AT A CRUCIAL MOMENT in “Amigos Mexicanos,” a story by Juan Villoro (1956), the narrator, a frustrated screenwriter, explains to the cinephile Mexico City detective investigating the disappearance of a US magazine reporter: “When a gringo journalist finds something ‘Buñuelesque’ in Mexico, it means that he saw something horrible he thought was magical.”

Nearly two decades of teaching Latin American literature in US universities has led me to suspect that Villoro’s narrator is definitely onto something. US readers expect books from south of the border to be repositories of experiences that are mystic, mythic, often violent, and wholly different from their own. I, myself, began studying Latin American literature with such assumptions, and they never entirely went away. And although few US readers would identify “funny” as one of the top 10 (or even 20) adjectives that best describe Latin American letters, Juan Villoro is funny. In fact, he is laugh-out-loud funny.

And he is not alone. As a young writer in Mexico in the 1970s, he studied with one of Latin America’s finest humorists, the Guatemalan-born Augusto Monterroso (1921–2003). Among the others who have made humor an important part of Mexico’s literary tradition are the satirist Jorge Ibargüengoitia (1928–1983), the mordant playwright Sabina Berman (b. 1955), and Carlos Monsiváis (1938–2010), the master of the chronicle, a genre he brilliantly adapted from US New Journalism and then made his own. One of my most vivid memories, in all my reading, is a scene in Villoro’s 2004 prize-winning novel, El testigo (The Witness), in which the protagonist rails against the 1970s English rock group Supertramp: “Why did Supertramp exist?” he asks himself. “Was it even conceivable that changing styles hadn’t annihilated something so derivative and lacking in personality?” When I had the chance to interview Villoro in 2010 he told me he actually liked Supertramp. He recognized that it would be harder to vilify a more successful band: “Taking on the Rolling Stones, for example, is complicated. I would have had to bring in the heavy artillery in order to demythify the Stones, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, or the Doors, you know, the legendary bands. I needed a lesser band.”

His carefully calculated humor serves as an approach to serious themes. In El testigo, Supertramp reminds the protagonist of a particularly shameful event. In the case of the US journalist in “Amigos Mexicanos,” humor arises from cultural misunderstandings, which, in Villoro’s work, are far from limited to foreigners. Neither gringos nor Mexicans really get Mexico. Villoro shows us that this occurs not because people have just failed to understand Mexico. The real problem is that any attempt to understand a nation as if it were a thing whose size, shape, color, and function you could precisely define is doomed to fail — a problem that can be as funny as it is important to recognize.

I translated the passage about Supertramp from El testigo because the novel is one of several by Villoro that have not appeared in English; literature in translation is famously hard to sell in the United States. Therefore it is no surprise that the publisher of Villoro’s first complete book in English, The Guilty (2015), a collection of stories that ends with “Amigos Mexicanos,” chose to employ Roberto Bolaño’s help in introducing Villoro to US readers. Villoro, himself an admirer of Bolaño, would probably appreciate the ironies associated with the fact that Bolaño died five years before the Spanish original, Los culpables (2008), was published in Mexico, and that Villoro was a well-established author years before Bolaño was. Villoro’s translation is long overdue, his reputation secure among Spanish-language readers, and the independent house of George Braziller deserves credit and praise for publishing a fine edition of The Guilty, which Kimi Traube has translated superbly.

Bolaño’s seal of approval of Villoro’s work — even if not this specific work — raises questions about books and how they circulate. What endows them with value? How and why do their meanings shift? Who buys them and which desires motivate their purchase? The rather arbitrary association of Villoro and Bolaño expresses the hope that Bolaño’s commercial success will rub off on Villoro. It is too simple to say that Villoro does not need Bolaño’s help, or that such assistance is only reductive and distorting. Their association is fitting, since Villoro, as made clear in his writing in general and in several stories in The Guilty in particular, is an author acutely aware of the tensions and contradictions intrinsic to the production and circulation of signs, chief among them the fact that the value of any given commodity is never a function of the thing in and of itself, but of its place in a system of exchange. Villoro makes the most of the humor inherent in this process.

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In the first story in The Guilty, a mariachi singer becomes a symbol of Mexican virility and an object of national pride after a porn star’s enormous (and prosthetic) penis is portrayed as his own in a Spanish film called Mariachi Baby Blues. “The next day, all of Madrid was talking about my raunchy shamelessness. I thought about killing myself but it seemed wrong to do it in Spain,” a decision typical of Villoro’s tragicomic take on national identity. The mariachi won’t kill himself on foreign soil, he does not ride horses, and he dreams of flattening sombreros with a Ferrari. To say that he suffers an identity crisis is an understatement. Villoro’s thoughtfulness and skill humanize the most stereotypical of Mexican characters while sending up machismo — less as an actual phenomenon than as yet another stereotype Mexicans find themselves obliged to belie.

The first line of Villoro’s story is: “Should we do it?” The question is asked by Brenda, a production assistant and cinematographer who was born in Guadalajara but left for Spain “to get away from mariachis.” The reader has very little clue about what the “it” refers to until the story’s end, and even then “it” remains somewhat undefined. The mariachi’s thoughts, when he tries to express them, are not entirely formed either. He loves Brenda’s prematurely white hair, but says: “albino women don’t excite me. I don’t want to explain my reasons because when they’re made public I realize they aren’t really reasons.” “It” is gradually revealed to be Brenda’s full-frontal nude shot of the mariachi for a movie she’s directing, thereby revealing to the world that his penis is “sort of little,” as he puts it. By this point in the story “it” becomes something more complex than any single referent could contain and, rather, a sign of the mariachi’s awareness of his commodified self. His “real thing,” a relationship with Brenda based on the truth, may or may not arrive. The real thing remains outside of the circulation of words that comprise the story.

An emphasis on words with multiple and often indeterminate meanings structures practically every story in The Guilty. “Mayan Dusk,” like all the stories, has a first-person narrator, although it begins by using the plural “we,” allowing a brief sense of community. When the narrator switches to “I” on the second page, he returns us to the feelings of awkwardness, solitude, and alienation common to many of Villoro’s characters, both in The Guilty and in his other short story collections and novels — the ironic first-person embodiment of himself that Villoro also uses in his essays and chronicles. All other pronouns are suspect; in “Mayan Dusk,” the narrator bridles when a mutual acquaintance describes his friend’s concerns about him: “It bothered me that he could become a pronoun and take advantage of my deterioration to play the caring friend.”

In “Amigos Mexicanos” the narrator’s friend Gonzalo agrees to write and submit a script under the narrator’s name. Gonzalo’s writing is so effective that the narrator’s agent, Cristi, is seduced by it. Explaining the script’s romantic powers, Gonzalo says, “I did it in first person, as if it were you talking. I’m an actor; first person sounds very sincere in the voice of actors.” Questions of identity, self-perception, and authorship are central to Villoro’s writing, and as with the “it” at the beginning and end of “Mariachi,” a word related to these themes appears at the beginning of most stories in The Guilty and is only explained gradually — be it the ghosts the masseur tells the soccer player about in “The Whistle,” the shears that the brothers’ dad in “The Guilty” once used to kill chickens, or the iguana who’s to blame for catastrophe in “Mayan Dusk.” This technique of slow and not necessarily complete revelation builds suspense and mystery while emphasizing technique, the process of storytelling, and the relation of interiority to exteriority, especially as that relation breaks down at the moment of expression, as in the case of the mariachi in the lead story who tries to but cannot explain why albinos do not turn him on.

The narrator of “Order Suspended” suffers a similar inability to express his own feelings. He washes windows on the outside of a high-rise office building, which at one point allows him to see an artist and a blank canvas in a meeting room on the 18th floor. When the painter begins with a dripping black spot, the narrator reminds the reader that he hates spots. He sniffed too much glue as a teenager and was once convinced that spots on his arms were spiders underneath his skin. But he cannot tear his eyes away from the canvas. On an assignment to clean the building’s interior, he meets the artist and asks to smell the painting. “It smelled like the world, the world from the inside,” he writes. He experiences the painting in a way that is reminiscent of the passage in Borges’s “The Aleph,” in which the narrator sees everything that has ever happened all at the same time. Villoro’s narrator finds in the painting’s abstract design a strange mix of impressions, many of them details from his own life:

I saw plaster dust under fingernails, three bars of light, the grate, the sky from a storm drain, the golden spires of Kuala Lumpur, the blood mole, the grainy chocolate powder, the sheet over Rosalía’s face, rising and falling with her breath. […] I saw the earth under the earth, the magnet that pulled everything together like the curve of fate. I wanted something badly without knowing what it was.

An interior force drives the narrator, and he cannot put it into words. The external world, the social and material world, alters interiority before the latter can even be glimpsed, let alone grasped.

Such self-knowledge also eludes the narrator of “Amigos Mexicanos.” In a passage that is poignant, humorous, and able to develop a convincingly coherent voice in just a few sentences, Villoro portrays the narrator’s dilemma. Referring to his ex-wife Renata’s eventual disillusionment with him, the narrator writes:

In scripts, ‘INT’ refers to the interior, and mine is decorated with sofas. That’s as deep as I go. Anything else is the delusion of a woman who made a mistake searching for depths in me, and who hurt me by believing I was capable of plumbing them myself.

When the script his friend Gonzalo writes in his name impresses Cristi, his agent, the narrator wonders what’s in it, what “he” had written. Like the painting in “Order Suspended,” which gives the narrator a sweeping view of his own past, the script Gonzalo writes says something about the narrator’s whole personality. “Either Gonzalo’s text was very long,” the narrator says, “or my interior was very sparse.” The narrator realizes, later in the story, that his so-called friend Gonzalo had sex with Renata when she and the narrator were still married, making him question his grasp on reality, which is further strained when he learns Gonzalo had staged the kidnapping of the US journalist in order to provide him with an authentic Mexican experience. (Villoro returns to the topic of fake kidnappings and supposedly real encounters in his 2012 novel Arrecife [Reef].) “I walked into his apartment without saying a word,” the narrator tells us, aware that he is comically short on understanding. “Too many things were swirling around in my interior, that place I take such care to avoid when I write screenplays. When I finally started talking, I couldn’t convey the complexity of my emotions.”

The narrator’s inability to convey his complex emotions is funny. The representation of friendship as a network of tensions, betrayals, and horrible revelations, a constant struggle that never reaches a tidy conclusion, is also funny. The narrator’s inability to write the script that Cristi wants him to write and his messy, inchoate relationships betray the artificiality of first-person narrative, as does Gonzalo’s ventriloquistic script: only an actor can act like himself. Villoro rejects identity, showing it to be a comedy of misunderstanding and deceit, an empty signifier with constantly changing referents and meanings. In “Mariachi” the changing referent is the “it”; in other stories, spots, shears, or an iguana; in the final story, friends, friendship, and selfhood.

The narrator tries to reassure the quasi-kidnapped journalist that Mexico City is safe by saying, “Don’t worry: Mexicans only kill their friends.” Determining what “Mexican” or “friend” means, of course, is a futile task, and, in the case of the narrator and Gonzalo, complicated by the fact that they are selling an image or an experience of the buyer’s often unfathomable desire. The search for authentic meaning is further undermined when the narrator reads the script that he has supposedly written and realizes that Gonzalo is, perhaps, actually his friend:

I read the script Gonzalo had forged for me with defiant precision. He had drawn a perfect pantomime of my manias, but he managed to make my limitations seem brilliant and interesting. His autobiography of me was a display of his actor’s skill at forgery, but also of the tolerance with which he had borne my flaws. He had a strange way of being a great friend, but he really was.

The narrator tempers this momentary lapse of insincerity in the next sentence: “On account of my pride, it took me two months to tell him so.”

Villoro’s humor illuminates the ways in which we rely on signs in a mass-media world defined by markets for images. Somewhere in relation to those images more substantial thoughts and feelings circulate, but who knows which are real? Are any of them? They come to the surface occasionally but hardly ever as anyone had imagined they might, with the probable exception of the prescient Juan Villoro.

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Ryan Long is Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Maryland. His research focuses on culture and politics in Mexico and Latin America, with an emphasis on the 20th century.