Ostinato without the repetition

The poet and writer Javier Payeras gives a hoarse, urban voice to the edgy post-war youth of Guatemala City


Ruido de fondo
Javier Payeras
2006, Piedra Santa
65 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

NOISY, NO… Ruido de fondo is deafening, and will leave the careless visitor to the Guatemala City of Javier Payeras with a ringing in the ears.

While short and experimental, this rant reverberates with the long, discordant echo of previous works that put the boot into linear narrative through semi-autobiographical potshots at a decrepit society.

Ruido de fondo is no less angry, but far less patronising, not least because its protagonist has no ideological axe to grind, abundant experience of the messy aftermath of that era that spawned the “new novel”, and sufficient candour to put all the blame for his inadequacy on his, well, inadequacy.

This may help to explain why Payeras has emerged as a key figure within the disenchanted post-war generation of Guatemalan writers willing to take irreverent potshots at work churned out on the somnolent treadmill of past fashion.

Impatience of a generation

A participant in the short-lived Casa Bizarra of the late 1990s, one of a number of impromptu theatre-cafes created by young people immersed in Guatemala’s particular postmodernity, Payeras is also a conceptual artist, poet and tireless cultural promoter linked to such innovative initiatives as the Octubreazul festival.

Ruido de fondo gives a hoarse, urban voice to the edgy post-war youth of Guatemala City, taking the reader through the poet-narrator’s very non-political encounters with mindless violence, booze, birds and masturbation. The book is, in essence, the confessional of a lonely soul seeking meaning in a radically fragmented city.

The brevity of Payeras’s work reveals the genuine impatience of a generation in search of satisfaction, but also the emptiness of their lives. Ruido de fondo is also characterised by the absence of chronological narrative and considerable aggression that aims to shake the reader from his or her stupor. Few targets escape this critic’s attention, not least national icons. Payeras writes:

“Marimba. La marimba es para los militares golpistas, para la cursilería demagógica de los ladinos. Nunca la he sentido algo mío. Me es tan ajena como Asturias. El racista de Asturias y la Miss Guatemala, ambos son iguales, inventos de una farsa hecha concepto. La grama está muerta, no hay más materia verde…”

Ruido de fondo also reveals the influence upon this young artist of a generation of writers living on the drug- or alcohol-induced edge of societies catatonic with low-intensity conformism, such as Burroughs and Bukowski. Indeed, Payeras writes:

“Odio a la gente obediente. Esa gente que tiembla todo el tiempo, los que comienzan hablando muy quedito a los maestros, los estudiantes, los normales, los correctos. La vida es mierda y cosas, es sí y nunca, es quizá mañana, es lo que se supone que vamos a hacer.”

Although the noise in this book is made in the background, Payeras ensures that it can be heard by the reader loud and clear. This is ostinato without the repetition by a Guatemalan Bukowski with tinnitus.

Gavin O’Toole is the Editor of the Latin American Review of Books