“It used to be simple to talk about Latin American fiction,” Daniel Galera writes in his introduction to McSweeney’s 46, the latest issue of the San Francisco quarterly. “One would mention magical realism, slums and urban violence, the struggle against dictatorships, pre-Columbian cultures, the colonial legacy; the color, sensual frenzy above the Tropic of Capricorn and the cold, existential gloom below it; Borges, Cortázar, Rulfo, García Marquez, Rosa, Llosa. And more recently, one could try to sum things up with Bolaño. It would all feel relatively straightforward.”
These days, however, Galera continues, “it’s not so simple anymore.” And in the new McSweeney’s, which he’s guest-edited, he stakes out the terms. Featuring 13 pieces of Latin American crime fiction, the issue is both a primer and a celebration, an attempt to rewire our sensibilities. As to why crime fiction — why not? If we’re talking about blurring boundaries, where better to begin than with the one between genre and literary?
Indeed, the best thing about McSweeney’s 46 is that the work it gathers runs the gamut, from realism to surrealism to hyperrealism and beyond. In “The Face,” by the Peruvian writer Santiago Roncagliolo, a popular singer is found murdered, although we soon learn that she has been using her tours as a front to distribute drugs. Brazilian Bernardo Carvalho’s “Jealousy” unfolds as a single extended paragraph — 11 pages — in which a government official, the Secretary of Public Safety, peppers a crime boss with questions; eventually, we realize that his inquiry is rhetorical, that he cares for no one but himself.
Such a story is about crime in only the most vestigial sense (that is, that it involves the interrogation of a criminal), but this, of course, is part of the point. The most resonant crime writing, after all, is that which uses the form as a way of asking bigger questions, looking for connection, as all effective fiction must.
One of the pleasures of the issue is that, other than Juan Pablo Villalobos, these writers are new to me. Even more, it’s the work itself, which takes us from Cuba to Mexico to Argentina, and contains some unexpected echoes, reflecting what Galera characterizes as “the so-called ‘anxiety of influence’: when everything is available as a reference and pretty much everything has already been made, unmade, and remade.”
This is rendered most explicitly in Jorge Enrique Lage’s “Bitches,” which involves a Havana transsexual called Amy Winehouse, and Rodrigo Hasbún’s “So Much Water So Far From Home,” which references Raymond Carver in its title, if not exactly in the movement of its narrative.
Still, the best story here may also be the most straightforward: Mariana Enriquez’s “The Dirty Kid,” in which a graphic designer, living in a down-at-the-heels Buenos Aires neighborhood, gets involved with a 5-year-old boy living on the streets, only to discover her own complicity, her own guilt and obligation, when he disappears.
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