Pulp Fiction as Speculative Sociology: On Hernán Vanoli

By Juan Caballero

I have always been drawn to literature driven by overt or covert sociological inquiries, fictions constructed to understand on various individual or collective levels those vexing questions of cultural or political history that social scientists spend their careers measuring, theorizing, and debating.  It should perhaps not have come as a surprise to me, after reading Hernán Vanoli’s work and looking up the author’s credentials and trajectory, that he is, in fact, a professional social scientist, whose participation in the independent literary scene of Buenos Aires is simultaneously practical and theoretical:  he wrote a dissertation in the prestigious sociology department of Argentina’s major public university on the economic and cultural hierarchies of independent literature, while still finding the time along the way to be an important prose stylist and critic.  He often critiques contemporary Argentine literature as engaging only superficially with the real political issues of our neoliberal era worldwide: specifically, I’m referring to the growing (and increasingly militarized) gulf between the middle and upper classes and the “surplus populations” that live in “villas” (shantytowns), populations whose changing lifeways and institutions are not being watched closely enough by academics, by policy makers, or by the cultural trendsetters.

This is, I think, the sociological inquiry driving Vanoli’s satirical and eccentric pulp-fiction novel, Las mellizas del bardo (The Rumble Twins).  How is the “favela-ization” of Argentina’s underclasses (and increasingly, of all the world’s “surplus populations”) creating new forms of violence and allegiance, new religions, new social worlds?  In what direction are these self-governed “villas” headed, and how could outsiders justly intervene?  This is a major question in contemporary Latin American political thought and social science, one which has yielded in Argentina a school of literature that Argentine critic Paola Cortes-Rocca has dubbed literature villera.  Following the lead of satirical works like Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s lamentably as-yet-untranslated La virgin cabeza (2009), Vanoli uses satire and camp to bring the reader in and suspend those judgments and prejudices that keep the criminalized villa-dweller shrouded in mystery.

What I find most interesting in Vanoli’s work, however, is that it disarms the reader by assembling a staggering pastiche of pulp-fiction tropes and genres that are all deceptively silly and seemingly unrelated: the crime-fiction heist-cum-road trip, the landscapes of dystopic sci-fi, female biker-exploitation, the cyberpunk fixation on cyborg black markets.  The common denominator in all of these wide-ranging generic sources is, upon closer analysis, the same sociological inquiry I mentioned before: the long history of middle-class imaginations, and simulations of a desperate culture of outsiders, a variously cartoonish or sensitive depiction of the culture (and the economics) of the streets.  There is a long tradition in Argentina and elsewhere of using mass culture as an access-point for imagining a life beyond that which the writers and readers of literary fiction are presumed to share—and with each generation, this operation seems to come more naturally, and to grow in complexity and reach.

What’s more, the style of this naturalistic work also seeks to disarm through its exceedingly casual tone, its gallows humor, its slack,  Generation-Y idiolect, and its conversational way of offhandedly alluding to the midnight-screening landmarks of trash cinema.  Its greatest strength for an Argentine reader was, however, my greatest difficulty as a translator: having always erred on the side of loyalty over naturalism, I had to really strain for an English tone as laconically unimpressed and as “chill.”  Making a few short excerpts read as a cohesive series of vignettes took far less revision than approximating that stony and welcoming prose.

The new title highlights one aspect of the novel’s backstory that might not be as salient to a non-Argentine reader, which is that Lionel Messi (like Diego Maradona before him) is the object of a kind of hero-worship that quite literally crosses over into folk religion.  Team-loyalty and clubs of super-fans are, over time, proving increasingly volatile.  This is largely because they are so central to the lives of people whose economic underpinnings are themselves becoming increasingly precarious and violent.  It takes a committed and trained sociologist to see (and to show, and to teach) the ways in which soccer and its hooligan gangs can function as an institution in the largely institution-bereft life of the villa, alongside the drug industry, the Catholic and evangelical-protestant churches, and the vote-buying apparatuses of the major parties.  Imagining a future in which soccer has eclipsed these other institutions is a stroke of genius, but also a crucial commentary on the present and our blindness to it.  If it is this hard for even an Argentine literary audience to see and understand the culture of the underclasses all around it, how can it be made visible and intelligible, much less to a global readership?  These are the questions that I think this kind of writing, when executed properly, can open up, and that make it a thought-provoking, if difficultly–contextualized, contribution to Words without Borders.


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