FOR sheer originality, readability and gripping subject matter, Narrating Narcos is by far the best work of literary criticism to come out of US academia for many years.
It is also a valuable exercise in challenging stereotypes, and perhaps the most potent stereotype of all: that of the drug-trafficker and his milieu in the two capitals of a phenomenon that is global yet, nonetheless, closely associated with Latin America.
Culiacán in Sinaloa, Mexico, and Medellín in Colombia together represent arguably the dark heart of the drugs trade in the Americas, but also are home to a rich and sometimes very surprising vein of literature that has been largely overlooked in much of the outside world: the “narco novel”.
Gabriela Polit Dueñas explores the prominent role of narcotics trafficking in Latin American literature and culture and examines how the elements associated with this notorious industry – violence, corruption and greed – have influenced local cultural production.
While she grounds this work solidly in a theoretical firmament of cultural criticism, what is without doubt most interesting about her fascinating book is the ethnographic research she carried out in these very different cities. She has interviewed writers, artists, their families, local readers and people associated with the drugs trade itself to compile a well informed and eloquently written work of scholarship that is likely to be of immense influence in this field for years to come.
In an effort to provide a richly nuanced understanding of the characters, language and, ultimately, the meaning, of drugs trafficking, Polit Dueñas embarks on a close reading of popular works of literature in these two unique cities – both consumed by the culture and consequences of the narcotics trade.
The tremendous achievement of her approach is to derive from her work real insights into what is essentially the very local context in which drug-trafficking has evolved in these places. The author begins by sketching out just how different the histories and experiences of this phenomenon in Culiacán and Medellín really are. From the outset we become aware that the generalisations upon which the figure of the Latin American trafficker is based throughout western culture are completely off target.
The author writes: “There is little doubt that the US rhetoric on the war on drugs, the Mexican and Colombian official discourses, the governmental policies, the media coverage, and even the promotion carried out by the publishing industry give the impression that narco trafficking is a Manichean universe and that the violence is usually driven by criminals and is combated by security forces. Corruption would be the ingredient that broke the balance. But these realities are much more complicated and literature provides a window into the nuances within this world, by showing that the boundary between the good and the evil is anything but clear.” [p 4]
Yet another achievement, given the extreme levels of bloodshed that these two cities have experienced as a result of drug trafficking – and in the case of Culiacán continue to do so – is to offer new insights about the challenges of representing violence facing the authors who are surrounded by it. At this level, Polit Dueñas is embarking on a foray into ethical questions that so much literary ctiticism fails to engage with.
Finally, as she points out, local writers themselves – authors such as Elmer Mendoza and César López Cuadras – resist any effort to brand them, and hence have to swim constantly against powerful currents of stereotyping.
Polit Dueñas writes: “In 2007, when talking to culichi authors, I mentioned that the formula that defines their work is the literature of narco trafficking: they did not agree. Literature, the writers Elmer Mendoza and César López Cuadras asserted, cannot have labels. It is simply literature. Their response shows the arbitrariness of tagging northern – or border – literature as a literature about narcos or narco narratives. Their strong reaction against branding their work is more than understandable, considering that their literature is defined simply because they are writers from Sinaloa.”