Books | Arts

McSweeney's New Latin American Crime Fiction Is Caliente

NPR | April 30, 2014 4:03 a.m. | Updated: April 30, 2014 7:38 a.m.

Contributed By:

Juan Vidal

For its first ever all-Latin American issue, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern has assembled a worthy lineup of writers and translators. Spanning 10 different countries — and featuring contributions from Alejandro Zambra and Juan Pablo Villalobos — this latest offering is as rousing as it is essential. And, true to form, killer on the design front.

Hand-picked by Brazilian writer, translator and editor Daniel Galera, the 13 stories in this collection display the lyric power of some of contemporary literature’s most exciting voices. What Galera says in the introduction is true: The panorama of Latin American fiction has changed drastically over the past few decades. So far removed from the boom of the ‘60s and ‘70s — which brought us the magical realism of the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez — what we have now is something entirely new; something more gritty that reflects the complex geometry of our present age.

A good crime story — one that achieves the sensation of mystery and spans a myriad of difficult ideas — is what the people need. We need dead bodies and crooked politicians. We need bloodshed, death beating at the gate like some salesman. In some ways, we need our fiction to not only show us the complete hideousness of violence but also make it beautiful. Maybe that’s the path to something. Maybe that’s how we reconcile the meaning of art with the atrocities we fill our heads with watching the news.

From the dilapidated corners of Constitucion, Argentina, to stirring conversations at an apartment in Porto Alegre, there is much to mull over in these pages. There are moments of lucidity that reveal the vulnerability of fragile human beings: “It seems she may be experiencing one of those very brief moments when we understand a million things.”

And there are less sublime moments. In a story by Jorge Enrique Lage, we read about the moral decline of a Cuban woman called Amy Winehouse. Abandoned by her lover — who ever so lovingly exploited her as a prostitute — she eventually falls to drunkenness, depression and anorexia. Her trepidation and her aimlessness play second fiddle only to her chief desire: to be wanted and cared for. “I talked to Alexander today and he asked me to forgive him,” she says. “He seemed sincere.”

But there’s also a sense of assurance that permeates these stories. Even in their haplessness, our characters are self-aware enough to know their fate is not bright and shining. As if they know what awaits them; be it death or simply more confusion about their lives. “Stefan Czarniecki was never going to get used to the sun in the tropics,” writes Joca Reiners Terron in “Blind Sun,” the tale of a Polish insurance man on business in Sao Paulo. Almost immediately, poor Stefan stumbles into playing detective in a case involving a bloody massacre. He’s asking around, he’s looking for clues. One thing he’s sure of is that when his job is done, he’ll never return. “He did not want to stay in that place another minute.”

Thankfully, it’s not all destruction and death. Or rather, there’s humor amid the destruction and death, employed with subtlety. “White Flamingo” stars a couple of gangsters who celebrate a job well done by enjoying an afternoon in an amusement park. That’s right, not in a brothel, or at a nightclub popping bottles like Carlito Brigante and Benny Blanco from the Bronx. Not at all. Just two happy gangsters roaming the sidewalks of Epcot like regular folk on a weekend excursion.

Then there’s the wisdom; the little gemlike sentences that just kill on so many levels. In “Horses in the Smoke” we’re reminded how we love the things of the past — in this case the music of 1976 — because “everybody likes the time before they were born.”

It’s easy to love the Latin American fiction that my parents’ generation loved. What it gave, and continues to give, is so rich it reaches far beyond my ability to describe it. Still, and perhaps even more so — and if these 13 writers are among those shaping it — I’m prouder of where it’s going.

Juan Vidal is a writer and cultural critic from Miami. He tweets at @itsjuanlove. [Copyright 2014 NPR]

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