Mejor el fuego by José Carlos Yrigoyen

Mejor el fuego. José Carlos Yrigoyen. Lima: Literatura Random House. 2020. 174 pages.

His life needs no excuse now,
For he is completely dead,
Now it is his work that counts,
Domesticated for their world,
Another vain object,
Another useless ornament,
And cowardly and mute,
Like one who assents
To injustice from beyond death,
You said good-bye.

Better destruction, better fire.

Luis Cernuda
Translated by Reginald Gibbons

Mejor el fuego [Better fire] is a story built on quicksand. A fragmented and painful story. Turbulent. The abrupt onset of sexual disappointments, attempting to construct an identity out of moments marking a winding path in the narrator's life. The loss of innocence. Searching for harmony in images that twist between a visceral lyricism and sordid beauty: “la casta sensualidad de lo aborrecible” [the chaste sensuality of the abhorrent].

The story moves between the adolescence and young adulthood of a narrator, the only child of a traditional couple that ends up divorcing and leaving him at the mercy of the world. In the preceding years, the protagonist searches relentlessly for an identity to call his own in a world that forbids being gay. His discovery of desire starts with a rape at 14 years old and continues to grow over the course of adolescence, only to solidify in the narrator's surrender to the aggressions of an older, merciless poet: “[S]u cuerpo vestido era benévolo, casi ingenuo en su exageración. Pero su cuerpo desnudo estaba repleto de violencia” [His clothed body was benevolent, almost naïve in its excessiveness.  But his naked body was full of violence.]

These submissions push him to look for new experiences, provoking a break in the character; initially easy prey, he later becomes the hunter and does to David what the poet, Urrutia, did to him. He ultimately becomes the victim of his own excesses. Brief encounters mark a fractured story told through intense poetic devices. And among wretched scenes of torture, raw sex, and incestuous fantasies, there are moments of extreme tenderness, care, and something akin to love.

Todo. La gente, los animales, el aire y su mecánica silbante, mi casa, su departamento, la ruta entre ambos, el camino entre su cuerpo y el mío, sus atajos, sus desvíos, la maravilla de palpar su vientre, la luz cuando estaba prendida y cuando estaba apagada, su cama, donde estuvimos juntos, la mía, donde eyaculaba pensando en él, la foto enmarcada de su familia en la mesa de noche, sus discos compactos, su ropa deportiva hecha un revoltijo en una esquina, el despertar con él en medio de la tarde creyendo que era el amanecer, las toallas que usamos, su espalda desnuda, las plantas que a nuestro alrededor crecían, la hora en que debíamos separarnos, los días sin vernos, los días en que pudimos vernos y no lo hicimos, el miedo que nunca me demostró, como si no hubiera por qué tenerlo, como si después no nos fuéramos a acordar de nada.

[Everything. The people, the animals, the air and its whistling mechanics, my house, his apartment, the route between them, the path between his body and mine, his shortcuts, his detours, the miracle of touching his abdomen, the light when it was on and when it was off, his bed, where we lay together, mine, where I ejaculated thinking of him, the framed photo of his family on the nightstand, his CDs, his gym clothes jumbled in a corner, waking up with him in the middle of the afternoon thinking it was dawn, the towels we used, his naked back, the plants that grew around us, the times we had to part, the days without seeing each other, the days we could have seen each other and didn't, the fear he never showed me, as if he had no reason to be afraid, as if after we would remember nothing.]

The foundation of the characters’ development is a latent marginalization, in a harsh city that provides a dark, apropos setting for the covert sexual experiences of the protagonist, who—despite certain comforts and privileges—never stops feeling like an outsider due to his sexuality and human urges: “Había algo apretado y nudoso donde debía estar mi corazón” [There was something tight and knotted where my heart should have been].

With Samuel, the last of his partners, and perhaps the only one with whom he actually falls in love, the story takes on new meaning, the language takes on new meaning, blurring with the reality of the tale and mingling with the lyricism of every phrase. Musicality erupts quietly, between poetry and the constant shifts of perspective from first to second person, all of which accentuate the confessional tone and render it even more intimate. The secret that is revealed to us: “Samuel abolía con su sola presencia los planos, blandos y numerosos oxiuros que invadían mi alma” [Samuel abolished, with his presence alone, the flat, soft, and numerous pinworms that invaded my soul].

The main character of this novel is, without a doubt, language, which, with extreme care and poetic charge, shakes us as it expresses the inexpressible. Potent, luminous images interspersed with somber reality and scenes of stark crudeness. Sensory profusion through words. The value of speaking about forbidden things. It presents to us a narrative world that dazzles in its intensely detailed portrayal of the most animal aspects of humankind. A voice that manages to transmit pure and metaphoric transgression, constructing an elegiac universe in which every act ricochets, every glance echoes.

Bit by bit, the story unveils a man who is at once language and desire, seeking, like everyone, that thing that can be so difficult to find: the erotic in the impossibility of another's skin.

Daniela Ramírez Ugolotti

Translated by Audrey Meshulam


Daniela Ramirez Ugolotti (Lima, 1979) is a writer and teacher. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. She is co-founder and supervisor of the Master’s in Creative Writing at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Perú, where she currently teaches. She is the author of the novel Todos nacemos muertos (Estruendomudo, 2015), and her short stories and reviews have been published in Revista Temporales NYU (2012), Cuentos contados (McNally, 2013), Escrito desde Nueva York (McNally, 2014), Las bárbaras (2016), Vallejo & Co. (2017), Revista Espinela (PUCP, 2017), Había una vez una peruana (Crisol, 2018), and Los bárbaros (2020).

Audrey Meshulam is a Master of Arts in Translation candidate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. A graduate of Northwestern University's Performance Studies program, she previously worked in direct social service provision in the Washington, DC region.


Other Reviews in this Issue

Los caídos
Antología inventada
The Cardboard House
Cerca del corazón salvaje


Elicura Chihuailaf
Number 16

In our sixteenth issue, we celebrate Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, who in 2020 became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile's National Prize for Literature. We also feature dossiers dedicated to the work of Andrés Neuman, Latin American literary criticism, and the Latin American essay, plus a bilingual selection of texts from Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature commemorating Gabriel García Márquez, the first Latin American author to win the prestigious Neustadt Prize.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Elicura Chihuailaf

Dossier: Andrés Neuman

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters

Latin American Literary Criticism





Brazilian Literature


Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Nota Bene