Savaged by cultural carnivores

Perceptions of Mexico’s lofty intelligentsia will never be the same again after the publication of Enrique Serna’s eye-opening Fear of Animals


Fear of Animals
Enrique Serna, translated by Georgina Jiménez
2008, Aflame Books
220 pages

Reviewed by Luzette Strauss

ANYONE familiar with Mexico’s labyrinthine bureaucracy will recognise Enrique Serna’s depiction of the carnivorous elite that stalks its cultural corridors in Fear of Animals.

Originally published in Spanish as El miedo a los animales, this work predated The Savage Detectives by the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, in which a not entirely dissimilar critique of Mexico’s cultural caste emerges. It explains why Serna has established a position as one of Mexico’s most well-published authors and is now reaching a truly international readership.

Serna – a writer who speaks his mind and does not suffer fools gladly (see his article and interview in this edition of LatAmRoB) – pulls no punches in this brutally humorous comparison of the criminal swamp inhabited by Mexico’s notorious Judicial Police (the despised judiciales) with the festering sewer in which writers compromised by their complicity with a corrupt regime wallow.

The author has ingeniously adopted the genre of the crime novel to tell a tale that rises almost inevitably from the swamp created by the PRI government in the early 1990s, when efforts by a bankrupt regime to co-opt the intelligentsia reached their crescendo.

Thuggish world

A former crime reporter, Evaristo Reyes, trades his desire to write for a life as a Fed, and then finds himself immersed in the thuggish world of Mexican law “enforcement”. The tale takes us through the investigation of a murder which Evaristo’s pathologically criminal boss, and others, eventually try to pin on him. The narrative explores with great dexterity the moral dilemmas of survival in a world where corruption, censorship, and a back-stabbing scramble over limited resources are a way of life.

Translator Georgina Jiménez – herself Mexican – has undertaken a superior translation of El miedo a los animales, vividly capturing the raw and crude colloquial in which this story is acted out with all the inflection of a chilanga.

If stylistically Serna prefers a crude and, at times, even blunt chisel to the sharpened and gleaming scalpel of his contemporaries, this is because the author has something to say and wants to say it in a certain way: the allusions to the perverted peccadillos of spoiled cultural celebrities sprinkled throughout El miedo a los animales generated great rancour in Mexico when it was first published. This is a world where sexual infidelity, drug addiction and theft are the very currency of success.

Although they remain veiled by fictional identities, some of the main capos and capas of Fear’s cultural mafia may be recognisable to veteran Mexico-watchers. They certainly know who they are – and will no doubt squirm at the knowledge that this title is now available in English. To suggest that both the characters and the situations they play out are not unrealistic in the surreal landscape inhabited by Mexican cultural elites then – and in some cases still – is an understatement.

Anger and frustration

Serna is a passionate advocate of improved education to enhance the very limited access ordinary Mexicans have to the country’s literary and artistic culture. Fear of Animals is, then, at another level, a species of polemic in which Evaristo gives voice to the author’s anger and frustration about the endemic elitism that seems to corrode Mexico’s staggering potential as a source of creative talent.

Evaristo is also a very flawed character, prone to maudlin drunkenness and sexual excess, the descendant of a strain of the human race more recognisable to most of us than the purefied, ethereal beings that appear to float in the highest reaches of an officially-sanctioned cultural universe. In this, the author appears to draw upon that strain of cinematic realism so beloved of Mexican auteurs such as Carlos Reygadas in which our senses are battered into submission by ugliness, sweat and foul odours. If ever there was a film waiting to be made it is Fear of Animals.

Serna is one of the most adaptable writers of his generation, turning his hand with equal skill from fine history to indelicate delinquency. Fear of Animals reveals just one, angry side of this multi-talented author, and – we must hope – will be followed by other, equally bruising works by Serna in English translation.

Luzette Strauss is a freelance journalist

Read Enrique Serna’s ARTICLE:
The crisis of despotic patronage
Read our INTERVIEW with Enrique Serna:
The grotesque paradox of culture