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.

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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.