Discussed in this essay:
El Testigo, Juan Villoro. Anagrama. 470pp.
El Testigo (“The Witness”) hasn’t yet been fully translated into English, but Chris Andrews has been kind enough to share with us his translation of chapter three. It can be read here.
Allow me to scrimp on setup. A short excerpt from the book flap will orient you through these notes: “Julio Valdivieso, a Mexican intellectual who emigrated to Europe, returns to his country after a long absence. The PRI has finally lost the elections and a peculiar period of transition begins.”
Time proceeds at two speeds for Julio Valdivieso. The past overflows his present at a contemplative speed, a speed that allows for extended metaphors, nuanced conjectures, literary allusions, and an associative style of narration that can, for instance, start us with the embarrassed smile of Nieves, his cousin and first love, and then effortlessly transition into (i) a gypsy squirting breast milk at his wife Paola in Rome, (ii) his outings to a porn cinema in Leuven, (iii) a stanza from Ramon Lopez Velarde, (iv) Amphitrion’s visit to Tiresias, (v) a meditation on the principle of uncomfortableness in pornographic films, (vi) a playful masochistic refrain of Nieves, and (vii) the awkward smile of Julio’s favorite porn actress as sperm lands on her eyelid. Meanwhile, in the present, everyone in Mexico is trying to enlist Julio to their frantic plotlines. Julio resists these advances, although they will become unavoidable midway through the novel, in part because they explore so many unavoidable aspects of Mexican life, including the omnipresence of the drug cartels and the agonies of Catholicism, as well as more historical aspects like a Christian uprising against the revolution and Mexico’s national poet. The scope of El Testigo
is tremendous. It isn’t surprising that Alvaro Enrigue at Letras Libres
has called it The Great Mexican Novel
The past for Julio is mainly Nieves, his dead cousin, for whom he still rhapsodizes, mostly because in their youth she didn’t run away with him. “He would never do something as definite as not being with her,” Julio still thinks, although he knows his obsession with her is “his talisman out of his monotony.” In other words, he would probably be a passive nostalgic regardless. One childhood memory of his comes to mind: “Sometime he dreamt that the good thief descended from the cross and approached his bed to return him a fire truck he’d taken in another dream.” 1
The past for Julio is also Los Cominos, the family hacienda in the desert, somewhere in central Mexico. It is where his uncle Donasiano, a hobbyist of local history, has amassed boxes of documents about the region, including letters and photographs from the Cristero War, a 1920s uprising against the anticlerical provisions of the Mexican revolution that was centered in Guadalajara and plays a crucial role in El Testigo. Donasiano, incidentally, is one of the many characters in this book who stand out through sharp (and often funny) dialogue. A Donasiano sample: “The great religions could only have been invented in the desert or a crazy mountain. . . . Inventions of people who only speak by chance; the first miracle of religion is to run into someone in the desert. If you’re born in an empty place, your head fills up differently. The afterworld was invented by a shepherd who lost a sheep in the desert.” There’s also Ramon Centollo, a homeless poet who leaves mock-poetic messages, dipped in allusions and street slang, on answering machines across Mexico City:
This one is for Paola of the Ponte Vecchio, from Ramon, of the Over Pass. I live with my dogs in a viaduct. My nails are black and my mind’s aflame. If you haven’t read me you haven’t screwed. Don’t ask Julio for my poetry because nobody publishes me, or only the answering machines do. We’re milk brothers! Old data, my queen, things that no longer offend, archaeology, memory of the species. A blink and ten civilizations fall. My apologies, I divagate . . . , that’s what they call me, Doctor Divago. . . . I already told [Julio] to beware, but he pays me no mind, that’s why I reach out to you, Beatriz, Laura, Diatoma, Fuensanta, Ines of my soul, light that creates the sun above, little ventripotent snake.
Centollo is the one friend who warns Julio that he’s in danger, to no avail. Julio’s too steeped in his memories of Nieves and will continue to be until more than halfway through the novel. By then Centollo has already been stabbed to death, and Julio, still enraptured by Nieves, will make a mistake that leads to him being detained, beaten, and assaulted by a gang of children:
His body was voraciously searched by the children. The soft contact of those hands hurt him infinitely. . . . They took off his clothes amidst laughter and insults they were hurling at each other affectionately. . . . A boy with messy hair placed something sharp on his throat, broken glass, perhaps. Julio did not move. They placed a paper bag on his head. They don’t want to see my face when they open me with the glass.
Let’s return to Los Cominos, where we were about to encounter the Cristero War. Martyrdom, gore, suffering for God, soldiers of Christ so at ease with death that they fall asleep at their hanging—these are the foundations of Catholic folklore. A discreet postmodernist, Villoro knows that handling this material is tricky. He has written against what he calls “the fundamentalism of folklore,” a way of engaging readers solely by highlighting the quirks of the natives. In El Testigo he even makes an ironic reference to The Sins of Father Amaro, a movie that’s a master class on how to turn Catholic folklore into kitsch. Thankfully, Villoro sidesteps the pitfalls of narrating this stuff by filtering it through Julio’s associative, metaphorical, skeptical, literary consciousness. Add to it a pinch of childhood sopped in bloody crucifixes, a dash of cocaine and a whole lot of malaise, and you can perhaps imagine how we’re seeing this folklore. Which isn’t how others in the novel get to see it:
Every time he talked about Los Cominos, [Paola] would put on her Neorealist movie face. Those stories reached her in a melancholic black and white, a precarious world where life was risked to steal a bicycle and saints were poor devils.
Let me walk you through an example in color. Donasiano has driven Julio to a historic site called “the battalion of the winds.” After the desert landscape has been set, Julio sees, below the precipice, “hundreds of stakes from which pale shreds of fabric were flapping. Some of them were disfigured, others retained their inconceivable original form. They were shirts.” At this point we’re still just sightseeing. Then we hear the historical back-story: “The Cristeros threw themselves down the cliff. Their shirts are there, praying. The Battalion arrived here cornered by General Amaro. They had no exit.” The shirts as “prayer” add a gentle touch of local superstitions (Donasiono’s helper is the one who’s talking), but the Julio filter isn’t on yet. Then we enter Julio’s head, which is not trying to imagine holy battle scenes or the saintly splattering of the Cristeros but is exploring the conflicted feelings of General Amaro: “Did [Amaro] feel overcome by the noise of those shirts? Did he experience horror, admiration, something unspeakable upon seeing this fanatical immolation that turned his task useless?”
A brief digression on Roberto Bolaño’s praise of Villoro. In a TV interview Bolaño said that “the literature of Juan Villoro, I think, is a literature that is opening up the path of the new Spanish novel of the millennium.” His praise came after his comments about what the new novel in Spanish shouldn’t be (linear, a repetition of the Boom, easy) and the tendency of Spanish prose toward the florid. Another writer mentioned alongside Villoro is Enrique Vila-Matas, enthusiastically discussed in these pages, and, incidentally, part of the jury that chose El Testigo as the winner of the same Herralde prize that The Savage Detectives and Montano’s Malady won in previous years.
The Cristero War will be kitsch. Friends of Julio are scheming to turn it into a trashy mini-series punningly called For the Love of God, and the television crews will eventually descend on Los Cominos to film it. Throughout the novel, the making of For the Love of God is the springboard for most of the other plotlines and side projects: the canonization of Ramon Lopez Velarde, the blackmail of Julio by Felix “the sarcastic devil” Rubirosa, the one about the writer of bestselling narco thrillers who absconds with Julio’s wife, the role of the cartels in Mexico.
The plotline about the cartels merits a few words, especially because American newspapers and magazines have been recently reporting on its pervasiveness and dangers. Mexico, says one of the producers of For the Love of God, “has only one important geographic division: the cartels.” And “if you scratch and scratch, any money has to do with the narcos.” Perhaps including some of the money to fund For the Love of God. This of course isn’t just about money. The cartels ignite most of the violent episodes of El Testigo. Without ever leaving Julio’s point of view, a barrage of slang changes the register of these violent scenes and moves them along quickly. 2
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that El Testigo adheres strictly to my simple binary structure of time. There is a structural tension between the two time speeds I’ve mentioned, yes, but the past/present isn’t just slow/fast. The present returns to the past to fetch material that it will then speed up. “The past flowed forward and life flowed backward.” Ironically, when the party of the “revolution” finally loses the elections, the present returns to the time before the revolution.
I do want to leave you with Monteverde, an erudite priest who wants to enlist Julio in the canonization of Ramon Lopez Velarde:
[My grandmother] was forty five and two months when the poet asked her to read him Masterpiece. At that age she had given up all hope of conceiving. But she understood what the poet was trying to tell her: she had, inside of her, a negative son.
—And what did she do?
—She gathered the drool of the poet.
—The drool, the sweat, what she could. . . . My grandmother gathered the secretions on this pendant.
—And what did she do with the drool?
—She lathered it on her stomach. A few days later she stopped menstruating.
—She had a son with Lopez Velarde?
—Providence doesn’t work so simply.
Mauro Javier Cardenas’ fiction has been published by the Antioch Review and his book reviews by the San Francisco Chronicle.
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