Reinventing Spanish as a Literary Language: A Conversation with ÁLvaro Enrigue
Constantine, Peter, World Literature Today
The Mexican literary scene is in flux. A new generation of writers is responding to great political and social upheavals. Among these writers, the award-winning author and editor Álvaro Enrigue is one of the most compelling and versatile. He is the author of four novels, two shortstory collections, and a book of literary criticism; he has worked as an editor, doing much to promote the work of young indigenous Mexican authors writing in Mexican languages; and he is also a journalist and literary critic for a number of Latin American and Spanish publications. His first book to appear in English, Hypothermia, was published in 2013 by Dalkey Archive Press in a translation by Brendan Riley (reviewed on page 62).
Peter Constantine: Over the last five years, Mexican literature seems to have gone in unexpected new directions. Would you agree?
Álvaro Enrigue: Somewhere between sixty and eighty thousand men and women, all people who had sisters and brothers, sons and parents, have been murdered in drug-related violence since 2006, when President Calderón initiated his compulsive and unsuccessful war on drugs. You have to imagine what this has done to Mexico's national psyche. On Monday morning we were a hardworking middle-class land, proud of the cultural explosion produced by its new democratic ways, and on Friday afternoon we were a dinky Wild West town. Mexican literature turned away from the comfortable trends that suited the international publishing market to a deep and problematic soul-searching.
AE: Spanish must be reinvented as a literary language to fit new, extreme circumstances. It must search in its history and tradition for new ways to tell, "to give testimony," as Saint Paul would have said. In a recent novel by Yuri Herrera, the main character is an "alfaqueque," a man who rescues ransomed people-the word had not been used in four hundred years. Horror might always have been the grease that keeps the machine of creation moving forward; it's just that we had not experienced it. Mexico had been a quite stable country for most of the twentieth century, and Mexicans had not experienced war in three generations. We only saw the army at Independence Day parades; now it's all over the place in the north and west of the land.
PC: What you say about the need to reinvent Spanish is very interesting.
AE: Journalism is using a never-never land discourse to portray the ways in which drug lords inflict violence. Young literary writers have gone deeper, washing away the soil of language to see what's behind those journalistic landscapes. There are commercial novels, which portray things the way they are now, but these will be forgotten as fast as they are written. If the world begins to look like a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, intelligent people wonder: What did we do for this to happen? How can we find forms and words to express it?
PC: Who are the young literary authors you find compelling?
AE: As often happens, it all began with the poets, poets born in the 1970s-Julián Herbert, Luis Eugenio Sánchez, Luis Felipe Fabre, Óscar de Pablo, or Dolores Dorantes. They all came out with books that shattered the tradition of otherworldly, academic Mexican poetry. It was like a crazed migration from Octavio Paz to Nicanor Parra. Reality was becoming too demanding to be represented with the tools of concrete and postmodernist language. Then came the fiction writers, new figures like Yuri Herrera, Susana Iglesias, or Carlos Velázquez. But they have predecessors: among the older ones Élmer Mendoza or Victor Hugo Rascón Banda, and in my generation Eduardo Antonio Parra or Martín Solares, to name a few.
PC: I am reading a very funny and disturbing story by Carlos Velázquez called "No pierda a su pareja por culpa de la grasa" (Don't lose your partner just because you're fat), in which a wife puts her husband, who is seriously overweight, on a cocaine regimen so he will slim down. …