Dispatches from the Front: On Narconovelas
“Mexico 2010: Nothing to Celebrate.” This was the impish publicity slogan for the film El Infierno (Hell), Luis Estrada’s ferocious satire of Calderón’s “war on drugs.” In 2010, as part of the commemoration of the bicentennial of Mexico’s War of Independence, the government decided to finance films that would depict and perhaps demystify national heroes. Estrada was among the directors who received funding, but he quickly ditched the program to satirize Calderón’s narco strategy. It was both surprising and praiseworthy that a movie financed with public funds could be so critical of official policy and remain uncensored. El Infierno opened in 300 theaters two weeks before the bicentenary celebrations and was enormously popular.
El Infierno focuses on the figure of Benjamín García, “El Benny,” an undocumented Mexican deported from the United States, who returns to his hometown in northern Mexico and tries to settle back into his old way of life. He realizes that not only his hometown but also the entire nation is in the hands of the narcos, who control the politicians and the police. While at first he tries to avoid joining any criminal group, El Benny has no other choice but to become a sicario. The heavy-handed irony, bloody gags and digressions into infinite atrocious anecdotes pilfered from the news—the decapitations and the bodies dissolved in acid by El Pozolero (the Stew Chef)—make El Infierno difficult to digest, but the film’s ability to arouse public indignation has not been equaled by any contemporary film or literary work.
That same acid bath of humor is drawn by Juan Pablo Villalobos in Fiesta en la madriguera, named one of the best first novels of 2011 by The Guardian. The first volume of a projected trilogy about contemporary Mexico, continued in the much more ambitious and deftly crafted Si viviéramos en un lugar normal (If We Lived in a Normal Place, 2012), Fiesta en la madriguera is written in the humoristic vein of Mexican literature and calls to mind authors like Jorge Ibargüengoitia, Carlos Monsiváis and Juan Villoro. Its basic idea is as brilliant as it is risky: a child narrates the family life of a cartel boss. Curious and impertinent, obsessed with samurai and hats, the child, Tochtli, reveals slowly but surely the bloody, implacable world of his father, Yolcaut, as he describes with an explosive mix of innocence and cynicism his bizarre daily life surrounded by drug traffickers. The characters’ names—like Tochtli, which means “rabbit,” or Yolcaut, which means “rattlesnake”—are Nahuatl in origin.
Few literary undertakings are as perilous as the creation of a child’s voice. In their desire to reveal a logic and an imagination lost to adults, a world of wonder, many writers succumb to the temptation of making their child protagonist too naïve and elemental, or too wise and adult. In Fiesta en la madriguera, Villalobos uses a dry, precise voice, avoiding lyrical turns of phrase and employing a breathless, intricate syntax to present the child’s anxiety-ridden perspective:
I think we really are a very good gang. I have proof. Gangs are all about solidarity. So solidarity means that, because I like hats, Yolcaut buys me hats, lots of hats, so many that I have a collection of hats from all over the world and from all the different periods of the world.
Through sentence inversion, eccentric word use and the evocation of an alternative moral reality, Villalobos is able to represent the mind of a particularly self-aware child who finds himself at odds with the rules of his monstrous family. Even so, Villalobos does not dig deeply into the strange consciousness of his character. Instead, he leans on a few gags, their only purpose being to reveal the twisted behavior of Tochtli’s father:
The other day a man I didn’t know came to our palace and Yolcaut wanted to know if I was macho or not. The man’s face was covered in blood and, the truth is, I was a bit scared when I saw him. But I didn’t say anything, because being macho means you’re not scared and if you are scared you’re a faggot.
But Villalobos doesn’t make the most of Tochtli: he has not added anything new to what is already known about the narcos from the newspapers and television—once again, they are sadistic and eccentric—nor has he offered an especially moving portrayal of an innocent’s perception of horror.
Even the novel’s central episode is marred by these defects. Tochtli speaks of owning a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia, a detail obviously inspired by the hippos that the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar kept in his private zoo. (Escobar’s hippos appear in another narco novel, the very powerful El ruido de las cosas al caer [The Sound of Things Falling], by the Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez.) In the episode, as ridiculous as it is atrocious, Tochtli’s life has been deformed by the eccentricities of the drug trade—namely, being the son of a Mexican narco who will do anything to keep him happy. But the episode reveals what we already understand, and no more: Yolcaut’s obvious coarseness and Tochtli’s outsize desires. For all its excessive cleverness, Fiesta en la madriguera does not transcend clichés about the narcos. If anything, it ends up making them worse.
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