View this article in Spanish | bilingual

The History of the Present: Sergio González Rodríguez on the Mexican Literary World and the Drug War

Carmen Boullosa: When I approached you for this interview you said you were convinced that the situation in Mexico should not be read as a conflict between “good” and “evil”—criminals attacking innocent people—but rather within an altogether different frame of reference.

Sergio González Rodríguez: Yes, the situation in Mexico today adds up to much more than some filmlike scenario with good guys and bad guys. There’s malice in it, of course, but there’s much else besides. The Mexican literary world is going through a crisis as it tries to face the history of the present. The conditions for the crisis were already there, but they had to take second place to the cosmopolitan gift that is the supermarket of the global economy. Suddenly, something terrible revealed itself—I’ve called it “the crack.” Writers resorted to the daily use of words that we thought were a long way behind us: blood, lead, war, police, army, murder victims, death, danger, harm, terror, silence.

Any deep upheaval will involve a traumatic episode. And it will be marked by a period of mourning, which in this case is typified by two major characteristics: certainty in the face of lost illusions, and the struggle to assimilate an undesirable reality. It’s worth remembering that a period of mourning generally consists of five phases: disbelief, denial, depression, blame, and resignation. Faced with the present reality, Mexican literature is only just hovering between the first two stages, between disbelief and denial. At the most, it has reached the threshold of depression (as in the example of the writer Javier Sicilia, who has decided on poetical silence as a reaction to the murder of his son). Most of the more important books that treat the themes of violence, murder, or crime in Mexico are, at best, works of fiction that have a parodying or distanced outlook and use the rhetoric of parables. They use humor to put a skeptical, evasive distance between themselves and reality. They carry none of the sense of the tragic that Martín Luis Guzmán, for instance, put into his works.

C.B. And has Mexican poetry chosen to go down that same road?

S.G.R. I don’t think so, because there are some valuable exceptions: Mexican poetry has remained more open to the contradictions of the present, to the idea of survival and to a sense of the tragic. I’m not for a moment talking about using poetic language to sanctify the crisis I mention above— quite the opposite. In formal terms, you’ll find the best alternative to parody and silence in the poets who treat explicit or hidden violence with a renewed, potent, and lucid language: Féli Dávalos in Morir mejor; Juan Carlos Bautista in El horroroso Caso; Balam Rodrigo in Bitácora del árbol nómada; or Claudina Domingo in Tránsito. These are young poets who have grown up and lived under a shrinking arc: the Mexican involution. And each one of them portrays it in his or her own way.

C.B. Has the violence of recent years had a formal impact on Mexican poetry and fiction? Let’s leave thematic questions to one side, and focus on form.

S.G.R. Violence is an established theme for writers and readers. Journalism cultivates it and academia offers its usual careful attentions. But the poets I mention display a formal determination that starts with their awareness—and simultaneous rejection—of inherited values. Searching out the sacred, universal vocabulary of a humanist perspective is the last thing they are doing. Nor are they playing around with the by-products of some broken-down metalanguage, a plagiarized-re-appropriated-pastiche; and nor are they resorting to claiming inspiration from some contemporary street muse. What they carry in their work is a maturity in exploring the resonances of the past, in order to breathe into them a new life that is complex and oblique; the reverse of the inertia we have become used to. It’s a critical, diversified ultravanguardism that springs from a very free versification and some astonishing neologisms. They don’t rely solely on imagery, nor just on metaphor or experiments with narrative, but on a combination of all of those, with many other elements besides. Their work emanates from a core where the boundaries between prose and poetry, between poetic prose and prose poems, are blurred. They keep building and rebuilding, taking full advantage of the radical plasticity of writing.

C.B. Do you think the country’s collective imagination itself has changed?

S.G.R. Faced with the violence of the day, and with reality in general, the new poets, as well as some other writers, have developed what I would call a bifurcated imagination: it no longer relies on the old tricks; or at least not only on them, but on a redevelopment of them. We mustn’t forget that in recent years the world has undergone a technical revolution in daily life: the humanist model, which focused on the book as the very credo and practice of civilization, education and communication, entered its twilight. The new paradigm of information technology and the Internet has transformed our reality—and, of course, our imaginations. The new generation of writers, and especially the poets I’ve mentioned, are taking part in that dynamic conflict between inertia and their new perspectives; perspectives that are ambiguous, skeptical, playful, and forward-looking.

C.B. A few years ago you published The Headless Man. What sort of relationship do you have with the book now, given the crisis we find ourselves mired in? Would you stand by what you wrote now, reaffirm it? Or rather change and rewrite it?

S.G.R. For better or worse, I was given a thankless role with that book, as I was with a previous one, Bones in the Desert. I had to play Cassandra, the mythical figure Apollo condemned to be an infallible prophet whom nobody would believe. My books predicted, well ahead of time, the tragedy the country is now living through. And many thought I was exaggerating. If only I’d been wrong. What I wanted to do with my books was raise to literary status a situation which others saw—and still see—as a featureless, blood-colored scene. I was interested in writing the history of a difficult present, complete with all its origins and complexities. A dark impulse drew me on, unfortunately; and time has proved me right.

C.B. The narrative put about by the president is that there is a fight on against evil (against crime) and that the dead are victims of that “war”—a word that he has previously bandied about but retracted a number of times. Are there authors who have incorporated this vision into their fiction?

S.G.R. At present, that vision that declares a “war” on drug trafficking—as though it were a question of personal triumph at the expense of other people’s lives and with no measure of responsibility—is keeping its distance from literature. I suppose more time will have to pass before someone dares to take up that position again and turn it into a worthwhile narrative. Personally, I think there are more interesting ideas to explore. I’ll mention one: the irresponsibility of the ruling classes in the face of their own decadence. Jorge Ibargüengoitia, who was never a comic novelist, as some tend to think, would have found a way of meeting that challenge. It will take many years for Mexico to recover the rule of law. The lesson for Mexican literature in all this is one that is always hard to apply: imagination arises from chaos. We will have to wait and see if our authors were up to the task of the current situation. That’s a battle that most of them, for now, are losing.

© Carmen Boullosa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2011 by Ollie Brock. All rights reserved.