Juan Villoro: The Unfathomable Criminality

Juan Villoro’s latest novel, entitled La tierra de la gran promesa, like the superlative translation of the film by Polish director Andrzej Wajda, will hardly be added to the corpus of narco-novels or the many fictions about violence, crime and impunity that are written and published in Mexico. Without ceasing to present a criminal plot, it is, in appearance, a novel about cinema. Its central characters are directors, producers and sound engineers who think and speak like filmmakers.

The fiction takes advantage of a historical event, the fire at the first Cineteca Nacional, located in the Churubusco studios, in 1982, to draw the portrait of a generation of filmmakers who were trained at the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos (CUEC) of the UNAM. The fire at the Cineteca took place while Wajda’s La tierra de la gran promesa was being screened, which is suggested as a metaphor for the frustration of the so-called “Mexican miracle” from the 1980s onwards and the decline of the national cinema.

It is estimated that six thousand five hundred films and two thousand three hundred scripts were lost in that fire. For a country with such a long film tradition, it was a catastrophe that cultural memory equates with the 1985 earthquake. The two tragedies intertweave in a twilight image of post-revolutionary Mexico that would be confirmed in the collapse of the system in the last decade of the twentieth century.

The main character is not a director of fiction but of documentaries: a sort of film chronicler that Villoro uses to insinuate parallels with the splitting of his writing between novel and chronicle. His experience of the world and the memory of his affections are conceived from an imaginary “editing room” where the events of life are cut and pasted, superimposed or erased, as in a patched negative. The youthful trauma of an accident in which his friend died is subjected to the editorial exercises of the subconscious.

Mockup of ‘La tierra de la gran promesa’, novel by Juan Villoro, Random House, 2021.

His couple is a sound engineer who retains all her noises and those of their son. She retains and records them, as she records the nightly screams and mumblings of her traumatized husband. The small family moves to Barcelona, where the documentary filmmaker has been hired by a Catalan producer who, for decades, has had shady business in the circles of Mexican cinema. What at first appears as a vital choice to provide security and comfort to the family soon turns out to be the froth of a dark tide, perfectly timed.

The move to Barcelona turns out to be an escape, plotted by his partner and his producer, to save the filmmaker from possible prosecution after making a documentary about a drug lord known as El Vainillo. A journalist, a friend from his youth and an aspiring filmmaker, who has had an affair with the father of the main character, rats out the filmmaker as an accomplice of a rival cartel, who would have helped reveal the location of El Vainillo.

In the final stretch of the novel, when the action moves back to Mexico, the world of filmmakers is supplanted by that of lawyers. The filmmaker’s father and his first couple are lawyers, and the lawyer who is trying to save him from prosecution is also a friend of his father. The main character’s life is presented, then, as the fiction of a hidden plot, determined by the decisions of others: drug lords, film businessmen, abandoned love interests, jealous friends.

Villoro’s novel, which manages humor, scatology and perversion very well, is another modality of the “paranoid style” described by Richard Hofstadter in a classic book. Nothing of what is told responds to predictable causes or concurrent chance. The subjectivity of the main character is encrypted by the wills of others, in a variant of a type of fiction that transmits echoes of Kafka and Musil, Buñuel and Bolaño.

This is not a thesis novel, but it could be argued that it proposes a structural vision of crime in Mexico. Violence, drugs or impunity would not be, here, symptoms of the lack of rule of law but constituent forms of Mexican insecurity. The symptoms would be cinema, literature or the lives of the characters, which unfold on the surface of an unfathomable criminality.

Juan Villoro.
Rafael Rojas (Santa Clara, Cuba, 1965). He is a historian and essayist. He has a degree in Philosophy from the University of Havana and a PhD in History from El Colegio de México. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Letras Libres and the newspaper El País, and is a member of the editorial board of the magazine Istor of the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE). He has published the books: Un banquete canónico (2000), Revolución, disidencias y exilio intelectual cubano (2006), La vanguardia peregrina. El escritor cubano, la tradición y el exilio (2013), among others. Since July 2019, he occupies chair 11 of the Mexican Academy of History.


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