January 2010

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

No Guey! Neighbors?

Mexicans partied in the streets until dawn last year when they qualified for the World Cup, despite the fact that they’ve qualified for nearly every World Cup since the tournament's inception. But this year was different. With a presidential election in question, a sanguine drug war, not to mention a massive recession, and the H1N1 virus, their curse was now seemingly more than just being the United States’s neighbor; even the persistent placement of the tri, as their selection team is known, seemed doubtful.

Maybe, like Hemingway theorized, misery and injustice is a good thing in literature, as some of the stories from Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, edited by Alvaro Uribe and Olivia Sears, would indicate. That's not to say that all of these stories are as recent; in fact, many date from other dark times in the country’s history, of which there are many, like the October 2, 1968 Tlatelolco massacre (when a student protest was crushed by tanks and soldiers leaving behind some sixty dead), or the massive earthquake in 1985 that left tens of thousands dead. If this is all news to you, don’t worry: editor Uribe tries to provide ground to even the severest of gringos in Mexico; unfortunately, his preface kind of sounds like a textbook from a postgraduate survey course rather than something written for a general audience. Uribe explains: “[Juan] Rulfo, taking the same route in the opposite direction, in El llano en llamas (1953) elevated the identity of rural and provincial Mexico to a metaphysical archetype; moreover, in Pedro Páramo (1955), by melding a deceptive adherence to provincial Latin American reality with an original take on the fantastic that undoubtedly influenced Gabriel García Márquez.” Metaphysical archetype? I’m definitely going to fail this class.

Verbose prologue aside, the collection presents authors who should be better known by literati next-door neighbors. Of course, there was plenty to choose from: Mexico is a publishing Goliath in the Hispanophone world. Many authors even receive financial support from the government, part of a long tradition that dates back to the Revolution. In fact, the amount of quality novelists in Mexico is daunting. In selecting the stories, Alvaro Uribe chose what he saw as the best contemporary authors Mexico had to offer, and then asked each one to submit two stories, of which he would choose one. Note that exactly who are “contemporary” writers or what they are in Mexico is debatable. For some they are the Boom(erang) generation (deemed so by Carlos Fuentes); for others they are los Crack or the Crack Movement (that includes Segio Pitol and Jorge Volpi, contemporaries to the authors in this collection); still, there are authors of the same age in this collection that aren't members of either.

The first story in the book, “Lukin’s Bed” by Vivian Abenshushan, takes place in a small mountain village where the women leave their husbands to bear the cold winters alone, until one day the “mountain men” decide never to allow them back. This story, reminiscent of Cortazar, is the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from Latin America fiction: twisted allegory, isolation, fantasy, with a touch of goofy irony that makes it read like something from McSweeney's. The newly sexless males start spending Friday nights together ogling nude pictures of their exes, until one night they get drunk and decide to burn them. Meanwhile, they begin imagining a utopian world of men united in one giant bed. Inevitably, the women return, and the emerging leader, Lukin, is heard copulating with his returned wife by the other men lying together in their giant bed. After yawning together, the narrator and his friends recognize that although they “had come closer than ever before,” their short-lived fraternity is back where it started. 

Despite this being his first appearance in English, Juan Villoro, novelist, columnist and journalist, is probably the best known writer of the bunch. His satirical story, “Mariachi” affirms the praise he has received. The narrator -- a mariachi who has never been on a horse, hates rancheras and sombreros -- gets a role in a Spanish film in which he has to kiss a group of Catalan bikers, and then do his first nude scene. When he shows apprehension, his girlfriend, a fan of psychoanalysis and a bit of a ditz, enthusiastically reassures him, “You’re going to be the first mariachi without complexes; a symbol of the new Mexicans.” 

Alvaro Enrigue’s “On the Death of the Author” reads like “A Hunger Artist” if told by the late fabulist Augusto Monterroso: the last Yahi Indian chooses to live in a museum rather than return to his tribe’s grounds. The author, meanwhile, struggles with exactly how to narrate the story without it becoming allegorical, because “it wants to say what it wants to say, and not what I want it to say.” Despite his doubts, the story is told, if only reluctantly, while the author continues to reflect on the nature of meaning itself. The end seems to say that at the very end, we are left, like the author, wondering and speechless, stuck searching for our own explanatory labels. 

I was somewhat disappointed by “Nostalgia,” perhaps due to high expectations. Uribe does well in bringing Cristina Garcia Darza to the English-speaking reader; however, “Nostlagia” is hardly representative of the female voice that inhabits most of her books, nor does it jive with her usual style -- something like a mix of Diane Williams and Alexandra Pizarnik. (So far only one of her novels has been translated to English, and it's fantastic, although I haven’t read the translation.)  

Eduardo Parra’s staccato necrophiliac love story, although good for variety in the collection, sinks. The juxtaposition of prostitutes and nuns is so likely (in a Mexican anthology, no less) it reeks of cliché. And are we really shocked by fictitious necrophilia anymore? Considering the plethora of quality material Uribe had to choose from, it’s a wonder this story was included, when it should have gone on the bottom of the reading pile. Then again, maybe this muffled sentence delivered by the protagonist in mourning for the mulitated prostitute saves it: “but the sound of his words is muffled by the rain and, deep inside us, melts into the rushing jumbled litany, over and over again, the echo of an unappealable sentence: Never again her thighs squeezed tight around our waists.” Or it doesn’t. 

In “The Ominous Phememon,” two men struggle to carry a giant bucket of water in a desert, suggesting an impromptu oasis and the sort of metaphysical moment in the desert Juan Rulfo made famous. The story, by novelist Daniel Sada, has its moments; however, its mundaneness is too much at times (ahem -- boring) and might very well have received a “We liked your story, but we’ve decided to pass” letter had it not been written by Daniel Sada. 

The other stories are okay, but nothing superb. I suppose the authors were chosen in part to give us a panoramic view of contemporary Mexican literature, as seen by Alvaro Uribe, and for the most part it does -- only some of these authors haven’t even published books. The translation for the most part is right on; however, there are some translators’ decisions one wonders about, and given the bilingual edition (that I found distracting more than anything else), one can’t help but wonder. For example, in “Lukin’s Bed,” “fornicando” is translated as “screwing.” Perhaps this is to hyperbolize the narrator, as it does, but it's not accurate. Later, “screwing” comes up again as a translation of the Iberian “follar,” where it loses its European otherness (perhaps “shag” would have worked for the American reader). 

More than a glimpse at another country’s state of affairs in fiction, Best of Mexican Contemporary Fiction demonstrates the clearly unique relationship that English and Spanish now share. It’s strange: neither the language nor the settings feel foreign: no funky town names, no outlandishness surnames. If there is any “foreignness,” it’s the type we might expect from fantasy fiction. We are neighbors, after all. It would seem our languages are beginning to cross each other’s borders. Phrases like “somebody’s señora,” or “from the cantina to the casino,” or “some mulatto,” from the English translation, alongside other moments, like the prostitute called La Tuna or Nubbin’ (an admirable translation), or when a character says describes a man as “incommunicado.” It appears we are very much comunicados. Many of these Mexican authors have lived, studied, or taught in the United States and undoubtedly wrote in the US; some still do. Of course, this is not egalitarian two-way street; clearly, the United States has had a major influence in these short stories in style and content. What other countries are experiencing a Dashiell Hammet revival? Or a contemporary appreciation for John Fante’s Bandini series? 

Maybe it has something to do with resurgence in the “neodetective story,” as the editor of Mexico City Noir -- another collection of short Mexican fiction -- says. Compiled by Paco Taibo II (probably best known to an American audience for writing the definitive biography of Che Guevara, upon which the recent Che movie was based), the anthology, like others in Akashic’s Noir series, narrates and maps a city through its fictional sulking shadows and chalk outlines. 

Taibo, whose recent detective fiction has attracted a cult following in Latin America, writes a poignant introduction that at once drags us through the city’s recent troubled history, and explains the rebirth of noir there: “The neodetective story born in Mexico is not only a social literature, but also one with an appetite for moving outside the boundaries of the traditional genre.”  This latter quality makes the collection at once disturbing (it’s very violent, as you might expect) and dynamic, something that at times the Dalkey anthology lacked. Unlike those short stories, these do not accept genre as a confine, but rather as a set of rules to be rethought and rearranged. Taibo's selection from his own work exemplifies this. In his own story in the anthology, a writer and cop battle over a street corner plagued by gang violence during a traditional festival. It can be read as a metafictional musing on noir (like Borges’ famous story “Death and the Compass”), as well as good old street macabre fun.  

“Father… I accuse myself of having changed my sex,” to which her would-be confessor replies, “Me too." So begins my favorite story from the book, Eduardo Monteverde’s “God is fanatical, mi hija.”  The padre in fact explains that he was once a nun. Unperturbed, kneeling, Nausicaa continues, “I am a dancer by night and by day I search for lost children, although I haven’t found any.” The priest suggests she should look in the sewers if she wants lost children, and consoles the soon-to-be-atoned by saying, “We are all surgical angels.” Exactly what the story is -- aside from consistently surprising -- is hard to say, especially when more fantastical elements manifest themselves like possession, while never leaving its very real urban setting. The transgender priest comments, “Look how the sky has turned purplish. It’s because of the smog… the city always manages to get drenched in liturgical colors.” The priest, or ex-nun’s, description could be applied to the entire story: ambiguously mystic. Who is the confessor, who is the woman, who is the father? These questions lead us to ask who is God, and, perhaps parenthetically, what is Mexico City? One assumes that the story in Spanish played with gender, as does the fantastic (and monastic) How I Became A Nun by César Aira. I should mention that Monteverde, although a newcomer to fiction, is far from a no name, last year taking home the esteemed Juan Rulfo Prize for a novel. It also did what Eduardo Parra’s story from the Dalkey book didn’t: take a fresh approach to old material. 

The science fiction writer Bernardo Fernandez also made the list with the super-short “Private Collection” (not a science fiction story, per se) that follows a young trendicon on her day in the upscale neighborhood of Vallejo, before we discover her wealth’s macabre source. It’s not his best work, nor is it similar to the other things he writes (some of which are comics), but it works, and for those that don’t despise the twist, it has one.  

But there’s Eduardo Parra again with another obvious story, “I’m Nobody” featuring another figure almost as ubiquitous as the nun and the sleeping dog in the Mexico cliché -- a homeless man, who is framed for a murder, no less. At least it’s short.     

Still, Mexico City Noir succeeds both in presenting an interesting mix of authors, and with a fun and interesting approach that, in a lugubrious and sometimes sardonic way, describes what Taibo calls “the best city on the planet, in spite of itself.” It can even be read like a Mexico City travel guide for the at-risk tourist, if not a mischievously inclined tour for literary voyeurs.  

Although both books present a nice set of Mexican authors, in comparison to other more distant countries (and languages), we’ve hardly scratched the surface. There are still many more talented contemporary authors worthy of translation right next door. Is it because of the huge amount of Spanish speakers in the US? I’m not sure, but I hope Mexico’s other literary gems find their way to el mercado some day, the way that say Canadian authors do. But my guess is that if they get here, it’ll be because they crossed the border.