Stories from the Country of the Dead

By Juan Pablo Villalobos

Last year, I was invited to write a story for a Latin American crime fiction anthology.  The idea was to use elements borrowed from murder mysteries and noir to reflect on the reality in our countries.  I liked the sound of the project, accepted the invitation, and then spent the following months preoccupied by a problem I face every time I want to write about Mexican reality: how can you write about a reality that has gone so horrifically far beyond the limits of fiction?

Inspired by an absurd football incident (the goalkeeper from Mexico City's América team scoring a goal during the last minute of overtime in the Mexican championship final), I ended up writing a story in which many different crimes got tangled up together and it was hard to know what was going on.  I wanted the reader to feel the frustration of the Mexican citizen, who hears the day's news, stunned, without being able to make sense of it, and without the authorities being able to explain it or punish the people responsible.  I built the narrative around the idea of a “badly-told story,” and this was made clear in a dialogue between two policemen.  One of them, the chief of police, fabricates a narrative to explain a series of crimes as if he were the author of a murder mystery. The other policeman complains that this account is ridiculous, that no one will believe it, that you have to “put the story together properly.”  Then the police chief says:

“Where do you think you live? (...) This is a country that believed that a mythical eagle warrior killed a candidate for the presidency. We had an attorney general who hired a clairvoyant to find a corpse, remember? They ended up digging up the bones they’d planted themselves! What more do you want? This country’s never liked well-told stories. Isn’t this enough?”

“The country’s changed.”

“Sure it has. It’s changed so much that everything’s the same.” [tr. Rosalind Harvey]

Over the past few months, Mexico has entered a terrible crisis of violence, which is also, in many ways, a crisis about how our reality is being narrated and explained.  And it's mainly because of what happened in two little cities: Tlatlaya and Iguala.

In Tlatlaya, in Mexico State, on June 30th, twenty-two people linked to drug trafficking were killed in a confrontation with the Mexican army.  At least, that was the official version, celebrated by the governor of Mexico State, Eruviel Ávila (who also immediately congratulated the army).  But the official story was told so badly that now, little by little, we are learning that what actually happened was different, that those people weren't killed in a confrontation.  That those people were executed.

In Iguala, in the state of Guerrero, forty-three students from Ayotzinapa disappeared after a confrontation with the police.  Some people say the army is behind it.  Others say it was the criminal organization Guerreros Unidos.  This happened on September 26th, more than a month ago, and no one has heard anything about the students since.  Where are they?  Are they alive?  Have they been killed?  No one knows.  Meanwhile, the search turns up graves filled with bodies which, according to the authorities, are not those of the students.  So just whose bodies are they?

And then the news arrives that a student from the little town where I grew up, Lagos de Moreno, has died.  Ricardo de Jesús Esparza Villegas died early in the morning of Sunday, October 19th, in Guanajuato, soon after, according to his friends, being arrested by the police.  The circumstances surrounding his death are still unclear, but there has nevertheless been time for Ricardo's friends, family, and memory to be defamed by the authorities (another badly told story).

Ricardo, who was twenty-three years old and in the fifth year of an engineering degree, died on a weekend trip to an arts festival called the Cervantino.  I went on the same trip with my friends plenty of times (Lagos de Moreno is an hour away from Guanajuato).  But that was the past, when I was a university student too.  These stories, my stories from over twenty years ago, are becoming more and more difficult for young people in Mexico to experience for themselves.  I vividly remember a road trip I went on in 1999, traveling around the state of Michoacán with four friends.  A trip like that today would be total insanity (Michoacán, along with Tamaulipas, is one of the country's most violent states), and when I tell my nieces and nephews about it, for example, they think I'm lying (my story, in the current context, does not seem possible).

It's a few years now since the story of Mexico stopped being the exotic delight that foreigners love so much.  That story is over; that Mexico has died.  The story of Mexico has become a sad, dark, sordid tale and the Mexican people still don't know what they can do to change it.  It seems  they're beginning to wake up, though, to get out of their houses and organize themselves, because—or so I hope—they can't take any more.  No one believes the official story, and no one wants to accept the cruelty of the truth.  But this very paradox should give us hope: hope for a country that wants to tell its own story, and to learn to tell it right.

"A narrativa do país dos mortos" published November 4, 2014, by Companhia das Letras. © 2014 by Juan Pablo Villalobos. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Annie McDermott. All rights reserved.

Translated from Portuguese by Annie McDermott. Annie McDermott's translations have appeared in magazines and anthologies including Asymptote, Granta, World Literature Today, and Traviesa. She has previously lived in Mexico City and São Paulo, Brazil, and is now based in London.


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