by Pedro Ángel Palou, Eloy Urroz, Ignacio Padilla, Ricardo Chávez Castañeda, Jorge Volpi
Originally published in 1996, the “Crack Manifesto” marked the official beginning of the “Crack group,” a collective of five Mexican writers dedicated to breaking with the pervading Latin American tradition of Magical Realism in favor of a return to the complexity of plot and style found in the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. At times argumentative, erudite, funny, and provocative, the “Crack Manifesto” is an important document that examines the possibilities of fiction, while laying the groundwork for a new literary movement. Although a few works from the Crack writers have appeared in English, until now this manifesto was only available in Spanish.
Pedro Ángel Palou
Italo Calvino, I believe, in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, was the one to accurately point out the challenges facing the Crack novels. In those pages, Calvino reflected on how literature and, above all, the narrative have been losing their potential readers to technology developed for entertainment: video games, mass media, and, most recently, for those who can afford them, virtual reality games through which—oh, paradoxes of development—someone with a very modern helmet and anatomical gloves can see, hear, and even touch the adventures offered on compact discs.
How, then, can a narrator with his scarce means compete to attract readers lost in this vast world of obscurities? Calvino, always one step ahead, knew the answer: by using the oldest weapons of the oldest profession in the world—no matter what people say about prostitution:
Lightness. Calvino reflected upon this virtue of literature, thinking that works such as Romeo and Juliet, The Decameron, or even Don Quixote have their powerful narrative machineries built up according to an unusual lightness. Or better: to an apparent simplicity. It was easier to convey a terrible moral message by using this resource. The sharp look, the acidic social criticism are subject to a light and fresh humor which is not free, by its turn, from the most terrible of sarcasms. Chesterton used to say that humor in literature must produce hilarity, while freezing the smile in a reflective grimace that can stop time and unbury the mirror.
The first place which we have visited at the Crack’s fair: The House of Laughter.
Quickness. Communication theorists have known for a very long time that an inflation of information brings a deflation of meaning. The Persian Gulf war, the first war broadcast via satellite, was a good example: in reality, we knew nothing of it although we believed we were watching and getting to know everything. However, we cannot deny that the first thing to scare us was the dreadful sterility. If shortly after the beginning of the century the world shook itself, and the verb is graphic, with new of the Titanic’s shipwreck, nowadays the tragedies of the war in Sarajevo do not shock nor even provoke pity: they inform.
The second place visited: The Roller Coaster.
Multiplicity. Don Quixote is maybe the ultimate work par excellence in literary history. Gargantua and Tristram Shandy are at its heels. It is obvious to point out reality itself is multiple, it comes to us as multifaceted, eternal. We need books in which a whole world is revealed to the reader, and can trap them. This word has a unique use here. It is not about identification, but the superpositioning of worlds which are being talked about. Using all the metaphorical potential of the literary text so we can say again: “So here you are, meet one another.”
The third place visited at the Crack’s fair: The House of Mirrors.
Visibility. The last virtue of prose, its crystalline texture. Even Flaubert agreed that: “What a sensitive matter is this of prose! One never finishes to correct it. A good piece of prose must be as rhythmical and sonorous as a good verse.” Not sheer formalism, but a search for intensity of form, going deeply into the magnificent virtues of the Spanish language and its multiple meanings.
The fourth place at the fair: The Crystal Ball.
Exactitude. Calvino subtly told us we should isolate the values to which we have been referring. And this item illustrates how there cannot be exactitude without precision, how there cannot be quickness without precision and exactitude, and how it is impossible to have lightness without vertigo, transparency, and speed. Every good piece of prose is exact. Even more, it is balanced. The old concern about form and content is useless when a literary work faithfully searches for exactitude. Conan Doyle, for whom effect was everything, was pretty aware of that. To achieve it, one must use everything else. However, maybe the best lesson taken from Calvino’s words is that of the impossibility of exactitude in a literary work if it is naturally opened, reached without effort. Picasso said: “Inspiration does exist, but you have to find it working.” What are we trying to say? Agility and capacity of description (and to describe is to observe with the intention of making things interesting, exactly as Flaubert wanted, but also to select the big little things which are not just part of life, but which are life) are the ingredients that allow the reader to keep on reading restlessly to elevate his curiosity. This is what the narrator must pay more attention to at the end of the century: exactitude, which means to use the right word at the right time.
And with this we have named the penultimate place visited: The Shooting Gallery.
Consistency. Italo Calvino planned to write this section based only on the analysis of one of Melville’s most beautiful texts, Bartelby the Scrivener. This odd character, employed by a notary, refuses, little by little, to exist, repeating the sentence “I’d prefer not to.” In the end, Bartelby is locked up and dies repeating that sentence, even refusing to eat.
Consistent with its life project and its future, the Crack novel longs for renewal in the last spot to be visited: another walk through the Crack’s fair, with the same willingness for failure, as shown in the following tetralogy:
1. The Crack novels are not small, edible texts. They are, rather, a barbecue: let others write the steaks and the meatballs. Between that which is disposable and ephemeral, the Crack novels oppose the multiplicity of voices and the creation of self-ruling worlds, which is not a tranquil task. First commandment: “Thou shall love Proust above everyone else.”
2. The Crack novels are not born from certainty, which is the mother of all creative annihilations, rather from doubt, the older sister of knowledge. There is not one kind of Crack novel, but many; there is not one prophet, but several. Each writer discovers his own breed and shows it proudly. Descendants of champion fathers and grandfathers, the Crack novels take all their risks in stride. Second commandment: “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s novel.”
3. The Crack novels are ageless. They are not novels of formation, and Pellicer’s phrase reemerges: “I am old, and believe that the world was born with me.” They are not, therefore, the first works of their authors, sweet temptations of autobiography; they are not about first loves or family histories, which underline everything. If the writer’s most valued possession is the freedom to imagine, these novels go much further, demanding more from their narrators. Nothing is easier than to write about oneself; nothing is more boring than a writer’s life. Third commandment: “Thou shall honor schizophrenia and listen to other voices; let them speak through your pages.”
4. The Crack novels are not optimistic, rosy, adorable novels; they know, as much as Joseph Conrad does, that being hopeful in an artistic sense does not necessarily imply believing in the world’s kindness. Or they search for a better world, being aware that such a fiction can exist only in a place we will never know. The Crack novels are not written in the new Esperanto, which is the language standardized by television. It is the celebration of language and a new baroque: of syntax, lexicon, and the morphological game. Fourth commandment: “Thou shall not take part in a group that accepts you as a member.”
In his well-known book Mexico in its Novel: A Nation’s Search for Identity, the American critic John S. Brushwood insisted that Yáñez established the tradition of the “profound novel” in 1947, and, following in the same tradition, Pedro Páramo was published, which Brushwood also commented upon: “It is natural that some readers complain about the difficulty of the novel’s accessibility, and that some of them prefer just to despise it instead of making an effort to understand what it is trying to say. This reluctance to such an active participation is comprehensible, though I still think that the final results are really worth the efforts.” What is notable in these two cases are, first of all, the opportune adjective “profound” to refer to a tradition or a series of novels and novelist writers who, in their times, “profoundly” understood creative work as the most genuine expression of an artist who has compromised with his work.
When Brushwood talks about the “difficulty of access” to certain books, for example, the Crack writers immediately think about the novel “with demands” and “without concessions”; “demands” whose results, in the end, “are worth the efforts,” and “concessions” that, in the long run, only help to further weaken the panorama of our narrative and to discourage honest readers. So, the dilemma of the Crack novels is that they aspire to the heroic feat of finding what Julio Cortázar called “active participation” from their readers, at the same time the authors sell and the readers consume an abominable “reluctance.”
Thus, Crack’s genealogy is taking shape. Crack points out and throws away the books to which it owes a debt, and also the books which Crack excommunicates, being their inquisitor—since there are many books that would be burned without mercy or hope of recovery.
In addition to this tradition which had its heyday with Yáñez and Rulfo, as we have already mentioned, the Crack writers pay reverence to works such as: Farabeuf, Los días terrenales [The Mundane Days], La obediencia nocturna [Nocturnal Obedience], José Trigo, La muerte de Artemio Cruz [The Death of Artemio Cruz], and some others. But, since then, what has happened? What are the exemplary works from our literature or, at least, what are the stories which we, writers born in the ’60s, can cultivate or perhaps find a suitable model to attempt to kill and, soon afterwards, usurp its throne? There are none; they have been dying from anemia and auto-complacency. The risks and the wish for renewal have languished. A lake swamped with letters and emptiness, be that with novelists who do not write or, what is worse, with writers who cannot be called novelists. To be honest, there are few exceptions and these novels are nothing more than “good,” I repeat, politely good, without any terror which violates the insipid social contract, the insipid literary norms.
The chain of legitimately “profound” novels has been suffering, then, from misfortune once the big publishing houses started to hesitate some years ago and preferred selling their customers apocryphally “profound,” apocryphally literary titles, cheating those readers and not supporting the willingness for the demands that one can find in texts such as Hopscotch, A Brief Life, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. The phenomenon has turned out to be so portentous and obvious that there is nothing to do about it, but to declare it is a lamentable matter. However, the Crack writers dream about the existence of—somewhere in our Illiterate Republic—a group of readers who are sick and tired of it, disgusted by so many concessions and complacencies. They, and you, cannot be deceived anymore. The concessions, I say once more, disturb them and make them think that their capacities are being underestimated.
It is to this group of people—unfortunately only a few thousand—that the Crack novels wish to reach, following, I repeat, this genealogy that has been forging the national culture, ever since the Contemporáneos (or maybe a little earlier than that) decided to really take formal and aesthetic risks. So, there isn’t a break, but continuity. And if there were some kind of rupture, it would be with the rubbish, with the pap-to-deceive-the-fool, with the cynically superficial and dishonest novel. Anyway, what is sure is that no matter what I say here or what any of my associates say, in the end, the Crack novels will speak for themselves. Here they are: El temperamento melancólico [The Melancholic Temperament], Memoria de los días [Memory of the Days], Si volviesen sus majestades [If they Regained Their Dignity], La conspiración idiota [The Stupid Conspiracy], and Las Rémoras [The Obstacles]. If they have a common denominator, I think it is the aesthetic risk, the formal risk, the risk which always implies the wish to renew a genre (in this case, that of the novel), and the risk to continue with what is the most profound and most arduous, eliminating, without preambles, that which is superficial and dishonest. No more underestimation of yourselves. Yet, as the poet Gerardo Deniz said, and what in my case has turned out to be a motto, “Time does not heal. Time verifies.” Let’s let time have the last word on Crack
1. Weariness and deprivation
If Pessoa could create, all by himself, a whole generation in a dictatorial Lisbon devoid of literature, it was—no matter what they say—due to weariness. One morning, after a restless night of sleep, Álvaro de Campos woke up just to write: “Because I hear, I see. I confess: it is weariness.” And in his insomnia, great poetry was born. Similarly, I do not believe that all ruptures, ranging from the daily delirium to the most cruel and radical resolutions, come by means of ideologies, but of weariness. That is why it is more than looking for sharp definitions and theories. By chance, some odd “isms” may appear that have more to do with amusement than with a manifesto. There is, of course, a reaction against exhaustion; weariness of having the great Latin American literature and the dubious magic realism converted, for our writing, into tragic magicism; weariness of the patriotic speeches which, for a long time, have made us believe that Rivapalacio wrote better than his contemporary Poe, as if proximity and quality were one and the same thing; weariness of writing poorly in order to be read more (but not better); weariness of the engagé; weariness of the letters that circle like flies over corpses. From this weariness, there comes an act of general demise, not just literary, but even of the circumstance. I am not talking about obsolete or deceitful pessimisms or existentialisms. Perhaps we will always have the advantage that the spirits of comedy, laughter, and caricature will serve as alternatives.
2. Absent conflict and other definitions of negative thought
The Sicilian expression “generation without conflict” is not as unfounded as some may claim. The irony exists for those who have read Ortega y Gasset, and know that, among the characteristics he indicated that constitute a generation, conflict was included. Well, the lack of conflict is one of the few elements that unify us, whether we like it or not. And, if something is happening with the Crack novels, it is not a literary movement, but a plain and simple attitude. There can be no greater proposal than the lack of one. Let’s leave it to those more pious than us to elaborate it in their own time, as they undoubtedly will. This is not the only definition in negative thought, nor is the lack of conflict unique: as if we were scholars defining God or hell. All we could say is that, more than “being something,” the Crack novels “are not many things,” they are everything and nothing, the expression which Borges properly used to define Shakespeare. Sometimes, definitions kill mystery, and literature without mystery is not worth being written.
3. Creationism for scatology
Let’s not be fooled here: there is no scatological originality in the Crack novels, even though they are certainly apocalyptical. It would be unfair to grant them this classification; it would do injustice to a long tradition that is not exactly Mexican. If that weren’t enough, even the end of the ideologies and the fall of the Berlin wall were much ahead of their writing; it has been a long time since they left us a world made of suffixes, of only suffixes that we aggregate—sometimes seriously and, almost always, as a desperate joke—with what already existed, with what already has been. A long time ago, Beckett foresaw a similar situation, not in Waiting for Godot, but in Endgame. Like Hamm and Clov, we do not write during the apocalypse, which is old, but in a world located beyond of it. If these novels seem to have an anxiety for creationism, not in the literal sense like Huidobro, but in the amplified sense of Faulkner, Onetti, Rulfo and many others, it is because we think it is necessary to build this grotesque cosmos so we have more of a right to destroy it. Once it is destroyed, the Crack novels will appear in the empire of chaos.
4. The chronotope, or about an aesthetic of dislocation
The world beyond this world does not aspire to prophesy or to symbolize anything. Sometimes, there are tricks to achieve an odd effect while honoring Brecht and Kafka; something grotesque, something of a caricaturizing paraphrase; in fact, Crack novels aim to make stories whose chronotope, using a Bakhtinian word, is zero: the no-place and no-time, all-times and alplaces, and none of them. From the comic book, we have brought what the adaptors of Amadís de Gaula did by accident, more than half a millennium ago when he placed his Públio Ovidio Nasón in front of a bunch of microphones. The dislocation in these Crack novels will be nothing more than a mockery of a crazy and dislocated reality, the product of a world being controlled by mass media takes it to the end of a century which is truncated in times and places, broken by a surplus of ligaments.
5. The halo and the word
It is the Crack novel’s role to renew the language inside of itself, that is, feeding it with its oldest ashes. Let the others (those who definitely have faith) be in charge of treating the language as if it were a band or by using a rock-and-roll speech (which has also become old). There are more books to be made. There is more in peremiología, in the rhapsody’s orality, in archaisms and the atavistic language, in orality and folklore, in clerical-juggleresque rhetoric. These resources have shown more resistance to time and, although the alchemy may seem difficult, its results are richer.
6. Praise to the monsters
Nobody writes novels anymore, or more accurately, nobody writes complete novels. But, I ask myself, novels for whom? Complete for whom? It would be better to talk about excellent novels and names like Cervantes, Sterne, Rabelais, and Dante, together with those who followed them closely. They are organisms that, though gigantic, exist not to be frightening; though monstrous, we should not avoid them.
More arrogant, to me, is the author who keeps his distance from these giants, having a doubtful reservation, than those of us who openly accept them. The literature that denies its tradition cannot and should not grow with it. No monster rejects its shadow. Novel or anti-novel, mirror against mirror, only in this way is it possible to have a rupture in continuity.
7. Rupture and continuity
It’s not worth the trouble to shake the bottle of garrapatas. This is a game, like everything in literature. The one and only; the novel, no matter what people say, always comes and always will. When we break it, it remains. In fact, if there is nothing new under the sun, it is because that which is old counts for novelty.
Ricardo Chávez Castañeda
Commonplaces such as “the pages speak to us” or “the book can defend itself” are pertinent when evaluating aesthetic representations. If a manifesto is, in the best of cases, a map to outline what is obvious from a moderately attentive look at the common denominators, then the works represent the true kingdoms of commitment to a position and a proclamation.
The five Crack novels are exactly where we have to look for how much of a pact, of a compromised soul and ambition; how much of a bet on a—let’s call it—“profound” literature are actually in these writers.
The extraordinary thing has been the coincidence. These novels were created without a collective slogan. If afterwards they were grouped together, it was due more to the shared destiny of the always inconsistent methods of the publishing houses and, more importantly, to a correspondence of postulates, promises, and maybe (why not?) of failures, than due to the author’s will.
Expositions such as this do nothing more than share our astonishment: going back to the episodic accidents of that time has been, so far, the only point of unification amongst ourselves—writers who were born in the ’60s. With more words or fewer words, what has united us today is a shared sentiment, if one thinks that novels are already—for better or for worse—a boundary. From now on, all we have to do is examine and try to cross it.
What have the conditions of this agreement been? What was the oath?
The novels are the only place to find these answers; however, it is possible to anticipate the map that every principle’s declaration draws, in order to make it easy for adhesions and offences. The Crack novels, essentially, share the risk, the demand, the rigor, and the total will that has been generated by many mistakes. Si volviesen sus majestades, Memoria de los días, La conspiración idiota, Las Rémoras, and El temperamento melancólico reject any previously attempted or mass market formula. They take the risk to experiment. They can be blamed for unfulfillment, but not for insufficiency in this ambition: to explore the genre of the novel with its most complex and solid themes, and its own syntactic, lexical and stylistic structures; with the necessary polyphony, extravagance and experimentation; with a rigor free from complacencies and pretexts.
In this way, while a complete sect takes the charge of narrating the end of the world in Memoria de los días, the voices of the actors interrupting the movie made in El temperamento melancólico is what make us realize the infinite haughtiness of a director who thinks he is God. Or, at the other extreme, Si volviesen sus majestades keeps, in the apparent order of its main story, a chaos of linked stories, the same happening to the three short novellas that, a la Cervantes, interrupt the main journey of Ricardo in Las Rémoras. And, in one last tour de force, La conspiración idiota bets on scrutinizing the childrens’ secret language with a lexicon as original as the one mumbled by our buffoon in Si volviesen sus majestades.
So, you will find in the Crack novels not just the achievements of the project, but also its limits; not just its victories, but its confusions. There is nothing oblique or moderate about it, because the options that really matter are of great extremes, so high or so low as to warrant an ascension or plunge.
Such a book is necessarily profound and demanding with its readers. The Crack novel demands, but also offers. It boasts of being reciprocal: the more one searches, the more one will get from it; being sure that the pre-existing iceberg is there to resolve any doubt.
Here, one clarification is necessary. Novels inhale the voracious world and then exhibit it. Novels pretend to be scientific, philosophic, mysterious, etc., and at the same time they reject as much as they desire. The Crack novels generate their own universe, bigger or smaller depending on the case, but always complete, closed, and precise.
The Crack novels create their own codes, and take them to their last consequences. They are self-centered cosmos, almost mathematical in their buildings and foundations, absolute in their urgent need to comprehend the realities selected from all perspectives, which, in literature, are translated by a multiplicity of registers and interpretations. There is no vortex which is not made or has not been approached, like a net that is a combination of knots and holes.
In conclusion, we are not doing anything new. At the most, we are bringing back a forgotten aesthetic of Mexican literature. We have selected our origins and just one of the thousand possible paths. The proposition has already been stated, written, and, now, published, because any dialogue, in terms of literary proposal, is accomplished with books: “the pages speak to us,” and “the book can defend itself.”
The Crack is ready to do it.
Feverish, the bizarre members of the Church of La Paz del Señor that appear in Memoria de los días go on a pilgrimage to Los Angeles searching for new members and—though not being aware of it—for the destruction of their world. This varied set of characters, many of them eccentric—the notary public, the wrestler priest, the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, the varieties of a perverse narrative lottery—goes around the world trying to convince the nonbelievers that the universe is at the point of disappearing, exactly as Carl Gustav Gruber, the acclaimed cinema director from El temperamento melancólico, disappears. Some people listen to him, few follow him, the rest make fun of and disapprove of him. It is a crazy American, the carbon copy of David Koresh, who will start the massacre among the sectarians.
The scientists, just as the critics, think they have the last word: Judgment Day has been a mistake; objectively, nothing has changed. What they don’t know, what they are not able to comprehend is that the sacrifice which took place in Los Angeles was, in fact, the disaster that had been announced so many times. It is because they cannot realize that, paraphrasing Nietzsche, the end of time does not happen outside the world, but inside the heart. More than a mere superstition, the end of the world supposes a particular state of the spirit; what matters less is the external destruction when compared to the inner collapse, this state of anguish that precedes our internal Judgment Day.
In the same manner, only a millennial accident has made others go to these lands on pilgrimage: Ricardo and Elias, absurd Siamese twins who have invented themselves without realizing it, go forward on this road which goes from La Paz to the California border, heading for this same Babel of immigrants and, from there, possibly to Alaska. In a complex world in which there are plenty of stories inside stories, like in Si volviesen sus majestades, the aesthetics of Escher or Borges seems to arrive at their final destination in Las Rémoras, the novel and the fishing village where this ritual of reunification is celebrated.
As everyone knows, we are divided or multiple beings. The extreme, here, is that only writing is able to connect us with our past; it makes it possible that the imaginary friends from our adolescence show up as real creations or, even more, as our contemporary writers. Hidden, the end of the world is here, the beginning of a Utopia, the beginning of a new world: united at last, Elías and Ricardo, both creator and creature, stop in the middle of the desert and, while urinating at the side of the path, contemplate the infinite space—the end, the origin of the universe—that still lies ahead of them.
This is not different from what happens to the gang of older adolescents who undertake La conspiración idiota. Several adults dedicate themselves to recalling their adventures as children, especially the destiny of Paluica, the oddest of all, who, many years earlier, decided he had to be good. So, they get together from time to time to try to decipher the little mystery that keeps them united to Paliuca. However, the apparent obviousness of the plot hides a secret: truth does not exist, what really matters is the inner experience of the characters who are the only ones able to explain to us who they are. The style and the syntactic texture of the sentences—exactly what happens to be the language of Senescal in Si volviesen sus majestades—are what change the conventions to show us, once more, that the end of the world happened a long time ago, in this abstruse and unnamed zone which separates innocence from cruelty, childhood from maturity.
Should no one think it is a coincidence that this loyal Senescal from the transparent reign abandoned by its majesties dreams constantly about traveling to Kalifornia—with a “K”, since in this world the letters have ended up substituting the society—to dedicate himself, in the end, to his cinematographic passion. But this is how it is: Kalifornia is the recurrent tope of the finisecular passion, an area of massacre or escape. Yet, unlike his peers in Memoria de los días or Las Rémoras, Senescal will never get close to his dream. Because, oh sorrow, the end of the world is he himself. In his turbid figure, his exquisite sadomasochism with the buffoon, and his frank language that reminds us or, better, touches the Spanish of the “infamous Avellaneda,” there is the entire universe and also, horror of horrors, its fertile destruction. The end of the world is also schizophrenia, fantasy, a hypochondriacal “big crunch.” The conclusion cannot surprise anyone: Senescal has been doing nothing other than searching through his sentences and his delirium like a mentally disabled Rumpelstiltskin—his identity, the same as that which could be applied to almost all of Crack’s characters: from now on, his name will be Chaos.
By his side, Carl Gustav Gruber, the famous and non-existent German movie director, shares with Elias, the notary public from Las Rémoras, and with Amado Nervo, the Pluma de Oro from Memoria de los días, a very notable characteristic: artist by force, everything he touches turns into dead bodies. Isn’t infertility, without going much further, the real end of the world? Mediocrity, forgetfulness? Gruber films obsessively: he has cancer and, to make matters worse, he contaminates his actors through his words, by his atrocious melancholic mood. He hires, with the same obsession for perfection, his retinue of last men—another brotherhood, another fraternity like in La conspiración idiota—who are distinguished by their excessive malleability. Each one of them feels like or is an artist, like Gruber. Every one of them is ready to sell his soul for such a noble cause. And every one of them will pay for it.
The end of the world can be believed and praised, as in Memoria de los dias; can be reached by car or train, as in Las Remoras; can be recalled and rebuilt in childhood and in the past, as in La conspiracion idiota; can be cultivated inside oneself to the point of madness, as in Si volviesen sus majestades; and can also be granted to others as an infamous Pandora’s box like in El temperamento melancolico. Be that as it may, in any one of these cases, nobody is free from this last illness, this fifth rider, this plague, and this entertainment: this last state of the heart.
Translated from the Spanish by Celia Bortolin and Scott Miller.