The Underdogs

Azuela reveals aspects of the Revolution that are apolitical, anti-political, or even infrapolitical (the non-political conditions of possibility for the political), in that he depicts it in terms of drives and emergent habits that have not yet fully coalesced into political form.

Grace Oliver

My aunt, Grace Oliver, died at age 75 in the early morning of Christmas Day.

Born Stephen Beasley-Murray, her reinvention and transition from Stephen to Grace, and from Beasley-Murray to Oliver, was a journey that lasted most of a lifetime.

Throughout their seventy-five years, Stephen/Grace was curious and prepared to follow their curiosity and desire, sometimes whatever the cost, for them or for others.

Stephen grew up in South London, but went to university (to study sciences) in Liverpool in the early 1970s. He stayed on in the city, working with social services and the Anglican church, under the aegis of former cricketer turned left-wing bishop, David Sheppard.

I think that his time in pre-Thatcherite Liverpool, combining religious vocation with practical work for social justice, was a golden period for him, to which he would often look back with nostalgia, and even try to recreate.

But something went wrong, and he left for the United States, where his parents (my grandparents) were living in Louisville, Kentucky. There he enrolled in graduate work at the Southern Seminary, where he wrote a PhD dissertation on the “metaphysics of the sacred.”

It was also in Kentucky where he met his first wife, Angela (Angie), with whom he had three children (Mark, Philip, and Amanda), and with whom he later travelled, as a Northern Baptist missionary, to live and work in Hong Kong.

Missionary life did not agree with him, however, not least its fundamental premise that “we” in the West had more to teach “them” in the East than they had to teach us. He and Angie withdrew from the mission and settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where Steve became a secondary-school teacher.

By this time, he was increasingly radical. He joined the Communist Party of the USA and began explorations in Wicca beliefs and practices. When he also started experimenting in naturism, I would refer to him as my “nudist, Communist, witch” uncle.

Steve and Angie split up, very acrimoniously, and he moved to Texas with Charlotte Oliver, who became his second wife. He took her name in the marriage. In Texas, he taught philosophy in various colleges and universities.

A decade or so ago, on his retirement, Steve and Charlotte moved to Liverpool where they lived in a small housing-association property, and once more became involved with Liverpool Parish Church, as well as with the Society of Friends (Quakers). They joined the Labour Party, and were fervent supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. They had a caravan in a naturist park in Cheshire.

At some point, Steve began questioning issues of sexuality and gender identity, and started living as Grace. A couple of years ago, they underwent gender-reassignment surgery.

Perhaps Grace finally found the peace and fulfillment that, I fear, Stephen seldom or never did. Indeed, I may be wrong, but my feeling is that Stephen Beasley-Murray was not often happy. I never met him as Grace, but hear that Grace seemed much happier and more relaxed than Stephen had ever been.

Jean Franco

It must have been late 1989 or early 1990 that I first met Jean Franco, the distinguished and pioneering Latin Americanist literary and cultural critic, who has just died at 98 years old.

I was taking a year out from my undergraduate degree, crossing the USA en route to Central America, and at the same time checking out universities to which I thought I might apply to do graduate work.

Finding myself in New York, I headed to Columbia, and made my way to the Department of English where I hoped to meet Edward Said, a founder of postcolonial studies. Professor Said was not available, I was told, but would I like to talk to Professor Franco, who co-taught with him on the MA program?

I remember next to nothing about that conversation, but I must have (presumptuously) left her something of mine to read, or posted it to her later, because the following year, when I was back in the UK, I received a postcard from her. She apologized for taking so long, but she had (amazingly) read whatever it was that I had written and offered some brief, polite comments on it.

It was only much later that I realized just who Jean Franco was: one of the first critics to put the study of Latin American literature on the map, at least in the English-speaking world, with books such as The Modern Culture of Latin America (1967) and An Introduction to Latin American Literature (1969), whose range of reference and erudition, but also enthusiasm and clarity, remain impressive even today.

Once I was in the United States (first at Milwaukee then in North Carolina), I would often pass through New York, where I would regularly (and again, presumptuously) call Jean up and we would go for a walk, a coffee, perhaps lunch. She was always and indefatigably hospitable and polite to me, this strange guy who periodically darkened her door.

Some years later, when I was teaching at the University of Manchester, I proposed Jean’s name for an honorary degree, and delightfully both the university and she agreed. It was a great pleasure for once to host her: I remember wandering with her through the center of Manchester, taking a break at the Royal Exchange café, and again chatting about who knows what.

With Jean (I think at the Yang Sing restaurant) in Manchester, 2002

Jean came from the North of England—if I remember right, from Dukinfield, on Tameside in the East of Manchester, near the edge of the Pennines—and retained a distinctive accent throughout her life. She did a BA and MA at the University of Manchester, and then somehow found herself in Latin America. I remember her recounting that—like Che Guevara—she was in Guatemala during the 1954 coup.

She then returned to the UK, where she did a PhD at the University of London and subsequently became the country’s first Professor of Latin American Literature at the then new (and radical) University of Essex, before moving across the Atlantic to Stanford and then Columbia.

Jean’s work continued to be pathbreaking across the decades, from her innovative study of gender and representation in Mexico, Plotting Women (1989), to her magisterial study of Latin America in the Cold War, The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City (2002) and her study of the violence of modernity on the periphery with Cruel Modernity (2013).

What I will remember above all, however, is someone with almost infinite time and generosity, even for a whippersnapper like me, with a great sense of humor and a cackle of a laugh, who was always prepared to take risks (literally, in that I’m told she was a fan of the tables at Las Vegas), but above all knew how to live.

I thought she was immortal. In many ways, she surely is.

La virgen de los sicarios

How to write about narco? What use is literature in the face of violence and terror? This is, ultimately, the question that narconarratives have to confront. Like it or not, they face much the same challenge as that posed famously by Theodor Adorno in the wake of the Holocaust: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Is there not something similarly barbaric about continuing to write novels during, let alone about, our current narco epoch? The danger is, as Mexican critic Rafael Lemus puts it, that “novels about narco fulfill a repellent function: they sedate us, they provide consolation. By providing order to disorder, they lessen its impact. By novelizing the narco, they make it seems domesticable” (“Balas de salva” 41). What is more, the writers of narconarrative also stand to profit from the violence they describe. As Lemus trenchantly argues of such authors: “None of these authors engage in denunciation because none of them wants narcoculture to come to an end. It is what feeds their novels, it is what their imaginary depends upon” (42). But is the alternative then silence?

Like Rascón Banda’s Contrabando, Fernando Vallejo’s La virgen de los sicarios has as its protagonist a writer. He is, apparently, a grammarian but in effect what he is writing is the novel that we are reading, told in first person with many an address to the reader, mostly explanations of the idiosyncratic language of Colombia and, in particular, of Medellín during the time of the sicarios (paid assassins) in the aftermath of drug king-pin Pablo Escobar’s death. With Escobar’s organization in disarray (though Vallejo is not particularly interested in how it functions; in fact, he tells us little if anything about the drug trade at all), the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of young men who once killed on its behalf are let loose, purposeless and all the more dangerous for it. If their murders once had some sort of rationale, directed by their superiors further up the narco hierarchy, now they are free to kill for the pettiest of reasons: they see a pair of baseball boots they like; a taxi driver refuses to turn down the volume of his radio; a passer-by rubs them up the wrong way. Vallejo’s narrative is studded with these almost meaningless executions, which go absolutely unpunished by a state that has lost control of the city.

Early on, Vallejo (or rather his narrator, who also goes by the first name Fernando) addresses the issue of how to understand what is in these young men’s minds, in a comment on what draws them to the historic churches that crowd Medellín’s historic city center: “Sociologists say,” he tells us, “that the hitmen ask María Auxiliadora to make sure they don’t miss, that she guide their aim when they shoot and that the deal works out well for them” (11 [15-16]). But the narrator immediately draws back from such rationalization: “And how do they know this? Are they Dostoyevsky or God the Father maybe when it comes to getting inside other people’s minds? A person doesn’t know what he’s thinking himself, so how’s he going to know what other people are thinking!” (12 [16]). Fathoming the sicario mentality requires either divine omniscience or a novelist’s imagination.

Is then this novel a Dostoyevskian exploration of the mind of an assassin? Yes and no. No, in so far as it never directly provides us with the sicario’s perspective: with the narrator we are perpetually by the side of the killers (his two boyfriends: first Alexis, then Wílmar), looking on and reacting to their actions, if from very close by. Fernando consistently marks his distance from them: they are young and he is old; they delight in the pleasures of mass consumption and popular culture, he is austere and has cultivated tastes; they come from the impoverished barrios (the comunas) that surround and overlook the city, which he has never visited. And yet yes, in that this presumption of distance and difference soon breaks down: the narrator harbors his murderous urges, too, and often his sicario boyfriends simply kill on his behalf, indulging his whims, hoping to please him; it turns out (despite his sporadic denials) that his is the mind of a killer, even if his is not the finger on the trigger. It is often as though the sicarios merely act out his fantasies; in the absence of any other direction, he ends up providing it for them. Though he carefully tries to maintain the sense that he is master of a rational ego, through these young boys he finds himself indulging his Id.

But finally, Vallejo seems to acknowledge defeat. An investigation into the sicario phenomenon would require the powers of a great writer, but as he notes near the book’s end, when he visits the morgue to look for Wílmar’s assassinated corpse, “the best writers in Colombia” are not the professional novelists but the “judges and clerks, and there’s no better novel than a court summary” (128 [117]). Why? Their “language enchanted me. The precision of the terms, the conviction of the style. . .” ([117]). A novel, a novelist’s novel at least, is condemned to imprecision, to stylistic uncertainty. Perhaps this is because, over the course of the tale he is telling, the narrator ceases to be a writer–indeed, we never see him work on whatever grammar he may be writing; he seems instead to have all the time in the world to wander the city with his sicario boyfriends, so long at least as they precariously remain in the land of the living. Hence, once they are both dead, the book more or less fizzles out, as the narrator fades away, wishing the reader all the best (“Well, buddy, here we go our separate ways, you’re with me up to here. Many thanks for your company” [(122)]). In the end, “the cinema and the novel are not enough to capture the city of Medellín” ([58]). The best that Vallejo’s novel can do is trace the undoing of the writer, and of its own writing, as its narrator loses the struggle to maintain his distance from what surrounds him and instead accepts, perhaps, his own part in the barbarism.