The grotesque paradox of culture

The Mexican novelist Enrique Serna, whose corrosive critique of his country’s cultural mafias, Fear of Animals, has just been published in English, talks to Gavin O’Toole about his novel and the problem with elites

WHY DID you write Fear of Animals?

ES: In the early 1990s, under the regime of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who took power after having committed electoral fraud, the usurper government tried to legitimise itself by distributing posts, grants and privileges among all the country’s artists and intellectuals, from the great figures down to promising young. Save for a few rare and honourable exceptions, the majority accepted these gifts, including intellectuals of the left who had protested against the fraud. The Salinas government was one of the most corrupt of recent times and had led the country to bankruptcy by the beginning of 1994 but, meanwhile, the country’s writers and artists were an elite spoiled sick in a country where 90 per cent of the population does not even read newspapers. I wanted to denounce this grotesque paradox in a crime novel, and the result was El miedo a los animales (Fear of Animals).

What was the reaction of the literary class in Mexico to this book?

ES: There was a great scandal but nobody dared take offence personally, despite the fact that many of the personalities were easily recognisable. The resident critic of Vuelta, Octavio Paz’s magazine, showered me with insults in a visceral review. Other writers sent me letters of solidarity, but did not dare show me support in public. The literary bureaucracy has viewed me with profound rancour ever since, as the attitude of the Mexican embassy in London, which declined to help promote the book, demonstrates. My novel is a satire about the cultural policy of the then-ruling PRI, and now in Mexico the PAN, a centre-right party, rules – but the cultural functionaries remain the same.

To what extent is Fear of Animals an accurate portrayal of the cultural mafias in Mexico?

ES: Those who reviewed the book agreed that my X-ray of the intellectual arena was very close to reality. Years later, the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño published his famous novel The Savage Detectives in which he also delivered a very severe critique of the Mexican intellectual stratum. I admire Bolaño and agree with many of his observations, but I must clarify that my novel appeared four years earlier.

Why is it a problem for a country like Mexico that a small and savage elite effectively determines cultural policy? Isn’t this something inevitable?

ES: Elites are not necessarily harmful for the cultural life of a country. In the UK, for example, there were elites such as the Bloomsbury set who had a very beneficial intellectual influence. In the case of Mexico, the problem is that the elites have been bureaucratised, thereby adopting the vices of the institutional underworld that has governed the country for the last 70 years.

Would you say that the restrictions imposed by the types of cultural mafias described in your book inhibit creativity and innovation?

ES: Despite the mafias, Mexican literature continues to contribute important work in every genre. But it is very common for the writers who belong to the cultural establishment, who have grants for life or have slithered their whole lives within the bureaucracy, to produce literature that is inane and conformist, like the organic intellectuals of the old totalitarian regimes in the communist bloc.

Mexico is now democratic: but would you say that the conduct of the cultural elite that you describe in your book still inhibits freedom of expression?

ES: In Mexico nobody inhibits freedom of expression: the proof of that is that I did not have any problems publishing my novel. The tragedy is that the printed word has no social repercussions, because the mass that struggles to survive in very hard conditions is sunken in ignorance.

Are there parallels between Evaristo Reyes – the strong central character of Fear of Animals – and yourself?

ES: When I was a young literature student, the government launched a radio campaign in which they were inviting the country’s youths to take a training course in order to enter the Judicial Police. It occurred to me that I could take this course in order to get to know it from within the belly of the beast and to write a novel in which I would demonstrate the complicity between the police chiefs and organised crime mafias. Naturally, I did not have the courage to carry out this exploit, but literature is nourished by dreams and projects more than by personal experiences. Ten years later I delegated my dangerous mission to a fictional character, the crime reporter Evaristo Reyes, who takes the training course and, once he has infiltrated the police, succumbs to the temptation of easy money and becomes the secretary of Commander Maytorena, one of the most corrupt policemen on the force. This is the only parallel between us.

Has your own struggle to establish yourself as a writer been as difficult as that of Evaristo?

ES: My struggle to establish myself as a writer has not been as hard as that of Evaristo, because I have dedicated myself to other, more lucrative activities in order to survive: I was a writer of television soaps, a publicist and a biographer of pop idols. Evaristo is a hero of the subsoil, like a character of Dostoyevsky, while I have had a more comfortable life.

Would you say that the focus of your writing has turned more historical and, if so, why?

ES: After El miedo a los animales I wrote El seductor de la patria (The Seducer of the Motherland), a biographical novel about the caudillo Antonio López de Santa Anna and Angeles del abismo (Angels of the Abyss), a picaresque novel set in colonial Mexico. I think I made this twist out of the need to escape, but now I have returned to the contemporary era with my novel Fruta verde (Unripened Fruit).

Who is your favourite author, and why?

ES: My favourite author is the poet Ruben Dario, the great wizard of Latin American modernist poetry. I have read and re-read him hundreds of times.

What are the obstacles confronted by Mexican writers who wish their work to be translated?

ES: The principal obstacle is the ignorance internationally of the historical social context in which our works of fiction unfold. But I believe in the Chinese proverb that counsels: “If you want to be universal, write about your village.”

Would you say that the Mexican government does enough to encourage the literary profession, both within Mexico and abroad?

ES: The Mexican government is a very generous patron that subsidises many translations of books abroad. But, at the same time, it is guilty of an educational disaster that has sunk the immense majority of people in functional illiteracy.

 (Translated by Gavin O’Toole)

REVIEW of Fear of Animals
READ Enrique Serna’s article,
The crisis of despotic patronage