The PEN Atlas series continues with a powerful despatch by Mexican writer Juan Pablo Villalobos.  This piece has been translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey.

The Narrative of Violence in Mexico 1: the short story

Translated by Rosalind Harvey

I believe unconditionally that Mexican writers are condemned to disappoint our foreign readers. I wrote a novel that has been translated into several languages and each time I do an interview or take part in a reading abroad I end up with the sensation of not having lived up to people’s expectations, frustrated at not being authentic enough, which in the case of Mexico means ‘colourful’. I feel just like the narrator of ‘Amigos mexicanos’ [Mexican friends], the hilarious and perceptive story by Juan Villoro, in which a famous American journalist, Samuel Katzenberg, hires a Mexican writer to be his ‘contact with the genuine’, to help him distinguish between what is hideous and what is ‘Buñuelesque’, to show him the real México. When he discovers the Mexico that Katzenberg wants to see, Villoro sums up perfectly the gulf separating Mexicans and foreigners when they come to construct an image of our country: ‘He wanted a reality like Frida’s paintings: horrific but unique’.

In recent years the situation has done nothing but worsen: president Calderón’s so-called ‘drug war’ has caused around 50,000 violent deaths in the country. Our reality has become simply horrific, with nothing ‘unique’ or fascinating about it. The increase in violence has seen a parallel increase in literature, as a significant number of writers has sensed the need – a social need, I would say – to seek out a language for writing about the violence. Novels, short stories, plays, screenplays and even poems and ‘happenings’ are being written in equal measure, recreating our daily horror. I’ll begin with the short story.

Writing about violence means writing about the world of organised crime, the inner workings of the monster so fond of decapitation. In the brilliant ‘Ese modo que colma’ [Sense of achievement], Daniel Sada describes a party thrown by a group of drug traffickers, a party called off because of the discovery in an ice box of three human heads. The story rolls on while the widows crush ice to stop the heads from decomposing and stinking, the traffickers start to investigate who the traitors are, and the women think about how to bury the heads: in a tiny little coffin? In a fruit crate? Sada ends the story with a chilling warning: ‘this decapitation thing was starting to become fashionable’, ‘a fashion that could last several years.’

‘What has happened to us?’ and ‘how did we get here?’ are two terrifying questions that are currently overwhelming us. Reality is forcing us to re-think everything, to go back, even, to basics, to the definition of things, in order to find out where we got lost. Francisco Hinojosa believes it is necessary – and it is – to cite the meaning of the verb descuartizar (to quarter, dismember or chop up) in ‘Lo que antes eran calles’ [What once were streets], a story in which a hitman with a speech impediment nicknamed ‘The Boiler’ ends up dismembering, in a fit, the girlfriend who has cheated on him: ‘Dismember. Transitive verb that means quarter, divide into quarters, disjoint, tear apart, break into pieces, chop up, destroy. To cut into four parts, as a form of punishment, a person’s body.’ And it goes on.

We have to re-name things, write about them, because they are no longer what they were, or because they are no longer what they seem, or they no longer seem like what they are. In ‘Ojos que no ven’ [What you don’t know can’t hurt you], Iris García writes of actors being recruited for a film from among the regular drunks of a cantina. Their role in the movie is to admit to being members of the Sinaloa Cartel guilty of certain murders. In front of the camera, beaten and shot at, so as to lend the scene some realism since there is no budget for make-up, they discover that they’re being used by the Gulf Cartel so that their rivals in Sinaloa are blamed for ‘everything that happens.’ One of the hired drunks screams out a phrase that could well be uttered by any Mexican who sees his daily existence invaded by this kind of violence, which we used only to see in the cinema or on TV: ‘I don’t what to be in this film any more.’

Some of us started to hallucinate with apocalyptic visions. In ‘Historia’ [History], Antonio Ortuño imagines that a foreign country decides to invade us, because of ‘drug trafficking, the illegal organ trade, the kidnap and murder of foreigners, the prevailing state of anarchy and mass migration.’ The story’s protagonist attempts to flee while describing the local men’s fear that their wives will offer themselves to the invading soldiers so they will have blond children. At the end, just before he surrenders to the enemy tanks, the man escapes by taking shelter behind a door opened by a ‘fat, blackish’ woman, ‘her hair dyed blonde and her teeth covered in gold caps.’

She is the motherland.

Postscript: for foreigners terrified by the present text, I would like to transcribe, so as to reassure them, a phrase of Burroughs’ repeated by Villoro in the above cited short story: ‘Don’t worry: Mexicans only kill their friends.’

Read the original text in Spanish here: Yo ya no quiero salir en esta película

About the Author

Juan Pablo Villalobos was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1973. After eight years in Barcelona he lives now in Brazil. He has two Mexican-Brazilian-Catalan-Italian children. His first novel, Down the Rabbit Hole, was published in Spanish in 2010 and is being translated into fourteen languages. His second novel will be out in Spanish in September and in English in the first quarter of 2013. He writes for different magazines, newspapers and blogs of Mexico, Spain, Brazil and Colombia.

About the Translator

Rosalind Harvey has lived in Lima and Norwich, where she fell in love with Spanish and translation, respectively. She now lives in London, where she translates Hispanic fiction. Her recent translation of Down the Rabbit Hole was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book award, and she is the co-translator with Anne McLean of Hector Abad’s prize-winning memoir Oblivion, and Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas. Last autumn she was one of Free Word Centre’s first ever translators-in-residence.

Additional Information

Juan Villoro (Mexico city, 1956): “Amigos mexicanos” in Los culpables, Almadía, Oaxaca, 2008.

Daniel Sada (Mexicali, 1953-2010): “Ese modo que colma” in Ese modo que colma, Anagrama, Barcelona, 2010. Almost Never his last novel is published by Graywolf in the US.  He began his career as a poet and was one of Mexico’s most admired novelists and story writers.

Antonio Ortuño (Guadalajara, 1976) “Historia” in La señora rojo, Páginas de Espuma, Madrid, 2010. His writing has been translated into many languages. ‘Small Mouth, Thin Lips’ is a new story and can be read in Granta magazine 113.

Francisco Hinojosa (Mexico city, 1954): “Lo que antes eran calles” in El tiempo apremia, Almadía, Oaxaca, 2010.

Iris García (Acapulco, 1977 ) “Ojos que no ven” in Ojos que no ven, corazón desierto, Tierra Adentro, México, 2009.