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Dispatches from the Front: On Narconovelas | The Nation

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Dispatches from the Front: On Narconovelas

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All wars have their bards, and Mexico’s narco wars are no exception. Since 2006, myriad fictions have been added to the torrent of news articles, academic studies, poetry, artworks, movies, telenovelas and music (the famous narcocorridoscorridos are narrative folk songs) about narco culture. Of course, long before Calderón’s war, drug traffickers, especially in the northern states of Sonora and Sinaloa, had inspired countless corridos and been taken up as subjects by Mexican novelists.

Our Lady of the Assassins
By Fernando Vallejo.
Translated by Paul Hammond.
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Un asesino solitario
By Élmer Mendoza.
Tusquets Editores. 228 pp. €12.95.

The Queen of the South
By Arturo Pérez-Reverte.
Translated by Andrew Hurley.
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Rosario Tijeras
By Jorge Franco.
Translated by Gregory Rabassa.
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The Power of the Dog
By Don Winslow.
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El Infierno
Directed by Luis Estrada.
Bandidos Films.

Down the Rabbit Hole
By Juan Pablo Villalobos.
Translated by Rosalind Harvey.
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Si viviéramos en un lugar normal
By Juan Pablo Villalobos.
Anagrama. 192 pp. Paper €16.25.

Señales que precederán al fin del mundo
By Yuri Herrera.
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About the Author

Jorge Volpi
Jorge Volpi, a novelist and essayist from Mexico City, was awarded the Premio Iberoamericano Planeta-Casa de Amé...

Also by the Author

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In 1984, the Sinaloa playwright Óscar Liera wrote and staged El jinete de la divina providencia (The Rider of Divine Providence), a theatrical work based on the figure of Jesús Malverde, a kind of Robin Hood from Culiacán who in the early years of the twentieth century was revered by the public for his good works. In the play, investigations carried out by the church lead to Malverde’s eventual canonization (he was not canonized in real life). In effect, he became a folk saint for the narcos, who forgot his history and simply prayed for him to protect them. Around the same time, in Colombia, Fernando Vallejo published La virgin de los sicarios (Our Lady of the Assassins, 1994), perhaps the first masterpiece in the genre, a novel that focuses on the desolate lives of the young sicarios, or hit men, working for the drug bosses in the city of Medellín. Vallejo opened a path for later novelists with the reproduction—actually, the literary reinvention—of the special slang of the hired killers. Following his example, many writers in Colombia and Mexico elected to give a literary patina to the language of the narcos and, by doing so, created one of the essential features of the so-called narconovelas.

The honor of introducing the theme to Mexican literature fell to another writer from Sinaloa, Élmer Mendoza. Born in 1949 in Culiacán, a city linked to drug trafficking since the dawn of the twentieth century, he’d published several collections of short stories and two works of nonfiction—Cada respiro que tomas (Every Breath You Take, 1992) and Buenos muchachos (Good Boys, 1995)—and a few articles about drug trafficking in his state before writing his first novel, Un asesino solitario (A Solitary Murderer), in 1999. Composed along the lines of a detective novel, Un asesino solitario portrays the life of a hit man hired to murder a presidential candidate during his visit to Culiacán; its title echoes the government statement made about the assassin of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the candidate of the long-dominant PRI, who was killed in Tijuana in 1994. Mendoza not only incorporated “the effect of narco culture in our country,” as Federico Campbell wrote, but with acute auditory sharpness also recovered the slang of the criminals in the zone. 

Though he does so only fleetingly, Mendoza includes the world of organized crime in his novel, an approach quickly taken up by scores of writers. Notable among these is the Spaniard Arturo Pérez-Reverte, author of bestselling literary thrillers and adventure novels. Pérez-Reverte transformed the female boss of the Sinaloa narcos into the protagonist of his La reina del sur (The Queen of the South, 2002), itself transformed into a successful telenovela. As the Colombian author Jorge Franco had done earlier in his Rosario Tijeras (1999), Pérez-Reverte introduced a fascinating female character into territory previously reserved for men: she is Teresa Mendoza, and her name pays homage to Élmer Mendoza, who had been Pérez-Reverte’s guide in his travels through the narco world of Sinaloa.

During the last ten years, narconovelas have flooded the bookstores, sparking interest among Mexican readers and foreign critics in a new strain of Latin American exoticism and displacing magic realism as the region’s characteristic genre. In these books, Mexico is portrayed as a violent, uncontrollable and fantastic world in contrast to the West, which consumes drugs without suffering or being scarred by the violence of the trade.

A few examples: in El vuelo (The Flight, 2008), Sergio González Rodríguez combines the detective novel with the supernatural; in A wevo, padrino (Hell Yes, Godfather, 2008), Mario González Suárez transcribes the delirious interior monologue of a thug immersed in the narco world; in Al otro lado (On the Other Side, 2008), Heriberto Yépez turns to science fiction to describe living conditions along the border, with its myriad cholos, “immigrants,” narcos and hit men; in Conducir un tráiler (Driving a Trailer, 2008), Rogelio Guedea delves into a northern Mexico devastated by drug trafficking by means of a story of family revenge; in Malasuerte en Tijuana (Bad Luck in Tijuana, 2009), Hilario Peña uses a Sinaloa detective to dramatize the dangers of life on the border; and in Tijuana: crimen y olvido (Tijuana: Crime and Oblivion, 2010), Luis Humberto Croswaithe turns to the “nonfiction novel” to denounce the murder of two journalists.

These and other books created a world that transcended stereotypes and became a paradigm repeated incessantly in novels, TV serials and films: a universe dominated by danger, death and the unforeseeable, a world of pathetic heroes and villains increasingly hard to tell apart—poor adolescents who become professional killers; beautiful young girls used as a medium of exchange; gunmen killing one another for no reason other than to fill an existential void; clumsy, ill-paid cops, almost always corrupt; and, of course, a few narco bosses transformed into multimillionaires, notable for their outsize eccentricities. These were new romances of chivalry in which no one knows what he’s fighting for; where, as the corrido says, “life is worth nothing”; where acts of heroism are extreme and rare; and where staying alive past 30 is a kind of victory.

The keenest paradox is that the most ambitious and well-crafted narco novel, the one that controls and unifies all these elements instead of being their creature, was written not by a Mexican but by an American, Don Winslow, who in The Power of the Dog (2005) skillfully re-creates the turbulent decade of the 1980s in Mexico in a kind of roman à clef (anyone familiar with the history of drug trafficking in Mexico knows the real names behind the fictitious characters). Winslow focuses on the reign of the Arellano Félix brothers and the murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki" Camarena Salazar in 1985 at the hands of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo and Ernesto Fonseca Carillo.

Some excellent narco novels attempt to depart from the detective format. Cocaína (Manual de usuario) (Cocaine [A User’s Manual], 2006), by Julián Herbert, is an intelligent collection of stories that takes up the drug theme from the perspective of addiction; Los minutos negros (The Black Minutes, 2006), by Martín Solares, uses black humor to depict crime and police corruption in Tampico; and Trabajos del reino (Kingdom Cons, 2004), by Yuri Herrera, and Down the Rabbit Hole (2011), by Juan Pablo Villalobos, are the most eccentric—and applauded—visions of narco culture in Mexico.

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