Mexican writer Elmer Mendoza at the Hay Festival in Segovia. Photo by Aurelio Martín.
Interview with Writer Élmer Mendoza
“The Calderón Government Has Brought Mexico a Loss of Control and Lives”
El País: “El Gobierno de Calderón ha llevado México a una pérdida de control y de vidas”
The writer, invited to the Hay Festival, has created his own language to describe the horror plaguing his country
Juan Carlos Galindo reporting from Segovia September 29, 2011
The Mexican writer Élmer Mendoza (born in Culiacán in 1949) is a man of borders: one separates Mexico from the United States and has conditioned the history of his country; another one, the diffuse border between good and evil, finally and definitively lead him to the creation of a new language transcribed from a panoply of influences, such as corridos, television, and popular voices. Mendoza is an author immersed in a continuous search with the power of necessity, with confidence, through historical justifications and the sources, literary or not, of the language of the streets, of the dives, of the gray day after day, a search which has taken him to Aristophanes and Borges’s Hombre en la esquina rosada (The Man from the Pink Corner), passing through contemporary authors of every type and origin.
Considered by many the king of narco novels, the creator of a series starring police officer Edgar “El Zurdo” (The Southpaw) Mendieta (Balas de plata (Silver Bullets) and La prueba del ácido (The Acid Test)), both published by Tusquets, Mendoza was at the Hay Festival in Segovia (Hay = “There Is”) to speak about all this with Arturo Pérez Reverte. Hours before, out in the sun on an early autumn morning, Mendoza spoke with El País about the situation in Mexico, the characters in his novels, and his veritable obsession with updating language. In a deliberate voice that did not reveal any of the violence the man has seen and lived with since he was a child, Mendoza gave us some of the keys to his work and his worldview.
Question: What’s happened in Mexico?
Answer: We have a long history conditioned by our relationship with the U.S. through illegal traffic. First it was food, then after the Dry Laws, tequila, although there was already production of opium poppy then as well. Now, we don’t produce coca, but the passage routes go through our land, and we produce methamphetamines and also cannabis, so the gringos are still enjoying a great deal of what we’re producing ourselves. Now there’s another traffic which is new but has grown greatly, and that’s human trafficking. We say our proximity to all that has made us degenerate like this.
Q: What can be done? Is there an alternative to the direct war declared by the Calderón government?
A: President Calderón and his team are people that don’t know the country they govern, or they didn’t know it. They are good people from good families, but Mexico is such a big country that the good people from good families move in a relatively limited area, and the same goes for the universities in which they study, which have nothing to do with other regions, other profiles, or other kinds of people. They arrived in office and wanted to play the Lone Ranger and believed they could solve the problem. They declared war on organized crime, but the only thing they produced was a new situation, a loss of control and a loss of lives, that has brought them nowhere over the last five years, and won’t take them anywhere in the last year left on their term. This is what’s happened in Mexico: it’s a poorly directed country where those who govern have discovered that it’s very difficult to succeed because we have corrupt police and a military under suspicion.
Q: But what hope is there for a country which, as we can see in your last two novels, more than 90% of criminal cases are not resolved, where the police commanders order their agents to close a case on false pretenses because the state attorney or a powerful businessman has been implicated?
A: The elites have fortified themselves because the corruption has permitted them to do so. They have influence over everything, and they are everywhere. They operate like so. In a state that wasn’t so corrupt, the power relationships between the state and the people wouldn’t be so corrupt, but my country isn’t like that. I have no idea what to do about it. We have to refound Mexico. We’ve asked the government to call in experts (and it hasn’t called them) to rewrite the Constitution and to reorganize the justice and education systems and the relationship between the government and the economic system.
Q: In your work El amante de Janis Joplin (Janis Joplin’s Lover) one can see very well how el narco is a stain which discreetly extends to the majority of the Mexican population.
A: In Mexico, narcotics affect, in some way or another, we say, 70% of the population, more or less, and there isn’t a class exclusion: from those in precarious economic circumstances to the consortiums which launder money, everyone, everyone, everyone is… (He stops and smiles before continuing.) There are entire regions whose life cycles are centered on the growing seasons of poppy or cannabis. There’s a time of year when cars aren’t sold, for example, but then when harvest time comes, they sell jewels there and lots of alcohol…the people who run businesses know this. They return to that market every three months at harvest time. We’re all like that. It’s too bad they don’t buy books, but that’s not one of their primary necessities.
Q: Does the search for an aesthetic of violence, for a distinct language that speaks of this limited situation, have its dangers? Can you say something to legitimize that? Because there are accusations like this from certain strata of politics and arts…
A: The aestheticization of violence is an artistic position I take so that the world’s readers can experience what the people in the Mexican streets live through. Those who want to prohibit drug runs, for example, don’t know the country: they’ve lived elsewhere for all these years. Now we’ve found the language, although all language is limited in the area of describing the effects of violence. It’s become something interesting, something we can share with the world, and the number of artists in all disciplines that are involved is what gives the movement its strength.
Q: What advantages does a black novel have in this respect?
A: The advantage of the black novel is that its subject matter is crime and so, when working in this genre, you already cover the first stratum; you don’t have to explain anything else, and this makes it a very, very effective vehicle. But over all, it’s that the black novel is absolutely social and what it wants to say touches upon all the positive aspects of society as well as the negative, the sinister, the weakness, the poverty, the dreams, the desires. In addition, when cases are resolved with the possibility of the application of law, there is a legal aspect, but this is not the case in Mexican novels.
Q: Let’s talk about Edgar Mendieta, this peculiar and attractive character, who without being an example of corruption always wades in muddy water and turns to helping the narcos he’s fighting against if necessary.
A: El Zurdo knows very well where he works and what forces can work against him and in his favor. He simply uses them. A police officer who works in a corporation, like the Mexicans do, has to use everything if he wants to survive; if he doesn’t, he won’t. Now there are purges of corrupt police, but there have been police officers who died who did a relatively good job and would be the forefathers of Mendieta. El Zurdo doesn’t want to confront the narcos, but he doesn’t want to be one of them; he uses them. Mendieta has to be very conscious of the reality in which he’s operating, so sometimes he has to be part of a conspiracy and coexist with bad guys who are not always clear.
Q: Where does your peculiar, recognizable, and unique diction come from?
A: Partly from the talk on the street, from the words that sometimes have no better explanation than that they’re arbitrary. Granted, at first I really liked to go on rampages, but now I believe that I regulate myself enough. It comes from everywhere, but basically the street. I learn a lot in bars, on television, and in lectures.
Q: But in a certain way this search is an immersion into the abyss and a crossing into another frontier.
A: The thing is I had confidence. I said to myself: “Aristophanes used unusual expressions which Sophocles wouldn’t have, language that was strong and popular.” I discovered that Dante, after he decided to write The Divine Comedy in Italian and include popular language, had to wait 12 years to publish it because his friends said they wouldn’t do it, that that language wasn’t going to go anywhere. I have two Spanish masters who have never failed me: Cervantes and Quevedo. And Shakespeare, who in Hamlet used words he liked and that only had a poetic function, or that were street expressons; sometimes he was only trying to reproduce sounds, the signifier and not the significance, and I love that. Those geniuses of literature showed me that everything has a limit, and that language is representivity and is something much more profound than simply using a word: I believe it’s also an expression of a cultural profile. I’ve noted this when I’m helping my translators. When I explain an expression, I not only have to say the probable meaning; I have to explain the origin and where it’s used, and this process has given me the confidence to use expressions with total liberty: they’re real expressions with explanations I’m capable of giving.
Q: Are you afraid of losing readers in the search of such a personal language? Because I can assure you the literal reproduction of the language of Sinaloa creates problems for readers.
A: I’m not worried about it, because my ideal reader is curious and temperamental and a person who reads for passion, and if he reads for passion, he’s capable of overcoming certain minimal obstacles.
Q: Where does the Spanish language find itself at the beginning of the 21st century?
A: I believe that we have to be proud of the language we speak. Proud in the sense that it’s a language that is alive and that is always generating new expressions we don’t know; some don’t survive and some do, but I believe it’s a very strong language. Sometimes it makes me sick that it’s not more important.
Q: What does our language need to get the consideration it deserves?
A: Less complexes. I’ve found there are more and more critics and writers occupied with the language, but our bestselling books continue to be translations, something which isn’t true in the United Kingdom, the U.S., or Germany. What’s happening to us? We have to reinforce our identity, and for that we have to keep language renewal from being blocked in places like Spain, which brought Spanish to the world. The only limitations can be our own limitations as authors, which sometimes are already too many to take into account others related the management of the public to which our work arrives.
Q: What are your principal influences in the world of contemporary Spanish novels?
A: Two novelists have influenced me. One is Mexican: Rafael Bernal, author of the genius novel which is El complot mongol (The Mongolian Conspiracy), a harsh novel, for its language, for what happens, for its detective, Garcia, who is very foul-mouthed. And there is a Brazilian writer named Rubén Fonseca, who in not all of his works, but in some, uses street language very correctly and also manages irony, a very veiled irony, which is his strong point and has to do with the profiles of his characters. I also like how the Colombians Mario Mendoza, Jorge Franco, and Santiago Gamboa manage certain forms of street language. It always gives you the sensation that you can do it. Borges and his work Hombre de la esquina rosada, a story about butchers which employs slang correctly and has a slightly ancient rhythm is one of my constant references.