An end to exile


The publication of Comrades, a magisterial translation of the ideologically subversive ‘anti-novel’ by Guatemalan author Marco Antonio Flores, ends the 30-year linguistic exile of a prickly masterpiece


Marco Antonio Flores,
translated by Leona Nickless
2009, Aflame Books
233 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

IT IS RARE to hold in your hands a literary masterpiece that encapsulates the life’s work of both author and translator but that has largely been overlooked by those who should know better.

Comrades by Marco Antonio Flores, is just such a work, the cornerstone of this writer’s major opus and a labour of love by translator Leona Nickless that germinated during a lifetime devoted to the study of Guatemalan literature.

First published in Mexico in 1976 as Los compañeros, the English translation of this prickly, anti-social but highly original and innovative text composed in almost an entire vocabulary of colloquialisms represents a feat with few comparisons.

Indeed, the translator is that rare creature: the foremost, and perhaps only, expert in the English-speaking world on Guatemala’s most important living author. Los compañeros has sold some 20,000 copies with eight editions, and subsequent works in the author’s so-called trilogía de la violencia have sold thousands more, yet Flores lacks recognition outside the Spanish-speaking world and in particular within academia in the United States. This may be related to the broader marginalisation of Central America in global and regional terms, but only serves to emphasise the key role academic researchers such as Nickless play in bringing authors of this kind to a wider readership. Nickless premises her doctoral thesis [1] on Flores’ work by making precisely this point: quoting Linda Craft’s [2] observation that the isthmus bears the dubious distinction of being the “Other of the Other” and that Flores has been inexplicably overlooked. The translator came to the book a decade after beginning her peregrinations to Central America in which she gathered a large collection of Guatemalan literature, but her efforts to locate the understandably guarded writer proved fruitless until 1995 when she was finally able to meet him.

Subversive ‘anti-novel’

Comrades tells the stories of a group of friends involved in or connected with the Left’s lucha armada in Guatemala in the 1960s. It records their boozy, decadent and amorous conduct through bars and bordellos in a range of settings, from Guatemala City to Mexico, Havana and Europe, as well as the fate of the less fortunate guerrilleros who become victims of the civil war. The friends in the book are loosely based upon those of Flores’ youth, although it is Boozer (“Bolo” in the original) that reflects most closely the author’s own temperament.

For being what Craft has described as an ideologically subversive “anti-novel”, Los compañeros gained the unique distinction of having angered both right and left. Its publication by Joaquín Mortiz in Mexico was the equivalent of one of the earth tremors that periodically shake the region. Los compañeros generated the predictable hostility of the country’s military regime, but also infuriated the Left for exposing the very human flaws within the Communist party and Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR). Flores found himself caught in the middle and, although he continued to write, he did not publish again for 16 years. A member of the Communist party, he had been forced into exile in Mexico in 1968 after his name appeared on a death list. In 1981, after an attempt on his life by Guatemalan security forces, he would again go into exile in Mexico. He returned to his homeland definitively in 1994, but maintains a foothold in Mexico City, where he teaches.

Los compañeros marked a decisive rupture with Guatemala’s literary past by turning the formal, conservative nature of the traditional novel on its head and establishing the viability of a new format reflecting then contemporary conditions. As such, it dragged the country kicking and screaming into the “boom” and the global mainstream as the founding text of a new genre, the nueva novela guatemalteca, based on the absence of a single, omnipotent narrative voice and presented as a collage of sequences woven together with generous wordplay. With this book, Flores also became the first guerrilla writer to criticise the self-evident flaws of the Left from inside, a stance that to this day has not been entirely forgiven. Roy C. Boland Osegueda wrote in The Cambridge Companion to the Latin American Novel that Flores “unburdens himself with a scathing satire at the expense of his erstwhile comrades …” [3]

The innovative and experimental structure of Comrades – in particular, its use of interior monologue, agitated time travel, and the colloquial, linguistic games and neologisms – presents the reader with many challenges and puts the achievement of Nickless into clear perspective. It is no exaggeration to say that the translator’s understanding of the Guatemalan slang that Flores has employed throughout the book – a rebellious slap in the face for the more stuffy world of Guatemalan letters – has come from a lifetime’s research.

Flores’ natural instinct for linguistic patterns and the ways in which these require the reader to maintain keen attention to detail recalls the style of Joyce, a clear influence on his work. The absence of punctuation in Chapter 8, “Rat 1967”, for example, conjurs up Molly Bloom’s speech in Ulysses and forces us to inhabit the character’s mind and flow with his stream of consciousness.

The pace and the way the book leaps effortlessly backwards and forwards in time departs from all previous narrative norms, almost as if the present does not exist and the passage of time has stopped. This allows Flores to focus the reader’s attention on the consciousness of his characters and, although each is dealt with in a highly individual way, on their shared experience. This clever use of time is reflected in the ending, which is not, temporally, formally the end of Boozer’s tale but in fact represents the beginning of the end, his departure from Guatemala.

Los compañeros combines elements of the testimonio literature – based on the recollections of a narrator who witnesses or experiences the events being recounted – that developed alongside nueva narrativa in Central America during the same period. The book bears witness to the experiences of Flores and his comrades during Guatemala’s long armed struggle, and the destructive consequences of civil war upon their lives. Its publication in English is long overdue and a fitting end to its long linguistic exile as well as a tribute to the sacrifices made by both author and translator for their art.

1. Nickless, Leona Avril. 2008. “The Narrative Writing of Marco Antonio Flores.” PhD Thesis, University of Bristol
2. Craft, Linda J (1997). Novels of Testimony and Resistance from Central America. Gainsville, Florida: University Press of Florida
3. Boland Osegueda, Roy C. 2005. “The Central American novel” in Efraín Kristal (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Latin American Novel. Cambridge: CUP

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer

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