Academic journal article Romance Notes

The Avant-Garde Detective Fiction of Antonio Helu

Academic journal article Romance Notes

The Avant-Garde Detective Fiction of Antonio Helu

Article excerpt

THE "delgado, inteligente, nervioso y ... explosivo" Antonio Helu Atta lived as a newspaper and magazine editor, filmmaker, dramatist, and fiction writer known for his unabashed championing of the detective genre in Mexico (Villaurrutia 17). This largely-ignored father of Mexican detective fiction, however, also maintained deep, yet hitherto forgotten, ties with the Mexican avant-gardes. Helu's involvement with both the Stridentists and the Contemporaneos not only informed his literary output but his radical, working-class politics, bridging the gap between literary avant-gardism and popular fiction. In his most famous novella La obligacion de asesinar (1947), Helu develops an anarchistic hermeneutic for solving crime in which avant-garde free play out-deduces bourgeois reason. Through ad hoc investigations Helu's detective--a lumpen thief named Carlos Miranda--brings into relief the failures of the Mexican Revolution and hints at alternative futures antagonistic towards private property regimes. Understanding Helu's avant-garde affinities thus salvages his work from the dustbin of literary history by opening up certain radical possibilities for a literary mode, detective fiction, widely known for its hegemonic underpinnings.

THE DETECTIVE MODE SOUTH OF THE BORDER

Most literary critics only consider Helu's work important in relation to the broader genealogy of Mexican detective fiction. Speaking, for instance, of La obligacion de asesinar, one literary scholar laments that "la importancia del libro es mas documental que estetica" (Negrin 40). For many critics, Helu's work is only valuable in so far as it occupies what Ilan Stavans has called "the cornerstone of detective letters in Mexico" (75). Consequently, Stavans and other critics typically employ Helu's literary biography in order to contextualize the "literary explosion of this 'subgenre'" during the nineteen seventies and eighties in Latin America (74). This is perhaps due in part to Mexican detective fiction's perceived debt to foreign fonts of creative output, resulting in its misrecognition as, what Donald Yates calls, "a type of imported literature" practiced by so-called "native authors" (xi-xii). Notwithstanding the ivory-tower anthropology of Yates's assessment, the empirical outcome is not all that surprising: a shallow pool of Helu scholarship. Over the past sixty years only a handful of academic books have treated either Helu or La obligacion de asesinar in passing. Such is certainly the case with Persephone Braham's Crimes against the State, Crimes against Persons (2004) and Glen S. Close's Contemporary Hispanic Crime Fiction (2008). The most recent academic book to reference Helu--Artful Assassins (2010) by Fernando Fabio Sanchez--continues in the mold of previous literary histories by situating Helu as the noble precursor to bigger and better things yet to come (61). Couple this with a Queen's Quorum reference to La obligacion de asesinar from 1948 where Helu is credited with "founding a south-of-the-border school of detection" and two or three websites, along with a few anthologies, and therein lies the extent of criticism devoted to Helu (125). This critical neglect is especially strange, however, considering the influence that Helu has exercised on generations of Mexican writers like Carlos Monsivais --who authored the prologue to the latest compilation of Helu's stories and novellas published by Porrua in 1997. Monsivais, in fact, praises Helu as "un autor que creyo radicalmente en la literatura policiaca y a ella consagro lo mejor de su activa, generosa vida profesional" (19). Fifty years earlier, in another prologue to Helu's work, the avant-garde poet Xavier Villaurrutia enthusiastically commented "para la sed de los lectores de novelas policiacas, existe ya el pequeno oasis de los cuentos policiacas de Antonio Helu" (16). (1) In other words, two of the most prominent Mexican intellectuals of the twentieth century have put their stamp of approval on Helu's work, and yet no serious academic scholarship has paid him any due attention. …

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