In his latest PEN Atlas piece, Juan Pablo Villalobos introduces new voices which demonstrate Mexico’s rich literary landscape

When I was asked to write this blog, the first option immediately suggested to me as a possible topic was that of the literature about the violence in Mexico. I have to confess that my first reaction was to refuse and get defensive; however, after thinking it over, I decided to turn this refusal into my topic, which was what I was trying to do in my two previous pieces (‘I Don’t Want To Be In This Film Any More’ and ‘Against Narcoliterature’).

My refusal came from a fear of helping to reinforce what – in my opinion – is a reductionist reading of contemporary Mexican literature, which, when you look beyond the cliches and stereotypes, is tremendously diverse. Far from the clamour of the literature of violence, there is another Mexican literature, a literature of intimacy and the body, of identity and memory. Here are a few examples.

Written as a diary, El animal sobre la piedra [the animal on the rock] by Daniela Tarazona is an exploration of metamorphosis as a medical symptom. After the death of her mother, the protagonist goes on a trip to the beach as a way to deal with her grief. There she meets a man – who is to become her ‘partner’ – and his ridiculous pet Lisandro (an anteater), who will witness her transformation into a lizard. In Tarazona, the fantasy genre seems a ‘natural’ result of somatization:

‘After shedding my skin I should have gone to the doctor. But I didn’t, because this event and all the subsequent ones, which defined me as a mutating being, have been beneficial. There’s no doubt in my mind about it. The hallucinations, however, obey their own logic, and maybe this is why there are days when I don’t understand how I lost my identity. Am I no longer a person?’

Bodily mutation is also the theme of El cuerpo en que nací  [the body I was born in] by Guadalupe Nettel. However, what in Tarazona is a hallucination, in Nettel is the critical employment of memory, uttered in the psychiatrist’s office.

 ‘The body we are born in is not the same one we leave the world in. I don’t just mean the countless number of times our cells renew themselves, but to its more distinctive features, the tattoos and scars that with our character and our convictions we gradually add to it, feeling our way, as best we can, without guidance or tutoring.’

An autobiographical novel or what some theorists call autofiction, it tells the story of the author’s childhood and adolescence in a progressive family. The concepts of open marriage, alternative education and sexual freedom, advocated by her parents, undergo the trial of personal history, that intimate court from where children contemplate their parents.

The body vanishes in Los ingrávidos by Valeria Luiselli [Faces in the Crowd in Christina MacSweeney’s English translation]. The narrator, a mother of two small children, is pretending to write a novel about the writer Gilberto Owen while watching her marriage fall apart. Her tale weaves together two ghostly existences: her own youth, and that of Owen, separated in time but which encounter each other by chance as spectres in the New York subway.

‘I wanted to have a professional photo taken (…)  just to see whether people can see me or not,’ Luiselli’s Owen says. ‘The owner of the studio sat me on a stool (…) She made a first attempt, and a second. She readjusted the height of the stool, tried again. She changed the backdrop. At the fourth attempt, she apologised. I can’t take your portrait, sir, something’s wrong with our equipment.’

Just like the photograph of Owen, Faces is the simulacrum of a novel that is not being written; it is not a novel of ghosts, it is the ghost of a novel.

A body that mutates, a body that scars, a body that vanishes: three wonderful novels by three writers from a country where, sadly, we speak less and less about bodies and more and more about the corpses on the ground around us.

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

Daniela Tarazona: El animal sobre la piedra, Almadía: Oaxaca, 2008.

Guadalupe Nettel: El cuerpo en que nací, Anagrama: Barcelona, 2011

Valeria Luiselli: Los ingrávidos, Sexto Piso: México D.F., 2011. Faces in the Crowd has just been published in the UK by Granta.