Monday, February 8, 2010

Our Lady of the Assassins, by Fernando Vallejo

Our Lady of the Assassins reads like the result of a brawl between Thomas Malthus and Louis-Ferdinand Céline after a night of heavy and surly drinking and reading Death in Venice in dramatic voices to each other.
"On a night drunk with cicadas, the Exterminating Angel came down and dispatched the six in a rough little bar whose tables spilled out onto the pavement and, with a bullet in the forehead of each of them, he punished them for their drunkenness, their 'bender.' And why this time? For what reason? For the ultra-simple reason of existing. That seems very little to you? No, while this life is no bowl of cherries, I've always said and I repeat it here, that the crime does not lie in extinguishing life, but in kindling it: organizing it so that, where there wasn't any pain before, now there is." (71-72)
Similar sentiments are repeated throughout, and one could probably even call it the moral of the novel: procreation is a greater sin than murder. Life in Medellín, Colombia's 'capital of hate,' is such that the addition of lives to its population is crueler than any subtraction, even a violent, capricious subtraction. In fact, the idea that violence may be capricious becomes itself remote, unthinkable: violence is a form of currency, and its transactions, whether we might call them impulsive or necessary, are indistinguishable from one another to those involved.

I wouldn't call the novel powerful (I think it's actually rather poorly written—to a purpose, but nevertheless ineffectively), but it is so adamant in this position that one is tempted to accede somewhat, to demur to its apparent authority. Yet its intransigent a- or anti-sociality finds itself frustrated more than it is invigorated by the texture of the book: there is also a strange lack of urgency to the prose which vitiates its anger—again, definitely to a purpose, but again, not effectively. It's written as if Vallejo believed torpor was a simple substitute for energy, and not a different substance entirely. Vallejo somehow means for this torpor to reinforce the book's militant hostility to life, and I suppose other writers have achieved this, but in this case, it simply exists as a separate feeling: the narrator's languidness and his antipathy never really find a common language, and the book teeters between world-weariness and sardonic venom.

There is one moment, though, where these two strands seem to come together, and while they don't entirely fuse and form something new and compelling, they do find a form external to the novel which indulges both the narrator's languor and his acerbity. Fernando is in a morgue:
I continued on to an anteroom. Over and above the weeping of the living and the silence of the dead, the stubborn ra-ta-tat-tat of typewriters: this was Colombia, officious in all its bureaucratic frenzy, its mountains of paperwork, its red tape, drawing up official reports of autopsies, of entrances and exits, solicitous, industrious, diligent, with its unredeemed penpusher's soul. My invisible man's eyes lighted on the 'Observations' they'd left on a desk about the removal of a body: 'The apparent motive was to steal the victim's trainers,' it said, 'but of the real facts and the authors of the crime nothing is known.' And it went on to speak of wounds to the vena cava and cardio-respiratory arrest after the hypovolemic shock caused by a wound from a sharp instrument. I loved the language. The precision of the words, the conviction of the style… The best writers in Colombia are judges and their clerks, and there's no better novel than a court summary. (128)
Of course one recognizes a similar feeling (and perhaps a similar envy) in Bolaño and Horacio Castellanos Moya, perhaps even Sebald, although Vallejo is more intentionally perverse about it. (Well, maybe not more so than Moya.)

But I think it is very strange how an author like Vallejo who is completely uninterested in objectivity, much less in something like "the truth" could be so enchanted by the clinical, documentary style of bureaucratic prose. Perhaps it is an act, or perhaps he simply is graciously acknowledging the skill of a competitor in the field of describing misery and death.

But there is also, I think, a sense in which Vallejo deeply wants the state to be what it is in Kafka: a realm of mysterious pointlessness, so enfolded upon itself that it can absorb all life in its unending and directionless corridors. The tragedy for Vallejo is that it is not: the state is not only complicit with the violence of the drug cartels and the petty assassinations, but it is much less capacious than they are: it is always the government which will be absorbed into the world of the druglords, and not the other way round. Vallejo at the end of the novel turns, very strangely, to the state as a last source of enchantment, reaching toward the purity of bureaucratic prose as a refuge against reality. He's certainly conscious that this is illusory and even stupid, but I'd argue he sees it as less illusory, less stupid, than art, and in it he finds some release. What he cannot reconcile in his own prose, he finds brought together in this cold document. It is a bizarre ending, to say the least, for a novel.

1 comment:

Frances Madeson said...

"...it is always the government which will be absorbed into the world of the druglords, and not the other way round."

This is exactly how I feel about the current administration in NYC.