Martín Ramírez, Untitled (Horse and Rider), ca. 1948–63, crayon and pencil on pieced paper, 14 × 23 inches. Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York. Copyright The Estate of Martín Ramírez.
Translated by Valerie Miles
University of Chicago Press, 2016
Set in what translator Valerie Miles calls a “space of the imagination,” Edmundo Paz-Soldán’s new novel, Norte, uncovers its characters’ complicated relationships to expression and the trappings of readymade discourses. While some search for their norte, or direction, others are directionless and detached.
In the opening pages, we meet Jesús, an adolescent whose attraction to his sister appears to lead him to brutally rape and murder a prostitute in northern Mexico. Based on the story of real-life serial killer Ángel Maturino Reséndiz, his is just one of the loosely interconnected narratives that make up Paz-Soldán’s latest work, which together reveal a spectrum of alienation from identity struggles to extreme madness. Paz-Soldán, a Bolivian novelist, short-story writer, and critic, thus takes the theme of Latin American perspectives on the United States explored in the anthology he coedited, Se Habla Español (2000), to new and even more obscure places.
As the singular place of possibility, norte has become nearly obsolete for everyone in the novel. We meet Michelle, for example, a young Bolivian who works at Taco Hut in Texas, having recently abandoned a doctoral program to pursue her passion for drawing comics. Hers are the only sections conveyed in the first person. In picking up the thread where other creators in the novel (among them Juan Rulfo) leave off, she adopts a self-aware position analogous to Paz-Soldán’s own. She is obsessed with Fabián, a once-promising Argentine professor on the verge—delusional, drug-addicted, and unable to set pen to paper. He is imprisoned by romantic failure, by the theories of Homi Bhabha, Jacques Derrida, and Beatriz Sarlo, and by the Borgesian dream of writing a “unified theory capable of explaining the totality of Latin American literature.”
Throughout, readers are confronted by the acute proximity of Eros and Thanatos. There is Martín, a Mexican who crossed the border once back in 1925 to construct railroads in California. Upon hearing of the Cristero Rebellion, a religious war against the anticlericalism and secularism of the Mexican government, Martín comes to believe his wife has betrayed him. Ultimately, he goes mad and is interned in an insane asylum. Based on the real-life Martín Ramírez, Martín makes drawings that turn him into an exemplary outsider artist. Readers are left to wonder whether his norte has perished or the scales of orientation ought to be adjusted.
All of Paz-Soldán’s characters are plagued with a desire to occupy and reoccupy territory, be it the page, the house of the violated other, or the laptop screen. Popular culture from both south and north of the border provides more than a backdrop to the stories—from Los Tigres del Norte to Juan Gabriel and ABBA, characters live their lives through a clash of signifiers. The distance between the value they assign to others’ lives and the lack they associate with their own renders a dissonance that can be characterized with the word ajeno. Roughly meaning “alien to oneself,” ajeno best approximates the novel’s haunting depiction of the experience of migration, even in the best of circumstances, and expresses the forces of creation and destruction it unleashes.