Writing in the midst of political upheaval.
An inheritor of Jorge Ibargüengoitia’s sense of humor, Carlos Monsiváis’s acute perception, and Juan Rulfo’s poetic density, Juan Villoro has gracefully established himself as a central figure within Latin American literature. His versatility, evident in his prolific and protean production, is famous in the Spanish-speaking world. From his early short stories to his famous crónicas, from journalistic essays to academic ones, from children’s books to literary translations of German classics, from books on soccer to monumental novels, his capacity to intertwine, in every possible register, political reflections and literary imagination, provides each of his interventions with an impressive poignancy. His work is an exploration into the perverse social fantasies driving Mexico’s violent modern history and leaves nothing untouched.
His 2004 novel El testigo, winner of the prestigious Herralde Prize, is arguably where Villoro’s literary reflections regarding violence, history, and literature have been most brilliantly embodied. The novel tells the story of Julio Valdivieso, a Mexican émigré intellectual who, after a long stance in Europe, returns to Mexico after the ruling political party loses, following seven decades in power, the elections. His research into the figure of modernist poet Ramón López Velarde quickly leads him into a landscape of violence where history and spectacle overlap to the point of confusion. A novel about what it means to be a historical witness, El testigo remains Villoro’s masterpiece, a monument to his versatility as a writer and to his complexity as conjurer of Mexico’s social fantasies. With the recent events in the Mexican state of Guerrero, where forty-three students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa have disappeared, his work seems today of the utmost relevance.
Despite its uncontested centrality and visibility within contemporary Latin American culture, Villoro’s work has only recently become available in translation to an American audience. On the tenth anniversary of El testigo’s publication, and with the English translation of two of his recent titles—The Guilty and Arrecife—forthcoming from New York publishing house George Braziller, Jeffrey Lawrence and I thought it pertinent to interview him on the political as well as aesthetic repercussions of his recent novels. We wish to thank him for such an enjoyable conversation.
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