Jorge Ibargüengoitia: The Dead Girls

Ibargüengoitia, Jorge (2018 [1977/1983]), The Dead Girls, Picador
ISBN 978-1509870172
Translated by Asa Zatz

For a novel called “The Dead Girls,” Mexican author Jorge Ibargüengoitia isn’t particularly interested in said dead girls. In the introduction to the new edition of the book, Colm Tóibín compares the novel to Roberto Bolaños 2666, in particularly section 4, “About the Crimes.” He fails to note that, in contrast to Ibargüengoitia, Bolaño does talk about “the crimes” at length, and he presents stories from the lives of many of the murdered women in Ciudad Juarez, which is Bolaño’s focus. He notes the investigation, and presents a possible murderer. Section 4 of 2666 is a real punch to the gut. There’s no sense of the situation being ameliorated or prettied up for the reader, and despite Bolaño’s complex use of postmodern techniques throughout his work and in this novel, as well, there’s no sense of postmodern playfulness clouding the seriousness of the crimes. That is not the case in Ibargüengoitia’s 1977 nonfiction novel which takes a case ripped straight from Mexican headlines in the 1960s, and which had produced a sensational, gut wrenching Mexican movie just the year before Dead Girls was published, and retells the story with the vast instruments available to the well trained postmodern novelist. There’s something distasteful about Ibargüengoitia’s literary project here, and it is not the smell of a dead body which is described at length towards the end of the book. This book has to be read with two lenses – as a literary project by Jorge Ibargüengoitia, and as a literary text that has no outside and does not partake in public discourses. As the latter, The Dead Girls offers a lot of delights. Ibargüengoitia uses mirrors, inversions, symbols, and parodies various discourses of detective and police and general nonfiction writing. He uses witness accounts, he uses doubt, humor and an almost surreal Gothic construction with a lightness of touch that is truly impressive. If not for the dubiousness of Asa Zatz’s translation, the book, viewed under that second lens, can only be praised.

But there’s the language, of course. When Picador decided to reprint a couple of classics and commissioned new introductions for them, they did not, for the few books that had been translated, commission new translations or edit the old ones. Asa Zatz’s is the original translation, and it is one of those cases where you can see, without looking at the original text, that something is off. In various places you can see inversions that appear to mimic the Spanish original, rather than present an organic English orginal in its stead. There are a few other problems that are more like mistakes (some pronouns and deictic expressions appear to be off), and the overall impression is one that makes the reader lose faith in the translator. How does the original novel deal with dialect? With low class speech? Am I getting from The Dead Girls what a Mexican reader would get from Las Muertas? Raymond D. Souza says that “there is considerable variety” in the book between “literary discourse,” “popular language” and “legalistic and journalistic jargon.” There’s no such variety here, really, in the English version. A contrasting example would be Lisa M. Dillman’s work on the novels of Yuri Herrera, which, particularly in Kingdom Cons and Signs Preceding the End of the World, does some very interesting stuff with language and register and which I’ve long admired. The claim – without looking at the original – that a translation is “good” is always dubious. But in some cases, you can tell when a translation isn’t, let’s say, great, and that’s, at least to my mind, the case with Ibargüengoitia’s novel. That said, those of us who have read literature in translation for years and have still not cleaned up our act to learn more languages up to easy reading level, we are used to these small roadbumps in reading and read right over them. And as one’s reading of The Dead Girls takes up speed and you look at all the angles and curiosities in the fictional mansion that Ibargüengoitia has constructed, you – or at least me- start noticing these issues less and less. It doesn’t mean they are not there, but the book’s machinery covers them up quite well.

What’s more: the novel’s chosen style is dry journalese, similar in some sense to Garcia Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, but in a less serious register. There’s also a framing temporal inversion in The Dead Girls, though the main plot is offered in drab chronological order, and since Ibargüengoitia was friends with Garcia Márquez, it’s not implausible that Ibargüengoitia’s 1977 novel had some influence on Garcia Márquez’s 1981 novella. That said there’s a key difference between Ibargüengoitia’s book and the common texts that would come to mind as comparisons, whether it’s Garcia Márquez or Bolaño. Chronicle of a Death Foretold takes liberties with the historical facts but his liberties, apart from the final reconciliation, do not ameliorate the situation or the facts, the novella merely artistically heightens the situation. That, Ibargüengoitia also does. But that is not where he stops. The Dead Girls is very loosely based on the Las Poquianchis case. Las Poquianchis were two to four sisters (there were four sisters in the family, all four were jailed, but the central case revolves around two of them) who ran a couple of brothels in Mexico and murdered 91 people, most of them women. The case, when they were eventually “caught” and charged, gained an enormous notoriety in Mexico. For example, a tabloid, colorfully called Alarma! more than tripled its circulation while the trial of las Poquianchis was ongoing. In 1976, a year before Ibargüengoitia’s novel appeared, a movie just called Las Poquianchis came out – and it detailed the case in a lurid and sensational manner. The sisters did not just run brothels, they also didn’t “just” murder prostitutes, they also, according to many reports, toured the countryside and trafficked young women – tricking and forcing them into prostitution. Of course, these reports are hard to parse for truth, particularly since this perceived thread of the roving immoral madams perfectly fits the typical narratives of moral panic. For Mexico City, Martha Santillán Esqueda has provided an excellent account of the way public moral panic was stirred up around this topic, particularly since the abolishment of prostitution in Mexico earlier – and the resultant web of illegal brothels and corrupt officials maintaining the web. Esqueda also points out that, when polled, many prostitutes suggest they were there of their own free will – and these questions are impossible to answer without taking into account the economic pressures on these inevitably very low class women.

And Ibargüengoitia reaches for these ambiguities with both hands. His book is constructed of pastiches of various kinds of journalistic media – from witness accounts to re-tellings, to official documents. At the end of the novel he presents a famous photo of Las Poquianchis and some of their prostitutes, but he mirrors the picture and erases all their faces (it’s easily googleable though). The novel begins with the caveat “some of the events described herein are real- all the characters are imaginary.” It gives Ibargüengoitia leeway in constucting a much smaller, much more contained, much more symbolically resonant text. Instead of a criminal enterprise and four brothels and 91 murders in the span of only about 10 years, his book’s situation focuses on just one “wandering” brothel, and five murders. While many of the original murders happened during the active running of the brothels (some murders were as prosaic as rich male customers being murdered for the money), all of the murders in The Dead Girls happen after the brothels are shut down and the prostitutes and the two sisters cohabitate in a sealed off house that was built as a brothel but never used. Ibargüengoitia uses various elements of the Gothic novel for his purposes. By making a sealed off, dark house the scene of so much of the book’s drama, he inverts the broad expansiveness of such a region based crime as human trafficking and prostitution into one narrow cramped space. He uses gender as a signifier – the domesticity of the arrangement is used in the crimes, and in some of the murders. Not to mention that the first body buried isn’t a murder per se, but dies violently at the end of a long and complicated healing process, an irony that is central to the way Ibargüengoitia built his book. A fine irony pervades much of the book anyway. While the 1976 movie screamed about corruption, Ibargüengoitia uses allusion and suggestion to decry the machinations of the state. The framing crime, the one that brings the sisters down in the novel, is an act of female jealousy and hot temperedness, while as far as I can tell the original sisters were brought down when a mistreated prostitute escaped and told her story to policement that were not paid off by the sisters.

91 murders, of those roughly 71 dead women – often underage girls. Ibargüengoitia takes the number and the names off this crime and writes a book about writing about crime. Some of the murders in the book happened by accident – maybe. A lot of it is due to a complicated situation. To a spurned, angry gay official who was embarrassed publicly and is taking it out on the sisters. Not one of the murders was committed in a callous way. Prostitutes are sold off, but we don’t learn their names because they were homely, and so what if this is human trafficking. Ibargüengoitia does not take a moral stand, and as a novelist, it’s stupid to demand one of him, but these nonfiction novels that stand in the liminal space between truth and invention – there are different rules that apply to them. There is much to be admired about the construction of the book: the city/farm dichotomy that was part of the public moral outcry, is tampered with in clever ways, space (up/down, inside/out) is manipulated in clever ways. How witnesses work, how narratives are structured, Ibargüengoitia’s novel is full of allusions to these topics and discourses. For a topic centered, in Mexican discourse at the time, around “white slavery,” Ibargüengoitia is at pains to point to the relative darkness of skin of several actors in the book. But the “dead girls” of the title – they get short shrift. And not just the 70+ dead girls that died at the hands of the real Las Poquianchis. But also, honestly, the five dead girls of the novel. Ibargüengoitia interrogates, towards the end, the labels of victim and perpetrator, and while, in isolation, that’s fine, in the liminal space of this kind of book, it’s incredibly dubious. His framing only works because he reduced the situation so much. It does not work with 70+ dead women and an uncounted number of trafficked, raped, mistreated women.

I think there’s a strange kind of tendency of writers, particular progressive writers, of, faced with the awfulness of moral panic, to sanitize the effects of prostitution. The whole recent debate around Dante “Tex” Gill’s potential onscreen portrayal in the movie Rub & Tug by Scarlett Johansson never really touched the fact that Gill was famous for taking over a number of “massage parlors” which were really brothels. During Gill’s ascendancy to a prominent place in Chicago’s underworld, “at least four women with ties to the rub parlors were murdered or died under mysterious circumstances” – but the debate around Johansson was entirely one about whether Gill should be portrayed by the actress and not about the role of forced prostitution and rape in public progressive discourse. There’s actually quite a solid amount of admiration for Gill in many of the think pieces written about the affair around the movie. I think there’s a certain blinkered blindness, a lack of empathy to women which I think is woven throughout books like The Dead Girls, even if they are as well made as this one. When I noted how powerful and excellent Lydia Millet’s fictional portrayal of this lack of empathy for women was in my review of My Happy Life, I could easily have referenced Ibargüengoitia’s novel. But it is quite good. It is hard not to recommend, if you can deal with the other aspect of it.

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