina, de Uruguay, de Guatemala; ¿cómo podía entonces encerrar a sus opositores? El gobierno negaba que hubiera tortura, “separos” y cárceles clandestinas.

Mario Bellatin Profiled in El Pais

El Pais has a long profile of Mexican author Mario Bellatin. It is quite good and gives some interesting insights into this intriguing author.

Bellatin se considera sufí y cumple con su estética austera. El mobiliario de su hogar es tan esquemático que la casa parece casi deshabitada, o habitada por un fantasma, como dice el escritor que se siente en ocasiones. Siempre lleva su uniforme negro, y conduce un coche negro sin cambio automático ni dirección asistida, cosa meritoria teniendo en cuenta que solo dispone de un brazo. El principal foco decorativo de la sala es un minúsculo cuadro con un derviche —un bailarín sufí— congelado en un instante del giro permanente en que consiste la danza ritual de esta religión.

Esa pared, como todas las demás de la sala y del estudio, estarán cubiertas pronto por enormes estanterías en las que piensa distribuir Los cien mil libros de Mario Bellatin, una obra que también presentará en la Documenta. Se trata de otro proyecto a medio camino entre la literatura y el arte conceptual, consistente en la edición de cien libros suyos en un formato mínimo y con una tirada de 1.000 ejemplares cada uno. Los comercializará por su cuenta, sin pasar por las librerías, intercambiándolos directamente con los compradores “por un cigarro o por 1.000 pesos, dependiendo de mi estado de ánimo”. De momento ha publicado seis, y calcula que con todo lo que ha escrito durante su carrera ya tiene material para 52. “A partir de ahora quiero seguir escribiendo para llegar a 100. Pero igual me muero antes, no importa. Lo importante es que el hecho de que aquí haya 100.000 libros o no haya nada solamente depende de un deseo, y nada objetivo, externo a ti mismo, se puede interponer a ese deseo”.

Como el derviche que gira en un movimiento eterno, lo único que desean el hermano de la chica elefante, el ladrón de bolígrafos, el hijo de la cocinera de hormigas y el dueño del perro Perezvón es que Mario Bellatin permanezca siempre escribiendo.

Ivan Thays also has a brief run down of his four most important books.

Carlos Fuentes Interview at Guernica

Guernica has an unpublished interview with Carlos Fuentes from 2006 that is worth reading (you can also listen to it if you scroll to the bottom of the page). It covers politics more than literature, although there is a lengthy section on his admiration for Juan Marse. Fuentes was always a fairly astute political commentator and he has some interesting things to say about immigration and democracy.

Guernica: Do you consider yourself a writer in exile?

Carlos Fuentes: I have never considered myself a writer in exile because I grew up outside of my own country, because my father was a diplomat. Therefore, I grew up in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, the United States, I studied in Switzerland—so I’ve always had perspective on my country—I am thankful for that.

Our greatest novelist ever, Juan Rulfo, the author of Pedro Páramo, never left Jalisco and the states of Mexico where he sold tires and drove around and heard stories—he is the great example of a writer very much bred, rooted in the country, that transforms all he has heard into great art. My position was very different because I had a perspective on Mexico since I was a child. I was a boy of ten when President Cárdenas expropriated the oil holdings of foreign companies, and there was a wave of anti-Mexicanism in the United States. There were big headlines, “Mexican Communists Steal Our Oil,”—then I lost friends at school (I was in grade school), I was looked upon with suspicion. And I was the son of a diplomat; when I heard the news from Mexico I sided with Mexican causes. I grew up in a kind of exile until I was fifteen years old, always outside of Mexico, but always very conscious that I was a Mexican. Yet that gave me a different consciousness of being Mexican from someone who had never left Mexico—so, it worked both ways.

For a moment there I could have become Argentinean or Chilean—I was very bound to my friends, my schools in Santiago and Buenos Aires, but no—no, Mexico has won me over, and do you know why? Because Mexico always was and always will be a mystery for me, a big question mark. What is this country all about? How can I understand it? You know, when García Márquez doesn’t understand the baroque political situation in Mexico, he goes to the National Museum of Anthropology, and stands before the Coatlicue the Mother Goddess of the Aztecs, the gigantic sculpture of block, of serpents, headless, tremendous, of a goddess saying, “I am a goddess not a person—don’t try to find personality in me. I am not Venus—I am Coatlicue, the goddess of serpents.” And when he has stood five minutes in front of Coatlicue, he says, “Now I understand Mexico,” and leaves.

It’s a very complex, mysterious country. I will never understand it fully, and that’s why I write so much about it, in order to try to understand it.

Daniel Sada Reviewed in the New Quarterly Conversation

The latest issue of the Quarterly Conversation came out recently. As usual it has some great material in it, including a review of Daniel Sada’s Casi Nunca which was published a couple of months ago. It is a good review in terms of thinking about Sada’s language and grounding him in Mexican letters. It isn’t so good in giving you a sense of what the book is about. That’s ok I guess. You can’t have every thing. The book has been on my shelf for years. I’m going to get around to read it one of these days.

Other features of note:

Post-Literacy or Super-Literacy?

Post-Literacy or Super-Literacy?

By Daniel Evans Pritchard

Douglas Glover believes that there is a major failure in literary culture, and his new volume of essays, Attack of the Copula Spiders, attempts to re-teach the skills of reading and writing. Attack of the Copula Spiders, however, definitely is not an exercise in remedial education. Glover is a literary technocrat with a cranky, professorial temperament. He studies the percentages of load-bearing words within sentences and paragraphs, offering dictums in terms that would be familiar to central bankers. But are his remedies right for our literary problems?


On The Alienist by Machado de Assis

On The Alienist by Machado de Assis

By Matt Rowe

A highly educated man proposes that the government create a publicly funded system of healthcare. His opponents question the scientific basis of his ideas while clinging to religion. Some wonder where the money will come from; others worry about who will decide who receives care. As ordinary citizens see more and more of their friends and family fall victim to a corrupt system, they unite in a protest that is intended to be non-violent but turns bloody when challenged by government militia. But, rather than the people’s triumph, the seizure of power only marks the moment when hypocrisy, under the banner of “compromise,” becomes pervasive. That’s what happens in Machado de Assis’ 1882 novella The Alienist , the opening chapters of which are excerpted in this issue of The Quarterly Conversation. The Alienist takes place not in the United States of 2012 but in the Brazilian colonial outpost of Itaguaí, sometime around the year 1800.

The László Krasznahorkai Interview

The László Krasznahorkai Interview

Interview by Ágnes Dömötör

You know, the problem is that anything that’s the least bit serious gets bad PR. Kafka got bad PR, and so does the Bible. The Old Testament is a pretty hard text to read; anyone who finds my writing difficult must have trouble with the Bible, too. Our consumer culture aims at putting your mind to sleep, and you’re not even aware of it. It costs a lot of money to keep this singular procedure going, and there’s an insane global operation in place for that very purpose.

In Translation

From The Alienist by Machado de Assis

From The Alienist by Machado de Assis

Translated by Matt Rowe

The chronicles of Itaguaí tell that long ago there lived in town a certain Doctor Simeon Blunderbuss, a man of noble birth and the greatest doctor in Brazil, Portugal, and both Old and New Spains. He had studied at Coimbra and at Padua before returning to Brazil at the age of thirty-four. The King could not manage to convince him to stay on in Coimbra as regent of the university, nor in Lisbon directing royal affairs.

True Milk by Aixa de la Cruz

True Milk by Aixa de la Cruz

Translated by Thomas Bunstead

I thought it strange the baby not crying. I wanted to get up and check that it was all right, but I was worried I’d hurt myself, plus I was in a bit of a daze—it was as though my eyelids weighed more than usual. I asked myself: what dreams would I have had while I was under? I couldn’t remember a thing. Strange, because I always dream, and I always remember my dreams. I’d had a recurring nightmare over the previous nine months, over and over: in agony, I’d be giving birth to a baby that made a sound like a cat.


Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North

Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North

Review by George Messo

It’s Ibn Fadlan’s account of his remarkable journey that takes up the larger part of Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone’s newly translated anthology Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North. In 922 Ibn Fadlan set off from Baghdad as the envoy of caliph Muqtadir, bound for the upper Volga River and the Turkic-speaking court of Almish ibn Yiltawar at Bulghar. His mission was simple: to instruct the newly converted Almish and his people in the Islamic faith, to oversee the building of a congregational mosque, and to assist in the construction of a defensive fortress. Because of their richness, Ibn Fadlan’s detailed observations retain an authentic power to shock. He maintains a coolly dispassionate sense of importance and breadth, documenting a dizzying range of anthropological gems, from Turkish marriage customs to hospitality, from hygiene and the Ghuzz taboo on washing to horse sacrifices.


And so many others of note.

Stories from Mexico City Youths in La Jornada

La Jornada has a selection of short stories form Mexico City youths in the juvenile justice system. It is an interesting collection and one is an eye to writers who one would probably never come across.Out of 360 stories submitted, they published around 10. This is from the first

Todo esto empezó el 28 de septiembre de 1992, en una familia pequeña, integrada por papá, mamá, tres varones y una niña, la más pequeña de la familia.

El piloto de esta familia era Mario, el papá. Él era el que decía la última palabra, pero no antes de consultar a mamá e hijos.

Todo marchaba muy bien. Claro, siempre había problemas, pero nada que no resolvieran papá o mamá.

Un día viernes por la noche como a eso de las 9:45. Mario llegó del trabajo muy agotado, apenas podía mantenerse de pie, se tiró al sillón como desmayado. Claudia, la mamá de la familia pensó: pobre de mi querido esposo, está muy cansado; Claudia le quitó los zapatos y los acomodó abajo en un rincón de su cama de Mario y Claudia.

Claudia agarró el último billete que les quedaba, que era uno de doscientos, se queda pensativa y dice en voz alta, ¡aunque se enoje Mario y me moje, tengo que ir a la panadería de Macario!

The Last Work of Carlos Fuentes (or the First of the Posthumous to Come Out)

El Pais has an excerpt of a novel he was working on when he passed away. It is called Federico en su balcón and you can read an excerpt of it at El Pais. Given his last works, I’m not sure really how thrilling it will be, but you can be the judge.

Sesenta y seis. Esos son los años que estuvo atrapado Carlos Fuentes por la verdadera pasión de la literatura. Sesenta y seis años que hay entre el descubrimiento que hizo de El conde de Montecristo, a la edad de 17 años, y la escritura de sus dos últimos libros: Personas y Federico en su balcón que dejó a los 83 años, antes de morir el 15 de mayo. El primero son unas memorias sobre los personajes que conoció y el segundo una novela en la que salda cuentas con Nietzsche.

No es solo el legado póstumo de uno de los escritores e intelectuales más relevantes del mundo hispanohablante del último medio siglo. “El significado de Federico en su balcón”, explica Pilar Reyes, editora de Alfaguara que publicará la novela a finales de año, “es que Fuentes nunca pensó que fuera el último. Pero ahora cobra una gran dimensión simbólica. Resume dos aspectos: el Fuentes ciudadano y el literario e intelectual. Es una reflexión sobre el poder y la decisión moral en las pequeñas cosas de la vida. Una especie de combate entre lo público o el poder que incide en la vida de todos y las decisiones pequeñas y privados”.

My Appreciation of Mexican Author Carlos Fuentes, RIP

Carlos Fuentes was one of the first writers who I can really remember inspiring my interest in writing. I was not a reader of literature before I got to college. I read history, but fiction wasn’t something I thought much about. It took sometime for literature to interest me. The first author I can remember was James Baldwin, but after I ran across Juan Rulfo and Carlos Fuentes I saw the real possibilities of great writing. I had been taking one of those classes that only The Evergreen State College could create: one whole quarter (16 credits) dedicated to Mexican literature, history, and culture. It was a truly immersive experience and we read two works of Fuentes: The Death of Artemo Cruz and The Old Gringo. One was a masterpiece and the other one of his many less than stellar efforts. We all knew The Old Gringo was week, but when you have an Artemo Cruz it doesn’t really matter. It was Fuentes at his best: expansive, using history as his tablet, and letting his structural inventions wow young writers to be. After going over his works in class and out, I had to find other books, reading Where the Air is Clear, Aura, Burnt Water, and the Good Conscience shortly after. I particularly identified with the Good Conscience, a coming of age story that was set in Guanajuato, a city I had visited once. Thinking about it now it’s funny that I would find the book so compelling, but he was able to capture something. Later, when I finally made it to Mexico city several I spent a day or two with my head raised, looking for the mansard roofs he had mentioned over and over in Where the Air is Clear, as if finding a sloping roof would explain something about Mexico. It was unnecessary; Fuentes had already constructed a Mexico for me, one that I described in my piece, Just a Handshake is Enough.

A few years later I lost some of my fascination with his fiction. Perhaps it was the unevenness of his later works. They never seemed to have the exciting sense of a man forging a vision of a country. Instead they showed a man whose fiction seemed to be self absorbed. Even then, however, his literary criticism, his ability to talk about writing and writers was always interesting. His book La geografía de la novela was the first book I ever read in Spanish and was an exciting not because it delved into theory, but because he could make writing and the whole process of literature sound important and vital. For Fuentes, literature was more than games for grad students and that sense of passion you read in any article or heard in any interview was kept him interesting even after his later fiction lost some of its weight. Hearing of his passing was a shocker because just the other day I was reading an article in El Pais about his adventures in Buenos Aires for the book fair. He always seemed to be connected to the literary world and could talk about the newer generations and the same time as Cervantes, and, again, it made reading and writing exciting. In an age of e-books, hand wringing about the future of books, and enfeebled academia, despite Fuente’s flaws he made writing and love of literature seem one of the most important endeavors one could undertake.


There are plenty of articles and tributes in Spanish that you might want to read.

From La Jornada

Muere el novelista Carlos Fuentes

Travesías de un narrador

La literatura, faro en un país desviado

From El País

Adiós a uno de los pilares del ‘boom’ latinoamericano

Muere el escritor Carlos Fuentes

  • El novelista ha fallecido hoy a los 83 años en México, donde se encontraba hospitalizado
  • La obra y el rigor político del escritor definieron medio siglo de historia de las letras latinoamericanas
Carlos Fuentes, en 2009. / DANIEL MORDZINSKI
Juan Cruz Madrid 95

Era autor de más de 20 novelas y contaba con el Premio Cervantes (1987) y el Príncipe de Asturias (1994). Escribió obras como ‘La región más transparente’ o ‘La muerte de Artemio Cruz’. El velatorio será privado en su casa. A las 13.00 (hora de México) sus restos llegarán al Palacio de Bellas Artes

Memoria y deseo

Se marcha uno de los grandes intelectuales latinoamericanos. Ningún otro combina así creación literaria y reflexión política

Tiempos de Fuentes

Hace poco le decía a Fuentes que la historia de América Latina no era el recuento de sus fracasos, sino el proyecto de futuro

Reacciones en el mundo de las letras

Escritores y artistas lamentan el fallecimiento del autor de una gran obra conocida como ‘La edad del tiempo’

Nuestro Virgilio

Conocí a Carlos Fuentes dos veces, y las dos cambió mi vida. La primera, en 1984, cuando yo tenía 16 años

‘Una curiosidad universal’

Con él desaparece un escritor cuya obra y cuya presencia han dejado una huella profunda

Eraclio Zepeda’s New Chiapan Tetralogy Profiled in La Jornada

La Jornada has an interesting write up of Eraclio Zepeda’s last installment of in his  tetralogy of Chiapas. I’m unfamiliar with his work but if you are interested in family/historical epics this sounds perfect.

Algunos años antes de terminar el siglo, Zepeda ya tenía en mente la escritura de una saga chiapaneca y sabía que abarcaría buena parte del siglo XIX y del XX, y serían cuatro libros y cada uno representaría uno de los cuatro elementos. Para fortuna de la literatura, se dedicó con afán y desvelo a la escritura de la tetralogía; sólo falta una que tiene como elemento el viento.

Ubicada en el cambio de siglo, entre fines de la década de los ochenta del XIX y fines de los años diez del XX, desde la segunda reelección de Porfirio Díaz al período presidencial carrancista, Sobre esta tierra, publicada hace unas semanas por el FCE, tiene como centro del mundo Los Altos de Chiapas, o más específicamente, Pichucalco y La Zacualpa, finca situada en las montañas cerca de la ciudad. En La Zacualpa pasa de hecho toda la novela, hasta la meticulosa destrucción que hacen de ella los carrancistas.

Las tres novelas publicadas hasta ahora nos parecen como una parte de una historia de México no contada, o de otro modo, como una historia que pasara aparte casi de nuestra historia. Como si de alguna manera Chiapas hubiera sido un país dentro del país.

Mexican Novelist Juan Villoro’s New Novel Profiled

Mexican novelist Juan Villoro has published his newest book and El Pais has a profile of the book and author, and a review. The Profile is the much more interesting piece of the two. Juan Villoro is not too well known in the English speaking world, but is well respected for his writing that often revolves around crime writing. You can see that in the recent Words Without Borders issue on the drug war in Mexico and the recent book of non-fiction about Latin America that he edited. His work looks interesting and perhaps with the interest in crime fiction in Mexico he’ll be translated into English.

En el origen de los relatos de Juan Villoro (México, 1956) suele ocultarse una imagen o un sueño detenido. En Arrecife (Anagrama), el núcleo argumental básico se corresponde con una postal paradisiaca, en un hotel de descanso en el Caribe, como hay tantos en México, pero en el lateral, una situación, que no se identifica si es de juego o de violencia, altera el paisaje. Esa arista perturbadora tiene que ver con la búsqueda de emociones fuertes y el contexto de violencia en que se mueve México, con cuerpos que aparecen decapitados en lugares imprevistos, como Acapulco, antaño edén turístico. “Me gustó poner en tensión ambas cosas. El narco y los clientes de un resort ansiosos de peligros controlados”, cuenta Juan Villoro, en su piso del Eixample barcelonés, decorado en un estilo minimalista, con los muebles justos y espacio para moverse. El escritor, uno de los autores de culto de su país, acaba de regresar de México. Vive entre los dos continentes. Ha gestionado la entrevista por su cuenta, sin agentes ni editores de por medio. Sobre la mesa de la cocina reposa el ordenador encendido. Escribe por las mañanas, en lo que denomina un horario bancario, regado con café. En un rato, saldrá para la Universidad Pompeu Fabra, donde imparte clases de literatura.

Con los alumnos debatirá sobre la importancia del cuento en América Latina, pero esta mañana su interés se centra en la violencia de los narcos y cómo han convertido los asesinatos en mensajes, según las distintas maneras de matar; unos los envuelven en mantas y otros practican la llamada corbata colombiana (sacar la lengua por la garganta). A través de ese discurso de la violencia se identifica a los autores de manera que las víctimas se conviertan en mensajes del horror y así matan dos veces. La situación suena escalofriante. Hasta ahora, los mexicanos vivían en dos mundos diferenciados, el de la violencia y el de la vida común, pero el crimen organizado se ha convertido ya en otra normalidad. En algunas regiones del país funcionan escuelas para narcos, hospitales donde son atendidos, clubes deportivos donde están inscritos e iglesias para ellos. “La vida mexicana transita del apocalipsis al carnaval y en ocasiones mezcla las dos categorías”, como su nueva novela.

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.

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.

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.

‘Three Messages’: Mexican stories of the fantastic – Reviewed in the Seattle Times

The Seattle Times has a a review of a new collection of Mexican short stories. I’m not sure I would seek it out or not since it sounds like genres I don’t read much, but since so little in the way of short stories makes it into English, it might be worth reading. I found the references to magical realism annoying. On the other hand that most of the stories have been written in the last 10 years is exciting. Too many anthologies seem to be the greatest hits of the greatest writers and don’t have anything new to say.

This anthology contains 34 stories; all but one of them were originally published after 2000, and most in the past two years. All were written by Mexican-born authors. All are short, and some are extremely short, lasting no more than three or four pages. They range in tone from delirious to grim, and exhibit various attitudes toward the marvelous intrusions into the mundane which they recount: embarrassed and regretful, slyly ambiguous, reluctantly accepting, prosaic. They occupy the memory stubbornly, insisting on their own eccentric logics, powered by the writers’ dark or shining visions, steered via authorial voices that can be disarmingly direct, cuttingly ornate, or deceptively quiet.

Mexican Drug War Issues from Words Without Borders Update

I’ve been following the progress of the Words Without Borders fund drive on their Mexican Drug War Issue. They released some information about some of the stories. Although, given their current funding to goal ratio I’m not sure they are going to make it.

Hi Everyone,

Just got word from our editorial team that some of the translations for the Mexican Drug War Issue have come in so I’m able to tell you a bit more about what’s in the issue. Work featured will include extracts from Magali Tercero’s reporting on living under “drugtatorship”, “Notes on the Violence in Sinaloa, Mexico,” Rafael Perez Gay’s short story “Road to Juarez,”  in which a man’s senile father claims to have been an undercover federal agent infiltrating a drug cartel, Fabrizio Mejia Madrid’s nonfiction piece, “The Mystery of the Parakeet, the Rooster, and the Goat,”  based on  statements made by drug lord Ricardo ”El Valde” Valderrama, and Luis Felipe Fabre’s poem “Notes on a Theme of a Zombie Cataclysm.” Guest editor Carmen Boullosa is interviewed on how the drug war has impacted writers directly and also contributes a poem mourning all that Mexico has lost. Translations still to come include Hector de Mauleon, Yuri Herrera, Rafael Lemus, and Juan Villoro.

There’s only 20 days left. Please help us spread the word.

Words without Borders Raising Kick Starter Funds for Mexican Drug War Issue

Words Without Borders has a Kick Starter campaign going for an new issue about the Mexican Drug War. This is going to be a great opportunity to read some of the authors in Mexico who are addressing the topic.Since the Drug War is somewhat recent as far as the translation process goes, not too much has come out in translation yet. (Martin Solares Black Minutes touches on it, but it is really more about the femecides in Juarez). Below is their description. You can contribute here.

In March 2012 Words without Borders: The Online Magazine for International Literature hopes to continue our tradition of exploring global events through international writing with a special Mexican Drug War issue guest edited by Carmen Boullosa, author of Leaving Tabasco, Cleopatra Dismounts, They’re Cows, We’re Pigs and numerous yet-to-be-translated books of prose and poetry. The issue will feature 11 pieces of fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction exploring the world of a modern-day Mexico held hostage by drug lords. Rafael Perez Gay, Luis Felipe Fabre, Rafael Lemus, Yuri Herrera, Juan Villoro, Fabrizio Mejia Madrid, Magali Tercero, Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, Hector de Mauleon, and Carmen Boullosa will delve into the personal and the global repercussions of a conflict that has killed more than 60,000 people.

In keeping with our mission to promote cultural understanding through literature, the issue will present the human stories behind the bloodshed and struggles that have ravaged Mexico for more than a decade. To get a sense of the work we do and how this issue will come together please take a look at our May 2011 Afghanistan Issue (published, in part, with Kickstarter’s help!) and our July and August 2011 Arab Spring Issues.