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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Juan Pablo Villalobos: Down the Rabbit Hole

Villalobos, Juan Pablo (2010), Down The Rabbit Hole, And Other Stories
[Translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey]
ISBN 978-1-908276-00-1

I was emailed an article two days ago about someone or other who was decapitated by the MS-13 gang in Mississippi and in my head I went, “…and he wasn’t even a king.” This is not a story about my opinions regarding monarchy. What it is instead is a testament to how deeply a vivid – if short- book can burrow into my subconscious sometimes. So after figuring out where my brain came up with that idea, I reread the culprit, Juan Pablo Villalobos’ debut novel Down the Rabbit Hole, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey and the very first book published by the excellent people at And Other Stories. I’ll be frank: both on my reread and on my first read of the book, I didn’t like it at first. It took me a while to get into and to understand that the voice of the narrator and its mannerisms are not just preciousness. Indeed it is surprising to me how much my opinion of the book changed as I made my way through it despite how small, in terms of pages, it is. This is a very short book and while I don’t want to spoil it, I will say that, like Yuri Herrera’s magnificent oeuvre (see my review here), it’s another writer from Mexico (though living in Spain) who wrote a complex work of fiction that engages the so-called narcoliteratura, but really tells a story about something else. In this case: innocence and identity. Judging from this book, Villalobos is not nearly the writer Herrera is, but that’s stiff competition anyway. Down the Rabbit Hole is an engrossing read, with a lot of good ideas, a very firm sense of form, and a bit of debut novelist exuberance. There are a few books like this, but the context and some specific ideas here make this a very intriguing read. It’s very re-readable, and as my initial anecdote shows, the narrative voice is distinctive enough to stick around in your brain days after you finished the book. I tend to end these first paragraphs with a quick yay or nay about whether or not to read this book, but I’m not sure with this one. I, personally, enjoyed it a lot, and I suspect you will too, whoever you are, but there’s also a chance that some of its mannerisms may grate too much for you to enjoy it completely.

The main “mannerism” is the narrator himself. Tochtli is a boy who lives in a major drug kingpin’s palace, who lives secluded, knowing only sixteen people and craves owning a Liberian Pigmy Hippopotamus. That “rare and secretive animal” serves as a mirror of sorts for the young boy who shares a disdain for pure book knowledge with his drug dealer father, but who is reduced to experience life from a distance. Villalobos’s structuring of the book is extraordinary: we learn about how distanced from life the boy is on multiple levels, including elements of syntax and paragraph construction. Some of this is connected to a sense of physicality. Villalobos introduces multiple small but potent doses of physicality into the book, from physical pain to fat bottomed girls who vanish into back rooms with his father doing things Tochtli has no words or concepts for. The physicality builds until it is released in a brutal scene towards the end of the novel – yet even there, Villalobos handles his protagonist carefully, moving him along in a certain distance from that ripe, dark, suppurated physicality. In the end, even that physicality is found to be contained, and moved back into the closed, self-referential world in the palace. But as much as I admire the control Villalobos has over all the elements of his book, the voice of the narrator is terribly grating. We meet him on page one as a practically self declared genius with great memory who reads dictionaries and uses big words. The big words at the beginning will turn out to have a greater predictive value for the plot of the novel rather than its style as Villalobos gives his protagonist not per se a childish voice, but the kind of simple, funny, deadpan voice that adult writers often think children have. And that’s a thing you really, really notice in the first parts of the book, how artificial that voice is, how it lacks depth, musicality, even real humanity. It opens a discourse on innocence precisely because its artificial creation of an “innocent” voice creates a sinister counter-flow to the novel, the opposite, if anything, of innocence. That’s what annoyed me the first time I read the book, and that’s what bothered me on my reread, as well. It’s good, then, that as one continues reading the book, this sense of annoyance at a contrived style disappears completely.

As it turns out and as I already suggested, the contrived nature is the very point, I think, of this kind of writing. Villalobos creates a forest of symbols, an “empire of signs,” to slightly misuse Barthes (though, if you read the book, you know why I associate the phrase here). I know nothing about him personally, but much of it reads like someone used the furniture and grammar of narcoliteratura to furnish the colder abstract rooms of poststructuralist theories about reality and language. I mean, that is how the book works, in my opinion. There are so many places you could start – for example the way this child tells its stories in a repetitive way. Now, the language (in translation) may not be musical, but the way phrases and descriptions appear and reappear does suggest a certain musicality. On the one hand, it does put us in mind of certain children and the circular (and sometimes, frankly, annoying) way they tell stories. On the other hand, we are offered a metatextual hint about how to read the texts repetitions pretty much exactly halfway through the book when some of its characters tell each other jokes. Mind you, we don’t hear the jokes, just Tochtli’s summary of the jokes which is a mini-thesis on difference and repetition (I don’t want to mention you-know-who in every review, but you know). It also serves as a key of how to read some of the book’s language, especially since it comes in a part of the story where everybody has changed their names, and the kid’s use of their names implies a connection of names and selfhood, and language. Language in the book is whispered, yelled, withheld. Understood, misunderstood, used as code, as self-revelation and as lie. There’s a thing in the opening pages of the The Night Circus where the child prodigy does not understand the magician adults around her because they spoke in a way that was intentionally (magically) not understandable to the child. So in this particular mediocre novel it’s particularly lazy, but Villalobos shows us how much movement and magic, really, a gifted writer can wring from language without fairy tales and witchcraft. The list of things he does is long and I could continue for a while, but let me just say that ultimately, Down the Rabbit Hole is about how constructed our narratives of villainy and politics are, of masculinity and femininity. It’s not a new claim, this, but then the novel isn’t a nonfiction essay: it merely happens to illustrate the situation exceptionally well.

And this is where, I think, comparisons to Herrera’s own take on the Mexican literature of drug kingpins and their life come up and distinguish Villalobos’s novel from what it is and what it could be in the hands of an even better (or just maybe more experienced) writer. Like Herrera, Villalobos covers his novel in a web of Mexican culture and religion, starting with the fact that everybody from the main “cast” has a Nahuatl name. Like Herrera, Villalobos toys with the musicality of pulp, and with the complicated relationship Mexican culture and literature has with European history. As with Herrera, the condensed, allusive and precise workings of the novel made me worry about overreading it (is the combination of interest in French revolution and reclusive protagonist a humorous allusion to Thoreau? Probably not.). But unlike Herrera, I get the feeling from Villalobos that he is primarily interested in his metafictional web (is this a Mexican thing?), and not as much in human aspects of his fiction. It may be that I am reading this in an age of Trump and Brexit, and so lack a certain patience for a certain kind of writing, but Villalobos comes awfully close to being just too precious and cold here and there. Herrera’s books are masterpieces not just for structure, writing and intellectual weight, but also for the way he manages to incorporate the lived experience of many Mexicans into his books. The pain, blood and struggle of ordinary people under the weight of the system and their various loyalties within that system come out with a kind of shattering purity in Herrera’s books. Villalobos, instead, opts to move to another metafictional pun at the end of his book. Herrera’s work strikes me as absolutely necessary and vital, just as it is masterful. He’s a truly great writer. Villalobos seems minor by comparison. He is very very good at what he does, sometimes stunningly so, but what he does seems so small, and I am not talking about page length here. I recommend you read Villalobos, but you absolutely have to read all three novels by Yuri Herrera that have been published by & Other Stories, which is quickly becoming a favorite publisher of mine.

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Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd

Luiselli, Valeria (2011), Faces in the Crowd, Granta
[Translated from the Spanish by Christine MacSweeney]
ISBN 978-1-84708-507-8

luiselli 2It’s entirely accidental that my last review of 2015 and my first review of 2016 are both of novels by Mexican authors. Both novels are short, and both are written by skilled writers. Yet while Yuri Herrera’s novel is a masterpiece, well written, constructed and, I think, translated, the same cannot be said of Valeria Luiselli’s debut Faces In The Crowd. While certainly very clever, and often extremely well constructed, Luiselli offers a meagre dish, bereft of the flesh of story. Every word, every observation is spoken for – more than once. Similes and metaphors serve many purposes, including a metafictional one where they have to stand in for the principle of indirect speech. Writers, places, voices and observations enter the book and are immediately transformed. As a performance, this seems utterly cold and mechanical, yet Luiselli is always in control of her craft. There’s not much here, except, hidden in the folds of all these references upon references, this forest of symbols and indirection, a story of a young mother, terrified by a new experience, lost to the outside world somehow and trying to recreate a world purely intellectually. Moreover, the translation by Christina MacSweeney is frequently inconsistent, sloppy and flat in a way that makes me suspect a fault on the translator’s side rather than a failing by the author. I find it hard to critique so harshly a book that is so well constructed, but as a whole, I found the book exceptionally unsatisfying. One aspect that raised Herrera’s novel beyond other books of similar length and density is the narrative depth, the way Herrera allowed for life and myth to flood the book in all the right places. And for a pure novel of ideas, Luiselli lacks the rigor and thoroughness of, say, a David Markson, whose work the novel often reminded me of, or the supple confidence of Woolf, another obvious touchstone. At the same time, I can see this author producing stellar work in the future, given the brilliance of many of its constructions and the ease with which she assembled her book. This book is certainly worth reading, especially if you’re generally interested in poetry and modernism. It’s not a great novel, but that is a lot to ask of a short debut. It’s strange and entertaining, and through its allusiveness and density even has a bit of staying power.

The structure of the book is complex, and maybe one of the things that the author does not control perfectly. On its face, it is a novel about a female writer writing a novel. It contains three or four different kinds of sections. There is the present day narrative, which is basically a journal of the putative author’s daily goings-on, as she lives in a house somewhere in Mexico City, with her recently born second child, her husband, and a somewhat older child. Her husband is an architect who may or may not be unhappy with his marriage to the narrator/author. He also, in the first half of the novel, reads the pages already written, and the narrator later reports his remarks to us. This is not quite as in Laurent Binet’s loquacious HHhH, a novel that constantly discussed its own genesis and the author’s thought process, as well as misgivings by friends and lovers. The main difference is that -fascinatingly, really – Luiselli uses this tool of reflecting on the creation of the book without actually reflecting on its form, really. The husband’s reading is merely used to raise questions of authenticity and truth on the one hand, and add fuel to that present day’s narrative’s main concern: the feeling of loneliness and rejection that the narrator constantly feels. Never leaving her house, the narrator’s journal alludes to the Gothic tradition with all its emotional and psychological trappings, but takes care to tie other cultural and historical narratives into it, from the Collyer brothers, immortalized by the late E.L. Doctorow (Doctorow’s excellent novel on the Collyer brothers came out in 2009, Luiselli’s novel in 2011, it’s reasonable to assume that one influenced the other) as well as Emily Dickinson, or rather: the crooked cultural narrative we have of isolated spinster Dickinson. It is not until the very end that Luiselli returns to the core elements of the Gothic, after having cycled through various versions of it especially in the second half of the novel. Yet not all parts of the novel are even touched by the Gothic.

The arguably most important kinds of sections in the first half of the novel are reminiscences of the narrator’s past in New York. It is these reminisces that the husband, reading the manuscipt/journal, objects to most strenuously, mostly on the grounds of jealousy. That’s because in them, the author/narrator remembers her time in independent publishing/translation, which involved sexual congress with a few different men. The main aspect of that narrative, however, is the author’s insistence on getting Gilberto Owen, an obscure (but real) Latino poet and ambassador, who was born in Mexico in 1904 and died in Philadelphia in 1952, translated. To achieve this goal, she invents a whole backstory for the poet, including a forged manuscript of translations, purportedly by the hand of fictional poet Joshua Zvorsky (a thinly veiled allusion to Louis Zukofsky, the great objectivist poet (listen here to Mark Scroggins discuss the poet)). On the back of Zvorsky’s good name, the translations (really done by the author), achieve great success until her conscience forces her to declare the forgery. The whole affair is done in really broad strokes, as far as the literary business is concerned. It’s hard not to think of the way critics and publishers fêted Bolaño and other writers not, maybe, all too interested in the accuracy of the biographical narratives offered. Yet Faces In The Crowd is not a satire. Luiselli is not really concerned with the whole business of hyping and publishing obscure writers for Western audiences. What she’s really interested in is her imagined figure of Owen. In order to make him attractive to her publisher, she invented a whole backstory for him that involved friendships with Lorca, “Zvorsky” and other greats of early 20th century poetry in New York. This led to her wish to write a novel about Owen, which is the project that she chronicles in her journals in present day Mexico City. The sections from that novel (or Owen’s imagined life?) are more expansive and imaginary than anything else in the book, and they dominate the second half of Luiselli’s novel. In the portions of the biographical novel, we learn of both Owen’s life in New York as well as of his final years in Philadelphia where he, according to our author/narrator, suffers from a mysterious illness that makes him lose weight without actually slimming down.

luiselli 3I spent a lot of time explaining structure and plot of the book, but its real achievement is not in these elements. It’s in the way all of this works, and the way Luiselli references and uses literary history. One of the dominant images of the book is the phrase that has become the English title of the novel (the original one is Los Ingrávidos), taken straight from the famous Pound poem “In a Station of the Metro”

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

The poem is referenced almost in full twice and alluded to at other times, but Luiselli does not just use the image to explain the way she thinks of lives passing through time and appearing to people at other times, her use of the poem allows us to see how Pound’s literary theories are also part and parcel of how the novel itself is constructed. Pound’s poem, which I just quoted with a colon, has also (and is, these days, most frequently) been printed with a semicolon. What’s more, there are differently spaced versions. Pound revised the poem in multiple printings and, as many essays have shown (most succinctly perhaps a 1990 essay by Chilton/Gilbertson), these changes are in step with his different opinion on how to use the image. Commonly, we understand Pound’s career at that time to make a change from a movement called Imagism to a much less influential and shorter lived movement called Vorticism. Imagism is basically the idea of letting an image or an object speak for itself. The poem was inspired by Japanese poetry and the implicit metaphors or similes in them. The question of how explicit and implicit metaphors are is one that also concerns the Luiselli’s novel, which crawls with similes, some odd, some interesting, some flat. And there are various things. There are objects that mirror or represent people, there are similes, there are metaphors and maybe allegories. Luiselli runs the gamut of indirect ways of connection images and ideas. But Pound, in making the change to a semicolon and vorticism, starts moving away from the idea of an implicit simile and towards a “superposition” of ideas. Luiselli’s book moves from the indirect idea of grappling with her past and present life and Owen’s life to the full narratives of Owen’s life in the second half. People and lives appear in the ‘wrong’ time, like superpositions, as ghosts or faded images. What’s more is that Pound said of his poem that it recorded “the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective. “ In many ways, this also describes the process of the novel, as we move from a broad, tentative take on the process of writing about Owen and dealing with the author/narrator’s fascination for it, to a more fully subjective take on Owen, life and literary history.

Similarly, the author makes use of Zukofsky’s poetic tenets, although I don’t want to discuss this here before this review’s length explodes any further. It’s enough to state that in many ways, Zukofsky’s Objectivism is a variation on the Imagism of Pound, an exploration of it, more connected to history and time than Pound’s early work was. Questions of sincerity, observation and directness are raised and answered by Luiselli in a way that shows the influence of Zukofsky. Yet, while I don’t want to go into these aspects, I want to mention something else: the connection between Zukofsky and translation. The fact that we can tell that the fictional author “Zvorsky” is really Zukofsky is evidenced by the way Luiselli explicitly references the early section “A-9” from Zukofsky’s long poem “A” (which turns into “That” in the novel). But she does it with a bit of indirection, by offering us a (fictional) translation Owen made of a Lorca translation of a section of “A-9” – now, this would have been a clever bit of literary play, but Luiselli’s depth of reference exceeds simple allusions like that. Her “translation” is not a translation the way we would all understand it – it is a translation in the way Zukofsky practically pioneered it: based on sound rather than meaning, a method that has been replicated many times since (Ted Berrigan’s work comes to mind), but has only been really popularized by Zukofsky. This makes the allusion to Zukofsky work on two distinct levels: on content and method. Speaking of translation: in the first paragraph, I have made disparaging remarks on MacSweeney’s work, but her rendering of the triple translation of Zukofsky appears to be extremely well done, as far as I can tell without recourse to the original. Sadly, the translator appears to have concentrated much of her creative energy on that section to the detriment of others. The prose in Luiselli’s book, as rendered by MacSweeney, is frequently pedestrian, usually flat.

I cannot tell whether the fault lies with the author or the translator, but the early reference to Hemingway lets me suspect a combination of both. Hemingway and Carver are devils, sent to this world to deceive and trick the youth into writing flat declarative, short-limbed prose that lacks the precision of syntax and word choice that made those two writers into the masters they were (in fact, not even Carver was able to be Carver, as we know, and Hemingway had trouble maintaining his own high wire act for long). As I can tell from German attempts to translate American fiction, there is often a process of further degradation when translators try to render simple/laconic writing into the target language. I suspect that is what happened here. What’s more, sometimes the translation just seems sloppy, with odd phrases that appear to not offer us some odd phrase in the original but a mirror of the Spanish original, a frequent mistake that happens in quick interlinear translations. This should have been caught by the book’s editors, however, as well as other slips. For example, for a particularly egregious one, at some point, the author/narrator is watching a movie which she calls “Raining Hamburgers” – I had a hunch and checked the Mexican title of the American animated movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and sure enough, it’s “Lluvia de hamburguesas”. These are minor mistakes but they contribute to an overall impression of sloppiness and add to the meagre narrative flesh on the bones of this book.

luiselli1There are so many ideas all over the book that I have barely managed to mention even most of them. Representation, motherhood, feminity, literary tradition. I mean the whole use of the Collyer brothers, who at some point stopped leaving their apartment, inviting instead the world into it in the form of books, texts and rare objects until they were found dead in the debris, deserves a thorough analysis. In a section that pretends to be a memory, Luiselli draws on the concept of psychogeography, but her narrator, the young mother, inverts the principle. Instead of walking the world and engaging with its symbolical structure, she imposes symbols onto a world that she does not see, an outside that might as well not exist, toying with Korzybski’s map/territory binary. The very fact that the husband who may or may not leave her, is an architect. The concepts and consequences behind the idea of Owen losing weight while staying the same on the outside. I mean, it’s a long list and everything ties into everything. This process is endlessly fascinating but it does not ultimately make Faces in The Crowd a good book. An interesting book, yes, but Luiselli’s book reads like the endlessly well crafted artifact of a critic-turned-writer, although I don’t know whether that is, indeed the case. It is not enough to say this book is overdetermined. It is, in fact, so painstakingly worked that it barely resembles prose any more in its density and lack of narrative or emotional energy. It resembles a baroque poem, written to impress with its craft, to delight an appreciative audience. Only that, for a poem, Luiselli’s – or, more precisely, MacSweeney’s – language is too vague for this book to dazzle. I think Luiselli got lost in the house of her own mind and construction and this book is the result.

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Yuri Herrera: Signs Preceding The End of The World

Herrera, Yuri (2015), Signs Preceding The End of The World, And Other Stories
[Translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman]
ISBN 978-1-908276-42-1

This is very likely my last review of the year but I just couldn’t let the year on my blog end with that terrible Chapman novel, so I picked an interesting looking book from my TBR stack and read it, and am sitting down here, on a Christmas morning somewhere on the outskirts of Bucharest, writing this review. And I am very glad I made this choice.

Herrera1I had not heard of the writer before, but it’s a name I won’t soon forget. Yuri Herrera has, so far, written three short novels, the second of which, Signs Preceding The End of The World, has now found its way into English, in a translation that I found fantastic, published by And Other Stories. I don’t naturally know how close Dillman kept to the text and how much of the original is found in this English version, but she found a language that is strong, unique and fits the text, its story and its quirks to a t, which makes me think she did a good job. The book itself is a rich story that feeds equally off myth and realism, with its closest sibling (in my limited reading of latino literature) not the postmodernism of Roberto Bolaño, despite the thematic similarities especially with 2666; instead, the book that most came to mind is the one Mexican masterpiece pretty much everyone has read in one translation or another: Juan Rulfo’s spellbinding novel Pedro Páramo. It also reminded me of something odd in amazon’s current TV show Narcos, a slightly unpleasant American rewriting of recent Columbian history. It starts off with a disquisition on magical realism, but, as far as I have seen the show, does not offer any of it to its viewers, instead it’s a mixture of docudrama and realistic action. In this context, the way Herrera’s novel digs into myth, into the layers between life and death, consciousness and dream, appeared even more stark to me. But even without the contrast, this novel is captivating. After I finished it, I found it hard to believe that it was as short as it is. In it, we go to hell and back, we see how war and poverty and warp and hollow people out, and how threadbare, ultimately, the connection is that we have to our homes, no matter how strongly felt it might have been. Herrera discusses, in other sections, the border issues between Mexico and the US, offers a suggestion involving a broader sense of home and identity and takes a long, hard look at fear and necessity. This is very clearly among the best novels I have read all year and probably in the last 5 years, too. Herrera’s skill as a writer is beyond remarkable and Lisa Dillman’s translation is similarly good. Do yourself a favor and read this book. This is the most direct, unguarded recommendation I have given out all year. Go, now.

Yuri Herrera has so far written three novels. All three deal in some way with the drug traffic, and the problems in Mexico that arise from it. All three decline to offer a stark realism, although the third one comes closest. All three play with the idea of narrative, of writing. There is a sense of a grasping for a national literature that both deals with the scourge of drug trafficking and transcends it. Trabajos del reino, the first book, is equipped with a protagonist who is a poet or singer, who slowly enters the ranks of power. Thus, Herrera can offer his readers a variant on that old Mexican genre: the dictatorship novel. These books, from García Márquez to Roa Bastos, Miguel Asturias and Ramón del Valle-Inclán, have long been considered a central part of the canon of latino literature, part of the way that literature has related to issues of nationbuilding. To speak with Lyotard, if I may, is it possible to say that over the decades since Asturias and Valle-Inclán, all these petits récits have added up to fairly large and grand narratives themselves, somewhere between the great European ideologies, much as its great proponents, from García Márquez to Vargas Llosa, have to be, I think, described as being somewhere in between those ideologies. Herrera’s book, by dropping the focus from a statesman, even a despotic one, to a drug kingpin, offers critical commentary on this genre, as he, at the same time, I think, attempts to use its strengths and implications for a putative récit about Mexico. The third novel’s protagonist is a lawyer and its focus is even narrower and local, and it involves a writing of history and law that needs lawyers not poets or singers. In between those two books is Signs Preceding The End of The World. It starts off as the smallest of books: the realistically told tale of Makina, a young woman who sets out to bring her brother home. In order to be able to cross the border, she strikes a deal with local drug kingpins whose reach extends far into the US and whose tales of a mythical heritage beyond the border were the original incentive for her brother to leave home. She carries with her a message from her mother and a package from the kingpin. The book is told in the third person, from the young woman’s point of view. We are never privy to all her thoughts, the effect is more that of a chorus, telling us about the big beats in her emotions as they relate to the events around her.

The rhythm of the novel fits that impression, with an almost stakkato-like sequence of sentences, although this is no formal system. Sentences vary in length and melody, but the beats keep recurring. This delivery is significant because it takes us out of a too realistic reading of the events and draws attention to all the instances where the novel addresses its own form or the question of narration in general. Even within the constraints of a very short novel that has a long story to tell, Herrera’s focus never wavers when it comes to these issues. When people speak, Makina almost always reports to us precisely observed details about how they speak, how their manner of speech reflects on their persona or the situation. Again and again, stories and observations come back to this. One story, on the surface meant to show how people can change once they come back home from a longer stay in the United States, is, at the same time, a story about communication, quite literally, about speech, about signals and many more details like that. Late in the novel, writing is used as a weapon of defense against institutional racism, names are exchanged and truth is repeatedly debated. I say it’s striking, but it’s more than that. It’s also a continuation of Herrera’s themes, but instead of having one singer tell a ballad of the drug life, this is a kind of decentralized story. Told, yes, by one person, but the novel spreads out all the speech and the awareness of it to all members of the chain that leads Makina from her village to where she ends up. As my evasive formulations show, I am loath to reveal details about what happens exactly, because I don’t want to take away the joy of discovering the book from any of the people who are reading this review, but I will reveal that it is indeed a quest, and one where the Hobbits do not return to the Shire. The form of the quest focuses all the elements of speech, gives them shape and meaning and coherence. All the urgency that spurns Makina, it transfers to the discussions of orality and narrative and writing. One issue that recurs again and again is the question of language. Whenever someone speaks for the first time, the novel makes sure we know whether its “anglo tongue” or “latino tongue” – but its linguistic world view is far from a simple binary. At some point, roughly halfway through the book, Makina describes the speech of the locals as “a shrewd metamorphosis.”

Herrera2In general, despite the border being obviously the most apparent metaphor, the novel doesn’t care much for sharp distinctions. People are almost what they are. Friends are sometimes not quite friends, enemies not quite enemies, and the border that can destroy a young man is sometimes not the border between the US and Mexico, but the aerial border (of sorts) between the US and Afghanistan. The book toys with the idea of land, something that can be literally dug up and stolen – how deep goes identity? And then, the book offers us other oddities, among them neologisms, the central one of which is rendered by Lisa Dillman as “(to) verse” which means something like “to leave.” Dillman herself explains her coinage in a lovely and quite long and extensive translator’s note at the back. The original word in Herrera’s Spanish text was “jarchar,” a neologism derived from the Arabic. Neologisms and other mildly alienating tactics keep the readers on their toes, bar them from settling into easy identifications, and simple realism. That’s necessary because, except for a few passages here and there, the mythology of the novel, despite its importance for the book, is not expounded on at any length, really. By pushing his readers into a constantly angular sort of metafictional mood, he allows them to find all the subtle (and less so) references to the 9 levels of the Mictlan underworld, and appreciate the many levels of Makina’s quest. By engaging Aztec mythology, Herrera also opens a conversation with the narratives of Mexican nationalism, its limitations and possibilities, its overall scope. Of course there are the many small questions, such as: what does it mean when you are Mexican in the US? What if you can pass? What is the meaning of “home”? But more generally, Herrera’s touching on themes of life and death, of the impermanence of identity and the possibility of stories to resist that process of fading away. Herrera offers a petit récit and a Grand Narrative at the same time, undercutting the importance of both. And more importantly, he offers a magnificently written book. Look, all the details of speech and narrative, all the little linguistic and rhythmic details are not what really holds that novel together – it’s Herrera’s plain skill at telling a fantastic story. I have recently remarked on novels that are intellectually interesting but lack a storyteller’s heart – well, this little novel can do both, and with an apparent ease that makes me crave for more work by this extraordinary writer. A great novel. Go, read.

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