Juan Villoro - From the semiotics of pet iguanas to the disillusionment of mariachi singers, Villoro reveals the deep dissatisfactions and absurdities of life in Mexico and its carnivalesque capital
Juan Villoro, The Guilty: Stories, Trans. by Kimberly Traube, George Braziller, 2015.
A brilliant, prize-winning collection of stories by Mexico’s most important living writer. From the semiotics of pet iguanas to the disillusionment of mariachi singers, Villoro reveals the deep dissatisfactions and absurdities of life in Mexico and its carnivalesque capital. We encounter a border trucker making a movie about illegal migrants, a cuckolded football superstar, and a gluten-free American journalist seeking the authentic Mexican experience. A master of the post-modern narrative, Villoro gives us contemporary Mexico through a complex interplay of culture and character psychology in the most surprising, fresh and humorous ways.
In the last few years I’ve read a lot of literature in translation, much of it in Spanish and much of it from Mexico. To try and describe the range and diversity of writers from this country would take forever and it may simply be impossible. There are magical and elemental writers (Guadalupe Nettel), master historian writers (Sergio Pitol), and clever,
philosophical writers (Valeria Luiselli). One thing I’ve also noticed is that Mexico produces some very funny writers.
Take these lines from Juan Pablo Villalobos’ English language debut Down the Rabbit Hole: “I like French people because they take off the crown before they cut off their kings’ heads. That way the crown doesn’t get dented and you can keep it in a museum in Paris or sell it to someone with lots of money.” See? Funny. Did I mention the narrator is a seven year old who collects hats and happens to be the son of an infamous drug lord?
Mexico is constantly derided for its violence and corruption; the government, the political process, the police force and drug cartels, all rife and seemingly in cahoots or, perhaps worse, in conflict. This is not something lost on its inhabitants. It faces them every day when they open their eyes. A gritty and absurd fatalism is abundant in the humor of Mexican literature. This might come from the seemingly endless contradictions their homeland contains, a complexity of contemporary life impossible to ignore and, incidentally, who would want to? The Guilty, Juan Villoro’s incredibly compelling short story collection, displays these complexities to a thrilling degree. The writing is razor sharp, the satire brilliant and biting. There is hope. There is misery. There is optimism shaded by fatalism. You see? Everything is complex.
A celebrated journalist and novelist, Villoro’s English language debut presents seven expertly crafted stories that are funny and agile but also illuminating, exploring the paradox of being a Mexican in Mexico. Can everyone relate to the world-weary humor of these stories? Just about. There is a universality to these damaged characters laughing from the abyss because, as one quickly discovers, they are all of us.
The protagonist of the first story is a mariachi who is tired of being a mariachi and gets involved in adult films in order to find himself, only to further lose himself. The title story features two screenwriting brothers, one a trafficker in border crossers. “Holding Pattern” focuses on a bottled water salesman circling endlessly over London in the hopes of making a connecting flight. Villoro’s stories are populated by the exhausted and the desperate, people at the end of their ropes, all connected seamlessly by the world-weary humor of the condemned. In fiction, just as in life, levity is often a succor for anguish. It sustains us. It tells us we’re less alone. Humor is a form of grace. Villoro understands this. As tragic and hopeless as the subjects and characters may be, there is always the humor to keep us going. What at first appears to be a collection of curious and offbeat characters—soccer players, window washers, mariachis—quickly becomes the bleak and hysterical kin of the everyday. It’s not that these people are exciting to read because of their occupations; they’re exciting to read because, like us, they’re trying to survive.
Injured, but still playing soccer, the narrator of “The Whistle” remarks:
I got used to playing through the pain. Then I got used to the injections. I played on painkillers more often than a normal body should. But my body isn’t normal. It’s a kicked-in lump. When she was feeling for my nerve with the needle, the doctor talked about my calcified flesh, as if I were turning into a wall. I like that idea: a wall the opposing team smashes into, where Argentinians crack open their heads.
But even the world of soccer is teeming with violence and corruption. Keeping one’s sense of humor might be the only way of keeping one’s sanity. Later he considers heaven:
Heaven for strikers is full of balls, I guess. But for midfielders, heaven is an empty field where there’s nothing to do and you can finally scratch your nuts, the balls you haven’t been able to touch your whole career.
The interplay of flippancy and frustration is adroitly translated by Kimi Traube, who clearly understands the tone and nuance Villoro is going for. Finding the balance for expressing the downright unpleasant from the lips of a detached but likable narrator is no easy task. And, incidentally, why are these characters likable? Because they’ve been down hard roads. Life has dealt them bad hands. They’ve seen things. You just know it. And translating this feeling can’t be easy. Sometimes the effort involved in artfully translating a book is discernable, other times the art lies in its subtlety. The translation of The Guilty is striking in the sense that the reader distinctly hears the voices of Villoro’s characters, senses their desperation and disquiet; the perception of impending violence that’s palpable.
Another subject in this collection is Americans, or gringos. Reminiscent of the stories of Álvaro Enrigue, the give-and-take between Mexicans and Americans is a topic of fascination and comedy. Mexicans often look at their northern neighbors with a sense of charmed befuddlement and genuine perplexity, sometimes both at once. Samuel Katzenberg, the gluten-free gringo reporter in the story “Amigos Mexicanos” asks the narrator to be his contact in Mexico City as he searches for an “authentic” Mexico, after having done his “bazillionth story on Frida Kahlo.” Katzenberg, of course, asks about the violence: “How violent is Mexico City, really?” And the narrator reflects: “I remembered something Burroughs wrote to Kerouac or Ginsberg or some other big-time addict who wanted to come to Mexico but was scared he’d get jumped: ‘Don’t worry: Mexicans only kill their friends.’”
The stories in The Guilty not only delve into the psyches of Mexicans but into the shallow perceptions “gringos” have toward Mexico. In fact, “Amigos Mexicanos” showcases the way we as neighbors perceive one another, chiefly through misunderstandings and shallow abstractions, seldom if ever correct, like a married couple continually misinterpreting the other, as if language were a hindrance more than a tool. At one point the narrator says: “The planet had turned into a new Babel where nobody could understand anybody else.” Yet these stories do the opposite by deciphering the myriad attitudes of its Mexican characters.
One of the most important aspects of translated literature, I think, is the glimpse we get of people in other places, how they think and feel and conduct their lives. If one doesn’t visit a country or speak its language there is simply no other way but through translation to open the door to these places. Do I think translators are magicians of a sort? I do. When I look back at the last ten years of books I’ve read, the stack would be largely diminished if translations were taken out. This wasn’t something I sought out, at least not at first, but after reading three or four Thomas Bernhard novels and just as many by Roberto Bolaño and an equal amount by Elena Ferrante and Javier Marías I was compelled to seek them out.
The service translations do isn’t easily summarized. It’s art. It’s literature and history. It’s a million unseen decisions oblivious to the reader. Sometimes, by default, it’s political. But it allows a person who’s willing to take the time a portal into the intricacies of another place, sometimes distant, other times right across a border. A collection like The Guilty displays the diverse challenges and staggering contradictions a country like Mexico embodies but without relying on gun-toting narcos or the simple cliches of good and bad. And lucky for us, this is done through the transcendent act of comedy.
I decided to write my first post about The Guilty for several reasons: it is a slight book (in size) and could easily disappear in the deluge of great books we’re getting sent and lucky enough to read. It is also a debut (in English) and like any debut, the future of that author’s works rests heavily upon its success. Although Villoro is highly regarded in Mexico (and has a large body of work in Spanish) it is often the success of that debut that determines if readers will see any more books by that writer in translation. - Mark Haber
AT A CRUCIAL MOMENT in “Amigos Mexicanos,” a story by Juan Villoro (1956), the narrator, a frustrated screenwriter, explains to the cinephile Mexico City detective investigating the disappearance of a US magazine reporter: “When a gringo journalist finds something ‘Buñuelesque’ in Mexico, it means that he saw something horrible he thought was magical.”
Nearly two decades of teaching Latin American literature in US universities has led me to suspect that Villoro’s narrator is definitely onto something. US readers expect books from south of the border to be repositories of experiences that are mystic, mythic, often violent, and wholly different from their own. I, myself, began studying Latin American literature with such assumptions, and they never entirely went away. And although few US readers would identify “funny” as one of the top 10 (or even 20) adjectives that best describe Latin American letters, Juan Villoro is funny. In fact, he is laugh-out-loud funny.
And he is not alone. As a young writer in Mexico in the 1970s, he studied with one of Latin America’s finest humorists, the Guatemalan-born Augusto Monterroso (1921–2003). Among the others who have made humor an important part of Mexico’s literary tradition are the satirist Jorge Ibargüengoitia (1928–1983), the mordant playwright Sabina Berman (b. 1955), and Carlos Monsiváis (1938–2010), the master of the chronicle, a genre he brilliantly adapted from US New Journalism and then made his own. One of my most vivid memories, in all my reading, is a scene in Villoro’s 2004 prize-winning novel, El testigo (The Witness), in which the protagonist rails against the 1970s English rock group Supertramp: “Why did Supertramp exist?” he asks himself. “Was it even conceivable that changing styles hadn’t annihilated something so derivative and lacking in personality?” When I had the chance to interview Villoro in 2010 he told me he actually liked Supertramp. He recognized that it would be harder to vilify a more successful band: “Taking on the Rolling Stones, for example, is complicated. I would have had to bring in the heavy artillery in order to demythify the Stones, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, or the Doors, you know, the legendary bands. I needed a lesser band.”
His carefully calculated humor serves as an approach to serious themes. In El testigo, Supertramp reminds the protagonist of a particularly shameful event. In the case of the US journalist in “Amigos Mexicanos,” humor arises from cultural misunderstandings, which, in Villoro’s work, are far from limited to foreigners. Neither gringos nor Mexicans really get Mexico. Villoro shows us that this occurs not because people have just failed to understand Mexico. The real problem is that any attempt to understand a nation as if it were a thing whose size, shape, color, and function you could precisely define is doomed to fail — a problem that can be as funny as it is important to recognize.
I translated the passage about Supertramp from El testigo because the novel is one of several by Villoro that have not appeared in English; literature in translation is famously hard to sell in the United States. Therefore it is no surprise that the publisher of Villoro’s first complete book in English, The Guilty (2015), a collection of stories that ends with “Amigos Mexicanos,” chose to employ Roberto Bolaño’s help in introducing Villoro to US readers. Villoro, himself an admirer of Bolaño, would probably appreciate the ironies associated with the fact that Bolaño died five years before the Spanish original, Los culpables (2008), was published in Mexico, and that Villoro was a well-established author years before Bolaño was. Villoro’s translation is long overdue, his reputation secure among Spanish-language readers, and the independent house of George Braziller deserves credit and praise for publishing a fine edition of The Guilty, which Kimi Traube has translated superbly.
Bolaño’s seal of approval of Villoro’s work — even if not this specific work — raises questions about books and how they circulate. What endows them with value? How and why do their meanings shift? Who buys them and which desires motivate their purchase? The rather arbitrary association of Villoro and Bolaño expresses the hope that Bolaño’s commercial success will rub off on Villoro. It is too simple to say that Villoro does not need Bolaño’s help, or that such assistance is only reductive and distorting. Their association is fitting, since Villoro, as made clear in his writing in general and in several stories in The Guilty in particular, is an author acutely aware of the tensions and contradictions intrinsic to the production and circulation of signs, chief among them the fact that the value of any given commodity is never a function of the thing in and of itself, but of its place in a system of exchange. Villoro makes the most of the humor inherent in this process.
¤In the first story in The Guilty, a mariachi singer becomes a symbol of Mexican virility and an object of national pride after a porn star’s enormous (and prosthetic) penis is portrayed as his own in a Spanish film called Mariachi Baby Blues. “The next day, all of Madrid was talking about my raunchy shamelessness. I thought about killing myself but it seemed wrong to do it in Spain,” a decision typical of Villoro’s tragicomic take on national identity. The mariachi won’t kill himself on foreign soil, he does not ride horses, and he dreams of flattening sombreros with a Ferrari. To say that he suffers an identity crisis is an understatement. Villoro’s thoughtfulness and skill humanize the most stereotypical of Mexican characters while sending up machismo — less as an actual phenomenon than as yet another stereotype Mexicans find themselves obliged to belie.
The first line of Villoro’s story is: “Should we do it?” The question is asked by Brenda, a production assistant and cinematographer who was born in Guadalajara but left for Spain “to get away from mariachis.” The reader has very little clue about what the “it” refers to until the story’s end, and even then “it” remains somewhat undefined. The mariachi’s thoughts, when he tries to express them, are not entirely formed either. He loves Brenda’s prematurely white hair, but says: “albino women don’t excite me. I don’t want to explain my reasons because when they’re made public I realize they aren’t really reasons.” “It” is gradually revealed to be Brenda’s full-frontal nude shot of the mariachi for a movie she’s directing, thereby revealing to the world that his penis is “sort of little,” as he puts it. By this point in the story “it” becomes something more complex than any single referent could contain and, rather, a sign of the mariachi’s awareness of his commodified self. His “real thing,” a relationship with Brenda based on the truth, may or may not arrive. The real thing remains outside of the circulation of words that comprise the story.
An emphasis on words with multiple and often indeterminate meanings structures practically every story in The Guilty. “Mayan Dusk,” like all the stories, has a first-person narrator, although it begins by using the plural “we,” allowing a brief sense of community. When the narrator switches to “I” on the second page, he returns us to the feelings of awkwardness, solitude, and alienation common to many of Villoro’s characters, both in The Guilty and in his other short story collections and novels — the ironic first-person embodiment of himself that Villoro also uses in his essays and chronicles. All other pronouns are suspect; in “Mayan Dusk,” the narrator bridles when a mutual acquaintance describes his friend’s concerns about him: “It bothered me that he could become a pronoun and take advantage of my deterioration to play the caring friend.”
In “Amigos Mexicanos” the narrator’s friend Gonzalo agrees to write and submit a script under the narrator’s name. Gonzalo’s writing is so effective that the narrator’s agent, Cristi, is seduced by it. Explaining the script’s romantic powers, Gonzalo says, “I did it in first person, as if it were you talking. I’m an actor; first person sounds very sincere in the voice of actors.” Questions of identity, self-perception, and authorship are central to Villoro’s writing, and as with the “it” at the beginning and end of “Mariachi,” a word related to these themes appears at the beginning of most stories in The Guilty and is only explained gradually — be it the ghosts the masseur tells the soccer player about in “The Whistle,” the shears that the brothers’ dad in “The Guilty” once used to kill chickens, or the iguana who’s to blame for catastrophe in “Mayan Dusk.” This technique of slow and not necessarily complete revelation builds suspense and mystery while emphasizing technique, the process of storytelling, and the relation of interiority to exteriority, especially as that relation breaks down at the moment of expression, as in the case of the mariachi in the lead story who tries to but cannot explain why albinos do not turn him on.
The narrator of “Order Suspended” suffers a similar inability to express his own feelings. He washes windows on the outside of a high-rise office building, which at one point allows him to see an artist and a blank canvas in a meeting room on the 18th floor. When the painter begins with a dripping black spot, the narrator reminds the reader that he hates spots. He sniffed too much glue as a teenager and was once convinced that spots on his arms were spiders underneath his skin. But he cannot tear his eyes away from the canvas. On an assignment to clean the building’s interior, he meets the artist and asks to smell the painting. “It smelled like the world, the world from the inside,” he writes. He experiences the painting in a way that is reminiscent of the passage in Borges’s “The Aleph,” in which the narrator sees everything that has ever happened all at the same time. Villoro’s narrator finds in the painting’s abstract design a strange mix of impressions, many of them details from his own life:
I saw plaster dust under fingernails, three bars of light, the grate, the sky from a storm drain, the golden spires of Kuala Lumpur, the blood mole, the grainy chocolate powder, the sheet over Rosalía’s face, rising and falling with her breath. […] I saw the earth under the earth, the magnet that pulled everything together like the curve of fate. I wanted something badly without knowing what it was.
An interior force drives the narrator, and he cannot put it into words. The external world, the social and material world, alters interiority before the latter can even be glimpsed, let alone grasped.
Such self-knowledge also eludes the narrator of “Amigos Mexicanos.” In a passage that is poignant, humorous, and able to develop a convincingly coherent voice in just a few sentences, Villoro portrays the narrator’s dilemma. Referring to his ex-wife Renata’s eventual disillusionment with him, the narrator writes:
In scripts, ‘INT’ refers to the interior, and mine is decorated with sofas. That’s as deep as I go. Anything else is the delusion of a woman who made a mistake searching for depths in me, and who hurt me by believing I was capable of plumbing them myself.
When the script his friend Gonzalo writes in his name impresses Cristi, his agent, the narrator wonders what’s in it, what “he” had written. Like the painting in “Order Suspended,” which gives the narrator a sweeping view of his own past, the script Gonzalo writes says something about the narrator’s whole personality. “Either Gonzalo’s text was very long,” the narrator says, “or my interior was very sparse.” The narrator realizes, later in the story, that his so-called friend Gonzalo had sex with Renata when she and the narrator were still married, making him question his grasp on reality, which is further strained when he learns Gonzalo had staged the kidnapping of the US journalist in order to provide him with an authentic Mexican experience. (Villoro returns to the topic of fake kidnappings and supposedly real encounters in his 2012 novel Arrecife [Reef].) “I walked into his apartment without saying a word,” the narrator tells us, aware that he is comically short on understanding. “Too many things were swirling around in my interior, that place I take such care to avoid when I write screenplays. When I finally started talking, I couldn’t convey the complexity of my emotions.”
The narrator’s inability to convey his complex emotions is funny. The representation of friendship as a network of tensions, betrayals, and horrible revelations, a constant struggle that never reaches a tidy conclusion, is also funny. The narrator’s inability to write the script that Cristi wants him to write and his messy, inchoate relationships betray the artificiality of first-person narrative, as does Gonzalo’s ventriloquistic script: only an actor can act like himself. Villoro rejects identity, showing it to be a comedy of misunderstanding and deceit, an empty signifier with constantly changing referents and meanings. In “Mariachi” the changing referent is the “it”; in other stories, spots, shears, or an iguana; in the final story, friends, friendship, and selfhood.
The narrator tries to reassure the quasi-kidnapped journalist that Mexico City is safe by saying, “Don’t worry: Mexicans only kill their friends.” Determining what “Mexican” or “friend” means, of course, is a futile task, and, in the case of the narrator and Gonzalo, complicated by the fact that they are selling an image or an experience of the buyer’s often unfathomable desire. The search for authentic meaning is further undermined when the narrator reads the script that he has supposedly written and realizes that Gonzalo is, perhaps, actually his friend:
I read the script Gonzalo had forged for me with defiant precision. He had drawn a perfect pantomime of my manias, but he managed to make my limitations seem brilliant and interesting. His autobiography of me was a display of his actor’s skill at forgery, but also of the tolerance with which he had borne my flaws. He had a strange way of being a great friend, but he really was.
The narrator tempers this momentary lapse of insincerity in the next sentence: “On account of my pride, it took me two months to tell him so.”
Villoro’s humor illuminates the ways in which we rely on signs in a mass-media world defined by markets for images. Somewhere in relation to those images more substantial thoughts and feelings circulate, but who knows which are real? Are any of them? They come to the surface occasionally but hardly ever as anyone had imagined they might, with the probable exception of the prescient Juan Villoro. - Ryan Long
His 2004 novel El testigo, winner of the prestigious Herralde Prize, is arguably where Villoro’s literary reflections regarding violence, history, and literature have been most brilliantly embodied. The novel tells the story of Julio Valdivieso, a Mexican émigré intellectual who, after a long stance in Europe, returns to Mexico after the ruling political party loses, following seven decades in power, the elections. His research into the figure of modernist poet Ramón López Velarde quickly leads him into a landscape of violence where history and spectacle overlap to the point of confusion. A novel about what it means to be a historical witness, El testigo remains Villoro’s masterpiece, a monument to his versatility as a writer and to his complexity as conjurer of Mexico’s social fantasies. With the recent events in the Mexican state of Guerrero, where forty-three students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa have disappeared, his work seems today of the utmost relevance.
Despite its uncontested centrality and visibility within contemporary Latin American culture, Villoro’s work has only recently become available in translation to an American audience. On the tenth anniversary of El testigo’s publication, and with the English translation of two of his recent titles—The Guilty and Arrecife—forthcoming from New York publishing house George Braziller, Jeffrey Lawrence and I thought it pertinent to interview him on the political as well as aesthetic repercussions of his recent novels. We wish to thank him for such an enjoyable conversation.
Carlos Fonseca The epigraph to your 2004 novel, El testigo (The Witness), is a line from a Cavafy poem: “When you set out on your journey to Ithaca, pray that the road is long.”
Jeffrey Lawrence And the first section of the novel is called “Possession by Loss.” How does Cavafy’s idea of a journey in which one deliberately gets lost or sidetracked play into the plot of El testigo?
Juan Villoro That quote from Cavafy implies that a journey’s purpose is beyond its goal. We always think that an odyssey’s endpoint is the return home, but a journey’s real value is in the extent to which the unexpected happens and there can be change. Some trips transform travelers—the person at the beginning of the journey is different from the person at the end. El testigo is about a character, Julio Valdivieso, who has been away from home for twenty-four years (a bit longer than the wanderings of Odysseus in the Odyssey). His return to Mexico is meaningful in the sense that it is also part of his journey; he’s no longer the same person, so his return is uncomfortable. He can no longer engage with others in the same way as before, and he has to rediscover his country. He becomes more of a witness to the events that unfold than a protagonist. The last line of the book, about the country tasting like earth, comes when he’s fully understood that he has gone through a rite of passage.
The background of this phrase—“Sabe a tierra –dijo Julio.”—is mentioned in the novel. When Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges met, Borges, who had the memory of an elephant, recited Anglo-Saxon poems by memory, among others. He knew Ramón López Velarde’s poem “La suave patria (Sweet Land)” by heart, and some of the language in it—containing domestic evocations of the homeland—really surprised him. Borges, a descendant of generals, once said, “For me—simply because I'm a coward myself—bravery is an essential virtue.” He had this heroic idea of the homeland, and it surprised him that López Velarde had written about his Mexican homeland in a totally domestic, playful way, describing food, the green lightning of parrots’ wings, and the toylike ways in which trains puff down the tracks. Borges didn’t know the word “chia” in the poem, so he asked Paz what it referred to. Paz explained that it was a seed used locally in drinks, such as lemonade. Borges asked him what these drinks tasted like, and Paz simply responded that they tasted like earth. Chia seeds do have a rather earthy taste, but Paz’s response was beyond literal. He was alluding to the homeland, linking it to “La suave patria,” defining it as something that you can drink on a daily basis without realizing it.
Julio Valdivieso’s path as protagonist—to really arrive in Mexico, to find his place, and be able to drink the earth-tasting homeland—is extremely long. What Octavio Paz and Borges arrived at in a quick conversation, took five hundred pages for me.CF And that somehow unravels the paradox behind the section title, “Possession by Loss.”
JV The theme of absence is very clear in the book. A person is not only defined by what she or he does, but also by what she or he doesn’t do. We are all made up of lost opportunities. We are writers or researchers as much as we’re not lawyers or doctors. Our inaction defines us. This is what happens with Valdivieso and Nieves, the woman he couldn’t marry. This hangs over him; her absence defines him. The idea of possession by loss has a lot to do with the literature of love too. In Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougemont writes that unrequited love is the foundation of courtly love. When you lose something, you try to seize it in your memory and imagination.
CF There is a strong sense of fate in the novel. It’s one of the things that has fallen by the wayside in contemporary society. In El testigo, however, the world of drug trafficking, represented by the character of El Vikingo, a drug lord fixated on filming a soap opera of the Cristero War, seems to take the place of the fateful driving force. Drug trafficking is introduced in the novel as a dark, invisible network in which the protagonists become entangled. All of a sudden they are involved in something they don’t understand at all. We could perhaps call this a “modern fate.”
JV At some point in the novel, I write that everyone has stories but very few have fates. It’s a qualitative difference that is essential to understand the novel’s narrative composition. To what extent can we trap a character at that breaking point where his story truly becomes his fate? In terms of archetypes, Hector and Achilles come to mind. Achilles is a semi-god; he is going to win the fight. Hector faces him in combat with full awareness of his mortality. He is perhaps one of the first heroes in literature who knows that he is going to die and there is nothing he can do about it. He still wants his fate to be meaningful, though, and here his own will plays a role.
There are also fates with uncertain outcomes. I think about, for example, the protagonist in Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel, who falls in love with Faustine, who lives in a parallel reality, in a world of projections where people appear and disappear. He makes a Faustian deal to enter Faustine’s world, but at the cost of his life. He is a fugitive and has nothing to lose, but what’s interesting is the enormity of his sacrifice when there is no sure reward. Maybe Faustine won’t even recognize him after he makes the leap to her world; it’s his fate to bet everything in return for something rather uncertain.
Julio Valdivieso is involved in this sort of thing too; he wants his rite of passage, his return, to have meaning. We could almost say that he wants to go through a process of unlearning, of leaving behind the cosmopolitan person he was when he went to Europe. When he comes back, he finds a barbaric country that seems to be looking more toward the past than the future. He understands he has the opportunity of arriving at a new perception, of returning to basic values and feeling like he belongs, in a purer sense. His encounter with Nieves, who has become such a different woman, is probably going to be a disaster, but that’s the risk he takes.
In regard to drug trafficking, I wrote the novel at the beginning of 2000, when the climate was not as controversial as it would become later on, in 2006, when President Felipe Calderón launched his war on drug cartels. But the topic was already in the air. What interested me about drug-trafficking was how it was like what physicists call an “event horizon”—a dark and powerful force to which inexplicable actions can be attributed. Inside a black hole, everything is material folding in on itself and, technically, nothing can happen. On the edge of a black hole, however, there is a circle where events can start to happen. Back then, unexplained violence and crime were being attributed to drug trafficking, which was already considered powerful enough to be responsible for everything, even those things it wasn’t responsible for. It wasn’t omnipresent yet, but it was lurking in the shadows.
LJ Julio comes back to Mexico for many reasons, but one of them is to do research on contemporary authors and also on Ramón López Velarde, whose work he doesn’t entirely know. So it’s like a double return, in the sense that he comes back to his homeland and also to its literature.
JV That’s very true. Valdivieso had been an academic reader, a somewhat dispassionate one who conformed to the conventions of the academic world. He’d been successful and therefore could focus on topics that were ever more narrow and specialized. Others left him alone since he didn’t have a lot of competition. He was curious but not passionate or fervent. Returning to Mexico, however, as you point out, gave him an opportunity to read in a different way.
I wanted to have a figure appear who would not necessarily be a contemporary of Valdivieso’s. Many in Mexico consider Ramón López Verde to be a great national poet. People know his poems by heart. Beckett translated him, and Borges read him a lot, but he is not very well-known outside of Mexico. Although he is a national poet, he is a poet of many contradictions and dualities. He is a Catholic poet and, at the same time, a sinful poet, a transgressor. He is conservative in many ways—he writes picturesque, even folkloric poetry—but, at the same time, he is also an avant-gardist. The following two Alexandrine lines condense this contrast: “Yo tuve en tierra adentro una novia muy pobre” (Inland I had a very poor girlfriend) is traditional: someone travels to the countryside to see his girlfriend. The next line is dazzling: “Ojos inusitados de sulfato de cobre” (Rare eyes of copper sulphate). Often, in the same poem, you find the traditional man and the literary transgressor from one line to the next. These contradictions might explain why he has been so attractive to very different types of readers in Mexico. I wanted to write a novel not so much about López Velarde’s poetry, but rather about the way people read him.
One day I was having a drink at a cantina with my friend Luis Miguel Aguilar, who is a poet. I told him about my interest in López Velarde’s extraordinary life. He died at age thirty-three, like Christ, already a mature poet. He participated in the Mexican Revolution as an advisor to Francisco I. Madero, ran for Catholic representative, and never had a home, or a watch. He dressed in black because he was in mourning for his father. He dated four women—all of whom loved him—but didn’t marry any of them. They were all single when they died. Luis Miguel told me, “Look, what you have to do is talk about him not as a poet but as a person, because so much has already been written, and very well, about his work.” Yet it seemed more original to me to write not so much about him but, rather, about the ways in which he has been received, about the multiple interpretations of his work.
El testigo is about López Velarde’s readers; the radicals, leftists, populists, and others who, like the priest Monteverde, have been inclined to over-interpret his poetry as proof of his Catholic saintliness. It’s like Nabokov’s Pale Fire, where the poem proves an assassination. I was interested in playing around with what Ricardo Piglia calls the “last reader”—a reader who finds himself in a reality derived from his readings, who confuses poetry and reality. Julio Valdivieso is the last reader; he is a secular, rational nonbeliever who rejects Father Monteverde’s opinions, even if they seem seductively interesting, which were that López Velarde worked miracles and that his poetry proves them. There must be three miracles to submit to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and the third miracle is missing. I wanted to make the third miracle’s witness precisely someone who does not believe in miracles and to have the miracle be almost a hallucinatory extension of López Velarde’s poetry. So there we have two possibilities: what Valdivieso sees could merely be a feverish hallucination, or his fever and illness are caused by what he actually sees. There’s this ambivalence—he himself does not really know if he has witnessed this miracle or not.
CF Testimony and the act of witnessing are loaded terms, so I wanted to approach them from another perspective—that of the dogs. At some point in the novel, Julio says that a dog sees regardless of its curiosity or will, as if by accident. I remembered how in Under the Volcano the dogs chase the Consul.
JV Yes, the dogs are essentially a symbol of witnesses; they serve that purpose. For the Aztecs, one traveled to the underworld accompanied by a dog because someone had to witness the crossing. The dog is the silent companion. López Velarde has a poem about Saint Roch, the patron saint of dogs.
There is a rather disturbing animal in the Hacienda de los Cominos—a dissected dog—which is precisely a monument to the witness. People interested in taxidermy can, I don’t know, dissect a lion, a wolf, a coyote, but then, on a whim, someone dissects a domestic animal. As the story advances, we realize this dog was actually Aunt Florinda’s witness, so the witness is frozen in the act of witnessing, making it do so eternally, so to speak.
LJ In Mexico the figure of the witness, especially right now, is very controversial because of the risks that witnesses assume. This also plays a role in the novel. On the one hand, we have Julio, who is sort of a witness to all of the events narrated in the novel, but then we also have his “problem,” let’s say, with authority, with detectives, and with his old friends. I wanted to hear your thoughts on the more legal side of the notion of the narrator as witness, a topic that, as the novel goes on to explain, proved to be of interest to Julio’s father, lawyer Salvador Valdivieso.
JV I was interested in having a progression in the figure of the witness throughout the novel. First I wanted there to be a person who returns to his country and undergoes a strange experience. He feels foreign, out of place, and at that point he becomes a direct witness to events, though in the beginning this isn’t exactly conflictive or defining—it puts him in interesting situations. For example, he becomes the unlikely confidante of many different people, because he is sort of on the margin, from another reality, almost from another era. People start to seek him out and tell him things they wouldn’t tell him if he were a more permanent presence. It’s as if time and distance had given him a kind of sacrament, like the priest, whose sacrament allows him to listen to confessions. Or like a psychoanalyst, whose role is so interesting; you lie down on the couch and never see his face. The practice is related to the Catholic tradition, where you don’t see the person with whom you’re speaking in the confessional. You hear a voice, but it may be one voice or it may be another.
Let’s say that Julio Valdivieso has taken enough time away to qualify as someone to whom people can confess things. People seek him out with different reasons; relatives who he didn’t even know seek him out. He comes from far away, and this is meaningful. He’s on the margin of events and yet has more information than others about them. I am always surprised that in places like Mexico, all of a sudden the best-informed person is the foreigner. Everybody thinks he’s outside of their reality and therefore confesses things to him, thinking there is no risk.
On the other hand, the witness has this parallax effect, a concept from physics that I love. The object being studied does not change, only the perspective, and by changing the perspective the object is seen in a different way. So, the witness sees in a different way, and he is also seen in a different way. That’s the first dimension.
The second dimension is a reflection on who is a genuine witness. That’s where the legal side comes in. In jurisprudence there are external conditions that establish the legitimate attributes of a witness. The witness can’t be drunk when the events occurred; he can’t be a relative of the victim because then he would be biased. Or, if he uses glasses he had to have been wearing them at the time of the events. There are plenty of conditions that are debated in court. The lawyer and the prosecutor debate whether or not someone meets the conditions to be a trustworthy witness. Yet, in a psychological or moral sense, it’s very hard to say if one person is a better witness than another because psychology and morality are determined by interior subjective circumstances. That starts to happen to Julio—he questions the idea of a witness. Up to what point can the witness understand what he sees? That’s the phase in which he questions himself and the extent to which he understands things. That’s where we have the witness as a problem. For instance, there are things we see by accident that we didn’t want to see, and yet we had to see them. We can close our eyes, but we’ve already noticed them. This is an instance in which the witness becomes problematic.
I am very interested in what Giorgio Agamben has written on the figure of the witness. He talks about the impossibility of being a witness without being part of the experience. Talking about Auschwitz, he says that the only full witnesses of the Holocaust are its victims. Only those at the crematories knew what it fully meant, but they were at the point of no return. Agamben explores a figure very close to the full witness: the “Muselmann” in concentration camps. These were men who had lost all sense of purpose. They no longer spoke; they were the living dead, but then, all of a sudden, they would come back. And by coming back, they could say something that, in some sense, came from a realm where there is no language, from the realm of silence, of death. That’s the closest we can get to having a living archive of death, of the other side. So without exaggerating, I was interested, because this is not a novel about the Holocaust, in having the character go through a filter at the end where he practically becomes something close—let’s say temporarily, a Muselmann. There’s Florinda and the pond, the fever, hallucinations in which Julio no longer knows if his testimony is real or imaginary, literal or literary. For a few moments, he is like the Muselmann who has lost reason and the ability to speak. And he goes back. And by doing so, he returns with the attitude or the awareness of going to this lost, empty country, to Mexico.
All Mexican mythology, all Mexican imagination, the Mexican revolution, Pancho Villa’s rides on horseback, ranchero movies from Mexico’s golden age of cinema, ranchero music, everything comes out of a place that is empty, this land within from López Velarde. So he goes there and looks for sensory contact—there the witness is already a witness. That’s why I said he has to try to relearn a language. He is more of a sensory witness, more sensitive than rational, a little bit like what would happen to a Muselmann. He hasn’t gone through something as terrible as the Holocaust, but on his own level, he has suffered a shock. He has experienced a secret and the secret must be kept as such, veiled. I’m thinking of the priest Monteverde’s reflection when he talks about a hidden God and says that sometimes the revealed truth must be kept from the public eye. It can’t be made the subject of a television series. It will have a good rating on the television for a few days, but television cheapens. Nothing is more powerful than a secret. We are going to preserve it like Christianity. In the end, that’s what Christianity is—God has never shown himself very clearly to anyone; we decide to believe or not believe in him. So, that’s also the moment when the witness decides to accept this last step. By burning the papers, he preserves a secret; there will no longer be a tangible demonstration, a verifiable proof, and this is, of course, one of the conditions of a miracle.
CF In terms of the secret and something that resists being illuminated, I found it interesting that your novels show traces of the works of two very important twentieth-century fiction writers whose works somehow resist the interpretative drive of academic discourse: Juan Rulfo and Juan Carlos Onetti. I know that you believe their work still provides a lot to think about, even though for a lot of other people they’re already buried. Formally, I’m interested in terms of how you write, looking at a lost tradition that would include both Rulfo and Onetti.
JV They are central influences and two essential authors to read. Both Rulfo and Onetti have this idea of researching literature as it is produced. In Onetti’s A Brief Life, “Goodbyes,” and “The Pit,” or in Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, the figure of the narrator conveys a strong sense of uncertainty. In “The Pit,” for example, the protagonist Eladio Linacero tells a story two times, and nobody cares about this story within the text. His story is a failure, and yet Onetti writes a masterpiece about this story that doesn’t work. In “Goodbyes,” the narrator is libelous; he has invented a love triangle between some characters and only later we realize that everything he told us was false. He’s a supremely unreliable narrator; we suppose what the real story is, but it is never told. In A Brief Life we have a person who is writing a film script and one of the characters invents the city of Santa María, to which Brausen imaginarily moves. We see how this imaginary place is written into the novel. It’s very clear that Onetti is not writing because he knows something in advance, with a preset structure of discourse, like a god who explains the world. On the contrary, he is writing to figure out his own book. It’s challenging to retell the plot of A Brief Life; a kind of Onetti appears as a very secondary character, he has been cast out of the novel, as if it were writing itself.
In the case of Rulfo, Juan Preciado, the protagonist of Pedro Páramo, dies on page seventy-nine in my edition, about halfway through the novel, and says, “The murmurs killed me.” However, the novel continues without him. No other narrator’s voice is left in charge, so we can say that the novel is also a reflection on how it is being told. El testigo is not so complex or rich in that sense, but I was interested in mirroring the witness, in having his investigation be somehow identical to the way the reader investigates the novel. The characters will arrive simultaneously, with the reader, to this rite of passage where reading is now just a sensory perception of a place to which they want to belong.
Then there is also the stylistic influence of Onetti and Rulfo. I think a lot of the best twentieth-century poetry and prose in Spanish has been written by Onetti and Rulfo. My prose is much less dense; I couldn’t write a 500-page novel with that density. Roberto Bolaño and I had a rather heated discussion about literary texture and the tension that a novel’s prose should have. He found that my writing had a tension of phrase that reminded him of a short story. He said, “You really exhaust yourself, because if you want to do a long novel with this type of epigrammatic phrasing, and so many adjectives, and it creates a lot of tension. A novel requires a certain fluency.” It’s not that he was in favor of literature without style; in fact, his literature had a very marked style, but he found a torrential fluidity to be able to tell stories, and what he achieved is extraordinary.
So, perhaps I am a bit more devoted to Onetti, Rulfo, or Borges, for example. I don’t agree with Ignacio Echevarría that the novel that Borges would have written is The Savage Detectives. First of all, the idea of the novel is almost antithetical to Borges. I don’t think Borges’s tension of phrase would be able to last for a whole novel like The Savage Detectives without exhausting the author and the reader. The book would burn up at some point. My novel obviously doesn’t have this dense poetic capacity, this dark light that Borges and Onetti have, but something I would like to think, perhaps ambitiously, is that some of their stylistic traces are present.
LJ There is a phrase in El testigo that I love, because I study comparative literature. At a point in the novel, Julio and El Vikingo are talking about Félix and they say: “People who study comparative literature know everything about everything; they’re on top of their game.” That made me think about the part with the critics at the beginning of 2666, but also about the journalist who’s the protagonist of Javier Cercas’s novel Soldiers of Salamis, and also about many of Piglia’s novels. Going a little from fiction to reality, I wonder to what point the character as an academic, journalist, or intellectual is important to the way you think about literature.
JV Well, in terms of character, I am very interested in something that Piglia has worked a lot on, which is that, in the end, almost all literature depends on a search. A character wants to find something, and one way to do so is through literary research: the researcher is a detective of ideas in the sense that he is trying to find someone and is sometimes driven by paranoia. In other words, sometimes he overinterprets; he believes there is something deeper in a quote, and he seeks connections. So I was interested in the possibility of a character who is researching archives. But I don’t like literature that is overly self-referential—at least I don’t like to write it. There are authors like Claudio Magris, Sergio Pitol, Enrique Vila-Matas, and even Borges, who create literature very centered on literature itself, though Borges is much richer since he has marvelous stories about unsophisticated people and also about people who are generally more educated. Borges is an encyclopedia of the imagination and he encompasses everything. I am not so interested in self-contained literature; I am interested in literature that is immersed in life and is tense, confused, tormented.
I wanted my novel to concern the lives of readers, in other words, people who have read and are defined by what they have read in different ways. Valdivieso is an academic looking for something, but then his research overwhelms him; he goes outside of the field, outside of the book, though he will still be someone who understands the world through literature. In my novel El disparo de Argón (the shot of Argon), the protagonist is a doctor. He works at an eye clinic and evidently, when interacting with other people and with other bodies, what he sees are symptoms. A patient is a girl he likes, but he sees, first, an illness, and it’s normal for a doctor to see the world like this. Maybe he even likes this girl because she has a certain type of illness—it’s morbid in the double sense of the word. So I am interested in the figure of the researcher going beyond the borders of the field, in the moment when the researcher no longer is interpreting texts and books only, in how they take him to other experiences and places in life.
Repetition, or the possibility of repetition, concerns me as well. I don’t want to always write from the same point of view. El testigo’s character is closest to me. That’s why he has my initials; he is more or less dedicated to what I do. I was able to get close to someone so similar to me after having written about other characters very different from myself.
In my latest novel, Arrecife (Reef), Tony Góngora, the protagonist, has severe memory problems because he’d been a drug addict. He is an old rock musician, dedicated to music, and he’s also missing a finger. I was very interested in narrating from a very, very different point of view.
CF Arrecife is a detective novel that takes place in La Pirámide—a resort singular for its capacity to recreate the pleasures of fear. The narrator declares that today we live under an ecology of fear. How does this “ecology of fear” work? What type of relationship do you see between the cartography of violence that you trace in Arrecife and the one that you sketched in El testigo?
JV Both novels have to do with investigations. In El testigo, the protagonist is searching for the lost papers of the poet Ramón López Velarde, while Arrecife deals with a murder—here I was interested in coming up with a satisfactory solution to the enigma of who had committed the crime, but I was also interested in eliciting the reader’s moral doubts. One of the things that interests me the most in literature is when an initial clarity becomes a puzzle. That is to say, when a problem’s solution leads to perplexity. In Arrecife we know who the assassin is, but that doesn’t matter too much. In part, this has to do with the Mexican justice system. In this country knowing who the murderer is doesn’t imply that justice will be done. The solution to Arrecife’s plot leads to moral uncertainties: How evil is the assassin? How innocent is the victim? We know the facts, but their value remains an open question.
In El testigo violence is peripheral. It is a latent threat that not always defines the life of the characters. It works as a short circuit that interrupts the plot without controlling it completely. The novel takes place the year in which the PRI lost the presidency that it had held for seventy-one years. This strong apparatus wasn’t substituted by a single force but by a confederation of authoritarianisms (television, the Church, the right-wing groups, drug trafficking). Violence is one of the axes that threaten history, but not the only one.
Arrecife, on the other hand, takes on the question of violence from many different angles to the point of being immersed in it. In La Pirámide, the resort where the novel takes place, violence has become a form of entertainment. It produces adrenaline rushes that the visitors enjoy—it’s almost like an extreme sport. At the same time, there is the real violence, a product of drug trafficking and the sacrificial violence of the oldest inhabitants of the zone, the Mayans. In a country that has had close to 80,000 deaths in its war against the drug trade over the past few years, the blood spilled is useless. It is completely different from the Mayan sacrifice, which might horrify us from a contemporary perspective but had clear ends in their conception of the preservation of the cosmos.
CF Arrecife begins with a quote from Malcolm Lowry: “But one day I shall find a land corrupted and depressed beyond all knowledge, where children are starving for lack of milk, a land unhappy, although unenlightened, and cry: ‘I shall stay here until I have made this place good.’” This place is, one would imagine, the Mexico you portray in the novel. This makes me think about the epigraph of The Savage Detectives, also from Lowry: “Do you want Mexico to be saved? Do you want Christ to be our king? No.”
I wanted to ask about that imaginary Mexico which takes Lowry’s work as its point of departure. How do you understand the fact that Latin American writers, even Mexican ones, in their attempt to analyze Mexico, begin by quoting Lowry?
JV Lowry found a contradiction in Mexico, a mixture of heaven and hell. That was what he needed for his masterpiece. The epigraph of Arrecife doesn’t come from that novel but from Ultramarine. It somehow prefigures the place Lowry would later find: Mexico, a miserable land that he could improve. Mario Müller, the director of La Pirámide, has an obsession. Like a character from Conrad or from Lowry, he sees himself as someone who can make a difference in the midst of horror. Not everything Lowry saw in Mexico came from reality. He was a full-time paranoid and he over-interpreted what he saw. The country was less dramatic and less magical than he thought it was. His virtue was to add a dimension to that reality, to highlight it. Something similar happens with Bolaño. Most of the things that he tells in The Savage Detectives were real. I knew many of the people and stories that inspired the novel, but he empowered them through narrative. He didn’t seek, as Lowry did, a delirious, hallucinatory, poetic tone. Although many of his characters are poets, the tone of Roberto’s book is closer to that of the epic.
The foreigner’s gaze lends itself to this type of distortion of the country. It is highly fruitful in creative terms. What the outsiders don’t understand, precisely because they are on the margins, is filled in with unreal conjectures that are, however, faithful to their own logic. The paradox of many passages of Under the Volcano or The Savage Detectives is that both novels end up portraying Mexico better than some testimonial works. So in Arrecife, the epigraph from Lowry is a sign that I am trying to imagine my own country in this key, fracturing common codes, searching for an alternate, a symbolic truth, in which the observer can find a dignity in horror. It’s possible that the presence of so many foreigners in the plot also has to do with an outsider’s perspective: I’m seeing my country as a foreigner would.
CF One last question regarding the unforeseen ending of Arrecife, which could be read as a subtle ode to those modern families that have learned to live with the delirious figures of violence turned spectacle. The ending reminds me of the two versions of Tolstoy’s first sentence in Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Then there is the inversion that Nabokov proposes: “All happy families are more or less dissimilar: all unhappy families are more or less alike.” Which, do you believe, is the narrative logic that the modern family exhibits in this novel?
JV The novel leads to the construction of an accidental family. Arrecife is a negative utopia; I wanted there to be, within a history of decomposition, an alternative, a possible redemption. Tony Góngora wasted his career as a musician; he suffered two accidents that, though not serious, limited him physically; he destroyed his great love affair; he doesn’t have kids or family (and doesn’t even know what happened to his father.) We are dealing with an incomplete person who, at the age of fifty, seems to have wasted his last chance. The plot then confronts him with a murder, with the illness of his best friend, with networks of corruption, and, all in all, with a series of problems which, little by little, transform him. The real drama makes him better after having suffered many unreal, neurotic dramas. The great paradox is that the amnesiac character is the one that must take custody of the most valuable thing in his best friend’s life: he inherits his child, his most beloved being. The life of his friend Mario Müller continues through his assumed paternity. In a moment of social rupture, nothing shows more solidarity than adoption.
The novels ends by showing the resistance and force that victims can have. When I say it like that, it sounds too programmatic. The truth is that I had no ideological purpose when I finished the plot. It was something very intuitive. In the end, solidarity is something very mysterious. Why do people resist and help each other in the midst of violence? In Mexico, women have basically been the ones weaving the social fabric in the midst of the blood spilled. The weak and helpless have tremendous reserves of energy. At the end of the novel, Tony Góngora escapes with a little girl and his mother, a woman he has met and fallen in love with but also someone who he somehow fears because she has experienced worse things than he has. I was trying to work out the relationship between these characters when, without knowing why, I remembered a challenge children pose to other when they race: ¡A ver quién llega primero! (Let’s see who gets there first). This desire to run toward a goal is strange, because it’s not always competitive. If those who race are a family, then the youngest one wins. The rest let themselves be defeated. In this gesture, I find a symbol of filial affection: they are a “family.” We don’t know what will happen to them; it is not a matter, in this sense, of a happy ending, but they have won something. In a territory where everything conspires to annihilate life, they are together. Tony Góngora hasn’t searched for this destiny but he has behaved with enough integrity to deserve it. The mutilated one shows his integrity. - Jeffrey Lawrence Carlos Fonseca
Juan Villoro, God is Round, Trans. by Thomas Bunstead, Restless Books, 2016.
A brilliant and kaleidoscopic exploration of the world’s favorite sport and the passion, hopes, rivalries, superstitions, and global solidarity soccer inspires from award-winning author and Mexico’s leading sports journalist, Juan Villoro.What was the greatest goal of all time? Why do the Hungarians have a more philosophical sense of defeat than the Mexicans? Do the dead play soccer? On a planet where FIFA has more members than the United Nations, Juan Villoro’s examination of soccer and its 3.5 billion-person fandom has stakes beyond those of such playful questions. Soccer is more than just a game; it is a catalyst for panglobal unity and even, Villoro suggests, the “recovery of childhood.”
At once serious and fun-loving, Villoro reports from the last World Cup of the twentieth century, paints portraits of contemporary soccer’s most prominent stars (Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Diego Armando Maradona), chats with Jorge Valdano, and teases out the contradictions of the Spanish league. A book for both soccer fanatics and neophytes who long to feel the delirium of the faithful, God Is Round will keep readers on the edge of their seats and shouting ¡Olé!
A Coversation with Juan Villoro