The Tourist in His Own Land: Juan Villoro before the Chronicle
In Safari accidental [Accidental safari] (2005), Juan Villoro memorably identifies the chronicle as the “duckbill platypus of prose.” This animal was first inspected by a Western scientist in England in 1799. Doctor George Shaw dissected it in the hopes of finding the sutures that joined together the parts of the separate animals that made it up; needless to say, he didn’t find them. In Germany, it was given the scientific name Ornithorhynchus paradoxus; this last word implies, etymologically, a belief or opinion contrary to the one held by the majority: one that’s a little unbelievable. Just as the platypus left European scientists perplexed, the chronicle is usually used to write about remarkable and incredible subjects, when the observer needs to communicate his discovery to others but the channels of mass media are not up to the job; there is something in the language that is more important than the object itself. It is the union of all its disparate and paradoxical parts that makes the chronicle a rara avis of literature.
For the so-called “cronistas de Indias”—the first Spanish chroniclers of the Americas—is was clear that the New World needed to be narrated. If not, it would be literally unthinkable. From Christopher Columbus to Bernadino de Sahagún, by way of Hernán Cortés, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and Bartolomé de las Casas, these chroniclers recorded their experience overseas, featuring gryphons and dragons, barbarians and heroes, deaths and conquests. Their chronicles always emphasize their personal story, which is surely true for the narrator, but they also include the praise, diatribe, beauty, and strangeness of America. These elements allow us to glimpse a certain aesthetic sense in the content of the chronicles and, without a doubt, an appreciation of the historical importance of the events they narrate.
But, for Juan Villoro, the beauty of the chronicle lies not only in its content, in the wonder with which it treats historical events, but also in its language itself. In Los once de la tribu [The eleven of the tribe] (1995), the chronicler comments that he started working in this genre in order to make up for the loneliness of writing fiction. Here, the writer sets out into the outside world, he goes forth to encounter reality, but in Villoro’s case, he never ceases to transmute this reality into words. The constant appearance of sports commentators is never gratuitous in this author's chronicles: the most admired among them is Ángel Fernández, followed by Pedro “El Mago” Septién. On the football field and on the baseball diamond, legendary events have taken place, historical happenings, like Sandy Koufax’s perfect game with the LA Dodgers, as Villoro calls it himself in El vértigo horizontal [Horizontal vertigo] (2018). The narrator of such a game needs no superhuman literary gifts; the fact itself is enough to be extraordinary: Koufax went up against twenty-seven Major League batters, and not one landed a hit or touched a base. The problem appears when the stadium of the Diablos Rojos del México is half-empty, so he has to fire up the audience through pure language. A certain verbal alchemy must transmute the pitcher’s gaze, fixed on the catcher’s signals, into a psychological battle, like the one fought by Raskolnikov. The chronicler creates a new language for the tribe, a language that transforms day-to-day experience and turns the most tucked-away corner into something different: a place “where the spiders spin their web.”
In the same way, Villoro takes up a generally quotidian reality and transforms it into an extraordinary event: his childhood home, on the corner of Santander and Valencia, becomes the home of all children who lived through the fear and wonder of his old neighborhood, a land of battles and adventures circumscribed to a couple of blocks. This is why Villoro’s chronicles, among many other elements that make up his platypus, incorporate the “cuadro de costumbres”—a longstanding tradition in Spanish-language literature of texts depicting popular life. Unlike the friars and conquistadors who wrote about what they believed to be a new world, the chronicler who watched the twentieth century die and who writes about his infancy from the twenty-first has already passed through romanticism and realism: he knows he has nothing left but language with which to create his own plus ultra. This chronicler finds himself rooted in the reality of a single neighborhood, but his language allows this particular barrio to represent the uniqueness of all others.
Besides all that, Villoro also delves into the customs of others. From the otherness that Yucatán represents for a resident of Mexico City, that “country within the country,” the writer explores, in Palmeras de la brisa rápida [Palm trees of the swift breeze] (1989), the history of his family, of the state, of the chronicle as a genre and of its role in a country that is foreign to it. He also wanders through Chile in 8.8: el miedo en el espejo [8.8: fear in the mirror] (2010), finding there not only that people still sleep in pajamas, but also that Mexicans and Chileans react differently to tragedy. The Chile earthquake also allows Villoro to reflect on the chronicle: as Giorgio Agamben proposes in Remnants of Auschwitz, only a person who knows horror can be an “integral witness.” The difference between Primo Levi, whom Agamben considers the ideal witness, and Villoro is that the latter truly considers himself a writer and firmly believes that his essential function is to write; after all, countless scenes of the earthquake can be found easily on YouTube. This is why he is constantly breaking the rules of the testimonial chronicle, like in Tiempo transcurrido [Time spent] (1986), where he writes “imaginary chronicles.” Similarly, 8.8: el miedo en el espejo includes literary resources that are completely alien to any chronicle that seeks to be testimonial, such as the internal focus of those who lived through the tragedy of the earthquake of February 27, 2010.
The characters of Villoro’s chronicles are often impossible: they give away the narrator who published his first book of short stories, El mariscal del campo [The field marshal] (1978), eight years before his first book of chronicles; he would publish more stories in La noche navegable [The navigable night] (1980) and Albercas [Pools] (1985) before it as well. The reader might wonder how the witness was able to take in certain thoughts or certain actions, and the truth is that he did not; rather, he imagined how they could or must have occurred in order to make the chronicle more intense, more literary. The chronicler of Palmeras de la brisa rápida wonders: “Is there anything more tedious than a restrained chronicle? Common sense [...] is a literary narcotic.” The excess of Ángel Fernández as he commentates a soccer game is what makes it epic, just as the excessive similes of Pindar immortalized Hellenic athletes in his epinikions. In the same way, Villoro lets loose his gifts as a narrator, essayist, playwright, and journalist, sewing together a platypus that seems impossible and that, nevertheless, walks with grace and elegance.
In this way, Villoro presents his readers with a series of texts that he calls chronicles, but that include a wide range of genres and literary strategies whose delight does not lie exclusively in the object of his narration. To tell the truth, it is the verbal art that uplifts the object. In “Vivir en la ciudad: El conscripto” [“Living in the city: the conscript”], for example, included in El vértigo horizontal, the chronicler narrates his experience in the not-so-warlike Mexican military service; but, from this experience that imparts the infinite tedium of coming-of-age in Mexico, he moves on to a love story. The event itself is somewhat trivial (the middle-class young man who falls in love with a daughter of railway tycoons and is torn between his crush, which we later discover is unrequited, and his fear that the family will discover how this “tourist from otherness” has infiltrated their family networks), but what really matters is the poetic meaning that Villoro imprints upon this chronicle, upon this rather petty incident, turning it into a sensitive subject for anyone who has ever felt like a “tourist from otherness” (so, everyone). The story is ostensibly about Lucía and Juan, the two kids who, in spite of their class differences, exchange a kiss one evening in Nonoalco; but it is also about the assertion that “some things are worthwhile because they’re impossible,” like falling in love after a kiss, setting out into the world “to undo grievances and right wrongs,” or listening to your father’s ghost and trying to avenge him.
In this way, the chronicler becomes a tourist in his own land. Yucatán, Chile, Disney World, and Mexico City are the settings for a storyteller who has been out of place since his infancy in the iconic Colonia Insurgentes Mixcoac. Villoro does not simply find himself faced with America’s wonder, Koufax’s perfect game or Maradona’s goal against England; rather, he knows he is witnessing a more intimate story, a story shared by those who find themselves between the temporal limits of the Tlatelolco Massacre and the earthquake of 1985, but also those who share everyday or extraordinary tragedies. Thus, in Villoro’s chronicles, we find not only great human tragedy; on the contrary, this tragedy is enclosed within very specific, almost arbitrary moments. What we find more profusely is the shared story of the tribe, of the barrio, but also of the city and even of the continent. The events of October 2, 1968 and September 11, 1985 represent the terrible goals of tragedy, but Villoro, with unquestionable narrative skill, dedicates his writing to those moments when the passes stretch out interminably in a regular season game between two teams that will probably never make it to the championship. The author’s “imaginary chronicles” emphasize the pleasure of language, where everyday reality, usually lacking in excessively exciting events, is an object dressed in poetry, in verbal creation.
It is important to stress, nonetheless, that for all the affection for language and literature we find in Villoro’s chronicles, we also find joy in the reality they narrate. The author says so clearly: writing chronicles is how he avoids the loneliness of writing fiction. The chronicler has to go to a game, to Yucatán, to Santiago, to Disney World. He goes out to hunt for adventure, and this adventure informs his readings and the writing that will come in the future. The reader can clearly follow the trail of the ideas of Benjamin, Adorno, and Baudrillard in “Escape de Disney World” [Escape from Disney World], but what matters more is how a text is built upon these ideas, in order to bring the reader along on the truly exciting adventure, the event worthy of being narrated: not the ideas of the philosopher, not the narrator conscious of his reality, but the family that has to run desperately to make it to the plane on time: “the only real emotion that Disney World permits: the unexpected escape.” There is a narration within the chronicler's narration: “Our daughter heard her brother’s tales of Disney World like Isabel of Castile heard the tales of her cronistas de Indias, until we decided that she too deserved her dose of hyperreality.” Creativity and reading are both here, but the journey out into the world is what matters, since this will generate adventures worthy of narration and give a reason for linguistic creation.
Juan Villoro creates and recreates a commonplace reality. Unlike that of the cronistas de Indias, the reality of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries does not seem so exciting. Nevertheless, it is the writer’s excess that charges it with personal and social meanings. Even the most terrible reality, like that of the 2010 earthquake in Chile, which shifted the rotational axis of the Earth, shortened the day itself, and moved the cities of Concepción and Santiago, is worthy of the most minimal story, of the detail that humanizes the chronicler: one of the things that impresses him most is that some people still wear pajamas, in the strictest sense of the word. Since the earthquake began at 3:34 a.m., he had the opportunity to see Chileans and foreigners in their sleepwear. The genre that Villoro confronts in these texts allows him to become, in his own words, a “tourist of otherness,” to observe the world from without, even his own city and his own street. It is an operation of insertion and isolation that takes place in reality. Villoro’s platypus is both duck and beaver, both fiction and journalism, both reflection and adventure, both reading and writing. Trying to separate its parts would mean destroying its vitality and its grace. And sometimes “the ducks born among platypuses think they’re platypuses,” but that’s another story.
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Rodrigo Figueroa is the author of three books of poems in Spanish, Una frontera transparente (2013), Poemas para orquestra y quatro colibríes (2003), and Paganas procesiones (2001). He is also the author of one play, La breve jornada, which was staged at Mexico City’s National University in 2008 and received multiple awards. Born in 1980, he is part of a younger generation of Mexican poets living in the U.S. but writing in Spanish. He lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and is an assistant professor of Hispanic literature at New Mexico State University.
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
In our tenth issue, we question the values of literature and journalism in the post-truth age through the words of Mexican writer Juan Villoro and we explore new territories of digital literature in a dossier curated by Scott Weintraub. We also feature memories of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre told through graphic narrative, new perspectives on the translation of Shakespeare into Spanish with an essay from Braulio Fernández Biggs, and Wayuu literature from the Venezuelan side of the border than runs through their ancestral lands.