The Mexican Fantastic

Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the FantasticEduardo Jiménez Mayo and Chris N. Brown, eds. (Small Beer Press, 2011)

From where I'm standing, Latin American literature in the United States is still more or less defined by magical realism, and the more colorful, soap-opera edge of magical realism at that, even as—as should be pretty obvious after a couple seconds' thought—the literature itself is much more diverse than that, and even though the countermovements to magical realism are at least a decade old. (Part of the problem, I think, is that fewer non-magical realist works are translated into English, because somebody thinks that English-speaking North Americans don't want to read about Latin America unless it also involves a thousand butterflies flying out of someone's mouth. Are they right?)

As the title implies, Three Messages and a Warning doesn't break realist writers for a American audience. It does, however, show that, even within the realm of the fantastic, literature written in Spanish has more going on than just magical realism. It also makes a compelling case for considering the works to be distinctly Mexican. Writers of the fantastic from other Spanish-speaking countries aren't represented in the book—and I'm not well-read enough to make the comparison myself—but the volume, taken as a whole, points to an aesthetic that the writers seem to share. A certain tone is struck, a certain taste runs through everything; it isn't quite like anything else I've read before, and it's on every page, even as the stories themselves are remarkably diverse.

There are stories of personal anxiety, touched with both humor and horror. In Amparo Dávila's "The Guest"—a cousin of Julio Cortázar's famous story "House Taken Over"—a stranger moves into a house and terrorizes the women living there, while the man of the house doesn't seem to care. In Alberto Chimal's "Variations on a Theme of Coleridge," a man gets a cell phone call, and then a visit, from himself. Guillermo Samperio's "Mr. Strogoff" is constructed as a breathless excerpt of a much longer story, of crime, betrayal, love, and corruption. In Óscar de la Borbolla's "Wittgenstein's Umbrella," seemingly everything that is possible happens to you—the story is written in the second person—in an astonishing four pages. Then there are stories of societal disarray, or straight-up apocalypse, though unlike the usual American version of it—it's zombies! It's a nuclear war!—the causes are stranger, more complicated, more difficult to understand or sort out. A city is overrun by lions ("Lions," by Bernardo Fernández, perhaps my favorite story in the book); a village is overrun by wolves ("Wolves," by José Luis Zárate). In "The Hour of the Fireflies," the country has been plagued by terrorism and a "war among the corporations," which leads the government (or someone) to justify a series of Tuskeegee-like experiments in a certain city. In what can be read as a pretty biting commentary on foreigners' (i.e., us) appreciation of magical realism and not much else from Latin America, the experiments, as a by-product, produce a flood of electrically charged fireflies that swarm the city every evening. The fireflies become a tourist attraction—"visitors from all over the globe pay exorbitant premiums to rent views of the street"—though the fireflies themselves are deadly, the charge from one of them enough to kill three people, which means no one who lives there can go out. Mauricio Montiel Figuerias' "Photophobia" and Liliana V. Blum's "Pink Lemonade" are both much grittier versions of society in total collapse, again from a confluence of several factors, taken from today's headlines. Finally, there are the metastories, which feel most familiar to people who've read, say, Borges and Cortazar: Agustín Cadena's "Murillo Park," in which a man has a friendship with an old woman whom he may or may not have dreamed; Carmen Rioja's "The Nahual Offering," in which the narrator dreams a character who may be dreaming her; Gabriela Damián Miravete's "Future Nereid," in which a woman reading an obscure book discovers that she might a character in it.

See what I mean about diversity? There's more where that came from, too. But about the commonality: What each of the stories share with the other is the overwhelming feeling that there is a much, much bigger story out there, beyond the ability of the narrator or the characters to comprehend, and that story is tinged not just with wonder and tragedy, but with outright menace, toward the narrator, toward society, toward the reader. It's this uniquely eerie sense of threat, just around the corner, just out of sight, that's tempting to label as Mexican—what the editors in the introduction describe as "a multicultural, media-drunk, post-postmodern society" whose "literary culture still enjoys mass appreciation of the importance of verse, where large crowds gather in public plazas to hear poets read their work" while it's simultaneously "plugged into the mediated networks that dominate our global perceptions"—even though the editors also point out that the "stories come from a culture that itself would probably never collect these authors in a single volume."

The sense of threat has some resonance in contemporary current events in Mexico: the persistent questions regarding just how much control the government really has over the place; the constant allegations of corruption; the increasingly unsettling sense that large-scale drug traffickers operate with impunity; the wave of murders in Ciudad Juarez, in which hundreds of women have been killed and nobody still seems to know who's doing it or why. (Roberto Bolaño barely fictionalizes these killings in the fourth, and, in my and apparently most people's opinions, best part of 2666, "The Part About the Crimes.") But it also resonates here, in our own insecurities and sense that things are getting a little out of control. U.S. culture is seeing its own wave of popularity of weird and postapocalyptic stuff; if this strain of pop culture is here to stay in the United States, then these writers on the other side of the border offer a way for it to move forward.