Lately the world of murder mysteries or crime novels has taken on new and varied forms of expression. We do not propose to make a list of those paths since they are already well known. What interests us in these pages is to highlight the heterogeneity of narrative strategies that we notice in Central American novels that have caught our interest recently: El año del laberinto [The year of the labyrinth] (2000) by Tatiana Lobo, where the story is told to us by the murder victim; or the classic murder mysteries that come with local color, El cielo llora por mi [The sky cries for me] (2008) and Ya nadie llora por mí [No one cries for me] (2017) by Sergio Ramírez; from the disappearance of the policeman (detective) as in Cruz de olvido [Cross of forgetting] (2008) by Carlos Cortés and La sirvienta y el luchador [The servant and the luchador] (2011) by Horacio Castellanos Moya, to the more psychological format, without identity (a least not a local one) of El asesino melancólico [The melancholy assassin] (2015) by Jacinta Escudos, where the murder is a product of happenstance in relation to those involved, and it does not matter where it happens, nor do we need anyone to investigate it since the clues are very obvious. However, these are all novels in which the murder is still the trigger and the element that alters the psychology of the characters and subjectifies them in some way.
In addition to psychological conflicts and human drama in the characters, in the contemporary crime genre we see important alterations in ethical and aesthetic terms along with constant adjustments to the violent reality that surrounds us. We cite as an example Moronga (2018), the latest novel by Horacio Castellanos Moya, where we find a story narrated in three tones, by means of three different tessituras of voice. The first two tell parallel stories whose interests differ, one from the other. Toward the end, the third voice takes on the task of merging both earlier stories (and by this same unification becoming the third story), and in this final voice we ultimately recognize the threads that run through all three stories. This is a novel that does not forget to question the world that surrounds it, nor does it elude social commentary, although it is not parochial in the manner of the 80s and 90s, unlike some of its contemporaries; and it runs according to the consistent and urgent “not-wanting-to-die” desire of its characters. The tones of the voices are carefully worked, without becoming excessive, for the sake of a more apt representation of the characters and their circumstances. It is worth pointing out that in examining the literature of the Isthmus of Central America it has become nearly impossible to dodge “historical reality” past and present, and Castellanos Moya does not avoid it in any of his works.
The apparent central concept in the novel that concerns us is the investigation of the murder of the Salvadorian poet Roque Dalton at the hands of his own ideological comrades, whose morbidity immediately captures the attention of the reader. But the striking aspect of the story is the subversion of utopia, while the primary interest that is awakened by the aforementioned investigation drops into the background, fades quickly, and loses its importance toward the end because we never learn what happened. In other words, the novel forces us to reflect more on the three-dimensional aspects of the characters in relation to the world that surrounds them and on their struggles to survive rather than on the importance of the results of the investigation that is detailed in the CIA’s declassified files concerning the murder of the acclaimed poet. What makes itself felt throughout the text is a constant tension that is the product of the violence from different fronts which permeates all of the action. We have said that it is not a parochial novel, since the principal settings are Wisconsin, Chicago, and Washington, and so the characters venture through unknown settings, always dragging along the ghosts of their pasts. Furthermore, these are texts that emerge from destabilized, fissured settings of Central America and from which Otmar Ette assures us there emerge “literatures without fixed residence” while they question the national: that is, settings, genre, identity, literature, border permeability, etc. In this sense, one must consider the itinerancy of the authors and the way in which these constant displacements between their countries and the rest of the world permeate their literary production and give them a different perspective to subjectify the world that surrounds them. We are not talking about exile per se and its literary aspect (rootless, bitter, violent), or about lightning-quick journeys that are carried out due to winning literary prizes, or giving masterful readings, or attending conferences. We are talking about that human movement that obeys multiple reasons and which requires that the individual remain a certain period of time in a place that is foreign to him; in other words, that he soak up some of the everyday nature of the space in which he is moving at that moment and can thus begin to interpret it in relation to his experience. The results come with what Beatriz Cortez has called a heavy load of impertinence, disenchantment, and cynicism. In the case of our author, it is clear that this has been the stamp of his production. His long stays (with total freedom to leave and return) in Japan, Mexico, Germany, and the United States, among other countries (currently he is a professor at the University of Iowa), give scenic verisimilitude to the novel to which we refer. In addition, and although it is true that the themes in the majority of his novels and short stories revolve around San Salvadoran events and characters (I repeat, in the majority of cases without disdain for his knowledge), in this one, his hand does not tremble while taking his characters out of that Central American country (he had already attempted it before in Donde no estén ustedes [Where you are not], Desmoronamiento [Breakdown], El sueño del retorno [The dream of the return], and Insensatez [Insensitivity]) and putting them any place in the world (in this case in the United States) with the certainty of knowing and being able to describe in detail the city in which they circulate.
Moronga is divided into three sections: the first part, the second part, and the epilogue. The first two stories, though narrating the present, are anchored in the memory of the characters and even in that of the reader in order to gradually piece together the puzzle of the entire story; the author’s earlier novel being a fundamental part of the same (thus the importance of the reader’s memory). The last story is an official police report of the events that took place on the streets of Washington, after which a shootout between two supposedly opposing factions, the dead victims and the survivors is described without omitting expert details. This report indicates that the events are almost totally the result of chance, since only three of the many involved individuals knew their own intentions. The rest are what in argot is often called “collateral damage” or, as one reads elsewhere, toys of chance or destiny.
In this sense, it seems that one of the aspects of the most recent Central American crime novels (for example Moronga) is that they deal very little with the story’s nucleic crime, as was once the custom, and instead they distort it, twisting it to construct a crime borrowing from other sources at hand, but also developing it outside the expectations or suspicions of the reader.
It is thus a kind of game with that accomplice-reader whom Cortázar was looking for, and thus the importance of the reader’s memory which we have already mentioned. If we recall Castellanos Moya’s previous novels, we can very easily place the characters and round out his own individual history, since the Aragón family’s saga continues. However, if we have not ventured through the author’s previous novels by this point, we have read through the first two stories of the novel, and the police report which we read binds them together, to round out the complete story without doing damage to its own universe.
Additionally, it is evident in this novel, and by extension in the Central American novel in general, that the trauma of the war with its past violence, coupled with other more recent types of violence, gives up the characters. And it is not by chance, since this is the generation that lived part of the civil war even though at this point it is another type of irrational violence (the gangs, the Mexican cartels, the Colombians, common crime, etc.) to which society is being subjected that is much more important and about which the authors take accurate notes. It is clear that Central American crime literature continues to be faithful to one of the genre’s marks of identity in relation to the representation of the world that surrounds it.
Each part of the book that we are discussing has a subtitle; brief, as if it were not important that we become aware of any description: first, “Zeledón”; second, “Aragón”; these are the last names of characters whose first-person voices narrate the first two sections, although Zeledón is not the one who speaks out in the section that corresponds to him, since it has no fixed identity. Finally, “The Hidden Marksman,” the third part, much shorter than the judicial report of the events. The brevity of the subtitles is not coincidental, since throughout the novel we learn that these characters have been stripped of their identity to the extent that circumstance requires (in addition, it must be remembered that the police report is by nature impersonal). Throughout their existence, because we must remember that the characters have existed before in other novels by Castellanos Moya, they find themselves in need of adopting other identities, giving rise to the instability that is noticed at the moment of self-definition in the face of their reality.
The first part, “Zeledón,” is narrated by a character who decides to travel from Texas to Milwaukee to continue his unending escape (from himself). In fact, his name is Joselito, the youthful character from La sirvienta y el luchador, who during the war years killed his own mother in a guerrilla operation, without clearly realizing it (one of those instances of “collateral damage”). Zeledón is the last name of a former subordinate who facilitates Joselito’s existence in Milwaukee. He never tells us his name and Castellanos Moya’s reader will be obliged to resort to memory, and if possible to the re-reading of previous novels to place the identity of this first voice.
There is another ex-subordinate (representative of the new violence) who attempts to take advantage of the situation and to have an impact on the life of the character without success. This last ex-subordinate, the narrative voice discovers, has become a hitman for the Mexican cartels, and is on the hunt for a small-time, insignificant trafficker in Chicago:
I would be more fed up with your new bosses. You already know I don’t like them.
I trained myself for action, knowing who the enemy was. Everything very clear. There was sense, a cause.
And I could not survive in that whorehouse of betrayals—I added. I don’t know how you manage it…
He said that he did peripheral jobs, specific ones, that he did not get involved in their internal killings.
I felt like urinating.
It is not my role to kill for money, Old Man. Even less on behalf of those people.
It does not make sense to me.
He wiped his gums with his tongue.
And what is the difference?
I stared at him.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” I said.
And I stood up. (133)
Joselito refuses to forget his principles from when he was part of the urban guerrilla war, and these ideological remains separate him from the updated violence; he prefers to continue surviving, moving, traveling, as he has always done since the time of the war. Likewise, the rhythm and the tones of each character’s language are primordial. In this first part, the prose is agile, loaded with movement; the tone is somber, short sentences, brief visual descriptions that are very detailed:
I went up the stairs on the Jackson Street side exit. I ended up in the esplanade in front of the Chicago River. I leaned back at the gate where I could contemplate the river while being buffeted by the wind gusts; I discerned two cameras that covered the area.
It was 10:56.
I walked across the esplanade, parallel to the river, toward Adams.
And then I headed back with slow steps toward the canal from where I could see, at a diagonal, the entrance to the CVS. (117)
The character does not speak more than is strictly necessary. The paragraphs are duly separated by two blank lines each time the narrator jumps from one idea to another. In addition to exacerbating the tension, all this makes us reflect on the discipline that the narrator maintains in his reflections; there is no room for error because, where he comes from, errors are expensive. He is a character who lives in constant fear, paranoid, suspicious of everything and everyone. Always, as has been noted before, he gives a glimpse of ideological loyalty.
The second part is narrated by Erasmo Aragón, another character from a previous novel, El sueño de retorno, in which Erasmo is the principal character. Also, in this second part of Moronga is a narrative that describes the adventures of a visiting Salvadoran professor at Merllow College, who had been monitored through his email by the character in the first section. They never spoke. Aragón never knew that Joselito had been monitoring him. Aragón arrives in Washington to investigate the CIA archives to find out what happened to Roque Dalton and ends up involved in an extorsion plot whose development is linked to the violent ending.
The novel, it is worth mentioning, includes a nod to the “secret” surveillance that intensified after the events of 9/11, and which the government of the United States is still carrying out on its citizens.
The tone of the language is also different: discipline of thought does not exist in the first part; there is no separation of lines between ideas. This voice does not express any great distrust in its surroundings, it is loquacious, it has a different personality, and is more in tune with its daily life. The voice flows, forming long paragraphs, something like what tradition calls “streams of consciousness,” without periods, and the only thing that gives it cadence are the commas. It is clear that his formative world is not one of guerrilla action. In contrast to the first part, this character is a journalist who, after a few years in exile in Mexico, returns to El Salvador to direct a newspaper during the signing of the peace accord, then going into exile once again, this time to the United States, as visiting professor at Merllow City College, where the two stories intersect. The autobiographical atmosphere that accompanies this character should be emphasized. But that is another matter.
As a way to conclude this text, it is definite that Moronga, with the marked difference in the tones of the voices, makes clear the varying ethics and aesthetics of the crime novel while moving with complete liberty between the pure narration of the first part, attached to the classic police mystery; to the looser second part, with more dynamism and more looseness in the voice, without the rigidity of the classic form; and the third part that exhibits the coldness of a police report: detailed, impersonal, without variations, adhering to the facts down to the last detail. It is, in my view, one of the latest examples of the chameleon-like nature of Central American crime novels (and I suspect, of crime novels throughout Latin America) since it attempts to update, subvert, invent, and re-invent ethics and aesthetics with the aim of readapting to the “violent realities” of its country, something that is in the end very characteristic of the genre to which it belongs.
José Juan Colín
University of Oklahoma
Translated by Rosario Drucker Davis