Mexico City: Ediciones Eón, 2022. 111 pages.
There are plenty of reasons to kill. What is in short supply, however, are reasons not to do it. In La vieja Inés (todo sobre el caso Torres Villaquirán), José Cardona López has assembled over one hundred pages of a story defined by negation. The novel opens with a resounding “NO,” part of a phrase that echoes throughout the text: “I didn’t kill them.” It is grammatically forceful, underscoring the determination found in the voice of the narrator and protagonist. To summarize the “case” alluded to in the subtitle: his case—and what a case it really is—shakes our consciences because the defendant, regardless of the Fifth Law of Moses, refuses even to defend his honor in terms of society’s unwritten laws, however ill-defined they may be. Torres Villaquirán surprises—much more than surprises (and the tone of the story warrants the oxymoron)—his wife and her lover in their room at a cheap motel. The protagonist must have committed a crime that, in this context, represents an authorized execution, that barbaric act to which the State reserves the right, and which is supposedly sanctioned by and for the defense of society. From this perspective, the double-murder is an obligatory action, one taken to prevent adulterers from violating the sacred bonds of marriage. It is as simple as that—but it is also complicated.
The accused personifies a particular version of the absurd, reminding the reader—despite the obvious differences—of The Trial, by Franz Kafka. While the case of the Czech crime remains unsolved, the opposite occurs in the case of the Colombian one here: the crime finds its thread woven delicately and faultlessly through those most visible representatives of the law (judges, prosecutors, lawyers, witnesses), so that its texture becomes an unending and confused pattern of psychobabble and legalese from which no one can escape. It is a dense fabric, and its loops and knots are the essence of the action depicted as they are woven together by the many other secondary characters and their stories.
The lawyer is clear in his arguments and defense of his client. He says, “In these times, to not kill requires as much premeditation, as much exaggerated treachery, as is needed to kill. We live in a society in which each and every one of us, without knowing it, gambles with our neighbors to see who will be killed first. And my defendant had the audacity to interfere in this infernal game of roulette on behalf of two perfect candidates for elimination […] That is why, in his case, premeditation and treachery appear as the aggravating circumstances in his crime. In this way, his actions are to be classified as criminal only in a limited sense. And since it has been said more than once (by the prosecutor, the witnesses and even the adulterers), perhaps he should be punished in an exemplary manner.”
His sentence should not be revealed here though, as it gives weight to the larger sequence of events and, above all else, permits the readers to consider them according to their own particular tastes, fostering multiple interpretations. Is it symbolic? Existential? Religious? Whichever it may be, all of these are aligned with the author’s interests. The novel allows for interconnected chains of speculation (for the benefit of those readers who are so inclined), but so too is one allowed to read purely for enjoyment—for the dazzling humor and sharpness of wit, for the many cultural references and unique prose full of Colombianisms that add color and texture to the narrator’s reflections. It is an agile text and if it sometimes seems digressive, this is only in the service of allowing for alternate readings. La vieja Inés is a novel of heartbreak, but not one of hate, nor even one of grudges. It comes out of the inevitable loss of feelings, those that are condemned to fail, perhaps from the very start, and for reasons indeterminate. Such are the ways of love. While one might fall in love at first sight, so too can one fall out of love just as suddenly and unexpectedly.
José Cardona’s prose is expeditious—uncomplicated by extraneous details that do not contribute to the telling of the story that speaks to the foundation of human existence. Sustained by a suitable and propitiatory use of the first person, the reader is drawn closer to the story, which fosters empathy and a desire to understand and share in the so-called “drama” that might not actually be all that dramatic. Existentialism? Nihilism? Or, as we say in Mexico, valemadrismo? When looking back on life, Old Inés does not even know because, in the end of it all, it may be that none of it was really such a big deal.