Comrades, Marco Antonio Flores (trans. Leona Nickless). Aflame Books. 300pp, $16.95.
In 1976, the Guatemalan writer Marco Antonio Flores published his first novel, Los Compañeros. The book was a feverish, kaleidoscopic communiqué from inside the revolutionary armed struggle of his country, a movement in which he had been a devoted participant only a few years earlier. The publication of Los Compañeros caused a furor, but not for its depiction of the ruling military-oligarchy as repressive and sadistic. Rather, the group to launch the most vitriol Flores’ way was the revolution itself, which felt betrayed by the disillusioned writer’s raw, critical, unromantic account of life inside the insurgency. The interlocking stories in the novel boast abundant sex with prostitutes, numerous boozy benders, and corruption both organizational and spiritual. As such, Los Compañeros is stormy fun, yet a deep melancholy infuses the lives of the characters, who sense—correctly, as horrendous massacres of indigenous communities would reveal—that the worst has yet to come.
The last thing the novel could be called is propaganda. This, perhaps, explains Los Compañeros’ lasting appeal in Central America. At a time when the border between politics and art was compromisingly porous, Flores eschewed rhetoric for a frank representation of the human experience, even if this choice alienated him from the side whose goals most closely resembled his own. Now, over thirty years after its initial publication, Los Compañeros is finally available in English.
In Guatemala, the impact of Comrades (as it is titled in English) reached beyond the realm of the political, readying the literary landscape for a sea change. The novel is structured around four friends and one lover—Boozer, Skinny Dog, Rat, the Lad, and Tatiana—whose lives are irrevocably altered by the civil war. Skinny Dog, for example, defects from la guerrilla to live a miserable exile in Mexico, while the Lad remains faithful to the movement and pays the ultimate price, though not before the reader is given a harrowing, hallucinatory account of his torture by the military. But instead of tiling these stories together into a neat mosaic, as might seem natural, Flores opts for fragmentation, tossing each subsequent chapter into a time and place that rarely bears a direct relation on the one before it. It’s as though the reader is discouraged from fitting the pieces together in favor of surrendering to the act of shattering. In adopting such an approach, Comrades broke with conventional modes of storytelling and ushered in the Nueva Novela Guatemalteca, the New Guatemalan Novel, an experimentalism grown out of circumstances particular to the country but with outside antecedents. (Boozer, a gloomy poet, makes explicit reference to Joyce’s Ulysses.)
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that an almost violent fluidity marks the narrative style of the novel. Paragraphs sans punctuation often go on for a dozen pages, with stream-of-consciousness passages toggling between multiple characters and first- and third-person within a matter of lines. Driven by this surround-sound chaos, the novel gives the reader the feeling of having entered a crowded, drunken party that has been going on for days, if not weeks. If this sounds like an overwhelming reading experience, well, that’s because it is. But Flores’ trick is to reveal the impossibility of each of his characters’ distinctive situations and show you why they’re worth caring for.
Flores stimulates this compassion in the reader by his attentiveness to the minute details of his characters’ lives. Take, for example, Skinny Dog’s scattered thoughts on a ride through Guatemala City, the way his encyclopedic observations unfold, culminating in unexpected poignancy:
The Nestlé Co. building next to the Shell station and opposite the Oasis: a hairdressers with an advert for Andrew Liver Salts on the side wall, perfect for drunks. Opposite INVI: the National Housing Institute: El Sótano nightclub: great government scam: housing for the poor (fairy tales). Underneath it, El Sótano nightclub: boneyard: trap for the dimwitted. That’s where, a few nights ago, I had the last meeting with the rep for my Section . . . Always on the run . . . I can’t have a girlfriend or love anybody because I can’t let anyone get close to me.
Flores is equally deft when writing from a child’s perspective. Here he is channeling the confused albeit clear-eyed perspective of Boozer as a boy: “Why is she laughing now? I don’t understand big people. When they should be serious, they laugh, and when they ought to laugh, then they cry . . . I don’t understand anything.” Moments like these—of stark, affecting simplicity—are the soul, if not the body, of this novel.
Alongside the fragmented structure of the narrative, the language of Comrades’ is the book’s most striking feature. It is wildly elastic, outrageously punning, and fruitfully vulgar. It’s hard not to enjoy a writer who sees an opportunity in the conjunction of the words semen and semolina. This irreverently crude sensibility is present throughout, as when Boozer establishes himself as a kind of Portnoy of the neo-tropics: “Bitterloneliness, solitude, full of stylized masturbations: with banana leaves, with soap, with the toilet roll, with my aunt’s face cream, with her panties.” Comrades is rich with slang, and one can only imagine the level of work the novel entailed for its translator, Leona Nickless, a British academic who is perhaps the English-speaking world’s foremost specialist in Guatemalan literature. Her translation is highly commendable, especially when considering Flores’ relentless fondness for neologisms and portmanteaus. At times the prose may sound jarring to American readers since, after all, Nickless took Guatemalan slang and found equivalents in the English of her side of the Atlantic instead of ours. But, oddly enough and wholly unintended, for an American reader the Englishness lends just the right amount of exoticness to the prose to remind you what you’re reading is from a different time, place, and culture, where people have a different way of expressing themselves. There’s something irresistible about the phrase, “It’s the sodding Cubans who are to blame for the cockup.”
Behind the gleeful mischief of Flores’ experiments with language, and his rejection of “literary” prose, lies a sober desire for emotional, even spiritual, exploration. A recurrent theme in Comrades is the inadequacy of words in capturing the continual upheaval of life in Guatemala. How, for example, in the case of Boozer and Tatiana, do you talk about love in any sort of coherent way when its guaranteed to be taken away from you? And what are the moral dimensions of language when, like the Lad, you are being tortured to reveal information which will cost others their lives? By engaging these questions in an unconventional vocabulary Comrades was its own kind of revolution, changing the tone of the literary conversation in Guatemala. It reflected the struggles of its characters better than any other approach could’ve, satisfying their need to reframe the dialogue about being alive during that critical moment. Amidst the polyphonic frenzy of the character’s voices, this dialogue occasionally results in breathtaking bursts of poetry, as when Skinny Dog, trapped in “the melancholy folklore of exile,” as Roberto Bolaño once described it, searches for a way to understand what it means to be Guatemalan:
There were three volcanoes, Agua, Fuego, and Pacaya. Perhaps that is where the cities of Xibalbá had lain. We have always been this way, deep down, we are a nation of catacombs and tracks entwined beneath the earth, each of us keeps an Indian squatting hidden deep within his breast. The lava that flowed down from the volcanoes did not burn me. For years the volcanoes had been consuming their lava and there at the bottom was I with my little Indian who had now sprung forth from my breast and was squatting beside me. There was nowhere to flee to and we were always fleeing.
Aaron Shulman has an MFA in fiction from the University of Montana. He is currently in Guatemala on a Fulbright, writing, doing research, and teaching. He has a short story forthcoming in the spring issue of The Literary Review.
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