Tragic realism: the rise of Mexican narcoliterature

Fact meets fiction. Ian S

Crime fiction has become a truly global genre. Books based in Reykjavik, Oslo, or Barcelona now vie with home-grown works set in more recognisable, down-at-heel locations like Manchester or Northampton. European writers like Henning Mankel and Stieg Larsson have become household names, while other crime writers like Jo Nesbo have strong English-language followings. In this increasingly international market, could Mexican crime fiction – often dubbed “narcoliterature” - be the next big thing?

Mexican novelists have started to embrace and play with crime fiction’s conventions. And slowly English-speaking readers are coming round. Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s Héctor Belascoarán Shayne mysteries remain popular, while Martin Solares’s The Black Minutes, and Juan Pablo Villalobos’s tale of a hippo-fixated narco-baron’s son, Down the Rabbit Hole, have gained considerable critical acclaim. This year will see the return of the Hay Festival to the Mexican city of Xalapa.

Scholars from across the disciplines are starting to take note. A combination of state and narco repression have made directly studying the war on drugs virtually impossible, but anthropologists, historians, and literature specialists are starting to look at the broader cultural implications of the violence.

Paul Eiss is looking at the connections between drug killings, the decline of the traditional press, and the growth of social media. Pablo Piccato is tracing the relationship between journalistic and fictional representations of crime and government corruption. And Wil Pansters and I have started to study the long-term ties linking state formation, violence, and cultural manipulation throughout Latin America.

European conventionality

For all European crime fiction’s cynical posturing, it is at heart a comforting, bourgeois, what Taibo has termed “domestic” genre – literature for grumpy old men. The settings are familiar – upscale minimalist flats, smokeless bar-restaurants, and decaying aristocratic pads. The protagonists are all semi-alcoholic white males or emotionally scarred, beddable 40-something women. Institutions are flawed but redeemable, and the law is a broadly equitable device for protecting the vulnerable and punishing the transgressive. Deduction follows a logical pattern of suspicion, rational inquiry, and solution. And narrative form is relentlessly realist. In Europe, detectives are designed to reaffirm our belief that some kind of moral certainty still exists in this fast-moving, late capitalist world.

Without doubt, Mexicans novels do share some of the traditions of orthodox US or European crime fiction. They include their share of shabby, obsessive detectives, deal with recognisable criminal underworlds, and often offer telling critiques of corrupt government institutions.

Mexican innovation

Yet, even the most mainstream works by Taibo or Solares buck standard conventions. They undermine the reader’s faith in rational deduction, and litter gritty realism with the fantastical or the bizarre. In Solares’s The Black Minutes, a young musician-turned-policeman investigates the brutal killings of young girls in a sweaty fictional seaport. At the same time, the renowned Mexican detective, Alfonso Quiroz Cuaron, not only comes up with an infallible equation to solve crimes but also narrates from the grave.

Villalobos and Herrera’s works may exist in the world of drug bosses and violence, but their styles better resemble intense literary experiments. Villalobos’s main character is Tochtli, the precocious son of a paranoid Mexican capo, who recounts the violent world around him with a blend of precision and naivety. By doing so, the drug lord’s macho cultural iconography and even the act of murder appear childish, ridiculous and funny. As Tochtli reminds us,

There are actually lots of ways of making corpses, but the most common ones are with orifices.

But, if Mexican writers mess with crime’s realist conventions, they are far more brutally realistic in terms of their portrayal of the state. In European crime fiction, police, criminals, the state and the underworld may occasionally overlap but they are always conceptually different. Detectives root out corruption and deliver the perpetrators to more respectable institutions. The system is flawed but it works. Detectives are cynical believers.

Not so black and white

In Mexico such certainties do not exist. Here, policemen and lawbreakers are one and the same. Here, the state backs the criminal leaders, and vice versa. And here, the only crime is not murder, drug trafficking, or rape; but dissent. In Élmer Mendoza‘s El amante de Janis Joplin, left-wing guerrillas are rounded up, beaten, water-boarded, and presented to the media as drug traffickers, while the real narcos drive round under police protection. In Taibo’s novels, the private detective is often forced to blow up the police station as well as the criminals’ hideout in order to bring any sort of resolution.

Such sustained pessimism on the all-encompassing bankruptcy of the revolutionary regime has considerable cultural import in Mexico. Democratisation and economic liberalisation have brought disparity and violence. While hollow government rhetoric and an increasingly circumscribed press have struggled to explain the relentless violence, narcoliterature provides some semblance of order to what often seem like pointless and random acts of terror.

Some are more rooted in reality than others. But whether these novels faithfully describe historic events or carefully avoid direct, real world allusions, they offer the reader a framework for comprehending what Wil Pansters terms the “grey zone” where organised crime and state violence now meet.

Such disillusion is also very globally significant: all over the world capitalism and orthodox party politics have ceased to function. If European crime was a literature for the decline of the welfare state, Mexican “narcoliterature” perhaps better represents the emerging neoliberal world of political impotence, state-criminal collusion, and staggering inequality.