The latest addition to my website is Margo Glantz‘s El rastro (The Wake). This is one of two of her novels that have been translated into English. This novel is narrated by Nora Garcia, a professional cellist, who is attending the funeral of her late ex-husband, Juan. He had been a famous composer and pianist. They had divorced when he was unfaithful and she had not been back to the village where they lived together and he had lived till his death, for some time. She finds the buzz of voices at the wake disturbing and does not take to the people, most of whom she does not know. However, most of the novel is taken up with her thoughts, which are portrayed like a piece of classical music, with themes emerging, fading away, coming back and merging wih other themes. These themes include, of course, classical music, both what she and Juan had done together but also a range of other classical music she thinks about, the heart, particularly the medical aspect of the heart (both Juan and the pianist Glenn Gould, Juan’s favourite, had died of heart failure), the comments of Maria, a woman she did know, who tells her more than once about her take on Juan’s illness and death, Dostoevsky, life and love. It is a very fine novel, enhanced if you have a knowledge of or, at least an interest in classical music, though that is not essential to appreciate its qualities.
The latest addition to my website is Guadalupe Nettel‘s Después del invierno (After the Winter). This novel tells the story of two very different people. Claudio is Cuban and lives in New York. He is ascetic and rigid in his ways. He works as a book editor and has a lover fifteen years his senior, whom he does not treat particularly well. Cecilia is Mexican. Her mother left when she was young. She had studied French literature and is now in Paris studying. She has virtually no friends and is not particularly happy. She meets the man in the room next to her, Tom. They become friends (but not lovers) till he disappears to spend extended time in Sicily. Inevitably, Claude and Cecilia will meet, which they do, in Paris. They both fall in love with one another at first sight, which is very uncharacteristic for him (I want to be a robot and not a man is his clarion call). Things do not work out, tragedy strikes and life goes on. This not a bad book and we must be grateful for not giving us the obvious story once they meet. The image of death pervades the novel, not least because Cecilia and Tom are both somewhat obsessed with cemeteries and Claudio is mildly interested in the idea. The book will appear in English translation in September of this year, published by Maclehose Press.
The latest addition to my website is Rosa Beltrán‘s Efectos secundarios [Secondary Effects]. This relatively short novel packs a lot in. It tells the story of a woman (though initially identified as male) who introduces authors and their new books at book launches open to the public. The books are self-help or similar second-rate works, which she despises. She, however, is a devotee of quality fiction and soon finds herself wholly identifying with writers such as Kafka, Joyce and Wilde and their characters. At the same time, she is focussing on the brutal drug war in Mexico, the many horrible deaths resulting from this war and the sufferings, in particular, of women because of this. She soon starts associating the poor quality books she has to read and present with the state of affairs in Mexico and finds quality literature as a release from this. When, at a presentation, she finally breaks out somewhat, showing how women have suffered in Mexico and how women writers have also suffered, the positive reception leads her to hope that things might improve. They do not. This is a first-class and complex work about the current situation in Mexico which sadly has not been translated into any other language.
The latest addition to my website is Gustavo Sainz‘s La princesa del Palacio de Hierro (The Princess of the Iron Palace). Sainz was part of the Onda movement, a literary movement that rejected the formal and conservative writings of previous Mexican authors and adopted a colourful language, using lots of slang and vulgarities, and openly discussed sex, drugs and politics. This story is narrated by the unnamed heroine, the eponymous princess, who comes from a rich family and is expected to behave like a lady at all times. She does not. She has numerous boyfriends, with whom she has sex, takes drugs, drinks heavily and lives a very wild and chaotic life. Above all, she tells stories of her highly colourful life, which involves a series of boyfriends, most of whom seem to have dubious and often criminal backgrounds, a continuous wild ride and even a job, working at the Mexican department store, the Palacio de Hierro (Iron Palace). The novel is a continuous stream of events, stories, mishaps, violence, and lots of sex and drugs. It is a highly colourful and enjoyable novel, in that it never lets up for a minute, as she jumps backwards and forwards, in time and place, lives what can only be described as a totally chaotic life and somehow manages to survive car crashes, drug overdoses, difficult boyfriends, a sexual assault by a government minister and a life too well-lived.
The latest addition to my website is Ignacio Padilla‘s Si volviesen sus majestades [If Their Majesties Were to Return]. This is a wonderfully chaotic novel, nominally set in the 16th-17th century (and written in a variation of the language of that time) but a 16th-17th century that has cinema, computers and inflatable sex dolls. The fictitious country was a monarchy but the King and Queen have left in a balloon (it is not clear why) and only a seneschal and jester are left. The novel explains the colourful history of the seneschal (descended from a man who lost a grail-like object and whose descendants have to search for it as well as being descended from a man created, Frankenstein-like, by his father), how he came to be seneschal, why the people all left and how an ancient computer almost plunged the country into chaos. It is superbly inventive, very funny and completely insane, a thoroughly enjoyable novel which sadly has not made it into English and probably never will.
The latest addition to my website is Juan Pablo Villalobos‘ Fiesta en la madriguera (Down the Rabbit Hole). This is a Mexican drug novel (narcoliteratura) with a difference. It is narrated by a child, the son of a drug dealer. Tochtli, the child in question, lives with his father, Yolcaut, and various auxiliaries, including well-armed security guards, not to mention a lion and two tigers, whose job is to consume the inevitable corpses. When things start getting difficult – drug dealers deported to the US and open warfare – they decide to take a trip to Liberia as Tolchtli wants to add some pygmy hippopotamuses, found in Liberia, to add to his private zoo. The strength of this book is seeing the horrors of drug dealing through the eyes of Tolchtli, who is inevitably naive and innocent while wanting to be one of the gang, which makes for a funny and playful book.
The latest addition to my website is Hector Camín‘s El error de la luna [The Moon’s Mistake]. This tells the story of the nineteen year old Leonor Gonzalbo, whose parents have been killed in a car crash and who is now living with her grandparents. Leonor becomes obsessed with her late aunt, Mariana, whom she resembles and who died in mysterious circumstances, possibly as a result of a love affair with a man who cannot be mentioned. She endeavour to get information from her grandparents and from her two surviving aunts but is fobbed off. She learns that there is a family curse, passed down through the female line and Mariana was a victim of this curse but no-one will tell her how and why she died or about the affair she may have had. She gradually manages to speak to various people but gets a somewhat different version of the story from everyone, as people either do not know, have something to hide or see things from a different perspective. Meanwhile, she is herself following her female ancestors in a not very successful relationship. As always, Camín tells an excellent story, showing that reality has many facets and that truth is not easy to come by. Like all but one of his books, this book has not been translated into English.
The latest addition to my website is Valeria Luiselli‘s La historia de mis dientes (The Story of My Teeth). This is a superb post-modern novel about, well, teeth (amongst other things). Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez was born with four premature teeth. When his adult teeth grew, they were all pointing in different directions. After an uneventful early life, with most of it spent as a security guard, he became an apparently successful auctioneer and was able to buy Marilyn Monroe’s teeth, which he had transplanted into his own mouth. His success as an auctioneer is because he uses the allegoric approach, selling not just the dubious items he sells (including Plato’s and Saint Augustine’s teeth) but also the stories he tells in his selling. However, it seems that the story he is telling us of himself may be as fanciful as the stories he tells his clients. He ends up chased by giant clowns, bought and imprisoned by his son (whom he has not seen since he was very young) and toothless. It is all hilarious fun, highly improbable and very post-modern. it will certainly have you thinking about your teeth.
The latest addition to my website is José Agustín‘s De perfil [In Profile]. This novel, Agustín’s second, had considerable commercial and critical success in Mexico. It tells of four days in the life of the narrator, known only as X, a seventeen year old boy. We follow his relationship with his parents, particularly his father, a psychiatrist by profession. We also follow his first sexual experience, with a young rich woman, who is the lead singer of a band. Towards the end we see him try to register for university and learn about political action at the university. In short, we see him growing up or, at least, taking steps in that direction. The book has not, of course, been translated into English.
Every year at around this time, I focus on the literature of one particular country. Last year, it was Japan. 2015 it was Russia. 2014 it was Iceland. This year, as you can see from the title, it is Mexico. Three years ago, I wrote a blog post on contemporary Mexican literature. I intended to do a a better job of following up by reading and reviewing some of the books mentioned in that post but this did not happen for a variety of reasons. One key reason, however, was the difficulty of obtaining Mexican novels in the UK. They are either not available or very expensive to obtain. Federico Vite‘s Fisuras en el continente literario, for example, is available from a well-known online bookseller for a mere £156.99 at the time of writing, while Juan José Rodríguez’s Mi Nombre Es Casablanca is available for a mere £107.51. While they can often be obtained cheaper from the United States, postage now tends to run to around $25-30 from booksellers like MyLibro.
However, I have managed to amass what may or may not be a suitable selection. There are twenty novels, all by different authors. Sixteen were published in the twenty-first century. This is not because there were not excellent Mexican novels in the twentieth century – of course there were – but more because I wanted to give exposure to more recent novels. Eight of the books are by women, reflecting the fact that women authors have been prolific in Mexico in recent years and written some first-class novels. Some of these novels have been translated into English and some, sadly but inevitably, have not. Three of the authors can already be found on my website. Inevitably, the difficulty was not in what to include but in what not to include. I could easily add another twenty authors/books to the list.
The Dresden Codex, an early Mayan codex
There is enough about Mexican literature on the web but, nevertheless, here is a (very) potted history. Mexican literature actually started well before Columbus, though a lot of it was oral. We know of a few Mayan codices, though many were destroyed by the Conquistadors. Works such as Historia de la literatura Náhuatl are available (at a price) and you can read some of the documents in In the Language of Kings, published by Norton in 2002, and still very much in print in the UK and the US. As this article shows, some of the indigenous languages of Mexico are still in use.
Writings, particularly about the Conquest, the New World and related topics abound in the 16th and 17th century. Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s The Conquest of New Spain, for example, is a Penguin Classic, as is Bartolomé de las Casas’ A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies . There have been claims that José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi‘s El Periquillo Sarniento (The Mangy Parrot) is the first Latin American novel. An abridged version is in print in English.
Nnineteenth century literature in Mexico has not worn well, particularly outside the country. Ignacio Manuel Altamirano‘s Clemencia (Clemencia) is sometimes called the first modern Mexican novel. This and many other of Altamirano’s novels were translated into English but are mostly out of print, though you can still find El Zarco the Blue-eyed Bandit, a colourful and enjoyable adventure tale. Altamirano was part-Indian and his mother tongue was Nahuatl. Federico Gamboa‘s Santa tells the story of the rise and fall of a Mexican woman, Santa, and had considerable influence in Mexico. It was translated into English and though out of print, is readily available. Two novellas by José Tomas de Cuéllar have been published together under the title The Magic Lantern. They mock the pretensions of Mexican society, particularly its attempts to emulate the Europeans.
Juan José Arreola is best known for his Confabulario (Confabulario and Other Inventions), a biting satire on human folly. José Rubén Romero is best-known for his La vida inútil de Pito Pérez (The Futile Life of Pito Perez). It is a very funny picaresque novel about the drunk Pito Pérez. José Agustín was part of the Onda movement. He has not been translated into English. He is a lover of rock music and best-known in Mexico for his novel De perfil [In Profile], which tells of four days in the life of a young man about to enter university.
Xavier Icaza is not much read today but his Panchito Chapopote is an excellent satire on the exploitation of the Mexican oil industry by both the US and corrupt local officials, a subject that will occur again in Mexican literature. José Revueltas was as much known for his political activity and spent much time in prison because of it, even while still a minor. However, he did write some worthwhile novels. His El luto human, which has been published in English as Human Mourning, tells the tale of a cast characters who suffer and die because of poverty or because of betrayal by the Mexican Revolution or by God.
Born the same year as Revueltas (1914), is Octavio Paz, who will not appear on my website as he writes non-fiction and poetry but is deserving of mention, not least because he may be the best-known Mexican writer after Fuentes. He is best-known for his work El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude), a work which may well be the best introduction to the Mexican character.
Sergio Galindo is another Mexican writer – there are all too many – who is little known in the English-speaking world, though four of his novels were translated into English. Otilia Rauda (Otilia’s Body), his last novel, was one of these and tells the story of a fiercely independent and sensual woman, at a period when women were meant to be neither.
There were also women writers during that period. Elena Garro was the first wife of Octavio Paz though, more importantly, she was also a fine writer. Her initial love was for the theatre. She wanted to be actress (Paz held her back) and then a playwright. Her best novel is her first: Los recuerdos del porvenir (Recollections of Things to Come). Here is another Mexican novel using magic realism. The novel is narrated by a town and tells of a town occupied by the Mexican army and mistreated by them (another common theme in Mexican literature).
Rosario Castellanos has been translated into English. Her best-known novel is Balún-Canán (The Nine Guardians) is concerned with another theme common to Mexican (and other Latin American) literature, namely the exploitation of the Indian population by the whites. Two of Margo Glantz‘s novels have been translated into English. El rastro (The Wake) is about Nora, who returns to her old house for the wake of her ex-husband, who has died of a heart attack. The book is about her meditations on the body (the heart in particular, of course), her readings and her life, linked to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It has even become a theatrical piece with readings from it, accompanied by a cello.
Back to the men, Vicente Leñero was a realist. He won a prize for his third novel Los albañiles [The Bricklayers] (not translated into English), a detective novel but also a novel which shows different aspects of Mexico City, with all the main characters having a motive for killing the victim. El evangelio de Lucas Gavilán [The Gospel of Lucas Gavilan], the only one of his novels translated into English, is about Jesucristo Gómez, a Mexican bricklayer rather than Jewish carpenter, who is killed by the police when he stands up for the downtrodden.
Sergio Pitol, from a remote Mexican village and orphaned at the age of four, may be best known for his poetry and his memoirs (two of which have been translated into English), as well as being a very accomplished translator, but he did publish a few novels. His first novel, El tañido de una flauta [The Sound of The Flute], is about Carlos Ibarra, a man who wanted to be a novelist but has spent his time wandering the world and is now on the steady slope downwards. The story is narrated by a man who knew him well, a celebrated painter, and also involves a film director putting on a controversial film at the Venice Film Festival. Much of it is about building up the picture of Ibarra and the world from various perspectives.
Salvador Elizondo was an experimental writer. His best-known novel, Farabeuf, is his only novel translated into English. The title comes from the French surgeon of that name. The centrepiece of the novel is a distinctly unpleasant photo of an execution during the Boxer Rebellion. Farabeuf is portrayed as French secret agent in Peking and attends an execution. However, there is no plot to this novel. Indeed, Elizondo eventually said it was not a novel. It was clearly influenced by authors such as Cortázar and Joyce though more unpleasant than both.
Both of Fernando del Paso‘s two main novels have been translated into English. The first is Palinuro de México (Palinuro of Mexico), a novel where the main character might be said to be a city, in this case, of course, Mexico City. Its is bawdy, witty, full of clever references and enormous fun. The second is Noticias del Imperio (News from the Empire), about Emperor Maximilian of Mexico and his wife Carlota. It is 668 pages long and it does help to have a knowledge of nineteenth century European and Mexican history but is still highly enjoyable if you do not.
José Emilio Pacheco is best-known as a poet but he did write some novels. His novel Las batallas en el desierto, translated into English as Battles in the Desert is narrated by Carlos, aged forty, but talking about his childhood in the late 1940s in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City. Mexico City, of course, features strongly, but he also talks about the political situation and the influence of pop culture from the United States.
Gustavo Sainz, who is associated with the Onda movement, has had two of his novels translated into English. The best-known is La princesa del Palacio de Hierro, translated as The Princess of the Iron Palace and features an unnamed middle-class female narrator who talks incessantly of her life, her loves and the political situation in Mexico.
Hector Camín is one of the many writers I consider to be underrated. Only one of his novels has been translated into English, Morir en el golfo (Death in Veracruz), first appearing in translation thirty-five years after it was first published in Spanish. It is a political novel, dealing with contemporary events and not a satire and, like his even better La Guerra de Galio [Galio’s War] (not translated into English), a superb work.
Daniel Sada has had considerable success in the Spanish-speaking world though less so in the English-speaking world. His novel Casi nunca (Almost Never) is about machismo and sex and sexual obsession and prostitutes (including the prostitute as Madonna) and is available in English.
If you twisted my arm and asked me to name my favourite Mexican writer, it would be Carmen Boullosa. She is witty, wacky, iconoclastic, post-modern and thoroughly original. Fortunately , many of her novels are available in English. Sadly, some are not. One of her most recent ones, for example, is Texas (Texas: The Great Theft). The English title tells us what it is about.
Mario Bellatin is another experimental writer whose short novel Salón de belleza (Beauty Salon) is one of several of his works to be translated into English. Salón de belleza (Beauty Salon) tells the story of a man who makes some money working away from home but returns home to open a beauty salon. The novel is about cross-dressing, homosexuality, AIDS and tropical fish
Cristina Rivera Garza‘s Nadie me verá llorar (No-one Will See Me Cry) has been translated into English. It is about a photographer in a mental hospital who is sure that one of the other patients is a prostitute he used to know. He explores the records of the clinic and finds her colourful but not always happy history. It is, of course, linked with the history of Mexico.
Alberto Chimal‘s La torre y el jardín [The Tower and the Garden] is, in my view, one of the most original works I have read in a long time. Of course, it has not been translated into English and nor have his other books. I did start reading another of his works – Los esclavos [The Slaves] – and it was one of those rare works that I soon abandoned. If you like hard-core porn, it might work for you but I have to say I really did not like it.
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