Once, at the Instituto Cervantes in Madrid, Juan Villoro had to play him and Fernando Savater in what was to be a dialogue between them about Octavio Paz, a common teacher. Savater suffered a traffic jam returning from Italy and Villoro was left alone on stage, doing both. He could have played Octavio Paz if he had imposed it on him. He improvised a lecture that seemed also typical of the brilliance of his illustrious countryman, and also of Savater. With that ability that he also has for writing, he has now published The land of great promise (Penguin Random House), which was the subject of this interview in Madrid. In that book, a filmmaker sees the Mexican Cinematheque burn, stars in an accident in which a friend dies, and in the end he flees to Barcelona from the threat of the drug trafficker, who is looking for him for a documentary that landed a drug lord in jail. Villoro (Mexico, 65 years old) is also the author of Argon’s shot and Disposed matter.
Question. He has written a book that is Mexico.
Answer. Well yeah, somehow I think The land of great promise inevitably it is a metaphor, an expression of what I have lived in Mexico in many years.
P. And it is painful.
R. It has a lot to do with disenchantment, with the unfulfilled illusions in which my generation believed, but also with certain solidarity networks, fragile, secret, small, that keep alive the social fabric of a country as broken as Mexico.
P. And also his book is Spain.
R. Because there is an autobiographical element that has to do with an assault that we suffered in Mexico. We decided to take refuge in Barcelona, my father’s land, and look for a place where my children could grow up. That “land of great promise” for me was Barcelona for a while, but my character lives in a much more serious situation than mine. This autobiographical anecdote was greatly increased in the novel and took on a more dramatic dimension.
P. That character is someone whose Cinematheque is burned at age 24, a friend and colleague is killed, and that fills him and his generation with guilt. News reaches Barcelona that this guilt has to be purged. He returns to Mexico and there the violence acquires levels of enormous intensity in the book.
R. I’ve always been impressed that certain people do high-risk jobs that put their lives at risk. One of the explanations is that somehow they want to settle a fault, they want to give fate a chance to mate with them and take their toll on them for something they did in the past. Diego González, my character, depends on an open wound, a guilt from the past for which he feels responsible. Seeking to settle accounts with himself, he dedicates himself to making documentaries in violent areas of Mexico, even in a safe house where he interviews a drug lord, exposing himself to fate adjusting the scores. The novel reflects on the subculture that violence has brought about, the way in which public behavior has affected the intimate lives of all people. When he tries to escape and goes into exile in Barcelona, he discovers that the luggage carries its own Mexican destiny. He cannot escape what made him leave Mexico.
One of the circumstances that produces societies as polarized as that of current Mexico or so many others is that, at times, the one who knows you best is the one who has a certain rivalry with you.
P. You said yourself here, in 1997, that the shortest way to succeed in Mexico is corruption. In this book there is corruption all the time. And even he who does not commit it does not know that he is also corrupt.
R. It is the portrait of a very decomposed society. Organized crime tries to impose stories to exonerate itself. When a capo like Chapo Guzmán, who is accused of so many crimes, is arrested, some who are probably responsible for those crimes can continue committing crimes because there are already designated culprits. In Mexico, the judges have gone to television productions to pretend that they are delivering justice and the drug traffickers themselves have taken advantage of the fact that someone has been arrested to foist on him the things that others continue to commit. In this struggle of narratives enters a documentary maker, Diego, who tries to see reality in a neutral way. And he is inadvertently drawn into a network where he too can be an accomplice to these competing narratives. And nobody gives classified information if they don’t have a personal interest.
P. Nobody gives an exclusive for free.
R. It is said in the novel. There was a journalist in Mexico, Manuel Buendía, who had a column titled Private network. It depended on leaks and news that had not been documented by the other newspapers. He published what no one else dared to comment and was assassinated. He paid with his life the price of releasing these types of classified reports. I received a lot of data, but it was not disinterested. Someone wanted to harm another person or exonerate themselves with this information. He was a great journalist who entered those crossroads; many years later my protagonist goes through a similar circumstance.
P. Adalberto Anaya, the journalist who tries to expose him, is a victim of this phenomenon in the novel. How can life be combined with that life?
R. It’s okay to call him a victim. I wanted there to be a tension, a latent rivalry between the characters. One is a documentarian. Another is a journalist who has helped him search for information, but he feels disappointed that Diego did not allow him access to the safe house where he had his encounter with the drug lord. There is a fight of egos, envies, misgivings, and in the end both are victims. One of the circumstances produced by societies as polarized as Mexico today or many others is that, at times, the person who knows you best is the one who has a certain rivalry with you.
One of the great problems of my generation, who grew up in the 60s and 70s, was that utopias were on sale
P. It is said in the book that crime is not only part of life in Mexico, but that it is already like an industry. Are you aware of what you are saying, in this case, when you are writing it?
R. One of the advantages of the novel is that you can expose very diverse ideas, some of them extreme, others contradictory, which are not necessarily yours. I think we live in a time where too many people try to impose a single thought, and one of the riches of the novel is to present contradictory characters, often outrageous. Consider Dostoevsky, who has anarchist characters that he repudiated in his life as a citizen, but whom he makes speak so eloquently that sometimes you agree with his anarchist characters and not with the author who was against them. I am responsible for bringing together all the voices in my novel, but I don’t necessarily share everything they say. In the case of crime, I believe that it is a constitutive part of current Mexican life. That is a tragedy. We have not been able to move to a sufficiently civic society that means that we do not have any overt relationship with criminal or corrupt acts. Unfortunately, in Mexico the illicit is too confused with the legal.
P. Has there ever been a light at the end of the tunnel?
R. Hope has been inaugurated many times in Mexico. We are specialists in believing that something is going to change permanently. The novel deals with, among other things, what is the measure of hope, what is the scope of what we should long for. One of the great problems of my generation, which grew up in the 60s and 70s, in the heat of the ideas of change, was that utopias were on sale. We thought that the transformation of society was going to be absolute, radical, that a democratic socialism would arrive, an arcadian hippy back to nature or a world of free love, prior, of course, to the AIDS pandemic. This did not happen. From the artificial paradises of drugs we went to drug trafficking, from the return to nature we went to ecocide, from egalitarian ideas to totalitarianism, and so on. The disenchantment that permeates much of the novel has a dose of hope if we understand that the possibilities of modifying reality are not absolute change, but the transformation of certain minimal things that can improve the world.
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