Herrera: Trabajos del reino

Herrera - Trabajos del reinoCorridos are by their very nature narrative forms. This does not, however, always translate to good narrative fiction, especially when authors attempt to transform corridos into novels or films. Pedro Ángel Palou’s Zapata falls under this category because, much to the discredit of Zapata’s memory, the corrido Palou writes reeks of populism that only supports extant national myths; it is writing at the service of traditional post-revolutionary ideology which, we should never forget, stemmed from a system that Zapata openly disagreed with and that ultimately murdered him. Other such attempts include Spanish novelist Arturo Pérez Reverte’s La reina del sur, a never-ending novel about a narco-pilot’s girlfriend who goes into exile in Spain, revolutionizes the drug trade across the Strait of Gibraltar, and becomes the most powerful cartel leader in the world upon exacting vengeance for her lover’s death in a gun-slinging scene that would make Ang Lee or Quentin Tarantino proud. Despite the aid of culiche author Élmer Mendoza, La reina del sur has two major problems: it reads like a tired Hollywood caricature of Mexico and, as with many of Pérez Reverte’s novels, artistry is subverted by flashy but fruitless action.

This is not to say, however, that there are not some really good corrido books out there. Mendoza’s own novel, Un asesino solitario, not only surpasses Pérez Reverte’s in every important aspect (readability, interest, coherence, poetics, etc.), but it also does so in about one-third the time. Plus it draws on Mexico’s great tradition of novelas negras like Rafael Bernal’s El complot mongol and recent history, most notably the 1994 assassination of Colosio. Likewise, Luis Humberto Crosthwaite’s Idos de la mente also translates the corrido well, following the ups and downs of a norteño band that seamlessly incorporates the corrido‘s musicality into the text. In addition to these two upside examples, I’d like to throw one more on the pile, a book that I just read thanks to the recommendation of my good friend, José Ramón Ruisánchez: Yuri Herrera’s Trabajos del reino.

The plot is simple enough: a young musician is discovered by the local drug kingpin and brought under his protective wing as the kingdom’s minstrel. Within the walls of the Palace, the Artist becomes privy to courtly intrigues as courtesans vie for ascendancy. Unlike many narco novels and films, where drug trade and violence constitute the key moments of development, Trabajos del reino hinges on more subtle, less spectacular events. And, the novel is, as many great novels are, suggestive of hundreds of other untold stories. As the Artist meanders through town and the the court, he–and we by extension–glimpses other stories that may well make it into a corrido some day, like the young man who fakes his own kidnapping and calls his parents for ransom. They respond that he’s useless and offer to pay half the ransom to have him killed; he accepts the deal, uses the money to buy liquor and drugs, and then “fulfilled his part of the bargain.”

But what strikes me most about this novel is the role Herrera assigns to art in the construction and destruction of the drug cartel. He understands the power of fictional narratives, whether they be literary or musical or political, and teases out that relationship through the musician. The King brings the Artist on board presumably to garner popular support; the musician’s work is, as it has been for centuries, one part artistry and one part propaganda. When local radio stations refuse to play the Artist’s narcocorridos on the air because of governmental and social pressures against normalizing criminal behavior, the King responds that it doesn’t matter because they can move the songs clandestinely in the streets, “which is where we do all our business anyway.” Later, when the Artist pens a song that inadvertently demystifies the King, popular support wanes and an opportunity for overthrow presents itself. Instead of shoring up a kingdom built on bullets, loyalty, and influence, words bring it down.

Herrera’s style is crisp, clean, and lyrical. The novel’s marked norteño accent and humor are recognizable to anyone who has spent time along either side of the border. The anecdotes behind nicknames are fantastic; my personal favorite was for the bato dubbed Santo (because all the animals love him). In the end, the corrido this novel spins is not of great capos or bloody shootouts, but rather all the smaller, less glamorous jobs that underpin the world that makes the front page. Definitely a worthy read.

José Emilio Pacheco y la sangre derramada

Jose Emilio PachecoLa semana pasada José Emilio Pacheco (México DF, 1939) recibió el XVII Premio Reina Sofía de Poesía Iberoamericana. A lo largo de 50 años de intensa producción artística, Pacheco ha ejercido todos los géneros literarios posibles con agilidad, inteligencia y destreza. Aquí señalo sólo un aspecto de esa oeuvre que siempre me ha llamado la atención como lector y como académico: la sangre derramada.

Mi primer encuentro con su obra marcó de algún modo permanente mi lectura posterior de sus obras porque siempre que hojeo sus páginas me encuentro ante un profeta que reclama la justicia para los vencidos, que aboga a favor de la misericordia y el amor fraternal. En Morirás lejos, periplo poético-narrativo en el que se traza una historia de la crueldad, del genocidio y de la resistencia, se contraponen la perspectiva macrocósmica que abarca siglos de historia judía y la visión intimista que no deja de reconocer que toda tragedia tiene un cariz humano.

…que nadie o casi nadie entre quienes morirán lejos de los lugares donde nacieron y han vivido admite la realidad del exterminio lo prueba la confusión babélica de objetos que se acumulan en el vagón y dificultan aun más el encontrar un sitio para sentarse;
muebles valijas bicicletas cajas de libros despertadores gramófonos instrumentos musicales cuadros retratos máquinas de coser lámparas ollas; cuando Alguien recuerda todo esto le duele en especial la presencia incongruente de los ositos de felpa las muñecas los cuadernos de dibujo los cochecitos a que se aferran sus dueños (87).

Luego me topé con versos que revelaban un afán parecido. En “Fin de siglo” Pacheco condena la violencia que caracteriza no sólo el siglo XX sino también los siglo anteriores–pensemos siquiera en la Inquisición– (“¿A nombre de qué puedo condenar a muerte / a otros por lo que son o piensan?”) para luego complicar este sentimiento de ultraje e indignación con la responsabilidad ética de enfrentar la maldad (“Pero ¿cómo dejar impunes / la tortura o el genocidio o el matar de hambre?”). Y no olvidemos el poema “Los vigesémicos”, en el que el poeta lamenta el lastre de las ideologías: “Cuánta sangre / la derramada en esta tierra. / Y todos / dijeron que mataban por el mañana: / el porvenir del azogue, la esperanza / que fluyó como arena entre los dedos. / […] Bajo el nombre / del Bien / el Mal se impuso.” Desde luego, la misma corriente temática subraya sus cuentos. El que más vinculo con esta vertiente humanista es “El torturador”, cuento magno que se ahonda en el alma del verdugo, dejando a un lado la historia de la víctima, para mostrar así como lo hizo en Morirás lejos que todo ser humano cuenta con la capacidad innata de traicionar, herir y destruir.

Lo más probable es que esta lectura que hago de Pacheco sea reductiva y parcial. Pero a final de cuentas, todas las lecturas lo son. Si bien encajo al autor dentro de un limitado marco de referencia temática es porque él, junto con Carlos Monsiváis en el género cronístico, es quien se ha destacado mejor entre la filas mexicanas como la voz de la conciencia humanista. Porque siempre hay necesidad de quienes abogan tanto por los altos valores estéticos como por los altos valores humanos.

Maldonado: Temporada de caza para el león negro

maldonado_temporada

This is Tryno Maldonado’s latest offering and the only way I can deal with it is in terms of comparisons. In the spirit of complete honesty, I must admit that I like all my benchmarks more than this novel. In some ways, Temporada reminds me of a VH1 “Behind the Music” episode–the story of an artist whose fame carries him to the height of success before beginning the long, downward spiral into self-destructive behavior–but without the upturn at the end. Same thing goes for Luis Humberto Crosthwaite’s Idos de la mente, except Crosthwaite’s book is more entertaining and there is a relatively happy, corrido-esque ending. If Maldonado was hoping for biting commentary about the vacuity of nouveau rich investors in Mexico’s plastic arts scene, he came up short of Álvaro Enrigue’s Muerte de un instalador, a novel that I’m only lukewarm about, but found more interesting and well-written. That said, Álvaro’s later books have been thoroughly enjoyable and well worth the read, especially Hipotermia. If, on the other hand, the goal was to satirize the artistic circles, Enrique Serna’s Miedo a los animales has more bite. On the upside, some of the supporting characters–Orlando and Nostalgic Zebra–are at least entertaining.

El arte de la ironía: Carlos Monsiváis ante la crítica

monsivais_ante-la-critica Here is my review of El arte de la ironía: Carlos Monsiváis ante la crítica, which will be appearing in the Revista de Estudios Hispánicos.

Moraña, Mabel and Ignacio Sánchez Prado, eds. El arte de la ironía: Carlos Monsiváis ante la crítica. Mexico: Ediciones Era and UNAM, 2007. pp. 445.

From Someone to Nothing and Back Again: El arte de la ironía: Carlos Monsiváis ante la crítica

Jorge Luis Borges observed that in the beginning Elohim was a concrete, corporeal entity given to fits of anger and remorse. As the worship of this deity became institutional, however, his qualities were lost in a flurry of all-encompassing adjectives: omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. The result was that God became “un respetable caos de superlativos no imaginables.” This, in many ways, is exactly what has occurred with Carlos Monsiváis. His texts are taken as gospel, his image is evoked in messianic ways, and his name is referenced as an unimpeachable authority. He is Mexico’s cultural lawgiver, his words etched in stone tablets by the almighty hand of the divine. As Christopher Domínguez Michael puts it, “La omnipresencia de Monsiváis en la vida política, cultural y literaria de México durante buena parte del último siglo lo ha convertido, dada la extrema originalidad de una figura tan poderosa como esquiva, en un gran desconocido.” Monsiváis, it would appear, has transcended the boundaries of mortality and taken his seat among the immortals.

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