Slum Lord


A writer purporting to be Colombia’s last grammarian, Fernando Vallejo, returns to his native Medellín after 30 years’ absence: to die, he says, though he’s only middle-aged, letting us know that existentially he’s had enough heartbreak, enough ugliness, enough boredom for one lifetime. By coming home he’s stepping into a cesspool of legal and moral anarchy, civilization crumbling into barbarism: a good thing, if you want to kill yourself.

Something else necessarily happens at the outset of Our Lady of the Assassins; otherwise Vallejo would have no novel. A distant friend who runs a salon-cum-male brothel makes him a gift of Alexis, a gorgeous teenage stud. In “the butterfly room,” a little boudoir lined with antique clocks all run out at a different hour, Alexis’s revolver falls out of his pants as he undresses. A great love is born. An epic love, even, with the bombastic arc of an opera, that gives the lover eloquence to sing his adventure.

Fernando Vallejo squeezes a lean, tough-mouthed, elegant lyricism from the nimble vernacular of the comunas, the hillside slums ringing Medellín. Vallejo’s streetwise ear, his caustic irony and throwaway erudition, the conversational intimacy and shrugging surefootedness of his style, but especially the ruthless economy of his razor-sharp writing, abstemious as any excrescence of Hemingway (and much more compelling), all constitute a radical break from the loamy, purple graphomania of so-called magical realism, a Latin specialty that metastasized from a similarly brief, fastidious masterpiece—Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo—into the elephantine novels of Fuentes, Llosa, Donoso, Asturias, and (Colombia’s other claim to literary fame besides Vallejo) García Márquez.

Vallejo does share a regional surrealist bent. His prose is fresh with other audacities as well. The reader of Our Lady may wonder if Vallejo, author, is identical or at least closely related to the fictional character of the same name. Like Gombrowicz, Céline, Bernhard, and Genet, Vallejo narrates his fictions in his own proper name, giving his fantasies the (in)credible weight of his personhood, and rendering moot or indeterminable the distance between ontological fact and imaginative caprice. The character Vallejo, in this book, suggests a nightmare version of Walter Benjamin’s flaneur on a walking tour of hell. Medellín is a city he knows “better than Balzac knew Paris.” In their restless peregrinations, Fernando and Alexis evoke many mythic pairs perpetually on the move through a dark and minatory world: Candide and Pangloss, Orpheus and Eurydice, Dante and Virgil, Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo.

Our Lady‘s plot is like an opera recitative, a monologue of just transpired events and heady emotions Fernando recollects, not in the tranquillity prescribed for poets, but with the deadpan, posthumous resignation of Beckett’s comedians. Instead of dying as planned, Fernando witnesses a lot of other people buying the farm, blasted into the next world by his very own “baby boy.” Like our own crack-happy inner-city degenerates of recent times, Medellín’s junior achievers will gladly blow your brains out for your nice jacket and your pricey running shoes. Alexis, like hundreds of kids from the comunas, is a professionalkiller for the drug cartel, out of work after the killing of Pablo Escobar. Gangs of unemployed, angel-faced sicarios now prey on each other, murdering for petty cash or the thrill of killing a rival; this mayhem is a bloody spice sprinkled all over the city’s public spaces.

Fernando is horrified when Alexis casually snuffs a neighbor whose music keeps them awake at night. But he quickly accepts what is, after all, a normative madness, the absolute casualness and ubiquity of homicide in the daytime streets, the carjackings, and motorcycle drive-bys committed with 95 percent impunity. Alexis shoots anybody who bothers him—a taxi driver who won’t lower his radio, whining brats and their mother on a bus, an irritating mime—with a ravishing absence of affect or anger. He is, simply, the Angel of Death. Fernando, besotted, becomes complicit, even encouraging: The grotesque status quo inspires a Celinian, nihilistic sort of running meditation, a saturnine affirmation, and the victims are useless effusions of an insensible demographic explosion. Killing them is prophylaxis against more brainless human reproduction, and a minor blow against the ecological catastrophe the effulgence of our species naturally brings in its wake.

Bodies pile up in Our Lady fantastically, as metaphoric exaggerations akin to the dirigibles ordinary people become in Botero’s paintings. (In Barbet Schroeder’s brilliant film version of this book, reviewed in this week’s film section, the killings are drastically scaled down, but retain their surreal quality of waking dream.) Here the lie tells the truth. Events flash by, seemingly hurried along by the lethal menace attached to all public space; a further tension is added by the information that Alexis has a contract on his head. Fernando, chasing ghostly remnants of his childhood, drags the youth in and out of Medellín’s hundred-plus churches, which, overrun with crack whores and dope dealers, offer no refuge from the occasional spray of mini-Uzis. The only ostensibly safe place for the lovers is Fernando’s totally empty apartment, a kind of spiritual ground zero.

Vallejo plays with the theme of the old corrupted by the young, something he shares with Gombrowicz (who was similarly steeped in philosophy, particularly that of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche). If his rhetorical flights evoke some of the great cranks of recent times—Burroughs and Bernhard come readily to mind—we should remember that a lot of what these cranks complain about has turned out to be absolutely valid. In the setting of this novel, a city and country where any life can be finished in a blink without the slightest consequence, Vallejo locates the future of the human race. This is not a book about Colombia, but rather one about our collective will-to-stupidity, our bedazzlement by the vacuous, our abdication of all the values that supposedly make “human” a good thing to be. Our Lady describes an intolerable reality as the macabre, surreal, likely future of everyone: where human life has zero value.

And why should it be worth something? If there are five, getting on for six, thousand million of us . . . just print the figure on a banknote and see what it’s worth. When there’s a five—let’s say a six—with nine zeroes on the right, you’re just one more zero on the left. A little titi monkey’s worth more, the few that are left, and very fierce they are, too. We’re nothing, parcerito, nothing, let’s have done with this desire to be somebody and remind ourselves that around here there’s nothing more ephemeral than yesterday’s dead man.

We know from the outset that Alexis will be killed; given the weightless ease and frequency with which the book’s Colombians are turned into corpses, it isn’t especially surprising that Fernando mourns for a page or two and quickly replaces Alexis with a new boy, Wilmar, who looks a bit like him. Here the narrative begins to duplicate itself as a sort of ironic loop, at times recalling the confusions of Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire. As the love object functions in a particularly schizoid way—as Fernando’s salvational fantasy, and as Colombia’s exemplary symptom—Fernando makes Wilmar into Alexis, the way Jimmy Stewart replaces Madeline with Judy in Vertigo, ensuring, by the logic of obsession, that everything repeats itself in catastrophic fashion. The narrator is left, as it were, with cold ashes on his tongue, and a story to tell.

Click here to read Jessica Winter’s review of Our Lady of the Assassins, the movie.