This week for PEN Atlas, Juan Pablo Villalobos writes against ‘Narcoliterature’.  This piece has been translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey.

The Narrative of Violence in Mexico 2: Three Reasons Not to Use the Word narcoliteratura

Translated by Rosalind Harvey

Narcoliteratura: this little word, meaning literature about drugs, is a vile neologism whose use seems inevitable nowadays when we come to speak of contemporary Mexican literature. Like all good neologisms, it arose from the need to name a new phenomenon. In actual fact, the phenomenon in this case – the literature that deals with the world of drug trafficking – is not new, but the need to name it is. In Mexico, the term rose to prominence above all in the media (somewhat less in academia, where it has not been unanimously adopted) in the face of the proliferation of books on this theme.

To name something is the first step in attempting to identify, define, categorise, classify or bracket it, amongst other equally reductionist activities. The blessed little word is a kind of sack, a very roomy one, into which everything appears to fit: detective novels, biographies of drug lords or sensationalist non-fiction, to mention three sorts of books that for some years now have been in plentiful supply in Mexican bookshops.

The term’s use – and abuse – is having some negative effects on the reception of Mexican literature. For a start, in intellectual circles it inspires a certain suspicion towards novels dealing with this topic. ‘Another drug novel’ is a derogatory phrase that is regularly heard, as if there were themes that were contemptible per se, which presupposes a prejudiced reading. But the most important point is that the term does not help at all to understand the literature currently being written in Mexico; it impoverishes the debate and obscures the contribution made by some of the best books written in recent years.

Trabajos del reino [Kingdom Cons], the debut novel by Yuri Herrera, is cited without fail as part of the nascent canon of narcoliteratura. The story tells of the exploits of Lobo, a young corrido or ballad singer, in the palace of a powerful drug trafficker called El Rey [The King], and is an allegory of the relationship between art and power, an apologia of art as purity, as a means of salvation: ‘The only strange thing was he, who saw everything from the outside. He was the only special one. It was so wonderful to realise this, it was like something softly shining among people, like a feeling when one enters a room that things are better.’ To say that Trabajos del reino is a drug novel is to deny where it comes from: Herrera’s graceful prose fits emphatically into the rich 20th century Latin American literary tradition, of which it is a continuation. He comes from the same line as Miguel Ángel Asturias, Augusto Roa Bastos and Juan Rulfo, and establishes himself as a direct heir to the literature of the Boom, influenced just as much by the North American literary tradition.

If the term narcoliteratura overshadows Herrera’s contribution, Julián Herbert and Carlos Velázquez remain happily on the margins, resistant to classification, despite having both written books in which drugs are the main protagonist.

Cocaína (Manual de usuario) [Cocaine: A User’s Manual], the brilliant collection of short stories by Julián Herbert, explores the other side of the phenomenon: abuse. With pithy, sordid irony, Herbert sets himself the task of, among other things, writing the directions for use of cocaine, in the hilarious story ‘User’s Manual’: ‘1. Congratulations!!! You have acquired the best product on the market. For a hundred years we have been the preferred choice for countless numbers of international customers around the world, and so it is not an exaggeration when we say with pride that our best letter of introduction is recent global history.’ The characters swing between chemical euphoria and insomnia, hedonistic abandon and attempts at giving up: the world is not an oyster, it’s a twist of paper in which the precious white powder lies, and the way there is a long line.

La biblia vaquera (Un triunfo del corrido sobre la lógica) [The Biblia Vaquera (A Triumph of the Ballad over Logic)] by Carlos Velázquez is the narco apocalypse. Riddled with neologisms, hopelessly infected with English, as self-referential as it is possible to be, lapsing at times – it has to be said – into facile gags, Velázquez creates a geography all his own, an imaginary map of Coahuila and Nuevo Léon, the regions controlled by the Biblia Vaquera. ‘Juan Salazar’s dealer’ tells of the hell of cold turkey when the man’s dealer doesn’t come through: ‘His regression became contaminated by the theories surrounding the barroom stories about San Pedroslavia: a magic land where the drugs never ran out, everyone is a dealer, and heroin is incredibly cheap (…) He used to say that withdrawal symptoms were like chewing a tasteless piece of gum.  The last quarter of his cold turkey would soon reach the size of the full moon and the whole station would become filled just for him with Aztec vampires.’

Essentially, speaking of narcoliteratura seems to be something done by those who want to sell the phenomenon, and a certain idea of Mexico, rather than those who want to read books. It is the logic of the trafficker versus the logic of the consumer.

Unfortunately, our best books do not come with a user’s manual.

Read the original text in Spanish here: Contra la narcoliteratura

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

Yuri Herrera: Trabajos del reino, Periférica, Cáceres, 2008. (To be published later this year by Faber and Faber in a translation by Lisa Dillman)

Julián Herbert: Cocaína (Manual de usuario), Mondadori, Barcelona, 2009.

Carlos Velazquez: La Biblia Vaquera (Un triunfo del corrido sobre la lógica), Sexto Piso, México D.F., 2011.