Élmer Mendoza and Mark Fried discuss NAME OF THE DOG
Novelist and playwright Élmer Mendoza is a master of intricate plots that chronicle Mexico’s disastrous drug war, and a wizard at colourful dialogue spiced with the country’s marvelously poetic slang. Name of the Dog, the third in the acclaimed Lefty Mendieta series, is set during Christmas in the prosperous and sweltering city of Culiacán in the state of Sinaloa. In it Mendoza explores the love between a father and son, and opens a window on the obscure forces that hold sway in Mexico today.
Mendoza won the José Fuentes Mares National Literary Prize for his novel Janis Joplin's Lover, and the Tusquets Prize for Silver Bullets, the first in the Lefty Mendieta series. He teaches baroque literature at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa, and in 2012 was elected to the prestigious Academia Mexicana de la Lengua for his efforts to promote and preserve Mexican Spanish.
To coincide with the publication of Name of the Dog, his translator Mark Fried asked the author about Mexicans’ sense of humour, the challenges of living in a city beset by violence, and the risks of writing crime novels in a centre of the drug trade.
Mark Fried: Many readers comment on the dark vision of Mexico your books present, but what stands out most to me is your creative use of oral language. Do people in Culiacán really talk as they do in your books? How did you manage to tune your ear to capture so many lovely expressions that appear in no dictionary? Where do you collect them?
Élmer Mendoza: Our reality is indeed dark and I’m glad people notice, but we aren’t a country of savages. This city, this place generates its own language. By listening to this particular way of talking, speaking it as a young man and often as an adult, it became part of who I am; you could say I carry it in my heart. Of course slang evolves, and the argot used by criminals evolves even more quickly, so I remain attentive. If I like the sound of an expression, I start using it in my regular speech. If it enters my heart, then there is a chance I might use it in my writing. In Culiacán we speak a respectable standard Spanish, but the barrios continue churning out expressions that can liven up good writing.
MF: The language you deploy also gives rise to much of the humour in your work. For example, affection, especially between men, is more often than not expressed through insults and veiled sexual insinuations. Double entendres abound, causing brain seizures in your translator, but delight in your readers. How is people’s sense of humour in the north of Mexico different from that in the centre of the country?
EM: Our sense of humour is more subtle, dependent on language and on the fact we have many funny people. Regarding double entendres, nobody beats central Mexico; in fact there is a wonderful collection of off-colour puns called Picardía mexicana. In our humour, sexual topics are fairly common and they pack a punch, and indeed this sort of humour usually takes place among men. Obviously, humour is essential to literature. It allows the reader to feel close to it and to exercise the right to smile whenever he or she feels like it, even when sitting all alone.
MF: In this novel, a merry holiday atmosphere offers a welcome counterpoint to the daily massacres. How do you carry on with so much violence around you? Do you ever feel threatened? Are the narcos upset by your writing? Is the government?
EM: I try to carry on with my normal life. In fact I urge people not to give up on the city. We’ve inherited it from our elders and I tell people we have to care for it and live it fully, not leave it in the hands of criminals. So my wife and I often go out to eat or for a cup of coffee, as proof that I practice what I preach. Up to now I have not received any threats that worry me, and it’s curious that the few I have received came not from the narcos, but from readers who don’t like my books. The drug lords don’t read literature. However, I’ve heard from a couple of sources that they are not displeased with what I write. Let’s hope things stay that way.
MF: One of the main characters in Name of the Dog is a secret agent whose political bosses seem hardly less macabre than the drug lords. The reader gets the impression that behind Mexico’s democratic facade lies a dark, hidden and fairly depraved state power. How real is that?
EM: While I hope to record the culture of my city and my times, my intention is to create an entertaining fiction, which is a fairly perverse and fascinating game. Yet every so often the truth seeps through. Our democracy is not as strong as we would like. Generally speaking, the people in power do not exercise it cleanly; many of them reached their positions through trickery or by buying them outright. For the politicians, the people exist only at election time. Most do not know the country they are supposed to be serving, which is why they do nothing even in instances where they could obviously make a difference. That said, there are people who are trying to change things for the better, including providing training for the national police. Let’s hope that leads to more criminals behind bars.
MF: The arrival of a son seems to bring new meaning to Lefty’s solitary life. In this novel, the love of a father for his son envelops even the worst killers. What made you want to explore the father-son relationship? Do you have children?
EM: I have three, two boys and a girl, all adults. Two of them have given me grandsons and the third a granddaughter. From what they tell me I think I’ve been a loving father and an affectionate grandfather. The oldest of my grandchildren is three and the youngest two, so it will be a while before I can take them out on the town. In Lefty’s case, the idea to give him a son came from Batya Gur; her detective Michael Ohayon has a grown son. Also from Henning Mankell, who even turned Kurt Wallander’s daughter Linda into a detective. Petros Markaris’s character Haritos also has a daughter and a wife. Of course it’s transformative for the detective. It enhances the books of the authors I’ve mentioned, and I hope in my case too.
MF: Besides writing, you teach sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature at the University of Sinaloa. How does teaching the baroque classics of the Spanish Golden Age influence your novels?
EM: The spirit of baroque literature is penetrating, uninhibited and provocative. Those poets used language as they pleased, and in the process they fine-tuned such fundamental literary forms as the sonnet, the romance (a poem in octosyllabic metre and alternative assonants) and the silva (a free-verse poetic form). They took great risks but they also had a great time. The prose writers, like Cervantes, were less flamboyant, but they enriched the work of the poets. What I find fascinating is that the movement they built allowed for mixing high culture and everyday life. There are times when I try to touch that heaven. My fundamental teachers are Joyce, Juan Rulfo and Fernando del Paso, who taught me to play around with the intensity of the characters, and not to fear using expressions from the street.
MF: Despite the violence, your novels demonstrate a great affection for Culiacán, a city far from the tourist routes and very little known outside the country. Have you lived there all your life? What about the city do you like?
EM: I studied at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and I remained in Mexico City for fourteen years. I returned home I think in order to find myself, since there were parts of me I never managed to take with me. Culiacán is chaotic now and I like chaos. Chaos is fundamental for writing any novel. I like the food, which is mostly fish, seafood, red meats and vegetables. I like rediscovering my old haunts in forbidden places, the sunsets, the rain, the wild vegetation, the three rivers that cross the city, and the women. People say the prettiest girls of Mexico are from here; I like believing that and seeing evidence that it’s true. I like my garden, my library, and the views from my window. I like the way my wife Leonor surprises me some afternoons. And there have been times when the city’s tough-guy reputation has saved me from getting my face bashed in. Is that enough?
Name of the Dog will be published in English translation on 08/02/2018. Available from all good bookshops.