"Breaking away from magical realism ended up creating another stereotype: that of a generation obsessed with mass media, new technologies, and disdainful of politics."
Edmundo Paz-Soldán is one of the leading Bolivian writers of his generation. A widely decorated author and Cornell professor of Spanish literature, he has generally been grouped with the McOndo movement (a sort of repudiation of magical realism), but in truth Paz-Soldán's work is so multifaceted that any single classification disserves him. His books include noir, sci-fi, and a hacker novel, just to name a few, and he has also been a prolific political columnist for various newspapers, including The New York Times.
Paz-Soldán's 2011 novel, Norte, has just been released by the University of Chicago Press in a sterling translation by editor and translator Valerie Miles. It traces three thematically interlocked narratives of Latin Americans who have made the border crossing and, to quote the author, have become "lost in the US." Containing elements of popular pulp fiction, academic satire, metafiction, and psychological realism, it is a riveting book that gives a complex perspective on the borderlands shared by the United States and Mexico.
I was in touch with the author to discuss the origins of the novel, how he imagined the book's most singular creation—a brutal serial murderer—how Roberto Bolaño informed his vision, and what it's like to be a Bolivian writing about the United States.
Scott Esposito Norte deals with three narratives, all based around Latin Americans who have made the crossing into the United States. One is modeled on the schizophrenic, naïve painter Martín Ramírez, one deals with a Latin American literature PhD dropout and the famous professor she is having a tempestuous romance with, and another is based on the so-called Railroad Killer, a Mexican who murdered over a dozen people in the border regions. This third narrative dominates Norte—it has the most fully realized character and is the source of the book's propulsive momentum. How did this story come to dominate?
Edmundo Paz-Soldán The original plan for the novel was very structured, with seven main characters and giving the same [amount of] space to each; the idea was to deal with the Latino immigration to the US from different perspectives. The novel, however, was going nowhere, and I abandoned the project for almost a year. But some of the main characters, especially those whose narratives were connected to the border, were still in my head. So I decided to go back to writing the novel and made the most important structural decision: to not try to be even, to respect the force with which each character showed up in my imagination. So Jesús, the Railroad Killer, came to dominate, and only four characters remained (the Texas Ranger Fernandez was one of the four, but in the last draft I felt that some of his sections were not so powerful, and I shortened his chapters).
SE Jesús is a remarkably powerful character, in part because he's frequently horrifying. He's a very brutal, deranged person, and some of the things he does to his victims are truly awful. How did you feel about depicting these things on the page?
EPS At first, I wanted to end the sections with a "cut" before the actual depiction of violence. Actually, a couple of sections do end like that. But then I realized that if I was dealing with a serial killer, I had to convey the horror and brutality of what he was doing. I could not write a clean book about Jesús. My main concern was that the violence should be narratively justified; I didn't want violence just for the sake of it.
SE You don't present Jesús as inexplicable, or purely evil. You delve into how he became the person he is, and you humanize him—he has positive sides, and he often fights to restrain his urges. How did he develop as you wrote?
EPS The first version of Jesús was much blander; he was a melancholy killer, somebody with guilty feelings about what he was doing. Then I started reading about the nature of psychopaths and realized that true psychopaths usually have no remorse, no feelings of guilt. So Jesús became a different character. I also didn't want to turn him into a caricature, or a stereotype, so my challenge was to show how, from his perspective, everything could have some sort of logical feel to it, [and] could be justified. We need to try to understand aberrations such as Jesús and not dismiss them as "inhuman."
SE Jesús's murders have a very gendered aspect to them: most of the people he kills are women, and sexual violations—pre- or post-mortem—are common. Why does he hate women so much?
EPS He has conflicting issues with his sister. Her rejection of him works in different ways: in order to keep idealizing her, he must at the same time reject and hate all other women. Once he's in the US, this is compounded by the fact that he's rendered invisible by Americans; they don't see him, they ignore him, they reject him. To not be seen by women hurts him more than to not be seen by men: he loses all sexual potency. In his troubled psyche, he decides to take revenge on people who he sees are physically inferior to him: mostly older women. He feels humiliated and wants to feel some power.
SE One of the valuable things about Norte is its outsider's perspective on the United States—I think this is one of the unique things foreign literature can give us. How did you develop your knowledge of the border regions and your opinions on the US in general?
EPS I've lived in the US since 1988, in Alabama, California, Texas, and upstate New York. It took me a while to dare to set my novels in the US because I saw it as an overwhelming enterprise; this is such a huge country, and I didn't know where to start, how to tackle it. I started to think of the US as more of a narrative space after being here for a decade and realizing that a new identity was emerging. I'm very interested in political issues and especially in how these issues affect Latin America and Latinos in the US; however, I try to differentiate between what I think and what my characters think, since I don't want to write novels with a clear, didactic message. I went to El Paso and Ciudad Juárez only when I had a very advanced draft of the novel, more than anything to capture some details that I could later use in descriptions, to lend more verisimilitude to some scenes. An essential fact for me was that when I arrived in Alabama in 1988—I came on a soccer scholarship, to play for the University of Alabama in Hunstville, and got a BA in Political Science—I was living in the dorms and CNN was always on. At the time, CNN was obsessed with a serial killer who was being hunted by the FBI and whose nickname was the Railroad Killer. So you can see that the beginning of my American life and experience is weirdly connected to this novel (even though it took me more than two decades to realize that there could be a novel there at all).
SE The idea of Mexico and America being very different cognitive spaces is a unifying factor: Jesús and Martín both long to be at home in Mexico, but America finds ways to keep pulling them in, and Fabian, the academic, ends up pulled to Mexico. Each becomes lost. Do you think this potential to have one's life wrested away is a danger to border crossings?
EPS Yes, it is. To be honest, most immigrants are able to create a community of feelings and affection in their new homes, but in this novel, I was interested in exploring the life of those immigrants who lose their original community of feelings back home and are not able to build a new one in their adopted country, so they are lost, neither here nor there, suspended between worlds, idealizing what they left behind but at the same time knowing they cannot live there anymore.
SE Norte occurs over a long period of time: the sections with Martín, the painter, occur between the 1930s through the 1950s. Jesus's sections run from the 1980s to the early 2000s. And the academic sections occur almost in the present day. Why did you want to have such a wide time range for the novel?
EPS In the first draft, everything took place in the present (which, at the time of the writing, was around the mid- to late-2000s). However, it wasn't working, because there was a problem of verisimilitude, at least for me: Jesús came and left the country all the time, very easily; he had no issues with the border. But I felt that after September 2001 border controls had tightened, so I couldn't make it too easy for Jesús to move across. I decided then to respect the real chronology of the Railroad Killer and narrate Jesús's sections according to when they originally could have occurred. Once I did that, I felt that I should do the same thing with Martín. As for Michelle, I kept her in the present because I thought she could connect both threads and give some sort of historical perspective. Suddenly I realized that I was covering eighty years.
SE I feel like it's hard these days to talk about femicide in the borderlands without bringing to mind Bolaño, whose fictionalization of the murders in Juárez are by now infamous. And indeed, Norte makes a few references in Bolaño's direction, at one point directly alluding to the unexplained murders in Juárez. How conscious were you of these murders as reference points?
EPS Norte owes a debt to Bolaño—not to 2666, but, curiously, to The Savage Detectives. I remember reading that novel, reading the title of that big section called "Mexicans Lost in Mexico," and thinking: "Latin Americans lost in the US. There is a book right there." So the germ of Norte comes from that novel. As for the murders in Juárez, I knew my story was different because once Jesús starts his killing spree, he makes a point of separating what he does in Mexico from what he does in the US. Juárez is, for him, more a place of respite than a crime scene. I was also focusing on the figure of the serial killer, while 2666 focuses on the description of the mutilated bodies and tries to depersonalize the killings.
SE To remain with Bolaño for a moment, the sections that revolve around Fabian and the ex-PhD student occasionally dip into discussions of Latin American literature: Fabian wants to create a pan-American theory of the continent's literature, and elsewhere you allude to Horacio Castellanos Moya's famous essay, "Bolaño Inc," about the persona created for Bolaño once he became a commodity in the US. I got the impression that Latin Americans were being seen as the creators, while the Americans were the appropriators. What do you think of this relationship?
EPS I think that that relationship is unfair and reductionistic. That is, it can happen sometimes, as I think it happened with the reception of Bolaño, in which the fact that he was seen as a "savage" writer, a kind of late Beat writer, allowed for some arguments that romanticized Latin American writing. So the ex-student is criticizing something he sees in the way Bolaño is introduced to American readers, but I would not generalize this to the whole relationship, which is more complex. At the time of my writing, I was reacting to the way a Bolaño persona was being created to be understood better by the US readers, but afterwards, the cultural operation to introduce to US shores writers such as César Aira, Valeria Luiselli, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and Álvaro Enrigue, has been more diverse, less romantic, less "savage."
SE I agree. That's the danger when one author is made to represent a continent, or a generation. Among those names you mentioned we would also have to add yours, as your work has been emerging in translation throughout the 2000s and 2010s. Critics have identified you with the McOndo school; how do you see yourself fitting in among the Latin American authors currently being translated?
EPS There are so many authors being translated now, from writers of previous generations—Antonio di Benedetto, Silvina Ocampo, Emma Reyes—to established writers from the new generations—Lina Meruane, Yuri Herrera—and young newcomers—Daniel Saldaña París—that it would be very hard for me to make a quick map of this changing landscape. I would say, however, that breaking away from magical realism was needed in the 1990s, although, as usual, the label ended up creating another stereotype: that of a generation obsessed with mass media, new technologies, and disdainful of politics. Luckily today you can see that some of the most well-known writers of my generation—Rodrigo Fresán, Alberto Fuguet—have been able to transcend the label.
Scott Esposito is the author of The Surrender and coauthor of The End of Oulipo? He is currently working on a book about film, and his essays have recently appeared in The Point, The White Review, and Music & Literature, among others. He is a contributing editor at BOMB.