14 April 2012

Our Lady of the Assassins (Fernando Vallejo)

Our Lady of the Assassins by Fernando Vallejo, trans. Paul Hammond (Serpent's Tail, 2001)

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.


  1. This sounds great, very much a child of its time in Colombia, the mid 90s - not that I'm an authority on the issue but apparently Medellín has calmed down a lot since, even though things are still rough in parts of the country.
    I'm putting it on my reading list with the hope of getting to it eventually, and I'll be sure to update you on how it reads in the original.

  2. Thanks for the interest, Bettina. I've been googling about it and it did appear that things improved a bit by 2000s, but the killings picked up again in 2008-09, and then went down again. Medellín was overtaken by Cali (also in Colombia) as that country's "most violent" city, according to the Global violence index. An improvement in the homicide rate though it's still high.

  3. Belated props on this post, Rise, but I'm sorry to hear that the translation rang false for you in places. In Spanish, it's a thing of completely effed-up beauty! El desbarrancadero is good, too, but in my opinion not quite as risky or well-executed (pardon the pun) as this one. You might enjoy it more than I did, though, because I remember it as more Bernhardian than Our Lady of the Assassins was.

  4. Thanks, Richard. I had a peek over at your blog with your reviews of this novel and El desbarrancadero. I'll put links to them in the post for reference. I'm sufficiently intrigued with the latter which I'll highly anticipate in case another brave translator takes it up. The translation of Assassins was also beautiful in places, despite the grim subject matter, although, yes, I think it would require a slight tweaking of some passages in order for the idioms to sound true.

  5. Spot on review. I'm working on this novel as part of my dissertation, and you've put your finger on several of the textual effects that readers find especially abrasive. In comparing the Hammond translation to the original, one of my biggest gripes is that H has a tendency to soften the cruder edges of the speaker’s rhetoric. For example, in a passage criticizing power-hungry Colombians, the Spanish reads, “les arde el culo por sentarse en el solio de Bolívar a mandar, a robar” (literally, “their asses burn to sit in Bolivar’s seat, giving orders, thieving”), but Hammond translates, “They couldn’t wait to sit on Bolívar’s throne and give the orders, to line their own pockets” (V106, H98). Also, I think it's interesting and problematic that Serpent's Tail included a glossary when Fernando defines most of the slang he uses in the body of the narrative. These definitions are in the Spanish as well. My biggest gripe with a glossary is that it provides a kind of implicit recognition of the narrator's authority as "guide" to the sicario/assassin subculture.

    1. Thanks, ashley. That short passage is a good example of looking at translational issues. Hammond either preferred to use English idioms ("line their own pockets" for "thieving") or to simplify the words when an idiom is otherwise available ("couldn't wait to sit" for "asses burn to sit"). Your observation about the glossary is an interesting case of domesticating the translation.

  6. “Our Lady of the Assassins” (2000) by Barbet Schroeder

    “Our Lady of the Assassins” starts as if it’s a gay flick but quickly expands its horizons. It is a shockingly honest representation of how elder males in today’s societies, especially those occupying social positions of wealth and power, treat the youth. The amorous relationship between a rich and well educated middle-age man and a young boy, who was forced, because the poverty of his mother to become not only a petty drug dealer but a paid assassin sucked into the drug gangs’ turf war, became Schroeder’s sad comment about the desperate destiny of the young ones in today’s world. Is Fernando, a writer who has returned with the intention to retire, to the place of his birth – Medellin (Columbia), in love with Alexis whom he met at a gay party and invited to live together in his spacious condo? Closeness to the youngster’s soul and body makes Fernando feel himself rejuvenated. And Alexis’ spontaneous intelligence made him feel consoled – he likes to share with his new friend stories about his life. But while watching the film we gradually notice that Fernando doesn’t make any effort to help Alexis to become liberated from his drug bosses and, may be, even move toward an educated and honest life. When they both go out of Fernando’s place the boy serves as his bodyguard and several times saved Fernando’s life - Medellin streets are full of not only nostalgic memories and seductions but real dangers.
    Through the film Schroeder emphasizes two ways the elder males tend to use young people. First is using them as recruits for wars of profit or as laborers for pittance. Adult males with conservative sensibility use teenagers like this for centuries. But how men with liberal sensibility use youth? There is no socio-systemic sadism towards the young person in relationship between Fernando and Alexis, but instead there are elegantly indifferent narcissistic games. This manner of using youth doesn’t contradict sincere and kind feelings.
    While the “conservative” use of the young is personified in the film by the Columbian drug mafia bosses, the essence of “liberal” use became clear when Alexis is killed by the rivaling gang, and this caused Fernando’s sincere suffering. He was able quickly find another boy of the same age as Alexis - Wilmar, who also grown in the slums and was connected with the drug lords, the only employer of teenagers in this area. Soon Wilmar was also killed by still another rivaling gang – by over-armed kids like himself and Alexis.
    Criminal boys-victims passionately pray to the Virgin because of being “bad”, becoming assassins, living in the slums. They pray for an easy and painless death of those whom they are assigned to kill.
    The level of realistic acting in the film is quite high, especially the performance by Anderson Ballesteros in the role of Alexis, who has grown since Schroeder’s film into a professional movie actor.
    By Victor Enyutin

    1. Fascinating review, Katia. Thanks for sharing it.