This novel from Colombia was a guided tour of hell. The hell portrayed was Colombia itself, where young hitmen, kids even, went murdering and assassinating with or without cause. Readers with horns and tails will have a grand time. Set in Medellín, the story was narrated by Fernando, an old gay "grammarian" decrying the atrocities and brutalities of his birth place, which he had recently come back to. Fernando had an affair with Alexis, a teenage hired killer he took under his wing. Alexis will be killed later in the novel, a spoiler shared right at the start of his story.
Alternating between ranting and resignation, Fernando was touring us, his "foreign" readers, around the slums and seedy sides of Medellín, always making a detour around churches and stone monuments of the saints who silently listen to the prayers of victims and their sincere assassins. When a government crackdown on a powerful gang had ended its operations, several assassins in its employ suddenly found themselves without jobs. They were left to wander the streets, still carrying guns and facing a larger number of potential targets: anybody who 'exists' and can be used for target practice.
The author Fernando Vallejo, like his narrator, was gay and a writer of a book on grammar. After obtaining citizenship from Mexico in 2007, he renounced his Colombian citizenship (Wiki). It was evident from the novel's text that Vallejo wanted the city of Medellín ("the capital of hate") to represent the wider, national culture of hate of Colombia. The narrator's diatribes took on the Catholic church, the police, the drug cartels, the President, the power structure, all of his fellow citizens who brought Medellín (and Colombia) to the state of anarchy.
There was something fundamentally disturbing about Fernando describing the scenes of random killings in an almost detached voice. Whenever innocent bystanders become casualties (unwitting or intentional), the grammarian's irony was as pointed as pitchfork.
The taxi-driver would no longer have to tolerate impertinent passengers, he was released from working. Death released him: Lady Death, the lover of justice, the number one boss, retired him. With the momentum the man's rage had given the taxi, plus what the bullet added, it carried on until it hit a post and exploded, but not before taking out, in its crazy careering towards the other side of the street, a pregnant woman with two little kids, who'd be having no more, thus cutting short what was promising to be a long maternal career.
What did the pun serve to accomplish?
It must have been tricky to translate this novel. Written in the word-playful voice of a grammarian, the diction was probably made slippery by the use of colloquialisms and street slang. The equivalents in English did not always sound convincing in English. Although the translation read well, it sometimes played false notes here and there. Fernando's detached voice, in Paul Hammond's translation, was generally well-calibrated, but there were some passages and rants, a particular combination of swearwords and local color and idiom, that distracted for sounding artificial. At least the author had given two criteria to assess the radical expression of ideas in writing.
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 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.
The precision of words, the conviction of the style. Perhaps crime investigation and autopsy reports were really the best kind of writing.
The language of hate in fiction was always a risky proposition (case in point: the overrated Pulitzer winning novel by Junot Díaz). The rhetoric of hate sometimes undercut portraits of violence and evil, especially when the loudness of curses and oaths tended to shout down the crimes or to create plain stereotypes. Another possible danger that narratives of hate was always risking (especially here, being told by an insider to an outsider or gringo) was a tendency to trivialize the issues by lending an 'exotic' feel to the story, and thus to evil deeds permeating it. Vallejo mostly avoided this trapdoor by producing a playful, darkly comic, and perceptively truthful court summary.
This novel, originally published in 1994 as La Virgen de los Sicarios, was a harsh judgement on the ineptitude of authorities and the 'religious' to stem the tide of violence in Medellín. The state of hate had become the very way of life in the city. The 'system in place' was unable to prevent young men from taking up arms and firing them indiscriminately. With ever increasing body count, Fernando at one point realized that "the cinema and the novel are not enough to capture the reality of Medellín." The gratuitous scenes in the novel already gave us an idea of the magnitude of Medellín reality. (The novel was adapted into a movie in 2000, directed by Barbet Schroeder and with the screenplay written by Vallejo.)
I read this book during last week's Semana Santa, a good enough excuse to pick up some religious-themed books. The vaguely holy title of this novel was the reason I picked it up. Yet no novel could be farther from the lives of saints. It was a nihilistic tale for which a devil's Nihil obstat could be easily obtained.
La virgen de los sicarios was 11th place in the Semana list of 100 best novels in Spanish language published in the last 25 years. El desbarrancadero (The Brink), another Vallejo novel, still untranslated, was in 10th place.
See also reviews of Fernando Vallejo's books at March of Memories.