KLASSEN ON BOOKS - February 2016 By John Klassen (Reviews)
Mendoza (1949-) is a Mexican novelist and short story writer. He is a professor of literature at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa. He is a key figure in, some even consider him the originator of, the genre known as 'narcoliterature' that explores the effects of drug trafficking and corruption in society. Silver Bullets is the first of Mendoza's novels to be translated into English.
In the Mexican town of Culiacan, Detective Edgar "Lefty" Mendieta investigates the murder of a high-powered lawyer named Bruno Canizales. A singular feature of the murder is that Canizales was shot with a silver bullet; a former girlfriend who wants to kill Canizales (with an ordinary bullet), arrives too late to do so, so she goes home and shoots herself. The plot thickens as Canizales, a bi-sexual, cross-dresser is the son of a former government minister bent on re-establishing a political career, and another, erstwhile girlfriend is the daughter of a drug-lord who does not approve of his daughter's connection.
So we have the makings of a tortuous murder-mystery with a number of suspects and currents. There is, however, another, major structural element in the story: the lawless, corrupt way-of-life engrained in all aspects of society in Culiacan based on, and supported by, the ludicrously lucrative drug trade. It is a fairy tale of immense and flaunted wealth, above a world of sordid, blasted, wasted, short, violent lives.
[Culiacan is a real place, on the Pacific coast, about 1,450kms south of the US border. The population is about 600,00 people. The photographs of old churches and buildings on the tourism webpages are attractive, but the tourism touts neglect to mention that it is a war zone fought over by the drug cartels on one side, and the national police and army on the other. It is an area known not just for its death toll, but also for the violence of murders and dismemberments. Mendoza describes this a number of times with reference to the "gangsta-wraps": bodies, often mutilated, wrapped in ordinary blankets and left on roadsides, in abandoned lots, in ditches.]
The key to life in Mendieta's world is that no one is immune to the forces and pressures of corruption and violence; these are endemic; they are woven into the fabric of society at all levels. The guardians of order in society such as the police and the courts, are every bit as corrupt as the politicians and the businesspeople, all of them driven by conviction, fear, greed and ambition. At the same time, ironically, it is the drug cartels are often provide what we would consider government services: water, lighting, electricity, protection, even roads.
Mendieta and his partner, Zelda, are ordered to cease their investigation because people with influence do not wish to see it pursued. Mendieta summarizes the situation: "It's an impossible case, which soon no one will remember, in our report which no one will read, we'll say that once again the powers that be weighed in." A suspect who escaped by running when first confronted by Mendieta and Zelda, says that he did so, "because I was afraid, in this country falling into the hands of the police is the worst that could happen to anyone." Mendieta cannot give up the case, although continuing to probe and ask awkward questions runs him afoul of some unpleasant people.
Mendieta reads and thinks about books. He knows there is a better world out there somewhere, but he is trapped in his own. He drinks too much, he is an occasional user of drugs, he was sexually abused as a child, his personal life is a mess, he bends the rules of arrest and custody out of shape, he is not above accepting a bribe, and yet he strives to a higher commitment to justice. This is not the justice of the courts; it is personal, the justice of the frontier, because Mendieta lives on a frontier. He survives within its rules while at least trying to avoid or mitigate its worst aspects, or he perishes. And he might perish anyway because it is not difficult to offend someone somehow, and assassins with AK47s and armoured Hummers are a dime-a-dozen on the street.
Mendoza's writing style is dense. There are no quotation marks nor even paragraphs to mark a change of person in conversations; sometimes there is even a change from first to third person, all in a string in one paragraph. This can be a confusing at first, but it works if you go with it and catch the rhythm. The style feels like the natural flow of conversation punctuated by internal thoughts and extraneous interruptions by phones and other people.
The plot is well-constructed and moves at a good pace. The story ends with Mendieta taking a few days in Mazatlan, "where he met a brown-skinned woman who had one green eye and the other the color of honey; she was also a lefty; but that is another tale." This hints at further novels from Mendoza featuring Detective Mendieta, to add those already available. Those of us who do not read Spanish must hope that these are translated soon, because Mendieta is a personality worth spending time with.
Ishiguro (1954-) was born in Nagasaki and moved to England in 1960. He obtained his bachelor's degree from the University of Kent, and his Masters in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. He is a novelist, short story writer, screenwriter, columnist, and songwriter. His third novel, The Remains of the Day, won the Booker Prize in 1989.
The Unconsoled is Ishiguro's strangest book and, for many, its most inaccessible. Reactions vary from describing it as a category of badness all its own, to it being a masterpiece. When I first read it, I thought it was odd and I remember pushing through to the end more from a sense of duty than pleasure; I couldn't connect the dots. Reading it again,, I have a much better, and positive, appreciation of the complexity of the novel and what I think Ishiguro was doing. I not only connected the dots, I was caught-up in the story, pulled along by Ishiguro's writing, by the characters and even by the 'plot', non-traditional though it is.
The Unconsoled is a watershed in Ishiguro's development as a writer. Ishiguro said that he realised that he was, "refining and refining the same novel" in his first three books: A Pale View of the Hills, An Artist of the Floating World, The Remains of the Day. Each provided a straight-forward, first-person narrative that peeled back layers of relationships through memory, re-evaluation, re-consideration of persons, times, events. Other themes that appear in later novels were also evident in these early ones: an exploration of what Ishiguro calls, "the texture of memory" that is unfixed, changeable, malleable; the interplay with the past that determines the present and influences the future; the struggle to express oneself in a context of imperfect knowledge and conflicting perceptions; assessing the value of life and what has been achieved personally and professionally; the power of rationalisation and self-justification; missing opportunities for love; how societies themselves remember or forget, or deal with the past in atonement or denial.
Many of these themes appear in The Unconsoled, but the structure of the novel is a dramatic break from what came before. It could perhaps be best described as an extended dream sequence, presented not through stream-of-consciousness, but more as stream-of-life. It is in the latter that the book mirrors the real world despite its phantasmagoric structure.
After The Unconsoled, Ishiguro continued to stretch himself in new directions as a writer. When We Were Orphans is a coming-of-age-detective-mystery straddling Shanghai and England; Never Let Me Go branched into speculative fiction dealing with human clones created to harvest their organs; The Buried Giant is a fable set in ancient Britain that returns strongly to the themes of personal and societal memory.
The main protagonist in The Unconsoled is Ryder, a world-renowned pianist who comes to an unnamed small city somewhere in Central Europe to give a performance as part of a larger gala that is to include a performance by a young, local pianist, Stephan Hoffman, and an orchestral piece to be directed by Brodsky, a local conductor struggling to re-establish his mastery and status after having fallen on hard times and drink. Others include Sophie and her son Boris who may or may not be Ryder's wife and stepson, Gustav a hotel porter who is Sophie's father although there is never any mention of him as father-in-law to Ryder, Mr.Hoffman who is the owner-manager of the hotel where Ryder is staying, organizer of the gala evening, and father of Stephan, and Ms.Collins, the erstwhile partner for whom Brodsky pines and hopes to win back. Added to these is a host of other characters with whom Ryder interacts over the three days before his recital. On top of which, Ryder is seen as a worldly, wise-man who will pronounce on a major issue that has divided the inhabitants of the town; the issue is never quite fully explained but it seems to have something to do with the appreciation and performance of modern classical music.
The parallel that popped into mind reading the book was Alice in Wonderland. Like Wonderland, Ryder's world is one of strange dislocations of space and time, of unexpected and unexplained adventures, of a world where the rules of engagement and discourse are unclear with none of the usual reference points, of a life buffeted by external, uncontrollable forces, of the fragility of identity. In the world of the novel, Ryder takes long rides outside of town, goes into a strange building and then, as in a dream, discovers that the room is in fact the back of the hotel where he is staying. Perspective shifts: a first-narrator suddenly perceives the thoughts of others; two people speak very critically of a third who is present--the third person hears it all, but for the others it is as if he is not there. There is humour that is slapstick and sly. There are subtle jokes from Ishiguro: neither Clint Eastwood nor Yul Brynner appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey; the scene where Brynner claps his hands to test the speed of drawing a gun is from the Magnificent Seven (which also did not include Clint Eastwood).
Other themes that animate the novel and give it structure and momentum include the loneliness of individuals; the challenge, and often the chaos, of organizing life that can be highjacked by events and pressures; missing opportunities for love through timidity, misperceptions, cruelties; the enervating pressure of expectations that themselves thwart a desired outcome; the angst in relationships fostered by misperceptions and miscommunications that feed on and exacerbate each other; the frequent inability to seen the world through a child's eyes and desires.
An individual is an undifferentiated mass of conceptions and feelings based on experience and ever changeable and changing memory. Add to this the bounties and pitfalls of relationships from casual acquaintance to intimacy, and the fluctuating exigencies of time, and you have the unmappable matrix of life. This is what Ishiguro tries to limn in this novel and I think he succeeds. As he does in all his novels, Ishiguro mirrors life by suggesting neither answers, nor conclusions.
Tags: John Klassen