In the early 1970s, an article by the “anecdotal columnist” Jorge Ibargüengoitia (EE-bar-Gwen-GOy-tee-uh) appeared in a Mexico City newspaper entitled “Homage to James Bond.” Roughly 1,000 words, it opens, “In my educated youth, it always astonished me how badly the brass played in Mexico’s Symphonic Orchestra, conducted by Chavez.”
I pause. I read it again.
“In my educated youth, it always astonished me how badly the brass played in Mexico’s Symphonic Orchestra, conducted by Chavez.” When it was first released, Diamonds are Forever featured a rather less-than-fit Sean Connery donning hair-plugs and a martini that looks as if it is about to actually spill. Yet even then, I wanted to be him. His poise, his sophistication; he mocked opportunities I could only wish to have. So when I see an article with his name in the title, I do not expect to read of Mexican symphonies ruined by some hack musician or two. Where is the mystery? The arch-villains and Bond girls? Where are the random henchmen and clueless, elected officials, and redundant bureaucrats?
I read on.
“In Tchaikovsky’s Fifth . . . there’s a solo played by some metal instrument. It sounded so bad it was hard to restrain oneself from a burst of laughter. The violins, on the other hand, were much better.” What does an homage to James Bond have to do with this?
It’s just this kind of humorous diversion that Ibargüengoitia, a Mexican playwright, journalist, and novelist, uses in nearly all his work to subvert or invert official nationalist rhetoric that had begun in Mexico in the early 1920s. After his untimely death in an airplane crash that killed three other prominent Latin American writers1 in 1983, Ibargüengoitia’s two novels translated into English, Las muertas and Dos crimenes, remained fairly popular in the United States. But in Latin America he had become one of the biggest best-selling authors, surpassing even Carlos Fuentes, Elena Poniatowska, and Tom Wolfe.
However, not much attention is paid to his work, or if it is, only to his crime fiction, which is perceived to be applicable only to his native Mexico, not to an international audience, per se.
In the U.S., Ibargüengoitia’s crime fiction has received some, but not enough, critical attention. His drama2 has received even less. Curiously, he may have wanted it that way because after the performance and subsequent publication of El atentado (1963), perhaps his most famous play, he stopped writing drama altogether.3 His first book after this switch, Los relámpagos de Agosto4 (1964), attempts to debunk Mexican hero myths by ironically exposing the corruption and hypocrisy of revolutionary figures who serve to define la identidad méxicana. The book picks up where El atentado left off, asserting that the Mexican revolution, as horrifying as it was, can also be considered “a laughing matter.” As Ariel Dorfman points out in a 1986 issue of The New York Times.
Until then, the literature dealing with the Mexican revolution had been somber
and solemn—its dominant tone set by the monumental saga of the conflict . . .
History, these works implied, was a serious affair. And then suddenly, for the first
time, a novel appeared proclaiming that this shattering, traumatic event was, with
all due respect, a laughing matter. It had taken the Mexican revolution 55 years to
produce its first satire.
Ibargüengotia’s work, however, does much more than critique Mexican hero- and myth-making. His style offers layers of insight that uncannily apply today. The U.S.’s own “new” origin stories, which are being paraded on Texas ranches by a wanna-be cowboy, on New York City streets by, ironically enough, a former cross-dressing mayor, or on Sacramento’s capital steps by someone who used to be a cybernetic organism, deserve some detecting. Ibargüengoitia’s work’s sardonic sense of humor and self-parody has the ability to force new readers to critique its own doubleness or ambivalent status in the wake of official discourses.
Crime and detective fiction often features a hero or anti-hero who is thrust into a situation that forces him to work both inside and outside of the official discourses that, at least indirectly, threw him into the fray to begin with. Bond, for example, both protects and disobeys Her Majesty’s rules in order to “solve the case.” He has no choice in the matter.
In part, I think it is this ambivalent status that fascinates readers. The ability to move in and out of the discourses that I have no actual control over appeals to me. The ability empowers me. We need this fiction, and the recent exponential explosion of this genre seems to barely satiate a desire for more. Ibargüengoitia’s work, however, remains relatively unknown because he has been pigeon-holed; only Mexicans or students of Mexican history will get it. But this is not the case. However, some context never hurts.
Born in Guanajuato in 1928, Jorge Ibargüengoitia’s formative years took place on the tail-end of the revolution.5 As the roaring twenties began to show signs of fatigue in the United States, Mexico was hoping to see bloody anarchy quelled under new land reforms, headed by what can arguably be considered the country’s first elected president. Education minister José Vasconcelos helped to reduce illiteracy by having Spanish taught in remote areas for the first time, and he supported the arts, especially folk and popular arts.
Such fervor, however, began to echo in Ibargüengoitia’s ears as hollow and homogenizing. The murals of Rivera and Orozco express what Vasconcelos’s book, The Cosmic Race (1925), explicitly enunciates: we can do all things through La Revolucíon. More and more people are speaking the national language and speaking of nationalism, both of which seem to create peace and unity for the country. For Ibargüengoitia, however, the revolution was being taken far too seriously and being given far too much authority to re-enslave the people. He responded with plays that exposed everyday living as part and parcel of a revolutionary solidarity that created feelings of victimization and overt solemnity. Real progress is precluded for him because the past has stagnated the present. Artificial harmony prevents real debate. Tellingly, while Ibargüengoitia wrote, machismo and gender inequality dominated the national consciousness.
In Ibargüengoitia’s works, heroes and common characters alike are depicted through a humor that “entice[s] us into accepting on their own terms the[ir] . . . cold, almost matter-of-fact violence, the morass of their self-deceptions.” His works typically begin with diversions that subvert, and thus reconsider, national and historical allegories being promulgated throughout Mexico. He is after a truer sense of Mexico’s past, and hence, its future. The article “Homage to James Bond” suggests these goals cannot be met without first finding out why those ruidos in the concert hall keep clanking on and on in the first place. And in order to do that, we must understand how the article’s humor functions.
As Ibargüengoitia tells it, the clanking continues because no one wants to play trombone.
In Mexico . . . all want to be (or at least . . . want to have hopes of one day being) concert performers. Because there are more concerts for violins and orchestras than for trombones and orchestras, there are more . . . who study violin than those who study trombone.
Similarly, when I watch a film featuring Bond, who is as cold and distant as he is light-hearted and intimately charming, I do not fantasize about tromboning myself to fame. I desire to have what Bond has. Regardless of the emergence of spin-off Bond characters or any Austin Powers-esque parodies, Bond is more popular than ever. We still are drawn to the mechanical,6 the formulaic, the entertainment that knows what it is doing, while it avoids taking itself too seriously.7 I want to be a performer, like Bond performs.
However, as no one plays the trombone anymore, no Mexican writers, the article bemoans, produce good detective, mystery, and/or spy narratives. Everybody wants to play the violin. Serious music with serious pieces to perform. By extension, serious writing equals serious recognition. So the few thrillers that do get out are “unpracticed” and clang with noise, but, despite this, we still go to the concert. We go because, as Ibargüengoitia attests:
These volumes only affect one part of our minds when we read them and nevertheless, leave the mind completely satisfied . . . the writer of thrillers is constructing something that resembles life and is just a series of interesting situations that happen to an imaginary character, who is everything that most people would want to be and are not.
Throughout the article, Ibargüengoitia’s subtle, sardonic style uses such a multivalent humor that you have no choice but to feel ambivalently toward it. The self-referential irony in this article, for example, sets up a double-edged punchline. First, since there aren’t that many good crime or detective novels out there, I have no choice but to read a bad one, like one of Ibargüengotia’s. We know that this is not the case, however. His work is anything but the noise of an inexperienced writer, or to follow his analogy, an inexperienced trombone player. Second, claiming that the writer of thrillers presents a character haphazardly having things happen to him in an interesting way is certainly true. There is, after all, so much more intrigue in Bond’s universe than in mine. Yet, we realize that Ibargüengoitia’s thrillers do anything but represent merely interesting situations. Thus, it is not merely my desire to be like Bond, despite the gap between us, that attracts me to this genre of fiction. Ibargüengoitia’s work forces its readers to recognize that to actually be a character like Bond is not a fantasy I would, or at least should, really want to have fulfilled in the first place.
For all the accolades we can bestow upon the Bond hero, in the end he is, perhaps necessarily, a ruthless egomaniac who defends nation, capital, and sometimes friends with all the bravado machismo can muster. Perhaps in response, in the newest Bond film the typical power-moves and sexually charged language were given a softer edge. Bond came off as a sensitive, maniacal killer who no longer treats women like objects. Now, he “cares.” He has a heart and is even portrayed as a victim. So, when Bond savagely beats a man to death, since he shows cracks in his armor, his actions are forgiven. The new Bond film explicitly emphasized this “new and improved” quality of our hero by delving into his past. However, like the revolutionary heroes in Mexico, who use manufactured pasts to establish their status as national icons, the new Bond is nothing new. These improvements are only distractions. And so, “Out with the new and in with the old.”
To be and not to be Bond. Ibargüengoitia uses an idea familiar to Latin American writers—being of two contradictory minds—but he uses it differently. “Borges and I,” for example, examines selfhood as a problem of recognition: Which me is really me? In another of Borges’ well-known works. “The Garden of Forking Paths,” the line between reality and fantasy is blurred into the nearly absurd.
Ibargüengoitia always clearly demarcates reality and fantasy. The line is never blurred. And since he has written two mystery/crime novels himself, Dos crimenes and Las muertas, and since such texts, to use his estimation, “are pure pastimes [that do not] reveal . . . any secrets about our existence . . . when we read them,” it is safe to assume his two crime novels do just that: entertain.
Entertainment is never just entertainment, though. I can get sucked in to the fantasy of an action movie, but never for long. I am always aware that I am reading a story, watching a play or film; and even if I am that unaware, I will still have to acknowledge this duality, after all, because I will eventually have to turn off the television, close my book, or leave the theatre, and go to bed.
Ibargüengoitia plays with this phenomenon. His characters enact what Latin American scholar Theda M. Herz identifies as the Bakhtinian carnivalesque. I at once know that I am not Bond and that I am, or at least wish to be, more like him. Such a recognition humorously subverts his aura and forces self-critique. I know what is real and what is not. I wish I did not, though, and must either be motivated to change myself or fall back asleep on the couch.
At the end of “Homage to James Bond,” Ibargüengoitia concludes, “I guess what I’m trying to say is: Why don’t we Mexicans do something like that? Why don’t we write books glorifying our secret service?” Of course, Mexico has no secret service, no C.I.A., no MI-6, no K.G.B.; it has no services for secrets. Herein lies the joke; the only real secret being revealed is our existence and our desires. The intrigue we lack is cause for lament; there are no trombone players anymore.
Machismo, the figure of the pobre diablo, and the “official culture/language of solemnity,” all come under scrutiny in Ibargüengoitia’s work as characteristics that have replaced those Bond qualities we hope to possess. Ibargüengoitia forces readers to face the two selves that coexist. Similarly, his texts embody two selves: entertainment for its own sake and entertainment for an explicit purpose. It is this kind of serious playfulness that makes Ibargüengoitia’s work so unique.
The gift Ibargüengoitia’s work offers us is not escapism for its own sake, even though it pretends to be just that. Through the excitement of international espionage, murder, and detective work we are forced to confront our pasts as we have produced or imagined them. But looking back to where we have been is not so easy. Ibargüengoitia claims in another of his more famous newspaper pieces, “Agatha Christie: An Unlikely Obituary,”8 that when looking into “what happened” in the past, he “see[s] in [its shadow] a forest of unanswered questions.” He exclaims, “I always get wrapped up in the complexity.” As in other Latin American works, the past becomes entangled in fantasy. This is what we want all along, the fantasy that our pasts somehow seem to make more sense than our current lives. That kind of moral high ground or purity is exactly what Ibargüengoitia’s work exposes, and such hierarchies must fail if real change is to occur.
Octavio Paz once said that “while modernization is the only rational and in fact inevitable path for Mexico, it will fundamentally change and displace the moralism that Mexicans have lived with for centuries.” In Ibargüengoitia’s work, this “loss” of moralism is not necessarily such a bad thing after all. Just as modernization doesn’t only bring prosperity and progress, moralism isn’t only about good works and optimism. Losing it means crime without the explanation, the romanticization; I may be murdered with no real motive, no real conspiracy or espionage at work behind the scenes. That means music without any real beat or soul; I may hear an overly produced pop piece made for the explicit purpose of only being bought and sold. That means I may have to go to a concert with only a couple of trombone players working.
So don’t let the name steer you away from picking up one of his books. Say it with me: “EE-bar-Gwen-GOy-tee-uh.” You may just find yourself wondering about some “new” official hero who likes to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, for example, and discover that such a move smacks of a desire to be a Bond hero in real life, but he just can’t seem to pull it off.
Matt Bowman is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Michigan State University. He currently teaches at Samford University.
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