May 2016

Charlotte Whittle


The Cowboy Bible and Other Stories by Carlos Velázquez, translated by Achy Obejas

In The Cowboy Bible, Carlos Velázquez serves up a riotous collection of stories that push the boundaries of what can be done with fiction. Harking back to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and García Márquez's Macondo, Velázquez invites us to step into PopSTock!, a fictional region somewhere in Northern Mexico, and visit towns with names like San Pedroslavia and Los Ramones. This is a twenty-first-century, "post-Northern," post-post-modern geography where the global and the local have been whipped into a shake in which the unexpected is commonplace. Carlos Velázquez wants us to know that the village still exists, but not as we ever imagined it.

In PopSTock!, metamorphosis is the modus operandi. The eponymous Cowboy Bible is a shapeshifting entity that first appears as a wrestler's talisman, an heirloom handed down by the father of the title story's protagonist: "A Latin American paperback, bound in denim." In the next story, the Cowboy Bible has taken human form, and is now a champion drinker of the rustic liquor sotol; and in a story titled "Reissue of the Original Facsimile of the Remastered Country Bibles Back Cover," the Cowboy Bible becomes the Country Bible, a young woman "descended from a long line of fried-chicken vendors." A dissident, rebel, and Communist bootlegger, the Country Bible joins a protest movement and is involved in a twenty-first-century replay of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre. As if this weren't eventful enough, she also appears on a reality TV show where competitors speed-pirate as many records as possible in a brief stretch of time.

Pirating, bootlegging, and copying are central themes for Velázquez, and The Cowboy Bible sets out to challenge notions of legitimacy, mixing originals and copies, high culture and low. Perhaps this is clearest in the title story, in which the protagonist engages in a disorienting mix of popular art forms and ways of wielding cultural authority. We're led to expect a coming-of-age story told by a lucha libre star, but what we get is a tale of a maverick artist who is at once luchador, musician, DJ, art critic, and theorist of culture. His career as a scholar of the alternative versions of things, the B-sides of grand narratives, precedes his foray into wrestling:

I had a degree in analysis and in the discrepancies between Side B, the bonus track, and the hidden track. One night, as I was working on my thesis about the influence of MP3 technology on imitation wrestler suits, El Joven Murrieta announced the return of a legend on the ten o'clock news, the headlining appearance of Santo's Son. That's when I climbed into the ring.

He goes on to develop a wrestling style he calls "Neo Vulgar Retro Kitsch," and becomes a practitioner of a hybrid art of wrestling which is at once sport and music, flaunting his "nasty glamor skills at the mixer, the turntable, and scratching."

If at times this story runs the risk of drowning in its own ingenuity, it is not farfetched to read it as an ars poetica through which to view the stories that follow. One can well imagine Velázquez at the turntable, mixing the tracks into his chaotic mash-up of high and low references, sampling from an eclectic range of cultural sources, and delighting in the intoxicating flavor of the results.

In the story "Notes for a New Theory for Mastering Hair," Velázquez offers a more outlandish metaphor for his eccentric art. The protagonist this time is a woman whose rampant pubic hair, a "wild vertical porcupine," brings her to master the art of playing the razor while sculpting topiary forms from her "punkospine." Ultimately, she enters into a Robert Johnson-esque pact with the devil, before going up in smoke during a live duo performance with fellow razor artist Steve Vai, featuring "two of the hairiest pubises in all of history." Velázquez keeps company with the maverick practitioners of improvisatory arts who people his pages.

On the surface, not all of the stories are such a scramble; some have the more folkloric, fabular tone of medieval morality tales relocated to the post-moral landscape of PoPStock!. In "Cooler Burritos," a champion sotol-guzzler is unseated in a corrupt drinking competition that ends in a bloodbath, ridding the town of its narcos, and in "The Post-norteño Condition," the composer of corridos Paulino seeks a pact with the devil to get his hands on some boots made of rare cowboy bible.

When Paulino tells his wife he wants to bargain with the devil, she warns: "That only happens in corridos. Paulino, corridos are not the same as real life." The corrido may be a folkloric genre, but it is an elastic form that has been adapted across generations and into subgenres such as the contemporary narco-corrido, which recounts the deeds of cartel bosses. The English translation of The Cowboy Bible omits its Spanish subtitle: "Un triunfo del corrido sobre la lógica" (a triumph of the corrido over logic). The corrido is above all a vehicle for storytelling, and in this book, storytelling, surreal and effervescent, certainly wins out over logic.

The language of PopSTock! is irreverent and gleefully cannibalizes anglicisms, turning them native: hispanicized English words like "cácher"(catcher), "escratch"(scratching), "díler"(dealer) and "glamur"(glamor) pepper the narrative. Although these gestures revert to their original English and so are unseen in the translation, they remain evident in the names of towns (Moncloyork, San Pedroosvelt), and in PopSTock! itself. The region's name evokes a cultural happening on a grand scale, and also merchandise: fitting for a book concerned with the circulation of products, and with reordering the cultural fragments of late capitalism.

The translation of The Cowboy Bible is no mean feat. Achy Obejas, acclaimed fiction writer and translator of Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao into Spanish, embraces Velázquez's irreverent linguistic play and neologisms and makes them her own in an English that revels in invention. In Obejas's hands, pop culture references find their own idiomatic English that evokes the language of the blues: "The cousins, a female group from Argentina, sang Watch your hands, Antonio, 'cuz Mama's in the kitchen." Given the repeated evocation of the legend of Robert Johnson's crossroads deal with the Devil, these echoes gained in translation are not inappropriate. Little pearls like "all that yakking's gonna win you a smacking" give a new life to Velazquez's verbal acrobatics. Velázquez's book celebrates the bastardization of language; Obejas's translation keeps the party going. We can hope for more collaborations from this well-matched duo in the future.

The Cowboy Bible and Other Stories by Carlos Velázquez, translated by Achy Obejas
Restless Books
ISBN: 978-1632060228
160 pages