The Reef by Juan Villoro, translated by Yvette Siegert. 246 pp. George Braziller, 2017.
Juan Villoro is not only a leading Mexican novelist but also a popular football journalist with 328,363 followers on Twitter. That hasn’t mattered much in the doggedly provincial Anglosphere. Until recently he has suffered the usual fate of any writer outside that tiny elite whose work is comprehensively translated. Very few English readers had heard of him.
My own small evangelism for Juan Villoro was to commission the first translation of his short story ‘El silbido’ (‘The Whistle’) for the journal Contrappasso in 2013. After reading ‘Coyote’ in The Vintage Book of Latin American Stories, I’d looked for other examples of Villoro’s work in English. The harvest was small, but Villoro had been lucky to attract two of the best contemporary Spanish-to-English translators. Chris Andrews, champion of Roberto Bolaño and César Aira, had optimistically published a few chapters from the novel El Testigo (2004), widely considered Villoro’s masterpiece (it still awaits a publisher). Lucas Lyndes’ exemplary translation of the story ‘Mariachi’ had turned up in the electronic literary journal The Portable Museum, a brave publishing endeavour initiated by American expatriates based in Lima.
‘Mariachi’ was one of seven stories from Villoro’s collection Los Culpables (2007). I didn’t consider it much of a gamble to invite Lucas to choose another one to translate for Contrappasso. ‘The Whistle’ is a football story about a hapless and recently-cuckolded player hired to play in the desert for the Mexicali Toucans. The team is owned by a pair of identical Chinese triplets. A terrorist bomb puts the hero in hospital, and later he winds up on another team playing against the Argentinean teammate who rescued him from the rubble. The punchline is a hilarious acknowledgement of the futility of our best efforts.
Two years later the entire story collection was published by George Braziller as The Guilty, translated (or in some cases retranslated) cover-to-cover by Kimi Traube. It is a wonderfully funny book. In lean and punchy sentences, Villoro creates a kind of over-cranked satirical realism full of tenderness for human failure amid the absurdities of contemporary Mexico.
The momentum continues to grow. In 2016 Restless Books published a collection of Villoro’s soccer writings, God is Round, translated by Thomas Bunstead. And now from George Braziller comes The Reef, originally published as Arrecife in 2012. It is Villoro’s first novel to appear in English, courtesy of yet another translator, Yvette Siegert.
The setting of The Reef is the fictional Kukulcán, the Mayan name for their plumed serpent deity, on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán. It is a Cancún-like destination for gringo tourists and an ecological disaster thanks to oil rigs, bad city plumbing, and the garbage dumped by passing cruise ships. Rain is a constant. While the development had meant “jobs for people who used to suck mango seeds to curb their hunger,” the already decaying hotel rooms of Kukulcán will be eventually occupied only on paper by Gogolesque ‘Dead Tourists’, a scam for international money laundering.
The Pyramid is a hotel resort that has staved off closure by offering chronically bored Westerners the thrill of pseudo-dangerous pseudo-experiences of Mexico: encounters with fake guerrillas, staged kidnappings, jungle snakes pretending to be deadly, plastic machine guns, etc. It provides a kind of “recreational paranoia.” The Pyramid is now “a Sodom with piña coladas, a Disneyland with herpes, or a ‘Nam with room service.”
Tony Góngora is a typical Villoro hero, a passive and resigned middle-aged failure. His father was supposedly killed in the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968. He is, in fact, overloaded with traumas and literally walking wounded—when he was a child he had permanently damaged his leg in a car accident and later lost a finger to an exploding firecracker. The former bass player for a group called Los Extraditables, Tony idolises Jaco Pastorius, whose uninhibited indulgence shortened a brilliant career. Tony is also a drug addict. Los Extraditables had once been selected to support a reformed Velvet Underground, but Tony had blown their big chance. The Velvets had mandated “a tyrannical code of wholesomeness” but Tony had betrayed Lou Reed, “a walking skull in dark sun glasses”, with a spectacular binge. Another casualty of that relapse was his relationship with a woman from Guadalajara.
Tony’s post-addiction gig is to synthesize ambient music from the movements of the fish in the Pyramid’s aquarium. Nepotism landed Tony this ridiculous job. The resort is managed by a fellow former Extraditable, Marcus Müller, who fills in the gaps in Tony’s drug-destroyed memory, although the stories are rarely flattering. Müller has misguidedly encouraged ‘Maya Pride’ in his indigenous workers, installing a replica of an ancient tablet from Palenque in the lobby, but the workers really believe their ancestors came from outer space. Meanwhile the Pyramid’s major shareholder El Gringo Peterson, Tony’s unlikely confidante, regrets never fighting in Vietnam and is obsessed by his failure to save his infant son from drowning.
The plot is vaguely centred on a ludicrous murder mystery. An American diving instructor, Ginger Oldenville, is found murdered in the aquarium with a spear in his back. Almost simultaneously his lover, Roger Bacon, is found drowned. Each has a hammock rope tied in a knot around his penis. Some bizarre gay suicide pact? Bored with normal life, the dead men had been part of the Cruci/fiction group, a “risk club” for “ultra-sports” where “there are no injuries, just deaths.” Señor Roger also had a tattoo in Arabic. Was he a terrorist? Or is all of this just an intentional distraction from a greater conspiracy? For some reason the CCTV cameras were shut off during Ginger’s murder.
The discovery of Ginger’s corpse interrupts a drunken sexual encounter between Tony and Sandra, the hotel’s American instructor in “Ashtanga yoga, Tibetan kung fu and contact improv.” Her backstory is a dead boyfriend, alcohol, and cage-dancing. Nearly every character in this probably overpopulated novel is living life in the aftermath of bad decisions. Lacking the proper work visa, Sandra has been sexually blackmailed by the hotel’s detestable security officer. Her eventual one-off consummation with Tony is decidedly unsexy (“The lubricant smelled like window cleaner”). We never really learn Sandra’s fate because she vanishes from the narrative. Women in Villoro’s work tend to be assertive, alluring, but elusive. Villoro’s heroes take their female punishment with a shrug, as their due.
The short unnumbered chapters zip past in a flurry of blunt dialogue and manic characters. The murder mystery is solved but without much urgency. Tony’s unlikely acceptance of the role of an adoptive father to Müller’s illegitimate daughter, who lives in a shelter for battered women, offers hope for a purposeful future. Villoro makes wry observations about Mexico and the state of humanity in this nearly-plausible contemporary wasteland. The English-speaking world deserves more of his books.
Manchester and Edinburgh, October 2017