I have now read twenty Mexican novels in a row. So what have I learned? Well, Mexican literature is as varied as any other well developed literature. I found post-modern novels, feminist novels, historical novels, psychological novels, love and romance and death and dying. However, a few things stand out, even if the twenty novels were fairly randomly selected.
1. Mexican women are not very impressed with Mexican men. They find them bullying, controlling and violent. No doubt women all over the world could say the same about their men, usually with considerable justification, but the Mexican women seem even more forthright than women writers of other nationalities.
2. The drug war and its associated violence is a key factor in Mexican life but perhaps not quite as much as I expected in these novels. Corrupt politicians seem to be more of an issue.
3. Post-modernism and feminism are both very much alive and well in the contemporary Mexican novel.
4. To my surprise, the issue of immigration, particularly illegal immigration, into the United States was barely mentioned nor was the issue of Mexico being used as a corridor to the United States for illegal immigrants from other parts of Latin America, with the one obvious exception of Yuri Herrera‘s Señales que precederán al fin del mundo (Signs Preceding the End of the World).
5. Equally lacking was the issue of Mexico’s relationship with the United States. When it appeared, it was virtually only in connection with US involvement in the Mexican Revolution some one hundred years ago, again with the exception of Señales que precederán al fin del mundo (Signs Preceding the End of the World).
While I enjoyed all the books – there were no bad ones – there was not a great book among them. The ones I preferred were the more post-modern ones such as Luis Jorge Boone‘s Las afueras [The Outskirts], Valeria Luiselli‘s La historia de mis dientes (The Story of My Teeth), Ignacio Padilla‘s Si volviesen sus majestades [If Their Majesties Were to Return], Yuri Herrera‘s Señales que precederán al fin del mundo (Signs Preceding the End of the World) and Juan Pablo Villalobos‘ Fiesta en la madriguera (Down the Rabbit Hole).
What I am looking forward to now is the Great Mexican Trump novel (and, doubtless, the Great US Trump novel). Here is a foretaste from Juan Pablo Villalobos, one of the writers I read and who does not shy away from contemporary political issues. More to come?
The latest addition to my website is Yuri Herrera‘s Señales que precederán al fin del mundo (Signs Preceding the End of the World). This is a superb short novel which can be read as Dantesque journey through the underworld or as the story of a woman illegally entering the United States from Mexico, not to live and work there but to deliver a message to her brother from her mother. Makina lives in a small silver mining town and works as the local switchboard operator. Her mother asks her to deliver a message to her brother in the United States. To do so she needs the help of various people and has to deliver a mysterious package (presumably drugs). She has a series of adventures, including nearly drowning in the River Styx/Rio Grande, seeing dead bodies and being shot and hit but, miraculously surviving seemingly unscathed. Once in the United States, the journey is somewhat like Dante’s journey in the circles of Hell, as she looks for her brother, failing to track him down, till she finds him in the US army. Herrera tells his story very well, giving us both the mythic dimension and the grim reality of life for Mexicans trying to enter the United States.
The latest addition to my website is Elena Poniatowska‘s Leonora (Leonora). This is a feminist biographical novel about Leonora Carrington. Carrington was a Surrealist painter, something quite rare for an English woman. She was the daughter of a textile magnate and, though brought up in wealth, she was very free-spirited, which did not go down well with her strict father. She was twice expelled from convent schools and was sent to a finishing school in Florence, where she discovered art. Once again, she had trouble with the school authorities for her rebellious spirit. After being presented at court (which she hated), she was off to Paris where she met and fell in love with Max Ernst, the German-born Surrealist painter. The war intervened and he was interned, while Leonora fled to Spain. While there she had a nervous breakdown and spent a long time in a mental hospital. Back in Madrid, she married a Mexican and the couple went off to the United States and thence to Mexico. She spent most of her adult life, though, initially, she hated it. She married a Hungarian photographer, had two children, became a well-known painter (though not in her home country) and a writer. Elena Poniatowska knew Leonora Carrington well and insists this is a novel and not a biography. Above all, it it is a feminist work about a woman who wanted to be herself and not controlled by the various men in her life nor follow the standard for women of her class and age. It is a very fine book but it has done much better in the Spanish-speaking world than in the English-speaking world, where both women are relatively unknown.
The latest addition to my website is Antonio Ortuño‘s El buscador de cabezas [The Head Hunter]. This novel tells the story of Alex Faber who gets involved in the extreme right in an unnamed Latin American country. As a teen he joined a group, the Republicans, which seemed to enjoy attacking prostitutes, gays and so on but later left to go to university to study journalism. At the beginning of the novel he is a journalist for a fairly liberal paper called El Futuro. He has to deal with a story involving an attack on a blasphemous work of art, which resulted in the killing of the art gallery guard. First the killers, let out on bail, are killed and then the artist and his family are brutally murdered. The right, led by Guadalupe Garza, head of an organisation called Clean Hands, start doing well and Garza stands for the presidency and, eventually, wins. Meanwhile, Alex has rejoined the Republicans and is involved in some of their dirty deeds. As the book opens with his exile in another country and his comment that he lost his war, we know this is not going to go well. Ortuño who, sadly, has not been translated into English, tells an excellent story on the rise of the extreme right, as seen from the perspective of a conflicted young participant.
The latest addition to my website is Hernán Lara Zavala‘s Península, Península [Peninsula, Peninsula]. This novel, set in the mid 1800s, concerns a native uprising in Yucatán, a result of the mistreatment of the native population by the whites. Lara Zavala tells his story using himself (we learn about his writing process and thoughts) but also using the writings of José Turrisa, pseudonym of Justo Sierra O’Reilly, a lawyer, but, in this book, they are two separate people. We follow not only the view of the two novelists but of several characters who were there, including an English governess, an Irish doctor, a Mexican travelling salesman and a crooked Mexican lawyer. We also see the disputes between the Mexican politicians and even the disputes within the Mayan camp, all of which makes for a very lively story. Lara Zavala and, indeed Turriso, are very sympathetic towards the plight of the Mayans, who have been exploited and mistreated, an issue which has not gone away.
The latest addition to my website is Daniel Sada‘s Casi nunca (Almost Never), one of two novels by this Mexican writer translated into English. Sada was highly praised by Roberto Bolaño but, on the basis of this book, I am not sure I share his view. The book is quite simply a sex comedy. Demetrio Sordo is a single agronomist, who is working in Oaxaca. He needs sex, so he goes to the local brothel, where he he uses the services of Mireya and becomes very attached to her. Sada explains in some detail why he does. When he takes his mother to a family wedding, he meets the far more respectable but untouchable Renata. The book recounts how he is torn by his need for regular sex and the respectability that Renata offers. He stumbles many times, changing and fleeing from jobs, upsetting Renata by daring to kiss her hand and maybe even getting Mireya pregnant. But Renata is a modern woman (the book is set shortly after World War II) and is happy to have Invasion-sex. Skilful-sex. Delirium-sex. Mania-sex. Formal sex, provided it is in marriage. It is a very amusing and enjoyable book but not, I think, great literature.
The latest addition to my website is Eve Gil‘s Tinta violeta: Sho-shan segunda temporada [Violet Ink: Sho-shan second season]. Gil has called this novel, and others she has written, mangic realism, as manga/anime features very much in the story. Eve Gil’s youngest daughter has Asperger’s Syndrome, as does the heroine and part-narrator of this novel Luisa. She is almost fifteen and lives with her grandparents in the United States, though she is Mexican. Nine years previously her mother was murdered. Part of the novel is the quest to find out why she was murdered. Her older sister, Violeta, and her father (who is not Violeta’s biological father) have gone to Japan, where Violeta has become a successful manga/anime writer. Violeta invites Luisa to visit her in Japan and she reluctantly accepts. Meanwhile we seem to be a following a manga story, which seems to be related to Luisa’s life and may be the one written by Violeta. However, it turns out to be very real and the two sisters unwittingly get involved in it. Gil gives us an excellent portrait of the world as seen by someone with Asperger’s as well as showing the merging of reality and fantasy, using manga/anime to do so. Sadly none of Gil’s work has been translated into English.
The latest addition to my website is Claudia Marcucetti Pascoli‘s Heridas de agua [Wounds of Water]. This is a quirky novel about Mexican history and politics, with some of the narration by a mill, where much of the action is set, and a series of ghosts. Gioconda Cattaneo de González Núñez, born in Naples, marries a Mexican, José Crescencio. He is not a good husband, unfaithful and violent. Gioconda soon dies, drowned in a well near the mill. Was it suicide, accident or murder? Though her body is dead, her spirit lives on and she joins other ghosts living in the mill. She follows events, trying to protect her son (whose father is probably not José Crescencio). We also follow the fortunes of Fortunato, another Italian immigrant, who may have been a lover of Gioconda and whose stepson is the biological son of José Crescencio. While most of the action takes place at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, including the early part of the Mexican Revolution, we actually follow the mill’s story from Cortés in the sixteenth century to the present day. We also follow the history and politics of Mexico, with the role of women, political corruption in high places and the poor/rich divide all playing a key role. It is an enjoyable read and tells us about Mexican history but it is not a great novel.
The latest addition to my website is Luis Jorge Boone‘s Las afueras [The Outskirts]. Boone is a Mexican writer, mainly known for his poetry and short stories (one collection has been translated into English) but this is his only novel, not translated into English or any other language. It does not really have a plot, except partially following the stories of two estranged brothers, James and William, both of whom are irredeemably gloomy and miserable, with William, thinking about effecting a reconciliation with his brother, just prior to being killed in a bus crash early in the book. This is just one of several fatal accidents (of which Boone gives us detailed descriptions). The brothers live in the Northern Mexican state of Coahuila and seem to spend much time on the road. The region is essentially desert but has its own secrets, both biological, with rare fauna and flora as well strange events and structures. We follow the stories of William, James and others, all of whom seem to be miserable and depressed but none more so than the two brothers with a sad and cruel emptiness in their lives. It is certainly a well written book and may well show what contemporary Mexico feels like to its inhabitants, but it is not a book to make you laugh.
The latest addition to my website is Cristina Rivera-Garza‘s Nadie me verá llorar (No One Will See Me Cry). The novel is set at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century and its main but by no means only focus is on Joaquín Buitrago, a man who works as photographer in a large mental institution in Mexico City and one of the patients he photographs, Matilda Burgos. Joaquín came from a well-to-do family but, like most of the characters in this book, had had an unhappy love affair and things had gone badly ever since. He is now a morphine addict. Matilda came from a poor family. Her parents are drunk. As a teenager, she moved to Mexico City to live with her aunt and uncle. Her uncle was a hygiene obsessive. Matilda became involved with a group fighting for social justice, led by the woman who was Joaquín’s first love. She disappeared from Matilda’s life as she had disappeared from Joaquín’s and, eventually, Matilda ends up a prostitute, before living in a remote town with a strange US engineer. Even when Joaquín rescues her from the asylum, things do not work out as planned. A summary of the ideas would be that social justice in Mexico is limited, particularly for women, that love is not the answer and that insanity is not limited to mental institutions. It may see grim and often it is, but Rivera-Garza tells a good story.