The many voices of Serna

Eli Gardner reassesses an early work by Enrique Serna to argue that the Mexican writer should be read, watched … and translated in the years to come


Señorita México
Enrique Serna
1993, Plaza y Valdés Editores (2005, Planeta)
180 pages

Reviewed by Eli Gardner

RECENTLY I asked another literary critic and scholar of Mexico who he thought was the contemporary Mexican writer most in need of translation into English. He responded without hesitation: Enrique Serna.

My colleague, who lives and works in Mexico City, was, however, aware that some of Serna’s work has indeed been translated into English, French, and Italian – a testament to the growing interest in this writer and his work.

Serna’s inclusion in emergent anthologies of Mexican literature – including one that Gabriel García Márquez has had a hand in compiling – and his various literary prizes (including the Premio Mazatlán de Literatura in 2000) assure the reading public that he is an author with his finger on the pulse. So, my friend and colleague seemed to suggest that even more people need to become aware of this man’s talent.

Though it is more customary to review books that have recently appeared on the literary scene, it is appropriate from time to time to take a look back and consider some of the first published works of an author to see what their writing was like during that period and consider how they might have evolved since then. Such is the case with Señorita México. Dedicated to the author’s parents, this book has more of the trappings of a writer’s earlier work. Though it is clearly listed in the bibliographical information found at the beginning to the novel, few people realize that this novel was first published as El ocaso de la primera dama by a smaller more regional publishing house on the Yucatán Peninsula in southern Mexico (Biblioteca Básica Campechana). Obviously, excellent reviews and good sales at that time led to a second edition in the Colección Platino by the more national Plaza y Valdés.

Critique of testimonio literature

Serna’s novel about Selena Sepúlveda, Señorita México, (or “Miss Mexico” in English) tells the reader about the rise and fall of a former Mexican beauty queen. In many ways the story in and of itself is quite simple; nonetheless, it is in its telling that an additional level of interest is added to the narrative. One has to remember that in 1987 the Latin American literary world was enthralled by an ever more popular type of narrative: testimonio literature. Tape recorders and anthropologists, journalists, activists and others were producing more and more of this literature that was entering the public’s conscience and the university classrooms. Me llamo Rigoberto Menchú y así me nació la conciencia published by Burgos Debray and the Nobel Prize winning Rigoberta Menchú had come out a scant two years before the original publication of Señorita México. However, Serna’s novel was already pointing to the strengths and weaknesses of this type of writing. It is true that he uses fiction to do so, but his arguments are very clear.

In his novel Serna uses two voices: the first is that of Selene his protagonist who tells “intimate and personal” details of her life and rise to fame to two reporters who write for a magazine that focuses on the rich and famous in Mexico. In the protagonist’s version one is able to read the glossy story as told by the woman herself, though the initial seeds of doubt with regard to her version of events are planted by the writer as he allows us to catch a few small glimpses of the squalid living quarters in which the ex-beauty queen lives and other details that do not seem to fit with what this woman is telling the reporters – whose voices are carefully withheld from the readers.

The alternate story is then told by an omniscient narrator. This gives us the real version of events that describe Selene’s life from the moment she commits suicide backwards through her career, her rise to fame while yet an adolescent, all the way down to the questionable circumstances of her birth. It is the lack of congruence between the informant’s tape-recorded events of her life and the “real version” provided by the all-knowing narrator that allows us to ask questions with regard to the whole life-story genre and the ability to know the truth at all. Though a novel, the tensions created between the fictional narrator and the actual voice of Selene point to the weaknesses in the testimonial literature. Serna’s work of fiction is a sharp critique of this genre.

Other of Serna’s literary trends, such as his critique of Mexican institutions – as in El miedo a los animales (Fear of Animals) – are evident. Nonetheless his amazing talent for capturing different Mexican dialects – such as in Uno soñaba que era rey – is also revealed here. Señorita México shows us that, yes, one is able to see that even from his earliest publications Serna exhibits talents that make him one of Mexico’s literary figures that should be read and watched (and even translated) in the years to come.

Eli Gardner is a scholar of Latin America

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