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A Global Aesthetics of Sobriety

Hermann Herlinghaus

Bloomsbury Academic
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First published 2013

Hermann Herlinghaus, 2013

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Herlinghaus, Hermann, 1954
Narcoepics : a global aesthetics of sobriety / by Hermann Herlinghaus.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-4411-0778-7 (pbk. : alk. paper)ISBN 978-1-4411-2198-1
(hardback : alk. paper) 1. Latin American literature20th centuryHistory and criticism.
2. Latin American literature21st centuryHistory and criticism. 3. Globalization in
literature. 4. Narration (Rhetoric) I. Title.
PQ7081.H417 2013

EISBN: 978-1-6235-6517-6

Typeset by Newgen Imaging Systems Pvt Ltd, Chennai, India

To my father Hermann Herlinghaus, film historian (19311989)

Acknowledgments ix

1Pharmakon and Pharmakos:

Prolegomena for a Janus-Faced Modernity 1
Counterpoint, not other 1
Remembering the Psychoactive Revolution:
Provincializing the West 5
On the meaning of dissociation, and the logics of denial 10
Unlearning fear, absolving the ghost of the Pharmakos:
An open genealogy 20

2Aesthetics of Sobriety: Approximating Narratives

from the Hemispheric South 27
Ethics at an impasse: Toward abnormal interpretation 27
Humiliating sobrietya surreptitious path 32
Thinking poverty, relocating aesthetics 41

3Heterogeneous Genealogies: From the Latin American

Narco-Novel to Narcoepics 51
Prolegomena 51
First, Mexican encounter with the low-level drug business:
Diario de un narcotraficante (Angelo Nacaveva) 53
Demoniac intoxication, construction of guilt, and the
predicament of cynicism: Mariposa Blanca (Tito Gutirrez Vargas) 66
Cinematic writing and the acting brain of a killer:
Lehrstck about the borders of citizenship
(Nostalgia de la sombra, Eduardo Antonio Parra) 82
viii Contents

4The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar Story:

Pablo Escobar, auge y cada de un narcotraficante (Alonso Salazar) 93

Ominous questions 93
A Revolution without philosophers 98
The Rainmaker from the Global South: Power and predicament 104
The drama of extradition, and the impossible sovereign 112
Coda 123

5Female Castaways: Delirio, Plasma, and Displacements

from Oppression 127
Tambin las mujeres pueden 127
The impossible healing: Delirio (Laura Restrepo) 129
Toward an ecological aesthetics, postoptimistic:
Plasma (Guadalupe Santa Cruz) 141

6 From Pharmakon to Femicide: 2666 (Roberto Bolao) 157

Thinking from the Pharmakon, approaching
literature otherwise 157
Globalized academics in the wake of cosmopolitanism 161
Placebo intellectuals 178
Benno von Archimboldi, the Amphibian 191
The Part about the CrimesAnother Almanac of the Dead 208

Bibliography 233
Index 245

This book takes little for granted, and it does not leave widespread assumptions in their
place. If this were to be phrased in one single sentence it might say that the strongest
narcotics in modern societies are not what they are deemed to be. Narcoepics is a
heuristic concept. Paradoxically, it has more to do with sobriety than with intoxication.
Here we find the surprising aesthetic and ethical insight that sets todays narcoepics
apart from those modern artistic works since the nineteenth century, which were
related to writers creative experimentation with psychoactive substances. Narcoepics
are linked to affective and epistemic terrains as they have been articulated, during the
past several decades, in the Hemispheric South.
Narcoepics: A Global Aesthetics of Sobriety grew out of my teaching and research at
the University of Pittsburgh between 2007 and 2010. Its writing was, at that same time,
accompanied by the colloquy with friends and colleagues in Germany, especially with
Karlheinz (Carlo) Barck. In September, 2009, thanks to Beatriz Gonzlez-Stephan, Jos
Aranda, and Caroline Levander, I was invited to participate in the Emerging Disciplines
symposium at Rice Universitys Humanities Research Center, at which I addressed
the formative role played by conflicts over psychoactive substances within different
dynamics of transatlantic and hemispheric modernization. The professional synergy
and wholehearted support that I encountered at this memorable event was crucial,
and, shortly afterwards, I completed the definite outline for the book. During the fall
semester of 2010, the Humanities Center at the University of Pittsburgh awarded me a
Faculty Fellowship, allowing me to enjoy a more concentrated tide of writing.
The final writing phase was traversed by an interesting and contrapuntal
experiencemy transition from Pittsburgh to the University of Freiburg in 2011.
Undoubtedly, I have benefitted from working with graduate students at Pitts Department
of Hispanic Languages and Literatures, yet I quickly found that Freiburgs students of
Romance Languages and Literatures were eager to share the new texts and segments of
knowledge that I began to introduce into my teaching. Lisa Quaas, doctoral candidate,
capably helped me through the completion of the manuscript, when daily duties at my
new institution threatened to delay the process.
Two international congresses that I had the opportunity to coordinate are related
to the intellectual trajectory of the book, as well. The first, Narcoepics Unbound:
New Narrative Territories, Affective Aesthetics, and Ethical Paradox, took place in
April, 2008, at the University of Pittsburgh. The names of the actively participating
scholars and artists show the scope of a joint reflectionElmer Mendoza, Vctor
Gaviria, Felipe Aljure, Catherine L. Benamou, Rebecca E. Biron, Nancy D. Campbell,
Elaine Carey, Beatriz Gonzlez-Stephan, Cynthia Steele, Juana Surez, Richard
DeGrandpre, Luis Duno-Gottberg, Mark Cameron Edberg, Curtis Marez, Julin
Olivares, and Elijah Wald. The second symposium, entitled The Modern Concept
x Acknowledgments

of Intoxication / Rausch: Heterogeneous Mappings, materialized in July, 2012,

shortly after the completion of this manuscript at the University of Freiburg, with the
participation of Brigitte Marschall, Alicia Ortega, Gabriela Polit, Arne Romanowski,
Kathrin Solhdju, Agnieszka Soltysik, Uta Werner, Scott McClintock, Thomas Klinkert,
Diemo Landgraf, Leonhard Fuest, and Robert Feustel.
A paper that anticipates Chapter 1 of Narcoepics was published in Melissa Bailar
(ed.), Emerging Disciplines: Shaping New Fields of Scholarly Inquiry in and beyond the
Humanities, Houston: Rice University Press, 2010. A section of Chapter 6 appeared
in a special issue of The Global South, coordinated by Caroline Levander and Walter
Mignolo, The Global South and World Dis/Order (Vol. 5:1, August 2011). Gabriela
Polit Dueas and Mara Helena Rueda included a smaller, work-in-progress version
of Chapter 2 in their volume Meanings of Violence in Contemporary Latin America
(NewYork: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
The majority of the literary texts from Spanish-language editions discussed in this
book, have not yet been translated into English. In these cases, English quotations
are translations by Deborah Truhan. Deborah, an amazing colleague and friend, has
helped me, as well, with the copyediting during the writing period. Thanks to Nadya
Viascan, doctoral candidate at the University of Freiburg, for collaborating with me on
the index.
Working with Haaris Naqvi, my editor at Continuum Publishers, was a most
encouraging experience. His professional efficiency and generosity have been crucial
along the way. The comments from the press readers were sensitive, and I appreciate
their help.
I am most grateful to my strongest affective and intellectual supporter, my mother,
Ruth Herlinghaus.

Pharmakon and Pharmakos

Prolegomena for a
Janus-Faced Modernity

Intact cultures possess a knowledge of the benefits of drug-related pathways to

altered consciousness, as well as a wisdom that leads them to incorporate drugs . . .
into the techniques that construct the reality of its people. Western culture stands
out as an exception to this universal cultural characteristic.
John Schumaker
. . . we are still foreign to ourselves, at the threshold of this new world, . . . We
have no idea who we are, no idea what is inside us.
Catherine Malabou

Counterpoint, not other

No one would claim today that modern notions of culture, to the extent that they have
fueled the literary critics work, are devoid of trajectories of disavowal. When concepts
become metaphors and generate desires toward self-evidence in the exploration of
unheeded territories, it might be time to take a third look. Many stories are yet to be
told, if we believe that theoretical works are renarrations of a specific kind. I would
like to offer one such story. It takes Fernando Ortizs renowned and much commented
book, Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azcar (19401/78; Cuban Counterpoint:
Tobacco and Sugar) on a journey back home, where culture and history, and biology
are not perceived as opposites. If much incentive has been gained from Ortizs work for
making transculturation studies a first-rank issue in Latin American literary criticism,2
an entire realm was put aside: the field of the relationships between culture and
biology. However, Cuban Counterpoint offers crucial insights into the problematic of
modernity and intoxication, enabled by a perspective that fosters the experiences and

See for the Spanish edition Fernando Ortiz, Contrapunteo Cubano del tabaco y el azucar. Ed. Julio Le
On the notion of transculturation see Fernando Coronil, Introduction to the Duke University Press
Edition. In Fernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, xvff., xxx.
2 Narcoepics

epistemic interests of what today appears as the Global South. This study makes the
two psychoactives, tobacco and sugar, the master objects of a heterological approach
to modernity. The fact that these substances do not fall under the biased notion of
malignant, legally restricted drugs lends Counterpoint a special usefulness for
comparative discussion. While it questions the rationale, according to which narcotic
desire carries the assumption of pathology, it scrutinizes the role that narcotic plants
from the New World have played, across the centuries, in the transatlantic formation of
Western modernity. This is no minor aspect, since modernitys involvement with drugs
has been accompanied by mechanisms of (self)repression, and the fact that public
debates on narcotics have become increasingly difficult merits critical review. When
the work of Ortiz was eagerly appropriated since the 1970s, the search for national,
transcultural identities made Latin American imaginaries compete with the idea
of universal citizenship. To decode modernitys tales of projection and repression, in
turn, brings peripheral thinking to the forefront of global reflection.
In a wider connotation, our study considers the humanum not as a process
essentially driven by labor, work, and action,3 but as a rhythmic reality, as well, in
which biological and anthropological forces play their constant part. It is here that the
image of the counterpoint comes into focus, as it can make us aware of the age-old,
psychotropic element of human practice.4 Psychotropy, understood in principle as
being related to mood- and consciousness-altering substances and practices, conveys a
sturdy counterpoint in the life of homo faber, its sturdyness consisting of the shifting
layers of meaning that undo, as well as back up, humanitys rationalizing fervor. Ortiz
enters the stage of early-twentieth-century cultural theory as a Latin American and a
global thinker. He locates the Cuban riches, tobacco and sugar, within the genealogy
of modernitys ever present yet disavowed signifyernarcotics. Narcotics are never
homogeneous, as their compositions and effects vary; however, all of them work on
the chemical messengers of the neurophysiological system. In so doing, their effects
combine with other factorscultural and environmentalthat also work on the
brain-body-chemistry. This field of unique combinations, that are both biologically
and culturally charged, has given the problematic its tremendous and contradictory
scope, often being divided between biopoetic and biopolitical approaches.
Fernando Ortizs point of departure is figurative and theatrical: dark tobacco and
high yellow sugar perform an allegorical dance, as they conduct their symbiotic,
syncopatic action on peoples bodies and souls, displaying a contest of contrasting ethics
and the ills and benefits that each has conferred upon mankind.5 In the course of his
book, the Cuban anthropologist works toward a new awareness regarding the ancient
pharmakon, showing how, beginning with the sixteenth century, an increasingly
widespread intoxication, fueled by overseas commerce and mass commodification of
tobacco, sugar, and other pharmaka was a modern phenomenon, transatlantically
charged. As is often overlooked, Western modernity is deeply involved with narcotics,
in biochemical or cultural, and of course in literary ways. This involvement is based,

See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 7.
For a cultural reflection on psychotropy see Daniel L. Smail, On Deep History and the Brain, 157.
Fernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint, 3.
Pharmakon and Pharmakos 3

on the dark side of progress, on the prosperity of the colonial labor treadmill, with
sugar standing at the origin of the introduction of African slaves into the hemispheric
colonies.6 Pharmakon, in Greek, stands for poison, or magic potion, or medicine;7
and it may well be the shifting signifyer that embraces all three. This, together with
a perspective that plays on a hegemonic take by turning the mirror of sophisticated
Othering onto Europetobacco from Cuba eventually mellows into holy smoke8
in order to furbish the mythology of urban progress and cosmopolitan identitiesis
what Contrapunteo is about, while at the same time offering a genuine cultural and
economic history of Cubas two main export products.
Why, then, have cultural analysts, or Latin American literary and cultural studies,
as well as postcolonial thinking, paid only fitful attention to the matter? Why did
they overlook its genuine conceptual, and genealogical call? While cultural critics are
accustomed to thinking of globalization in terms of power configurations related to
capitalism, coloniality, the nation-state, Otherness, gender, immigration, and the mass
media, most have neglected the formative role of modern struggles over narcotics in
these regards. In a sense, narcotics and intoxication (which are not the same) continue
to linger on as modernitys visceral Other, one that the Self has to disavow in
order to keep utilizing it. Since affective expectations and aversions haunt scholarly
work beneath its performed objectivity, fear of the possible delusion of the idea of
the self-conscious subject might have played a part in the underestimation of Ortizs
most obvious concern: a kind of Latin American epistemic, ethnographic, and poetic
protagonism in the global venture, in which actors such as tobacco and sugar
would stimulate and embellish the culture of the European and North American
centers, thus restituting economic income and symbolic authority to the less privileged
Caribbean world. Cuban Counterpoint can thus be read as a bio-poetic manifesto.9
When the book was written, uncontrolled use of tobacco and sugar was not illegal,
in contrast with other psychoactive substances that fell under prohibition; however,
the question of which of these substances are more detrimental to health, and which
are particularly generative of addictive consequences, as well as the question of their
cultural identities, remain contradictory issues. For example, the existing moral and
legal separations between alcohol and sugar, on the one hand, and hashish and cocaine,
on the other are nothing less than arbitrary. There might also have been, among
humanities scholars skeptical of psychoactives, a rather narrow secularism, which
leads to the association of narcotics and stimulants with those irrational spheres that
belonged to religion or vanity, but not modern culture. If, on the other hand, readers of

See ibid., 334, 4857, 84.
Friedrich Erdmann Petri (ed.), Handbuch der Fremdwrter in deutscher Schrift- und Umgang-Sprache.
Zweiter Theil, DresdenLeipzig: Arnoldische Buchhandlung, 1834, 232.
See Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Holy Smoke.
The text begins with the poet priest Juan Ruizs Libro de Buen Amor (1330/43), especially the Pelea
que uvo Don Carnal con Doa Quaresma or, in Ortizs diction, the satirical contest between Don
Tabaco and Doa Azcar, a creaturly (partly allegorical) relationship imagined to be both a
contention and a dance. In the event that, with Don Tobaccos aid, sublime intoxication is possible,
can it help provide stamina to the personalities in modern times to endure in their oppressed
existence? (see Ortiz. Contrapunteo, 2978, 309).
4 Narcoepics

Ortizs book had taken note of Walter Benjamins Capitalism as Religion (1921) and
Surrealism (1929), and especially his concept-figure of a dialectics of intoxication,
different ideas about modernitys transgressions and the singular counterpoints of
psychoactives offered to the West by peripheral cultures might have come our way
several decades sooner.10
It is essential to our argument that Ortiz was a nonspecialist in the study of drug
use and abuse. We are not heading toward free speculation on a controversial matter,
but rather an approach that is capable of making sense of the paradoxes traversing
narcotic substances, together with psychoactive realities as they have marked the
rise and self-fashioning of Western modernity. As far as specialists are concerned,
Richard DeGrandpres The Cult of Pharmacology (2006) has necessary things to say,
for example, about the biased objectivity of the pharmaceutical guild. Regarding the
first decades of the twentieth century, a time during which the contemporary drug
control and enforcement system, pioneered by the United States,11 acquired its lasting,
international contoures, DeGrandpre comments:
The pharmaceutical industry, the tobacco industry, modern biological psychiatry,
the biomedical sciences, the drug enforcement agencies, and the American
judicial systemall these institutions were quick to embrace and promote a cult
of pharmacology not as a conspiracy but as a belief system that served their own
interests, albeit in varying ways. (viii)
Cult is a synonym for the practical, often highly efficient (re)production of specific
belief systems or affective dispositions classifying drugs as either angels or demons,
which we have discussed, in another study, in relationship to a global war on affect.12
Here we have the first paradox: science on the one hand, and belief or fear on the
other, each coupled with powerful interests.13 In the course of his study, DeGrandpre
points to the establishment of a discursive order that resembles Edward Saids idea of
orientalism.14 At issue is a mechanism for making Otherness subject to judgment by
affectively, as well as systematically, constructing it in the first place. DeGrandpre
applies the figure of orientalism, common among postcolonial scholars, to the
trajectories of mystification, which have come to characterize a major part of the
modern history of narcotics. Psychoactives have become, by means of both imagination
and explanation, a hyperbolea symbol for excess, their cultivators, in the case of

See Hermann Herlinghaus, (In)Comparable Intoxications: Walter Benjamin Revisited from the
Hemispheric South, 1636.
See David W. Courtwright. Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World, 183, 1846.
The author notes: When most people hear the phrase drug trafficking, they think of criminals
scheming to bypass strict prohibitions on nonmedical sales and use. Viewed in historical terms, this
sort of activity is a peculiarity of modern times. From about the mid-seventeenth century to the late
nineteenth, the worlds govering elites, with a few notable exceptions were concerned with how best
to tax the traffic, not how to suppress it. Prohibition would have struck them as futile and wasteful,
had they thought of it at all (165).
See Hermann Herlinghaus, Violence Without Guilt: Ethical Narratives from the Global South, 816.
Like all technologies, pharmacology is essentially ambivalent. It can promote health, or it can be
employed to tame and control populations. David Lenson, On Drugs, 191.
See Edward Said, Orientalism.
Pharmakon and Pharmakos 5

psychoactive plants that have been condemned and their users, being qualified as
dangerous Others that call for moral scrutinity, restriction, and even coercion.
Today, a wide spectrum of scientific investigations and ethical considerations
convene in the plea for rigorously improved and democratized drug education.15 This
implies, in the first place, readdressing the problematic of psychoactive substances
in differentiated, nonbellicose ways, putting in doubt the politics of suspicion and
punishment. David Lenson, questioning the reigning spirit of criminalization, writes,
The question should be: how can we allow people to get high safely, without imperiling
their capacity for work, love, and citizenship? (190). Our present study, articulated
from a literary theorists perspective, bears a more modest and yet more extensive
claim. At stake is a third, historico-cultural look at modernity and its hermeneutic
and conceptual crucibles, one that pierces through the twilight spirit of our present,
trying to recover some of the most important symbolic traces and historical antecedents
underlying the conflicts over narcotics. At stake is, in other words, a new perspective of
sobriety in view of the heated vocabulary related to illicit flows and criminal things,16
which often goes together with historical forgetting and social, psychological, or ethnic
exclusion. Yet sobriety is not a puristic notion, but one that allows us to look through
intoxication by understanding its fundamental role.17 As we will argue in our book, the
plea for sobriety speaks from contemporary literatures perception of the world and,
especially, its reimagination of the pharmakon.

Remembering the Psychoactive Revolution:

Provincializing the West

When Dipesh Chakrabarty conceived of the arguments for Provincializing Europe,18

he did not address the one single signifier whose entrance into Western imagination
produced rampant evidence of superstition, fear, and narrow-mindedness on the side
of European conquerors and colonizers: psychoactive plants and the practices of their
use by the autochthonous populations of the West Indies. Rethinking a modern
history of intoxication appears to be an important step for bringing the critique of
historicism up to date. Today, over 500 years after the transatlantic onset of Western
expansion, the word drugs resonates with either suspicion or excess, together with
narcotics having become mass commoditiesextremely diversified, highly profitable,
and eagerly restricted; alas, we live in a world in which the notions of excess and fear
evoke, not by chance, a sense of immaturity regarding the ways in which contemporary

An example, here, would be Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs from
Alcohol to Ecstasy by Cynthia Kuhn, Scott Swartzwelder, Wilkie Wilson. See 1819.
See Willem van Schendel and Itty Abraham (eds), Illicit Flows and Criminal Things:States, Borders,
and the Other Side of Globalization.
Sobriety, in our discussion, does not stand for an absolute, nor is it equated positivistically with the
word drug-free. As we will elaborate in Chapter 2, it is an unfamiliar concept to the extent that it
forms part of the dialectics of intoxication heralded by Walter Benjamin.
Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference.
6 Narcoepics

societies handle their basic, bio-anthropological issues. If late modernity is about

globalization, is it not also about the obsessive particularisms through which ruling
elites try to secure their domains, geopolitically and locally? Or, to recall a cast of
neoliberalist cynicism vis--vis our troubled worldchaos management should be
profitable, in the first place.
Regarding the first European encounter with tobacco leaves from the New World,
Ortiz observes:
When Christopher Columbus stepped on American soil, for the first time in
Guanahan on October 12, 1492, the Indians of the island greeted him with an
offertory rite, a gift of tobacco: Some dried leaves, which must be a thing highly
esteemed among them, for in San Salvador they made me a present of them. To
give leaves of tobacco or a cigarette was a gesture of peace and friendship among
the Indians. . . . (1415)
For the Admiral, tobacco was nothing other than an exotic rarity. Tobacco leaves were
unknown in Europe until the beginning of the sixteenth century (72). Similar scenes
must have occurred regarding the Andean coca plant, of which Europe received its
first account from a man, Amerigo Vespucci, whose misspelled name would dubiously
account for the designation of the new lands. According to Joseph Kennedy, Vespucci
wrote about his coca observations on the Island of Margarita in a letter:
The customs and manners of the tribe are of this sort. In looks and behavior they
were very repulsive and each had his cheeks bulging with a certain green herb
which they chewed like cattle, so that they could hardly speak. . . .19
Irrespective of the arrogant blindness of European newcomers, coca and tobacco were
pharmaka in the ancient sense of the word. They were untapped resources, and they
came loaded with an invisible call, in that the distinction between remedy, magic,
and poison was not a matter of science, in the first place, but of wisdom related to
the experienced knowledges of culture and religiosity. Coca and tobacco were plants
whose thousands-of-years old roles among native peoples of the Americas has been
associated with medical use and combatting disorders of various kinds while they
also served, at the same time, as central ingredients of autochthonous ways of life,
agencies of shamanistic ceremonies and religious worship,20 besides being praised as
aphrodisiacs. Their pharmacological quality was linked to their relationships with the
brain-body chemistry in biological, social, and cultural ways. According to Daniel
Smails neurohistorical perspective, mood- and consciousness-altering media have
always existed, that is to say, culture and biology have never conformed a historicist
The citation continues and each carried from his neck two dried gourds, one of which was full
of the very herb he kept in his mouth, the other full of a certain white flour-like powdered chalk.
Frequently each put a small powdered stick (which had been moistened and chewed in his mouth)
into the gourd filled with flour. Each they drew it forth and put it both sides on his cheeks thus
mixing the flour with the herb their mouths contained. This they did frequently and a little at a
time, and marveling at such a thing, we could not guess the secret nor for what purpose they did so.
Joseph Kennedy, Coca Exotica: The Illustrated Story of Cocaine, 31.
See ibid., 15; Fernando Ortiz, Contrapunteo Cubano del tabaco y el azcar; Barbara Tedlock and
Dennis Tedlock, Teachings of the American Earth: Indian Religion and Philosophy.
Pharmakon and Pharmakos 7

relationship in which the first would eventually replace the second.21 In that regard, and
paraphrasing Latour, we indeed have never been modern.22 The Greek pharmakon
and todays pharmaceutical establishments, as well as their pharmacological
discourses, seem to present themselves as opposites. However, they are connected
via a phenomenology of conflicts, across many centuries, consisting of the struggles
over narcotics, and what could turn one acceptance (that of dealing with remedies),
or another (working with poisons) into the benefits of commerce, enlightenment,
nation-building, and the inventionliterally, the nurturingof modern subjectivities,
as well as their subsequent administration. If Western civilization did not bring an end
to biology, one of modernitys crucial problems, neurohistorically speaking, seemed to
consist in the edification of increasingly aggressive and repressive neurophysiological
ecosystems.23 Narcotics not only became eagerly exchanged commodities within all
major cycles of modernization, but they have moved to the center of ever accelerating
consumerism and growing psychotropic saturation, without which contemporary
lifestyles and cosmopolitan subject positions would be virtually unimaginable. This is
what we call the formative power of modern conflicts over narcotics, which started with
the encounter with the Americas and led to the invention of ever more sophisticated
and arbitrary ways, in which geopolitics and economy would go hand in hand with the
production, circulation, and control of psychotropic effects and consciousness-altering
substances. On these grounds, modern writers and artists would eventually become
engaged with narcotics movement to the center of a god-forsaken world.
Taking the vantage point of Latin American experiences regarding transatlantic
expansion and exchange, and modifying Ortizs vision, imagining a counterpoint of
tobacco and coca helps us to reveal specific imbalances. Both tobacco and coca were
plants of indigenous origin and tradition from the Western hemisphere, cultigens
that aroused the suspicion and the fascination of conquerors, colonizers, chroniclers,
merchants, the Catholic church, transatlantic trading companies, chemists, biologists,
artists, and writers. The coca leaf did not function as a catalyst of the large psychoactive
revolution,24 that started during the seventeenth century, whereas tobacco was one of
its protagonists. Cocaine, invented as late as 1860, would fall prey to the prohibition
of its free use only a few decades later; and from that time on, the Andean coca plant
would be stigmatized on highly imprecise grounds.25 Tobacco, on the other hand, and
most likely more detrimental to health than cocaine, continued to be one of the main
products serving modern societies limbic obsession and big economic interests:
the cigarette is . . . the boon companion of industrial capitalism and high-density
urbanism. Crowds, hyperkinesis, mass production, numbingly boring labor, and
social upheaval all have correlatives in the cigarette. . . . For women, the Atlantic
Monthly noted in 1916, the cigarette was the symbol of emancipation, the
temporary substitute for the ballot.26
See Daniel Smail, On Deep History, 1269, 1545.
See Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern.
Daniel Smail, 155.
David W. Courtwright, Forces of Habit, 12, 16675.
See Benjamin Dangl, The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, 38.
Jonathan Franzen, How to be Alone: Essays, 148.
8 Narcoepics

On the one hand, it is impossible to imagine the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
without cigarettes; but it would also be hard to hold, on the other, that drugs whose
public use is being declared illegal from the early 1900s onward lose their impact on
modern life, physiologically, culturally, and economically speaking. Medicine, the
pharmaceutical industries, and biopolitics have been working together to determine
how, and to what extent, deliberately to poison peoples bodies; those collaborative
networks were not disinterested, and their decisions were considerably ambivalent.
Today, the situation is all the more difficult to grasp, as the shifting politics of
medicalization, the existence of increasing amounts of synthetic drugs (not all of them
recognizable as such), and the pressures that hinder competent public discussions have
made the field so obtuse that it seems impossible to sketch out a big picture. However,
recuperating the relationship between psychoactives and culture has become an issue
without which the knowledge of life would be the affair of experts only.
To muse about this problematic, one might think of Derridas words:
. . . the concept of drugs is not a scientific concept, but is rather instituted on the
basis of moral or political evaluations: it carries in itself both norm and prohibition,
allowing no possibility of description or certificationit is a decree, a buzzword
(mot dordre). Usually the decree is of a prohibitive nature; occasionally, on the
other hand, it is glorified and revered: malediction and benediction always call to
and imply one another. As soon as one utters the word drugs, even before any
addiction, a prescriptive or normative diction is already at work, performatively,
whether one likes it or not. This concept will never be a purely theoretical or
theorizable concept. And if there is never a theorem for drugs, there can never be
a scientific competence for it either, one attestable as such and which would not be
essentially overdetermined by ethicopolitical norms.27
This was not always the case, however, and one would have to be alert to not taking the
framework of the prohibitive turn, and the ensuing fears of deviation and pathology,28
as the general historical and epistemic rule. The discourse on drugs became mythically
overloaded during the twentieth century. This discourse has become provincialized
to the extent that, in the most advanced countries, scientific development and applied
science could not prevent that rhetorics of condemnation and denial would aid the
new rules for narcotics administration which were established and fixed by treaties
and international conventions during the first decades of the twentieth century.29 Has
anyone ever spoken of psychoactive imperialism? And as we start to face the avatars of
the twenty-first century, is this not one of the most dramatically understudied realms
lingering in the past centurys wake?
But let us take a step back. Relationships between modernity and psychoactive
substances are marked by both conflict and imagination, imagination being driven by
tropes such as transgression, prosperity, profit, happiness, fear, neurosis, dissociation.

Jacques Derrida, The Rhetoric of Drugs, 20.
See David Lenson, On Drugs, 189.
See Jonathan Franzen, How to be alone, 163; Eva Bertram, Morris Blachmann, Kenneth Sharpe,
Peter Andreas, Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial.
Pharmakon and Pharmakos 9

To the big question of how the psychoactive revolution and the psychoactive
counterrevolution can be read into one single picture there are still only precarious
answers. The psychoactive revolution, a term suggested by David T. Courtwright,
refers to the production, exchange, and consumption of psychoactive substances as
they figured at the core of Western expansion and colonization, and as they eventually
became an enabling condition of modernity. Narcotics fetishism characterized the
transatlantic politics of the worlds governing elites from about the mid-seventeenth
to the late-nineteenth century, when concerns about manufacturing and taxing drugs,
rather than suppressing them, were dominant.Drug taxation was the fiscal cornerstone
of the modern state, and the chief financial prop of European colonial empires.30 There
have been, above all, four such substances: alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and sugar. Because
of the degree to which they became neuro-chemical stimulants and psycho-cultural
factors around the world, they have been the most resistant to prohibition. Coffee, tea,
and sugar keep the contemporary Western world on the go, just as coca chewing still
keeps part of the Andes on the go.31 By the way, and citing from McKennas Food of
the Gods, sugar abuse is the words least discussed and most widespread addiction. . . .
After alcohol and tobacco, sugar is the most damaging addictive substance consumed
by human beings. Its uncontrolled use can be a major chemical dependence.32 Then
there are the little three regulated substances: opium, cannabis, and coca (in their
elaborated form, heroin, hashish / marijuana, and cocaine), less frequently consumed,
and eventually restricted and prohibited. Nevertheless, they remain highly profitable
commodities. Tens of millions of people use them in crude form or in concentrated
products . . . These are what most people think of when they hear the word drugs.33
In the course of several centuries, the globalization of psychoactive plants and
their derivatives, several of which came from the New World, transformed habits and
economies, affected the fantasies of millions of people, and changed existing ecosystems.
Narcotics were indispensible commodities and psychoactive agents, destined both to
second the practices of colonization and subjugation, on the one hand, and become fuels of
industrial civilization, on the other. Significantly, the use of narcotics, along with tobacco,
coffee, alcohol, and to a lesser degree opium and cannabis, would rank at the center of
socioeconomic change and corresponding psychoactive conditioning in Western Europe
and the United States, becoming a daily habit for masses of middle-class consumersthose
who came to represent the modern individual in his or her exposure to the experiences
of urbanization and industrialization. But looking backward from the twentieth centurys
scenarios of selective restriction and coercive control, we cannot but ask what happened at
that invisible conjuncture when things started to turn around. There is no simple response,
but we are certainly dealing with something quite different from a natural development,
for example, politics that have increasingly developed on the basis of solid insights into the
nature of benevolent narcotics versus pernicious and deadly ones.

David Courtwright, Forces of Habit, 5.
See Dominic Streatfeild, Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, 6.
Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge. A Radical History
of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution, 175.
David Courtwright, 31.
10 Narcoepics

On the meaning of dissociation, and the logics of denial

Theres no simple, universal reason why people smoke, but theres one thing Im sure
of: they dont do it because theyre slaves to nicotine. (Jonathan Franzen)
As a smoker, . . . I have come to distrust not only my stories about myself but all
narratives that pretend to unambiguous moral significance. (J. F.)
Let us now take a closer look at the counterpoint tobacco and coca. I will refer to the
chiastic situation that characterizes modern appropriations of these psychoactives. At
the same time, a counterpoint can surprisingly decenter a reigning melody or set a
dominant motive in a different light. Both coca and tobacco originate in premodern
ecosystems, in which knowledge of the pharmakon was part of immanent realities,
practices of everyday life, and the art of human experience which were not tamed by
discourse. In other words, medicines and poisons could be one and the same thing
without contradicting one another. What was implied in their use was council woven
into the fabric of real life.34 To perceive coca or tobacco as gifts from the goddesses
implied a basic attitude regarding the institution of the giftrespect, as well as
immanent knowledge. In Teachings of the American Earth, Dennis and Barbara Tedlock
comment on the blind alleys of Western consumerism:
When we adopted tobacco we turned it into a personal habit, and we have overused
it to the point where it has killed many of us. The final irony is that there should
be a righteous public campaign against this sacred gift of America, as if there were
something inherently wrong with smoking. Beeman Logan, a Seneca medicine
man, suggests that the trouble is with ourselves: tobacco kills us, he says, because
we do not respect it.35
A complementary observation could be made about the Andean coca plant, and the
terrible mythologies that keep vampirizing its existence. To unlearn the stigmatization
that the late modern legal discourse on drugs has placed on the millenarian tradition of
chewing coca leaves (la hoja sagrada) is not a moral question in the first place, but the
rather simple issue of starting to use the appropriate words for a phenomenon that is
easy to understand.36 The coca leaf from the eastern slopes of the Andes, Erythroxylum
coca, has an altogether different story and composition than does the alkaloid cocaine.
It has been a way of life, a cultural gift, a tool for healing and a means for survival.
The pathological concept of addiction which surfaced in Europe toward the end of
the nineteenth century37 was, and remains to be, incongruent with the phenomenon
of la hoja de coca (the coca leaf). If historically maligned by outsiders, including
even twentieth-century United Nations drug control agencies, coca is a benign herb

Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller, 147.
Dennis Tedlock and Barbara Tedlock, Teachings, xii.
See Fanor Meruvia Balderrama, Historia de la coca: Los Yungas de Pocona y Totora (15501900); Paul
Gootenberg, Cocaine in Chains: The Rise and Demise of a Global Commodity.
See Jacques Derrida, The Rhetoric of Drugs, xii, 22.
Pharmakon and Pharmakos 11

essential to Andean cultures, in its use analogous to that of tea in Asia.38 Here we find
one of the powerful logics of denialin the paradoxical tolerance of nicotine and the
damnification of coca leaves, whose cultivators in Latin America are facing an ominous
war on drugs.
Cocaine, different from the coca leaf, is a powerful stimulant that, if used in high
doses, especially through injection, can cause severe somatic and psychotic results.39
Huge quantities of coca leaves are to process in order to obtain small amounts of cocaine.
Cocaine is not massively consumed in the countries that traditionally grow the coca
plant, such as Bolivia and Peru. The demand for the potent alkaloid stems from the
Global North. However, to seek a medical or social rationale that could explain, ex post
facto, the situation that cocaine is illegal whereas nicotine and alcohol are tolerated,
and marketed in enormous amounts, would be problematic.40 More specifically, the
exclusion of cocaine versus the medical use of Ritalin and Prozac is, at least, ironic.
DeGrandpre comments on the similarity between cocaine and Ritalin:
How can millions of children be taking a drug that is pharmacologically very
similar to another drug, cocaine, that is not only considered dangerous and
addictive, but whose buying, selling and using are also considered criminal acts?
If you are confused by this mix of findings, you are not alone. This confusion is
widespread in both scientific and medical communities as well, as is summarized
in the conclusions of a 1995 study comparing the neuropharmacology of cocaine
and Ritalin, reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry: Cocaine, which is one
of the most reinforcing and addictive of the abused drugs, has pharmacological
actions that are very similar to those of methylphenidate (Ritalin), which is the
most commonly prescribed psychotropic medication for children in the United
The author then explains that the usual practice of thinking and judgingthe one that
has become generalized under the impact of affective politics and the dissemination
of everyday fear42 since the onset of the twentieth centurytreats drugs on heavily
manichaean grounds as either benign or malign. Alcohol is implicitly denied the status
of a drug, after the experiment of Prohibition was unsuccessful; perhaps because some
major outlet was required to allow people to self-medicate under the pressure of stress,
depression, and growing anxieties in a hurried worldnowadays the never-ending
stream of rapid-fire days and jetlag nights.43 For most people alcohol is not a terribly
dangerous drugbut it is a powerful drug, and must be treated accordingly. No
one would take a powerful antibiotic or heart medication without the advice of a

Andean coca use is local, while cocaine is for export, and the fact that they share one alkaloid of
many does not make them comparable drugs. Paul Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a
Global Drug, 10.
See Cynthia Kuhn et. al., Buzzed, 21011.
See ibid., 213.
Richard DeGrandpre, Ritalin Nation: Rapid-fire Culture and the Transformation of Human
Consciousness The Ritalin Nation, 177.
I am using the expression of Brian Massumi. See B. M. (ed.), The Politics of Everyday Fear.
Richard DeGrandpre, Ritalin Nation, 15.
12 Narcoepics

physician. But alcohol is available to virtually anyone who wants to have it, without
a prescription.44 And we have not even begun to talk about the deadening effects
of alcohol consumption, in particular its psychological effects, and its socio-spatial
contexts, and the discharges of violence that it can generate.
What applies, to some extent, to all of these psychoactives is a prerogative that is as
basic as it can easily be sidestepped when one truth is convoked to bury another, or
when established disciplines and realms of knowledge are taken into service, provided
that they can help block the hybrid knowledge45 that is required to address complex
questions. Because of the heavy
prejudice of treating drugs as inherently good or bad, we do not realize that the
nature of a drug can be greatly altered simply by changing the manner in which it
is used. As we should know from the narcotics used to kill our pain in the hospital,
whether a drug is an angel or demon is really more a question of context and
personal perspective than one of pharmacological destiny.46
The matter of use also implies drawing the distinctions between oral use, inhaling, and
injection, the latter two being more apt to cause effects of toxicity and addiction than
the first.47 When DeGrandpre suggests the term of the placebo text in relationship to
narcotics use, this notion is not self-explanatory per se, but it helps us to speak of an
interlocking network of diverse factors when to discussing the effects that specific drugs
exert on specific bodies and minds, under specific circumstances and in view of specific
psycho-affective blueprints, regarding individuals, groups, and public discourse.
Placebo text refers to any unwritten cultural script that, like a religious text, informs
a groups beliefs and expectations about a given drug, animating the drug effects
once the substance is taken. If by placebo effect one means an outcome produced not
by a drug but by beliefs and expectations about a drug, then a placebo text becomes
the cultural teachings, however subtle, that inform these beliefs and expectations.
According to this view, once a substance is taken, beliefs and expectations join
with the first-order pharmacological effects of the substance to mediate or animate
the immediate and long-term effects attributed to the drug.48
At this point, facing a problematic that relates to the first-order pharmacological effects of
narcotics and, at the same time, to second-order effects that are embedded in belief systems
and contextual factors, it comes to us as an additional insight that intoxication is not
induced by narcotics alone. Belief and religion, once they turn into practices that actively
engage the human body can also generate effects of psychoactive transgression and even
dependence. We need concepts that can meaningfully mediate between first-order and
second-order effects, one of which is that of dissociation that we will address in a moment.

Cynthia Kuhn, et. al., Buzzed, 33.
See Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 112.
Richard DeGrandpre, Ritalin Nation, 178.
See Andrew Weil, The Natural Mind: An Investigation of Drugs and the Higher Consciousness, 113.
Richard DeGrandpre, The Cult of Pharmacology, 1201. On the first-order pharmacological effects
of the most used narcotics see Cynthia Kuhn et. al.,
Pharmakon and Pharmakos 13

Our previous remarks may sound far-fetched from the angle of the culture of cognitive
separations and disciplinary autonomy, as this has marked the differentiation of the
modern repertoires of knowledge (nature, discourse, society, being49), but the study of
the outlined issues is a crucial task for cultural theorists and anthropologists who are not
averse to loosening the borders between their fields and natural science studies. Hybrid
thinking becomes all the more important when the reigning spheres of quasi-objects50
and their domains of representation become insufficient for understanding the networks
that connect life, bodies, minds, spaces, and histories. The counterpoint of tobacco
and coca within modern cultural history,51 and especially within the conflicts over
psychoactive empowerment and regulation in Europe, can now be addressed more
pointedly. Compare, for example, Sigmund Freuds early writings about cocalater
excluded from the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund
Freud, and his late work Civilization and its Discontents (1930).
Twenty years before Freud wrote his 1884 essay, ber Coca,52 Albert Niemann, a
chemistry graduate student in Gttingen, had isolated the alcaloid cocaine from a large
amount of coca leaves. The young Freud, using the word coca but referring to cocaine,
wrote six papers on cocaine between 1884 and 1887 and held public lectures on the
subject at Viennas physiological and psychiatric societies, becoming an important
advocate of cocaine use, which he recommended to doctors and consumers. In ber
Coca, Freud, starting with a historical account of the coca leaf s use among Peruvian
indigenous peoples and even referring to Garcilaso de la Vegas Comentarios Reales de
los Incas (1609),53 discusses the exhaustive biomedical experiments on the effects of
cocaine that were undertaken between 1860 and 1887. He writes:
The psychic effect of cocainum muriaticum in doses of 0.050.10g consists of
exhilaration and lasting euphoria, which does not differ in any way from the normal
euphoria of a healthy person. The feeling of excitement, which accompanies stimulus
by alcohol is completely lacking [. . .]. One senses an increase of self-control and
feels more vigorous and more capable of work; on the other hand, if one works, one
misses that heightening of the mental powers which alcohol, tea, or coffee induce.
[. . .] This gives the impression that the mood induced by coca [cocainum; the author]
in such doses is due not so much to direct stimulation as to the disappearance of
elements in ones general state of well-being which cause depression.
[. . .] I have tested this effect of coca [cocainum; the author], which wards off
hunger, sleep, and fatigue and steels one to intellectual effort, some dozen times
on myself.54

See Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 89.
Ibid., 88.
On both substances, respectively, several comprehensive historical-cultural studies are available.
Compare, for example, Richard Kluger. Ashes to Ashes: Americas Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the
Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris; Richard Klein, Cigarettes Are Sublime.
On the coca plant see W. Golden Mortimers History of Coca: The Divine Plant of the Incas, and
Joseph Kennedys Coca Exotica.
See Sigmund Freud, ber Coca. In S. F. Cocaine Papers, 4773.
See ibid., 50.
Ibid., 60.
14 Narcoepics

Carl Koller, who first introduced cocaine as a local anesthetic into ophthalmology,
specifically for surgery of the cornea,55 wrote about Freuds respective contribution by
virtue of his article ber Coca: Cocaine was brought to the foreground of discussion
for us Viennese by the thorough compilation and interesting therapeutic paper of my
colleague at the General Hospital, Dr. Sigmund Freud.56 While this was a breakthrough,
Freud, in the exploratory fervor of his late twenties, also ventured into an experiment
that was less successful than Kollers achievement in practical medicine. He attempted,
with the help of cocaine but making the serious mistake of intravenous injection, to
cure Dr Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow of his morphine addiction, thus sidestepping his
own advice of moderate use. The project ended in a disaster.57 After 1887, and under
heavy attack from several members of the medical establishment, Freud retreated
from championing cocaine,58 although he continued to consume the substance himself
until 1895.59 The father of psychoanalysis, to recall the counterpoint, would develop
the habit of cigar smoking which, in contrast, accompanied him during his lifetime
and which, according to Louis Menand, he even analyzed as a substitute for another
addiction, masturbation.60
This story is telling in several regards. What emerges is the question of
psychoactives relationship to psychoanalysis and psychopathology. Irrespective
of Freuds embarrassment about his partial misjudgments, into sight comes a
historico-conceptual conjuncture in which areas such as medicalization, psychology,
psychiatry, and culture intertwine. The decades following Freuds cocaine writings
constitute an epoch, during which the discontents of civilization amply resonate or,
to say it graphically, the centers of urban and industrial progress start to be drowned
by the dreamworlds of commodities and advertisements, and by the energies that
circulate adversely between the promises of gratification stemming from mass culture
and consumption, on the one hand, and the neurotic pressure of the reality principle,
on the other. If this was a world in which the hungry psyche was replacing the hungry
belly,61 the imminent yet tricky closeness of transgression and repression had moved
to the center of modern life. And not incidentally, the psychoactive counterrevolution
regarding some narcotics (like cocaine and the opiates), unlike others (such as
nicotine and alcohol) was launched during the first decades of the twentieth century.
This coincides, interestingly, with Freuds mature reflections on culture and society,
in which he had lost intellectual interest in the stimulant and had turned to culture
as neurosis, arguing in Civilization and its Discontents that modern Western life had
become compulsively marked by symptoms of repression. Here the question arises of
the extent to which Freuds eventual exclusion of the psychoactive stimulant cocaine
from his psychoanalytic concerns might have become a symptom itself.

Carl Koller, cited reference in Robert Kennedy, Coca Exotica, 133, note 32.
Carl Koller, cited in ibid., 72; also compare Cynthia Kuhn et al., Buzzed, 213.
Regarding Freuds self-critical stance, see Joseph Kennedy, 79 (also compare 68, 769).
See Sigmund Freud, The Dream of Irmas Injection. In S. F. Cocaine Papers, 205; also compare the
1987 paper, Craving for and Fear of Cocaine. Ibid.
See ibid., 121; see Joseph Kennedy, 78.
See Menand, Louis, Introduction to Sigmund Freud. Civilization and its Discontents, 10.
Robert Ardrey, cited in David Courtwright, Forces of Habit, 4.
Pharmakon and Pharmakos 15

One might be skeptical of Freuds prioritizing repression, since the problem that
transgression cannot simply be replaced suggests a threshold, upon which different effects
are played out. These scenarios that are ingrained in conflict connect, in one way or another,
with the modern dynamics and institutions by which the individual subject is formed and
administered. What do psychoactive substances and neurosis have in common? Can they
be perceived as contrasting phenomena in the negotiation of affective states as well as
hegemonies at the turn of the twentieth century? Is not the market-driven, individual and
collective, geo-economically fueled, pharmacological stimulation and regulation of affect
the actual modern invention, one that bears on peoples unconscious strata while placing
the problem somewhere other than in the individual psyche whose traumatic core Freud
had extrapolated onto society? Does not modernitys drive to take hold of an uneven world
consist, as well, more of the proactive management of affects and embodied imagination,
including transgressions, than of Freudian repression and sublimation?
Here, dissociation becomes a necessary term, seemingly found in an in-between located
somewhere underneath transgression, and above repression. This concept will help us
draw a further contra-punctual constellation. Dissociation signals a contradiction between
cognitive insights and behavioral practice, prompted by the question: How do we manage to
accept, and act in accordance with, error that we know to be error?62 This does not primarily
refer to the use of drugs but has to do, rather, with the human minds proclivity forillusion and
reality distortion, which are not viewed as simply insane, but as forms of active ignorance.
John F. Schumaker describes it as a complex mental operation whose implication is twofold.
First, the brain can disengage itself in such a way that information will be processed in
contravention of its own capacity for accurate higher order information processing (ibid.).
Secondly, what emerges, in a perceptual-psychological nexus, is a set of false alternatives that
serve as functional surrogates to the rejected portions of reality (ibid.).63
The argument, to be laid out in the following pages, will touch upon the nexus between
dissociation and consumerism. However, and this is the difference we intend to make, certain
narcotics are imagined as possible differentials that can help foster an epistemological
critique, as well. That is to say, far from equating the consumption of narcotics with an
all-out dissociation from oppressive or normative realities, and not simply identifying
consumerism with dissociation, the question should instead be: what are some of the
intricate relationships that exist between an exchange-value oriented contemporary
matrix (consumption for the sake of consumption, that is, capital maximation) and
dissociative potentials, and practices that abound under late modern circumstances? We
want to further elaborate on the counterpoint between cocaine and nicotine, the first
being declared illegal after 1914, whereas the second kept enjoying its ironic triumph well
across the twentieth century (smoking can cause death). At issue is, in effect, the varying
counterpoint that these two narcotics conform in relationship to the dissonant concert of
market economies, repeatedly adjusted geo- and biopolitically: the geopolitics of cocaine
is different from the geopolitics of tobacco, as are the respective biopolitical strategies.64

Robert Schumaker, The Corruption of Reality, 36.
Regarding dissociation theory, see ibid., 4053; regarding the aspect of memory, see 51.
See Paul Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine; Luis Astorga, El siglo de las drogas: Usos, percepciones
y personajes; for tobacco, see Fernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint, and Richard Kluger, Ashes to
16 Narcoepics

Let us consider David Lensons On Drugs as one of the studies that seriously engages
the dialectics of first-order pharmacological effects and second-order dimensions of
narcotics. Here one learns that dissociation, understood as active ignorance or better,
purposeful distortion of the higher-order, cognitive and verbal state of intelligence
can be a highly aporetic phenomenon. To start with Don Tabaco (Ortiz), nicotine is
a drug that does not distort cognition, it does not alter consciousness, so to speak. It
rather seems to stipulate thinking and serve the concentration process. Simultaneously,
smoking implies disregard for ones own health and sometimes the health of others.
Jonathan Franzen narrates it this way:
Because Im capable of hating almost every attribute of cigarettes (lets not even
talk about cigars), and because I smoked what I believed was my last cigarette five
years ago and have never owned an ashtray, its easy for me to think of myself as
nicotine-free. But if the man who bears my name is not a smoker, then why is there
again a box fan for exhaust purposes in his living-room window? Why, at the end
of every workday, is there a small collection of cigarette butts in the saucer on the
table by this fan?65
Smoking cigarettes is a kind of template addiction, and nicotine can be imagined as a
chameleon willing to play any drug role that the user casts it in.66
The sector of intellect that nicotine stimulates is the one that thrives on the
pleasure of thinking rather than on ethics. Nicotine has some effects on the
appetites, mildly suppressing food hunger but not affecting sexual drive. The
temporal cigarette after sex and cigarette after the meal suggests that nicotines
principal impact on desire is to create the desire for more of itself, so that any
interruption of that reflexive appetite, even for food or sex, has to be marked by a
ceremonial return to it.67
One might want to slightly reformulate this: what places smoking at a special interface
of ceremony and bio-chemistry is the sublime suspense that it can help generate,
suspense of an activity in the way of completion, or reflexive breaking up, together with
a peculiar sensation that makes the suspense itself pleasurablewith nicotines working
on the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.68 This ceremonial act is seemingly so gratifying,
so stunningly self-serving, that most smokers display a down-to-earth indifference
toward the disgust and damage that they often cause to nearby nonsmokers. What
surprises us about smokers is not the dissociative act as such, but the utter normalcy
with which it is performed, and that smoking is so addictive that it is often said to be
harder to give up than heroin.69 On top of things, some studies discuss the possibility
that nicotine enhances, together with mental alertness, memory function.70

Jonathan Franzen, op. cit., 144. For a suggestive, as well as ironic anecdote referring to a Cold-War
perception of living in Berlin, see ibid., 1478.
David Lenson, On Drugs, 37, note 5.
Ibid., 37.
See Cynthia Kuhn et. al., Buzzed, 166.
David Lenson, 37.
See ibid., 167.
Pharmakon and Pharmakos 17

Regarding the interference of smoking with the daily rhythm of arousal and
satiation of desire, Lenson formulates,
The fundamental change that nicotine effects is a fragmentation of the wave
motion of time (chronos) into discrete particles (kairoi). Cigarettes become the
commas of daily life, dividing otherwise uninterrupted waves of experience into
punctuated intervals or separate temporal units (note 6). . . . An active smokers
cognitive activity is completely divided into quanta. (37)
It should be added that this interception of time experience does not equal a
dispersion, or fragmentation, of energies but the creation of a momentum that realigns
body and consciousness in a peculiar act of surrender. It also reduces anxiety, unless
overdoses result in nicotine poisoning. In that regard, kairos is energy condensed
into a momentum of both awareness and alertness, enabled by the medium of holy
smoke. This explains why smoking can temporally alleviate even the most alienating
labor practices and routine activities, by providing self-administered adjustments
between autonomic activity (the nervous system) and lifes external affairs.71
On a related topic, cigarettes are among the most profitable commodities; however,
among compulsive smokers, they become unconsciously fetishized to an extent that the
daily waste of money turns negligible. The modern cigarette smoker metamorphoses
into a Benjaminian allegory at the verge of commodity fetishism. Cigarettes, as hybrids
that have been turned commodities par excellence, virtually produce the smoking
creature. They provide the medium that is powerthe widely available, tasty matter of
smoke that is animated and absorbed by the life-giving human breath.72 Here we have
a creature, whose proclivity to Baroque aesthetics speaks from the transgression of
the bodys normal state which, while tending to self-destruction, is perceived as both
pleasurable and unavoidable. In the vision of Fernando Ortiz,
There is always a mysterious, sacral quality about tobacco. Tobacco is for mature
people who are responsible to society and to the gods. The first smoke, even when
it is behind ones parents backs, is in the nature of a rite de passage, the tribal rite
of initiation into the civic responsibilities of manhood, the test of fortitude and
control against the bitterness of life, its burning temptations, and the vapors of its
The masculine symbolism is vividly played out by Ortiz; therefore, a free association
of Walter Benjamins Baroque drama would point to the other extreme of manhood
ritesthe downfall of the male sovereign, his becoming creaturely-like.74 Apart from
(cigars offering) a corporeal attribute of individual power, whose excessive use can
lead to monstrous destruction, the nonreligious, compulsive smoking of our age is
constitutively ambivalent. It is as though the smoker would offer himself, or herself,
to a divinity that no longer exists in the tangible fantasies of the world, yet lingers

Also compare Helene Keane, Smoking, Addiction, and the Making of Time, 11933.
See Andrew Weil on inhalation, The Natural Mind, 113, and 104.
Renato Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint, 14.
See Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 91.
18 Narcoepics

invisibly behind the figurations of smoke. Money, modernitys ever-present fetish, is

generally spent to fulfill needs and to reproduce desirestheir fulfillment withholds
itself by their displacement from one commodity to the next. Cigarettes, however,
bring the smoker closer to a gratifying sensation, where pleasure is perceived as real,
although the fullfillment of a desire proper is not at stake. This is why the smoker can
waste money in full yet dissociated awareness of his or her dependency on the magic
product of cigarettes. This magic, however, is decisively due to nicotines going from
lungs to heart to brain in one rush.75
With cocaine, things are different. Lenson, whose proviso above is linked to
both pharmacological inquiry and philosophical reflection, believes that pleasure,
unlike desire, does not appropriate. Its existence is based upon a provisional escape
from economics, whereas desire in Consumerism is the economic drive wheel and
the engine of consciousness (Lenson, 72). Pleasure can come from friendship and
conversation, generosity, intellectual work, engagement with nature and crafts, or any
number of objects that do not need to be purchased (ibid.). The stigmatization of
marijuana in America,76 the author adds, is based on this aspect of its potential: it
enables the user to take pleasure from ordinary objects already within the range of
perception (ibid.). To use a different wording, it enables users to sidestep exchange
value by indulging, for example, in the value of the senses, the imagination, the
environment. The nonutilitarian search for pleasure and a profane yet illuminated
approach to pleasure have already been found at the core of Benjamins writings On
Hashish, especially MysloviceBraunschweigMarseilles (1930) and Hashish in
Marseilles (1932); both hashish and marijuana derive from the cannabis plant. These
texts, together with twelve protocols of drug experiments, were written at the time
when the legal restriction of cannabis was set on its course. Pleasure that does not
appropriate shines from Benjamins remarkable passage, where the image of the coin
is set against the idea of money, making guilt (and debt) pervasive.77 What matters in
these words, more than love itself, is the pleasure of feeling illuminated about loves
actual secret:
And when I recall this state, I would like to believe that hashish persuades Nature
to permit usfor less egoistic purposesthat squandering of our own existence
that we know in love. For if, when we love, our existence runs through Natures
fingers like golden coins that she cannot hold and lets fall so that they can thus
purchase new birth, she now throws us, without hoping or expecting anything, in
ample handfuls toward existence.78
Should it be conceivable that there are drugs that must be combated, even through
war, for these very reasons? Lenson makes precisely this point: Consumerisms tacit
metaphysics (72) must be upheld against the odds, which brings us back to the case of
cocaine. Cocaine is only allegedly about pleasure.

See Andrew Weil, The Natural Mind, 113.
See Cynthia Kuhn et. al., Buzzed, 1578.
See Walter Benjamin, Capitalism as Religion.
Walter Benjamin, Hashish in Marseilles. In W. B. On Hashish, 126.
Pharmakon and Pharmakos 19

Cocaine promises the greatest pleasure ever known in just a minute more, if the
right image is presented to the eyes, if another dose is administered, if a sexual
interaction is orchestrated in just the right way. But that future never comes. There
is a physical pleasure to the drug, to be sure, but it is incidental, trivial, compared to
what is always just about to happen. . . . A sensation driven out of the present into
the past or the future cannot be pleasurable. (71)
Another way of describing the studied phenomenon is to say that cocaine can render
desire reflexive. It can do so by mimicking a world of accelerated desire, and even
consumer consciousness while, paradoxically, a person using a great deal of cocaine
is likely to buy little else but the drug (72). Following on this argument that touches
upon dimensions from which consumers tend to be dissuaded, we read that cocaine is
a drug that diverts desire from the conventional appetite for consuming objects and
thus mimics ordinary capitalist appropriation (ibid.). That is to say, it can cannibalize
utilitarian appropriation by generating a spiral of accelerated desire and turning it away
from the fetish of commoditiesa surprising insight, in the event that the mechanism
is effective. Cocaine capitalism is to conventional capitalism as cancerous cell growth
is to normal cell growth in the body . . . Cocaine must be combated on a war footing
for precisely this reason (ibid.).
The described potential makes cocaine, a drug of desire, different from the drugs
of pleasure, such as marijuana and others. Interestingly, in common discourse, cocaine
is confounded with drugs of pleasure.
The traditional aversion to unproductive pleasure may be harnessed in this way
without requiring an attack on greed and desire, the forces that motivate both
the conventional and the cocaine markets. If cocaine is portrayed as a drug of
unproductive pleasure rather than a savage mimicry of consumer consciousness,
Consumerism can attack it without attacking itself at the same time. (ibid., 723)
Keeping dissociation in mind, and provided that the placebo factor is taken into account,
this would imply that cocaine could enable one of the most active forms of dissociative
behavior imaginable: a distancing from that must-have state of affairs, the one that
consists in the curative day-to-day purchase in the happyness spots where todays most
ubiquitous pharmaka are displayedcommodities79 or, respectively, the daily indulgence
in market societys iconic altarthe television screen. Moreover, the reflexivity that
such a psychoactive substance and practice potentially allow could open a pathway to
the kind of heterodox consciousness that Benjamin was discussing in relationship to
the project of the Paris Surrealists: winning the forces of intoxication for the purposes of
critical illumination and ethical politics.80 For Benjamin and the Surrealists, hashish and
opium, as drugs of pleasure, were the objects of somatic and intellectual experimentation.
Cocaine, had it been available, might have signaled a still more rigorous apprehension of
profane illumination, than the one that the German critic proposed in his Surrealism
essay. We will discuss this intellectual project further in the next chapter.

See Bernard Stiegler, Von der Biopolitik zur Psychomacht, 52.
See Karlheinz Barck, Phantasie und Bilderrausch im Surrealismus.
20 Narcoepics

Conceptual search and contrasting commonly held truths motivate our reflection, not
the systematic study of psychoactive substances. Nicotine and cocaine, two of modernitys
ominous and desired psychoactives, have been placed in a relationship that can provide
insights into the varying roles of narcotic substances and the nonhomogeneous character
of culture-biology interfaces. From there, the counterpoint helps by providing a closer
look at one of the harshest paradoxes: the meanings of both desire and denial as they
traverse the twentieth-centurys cult of pharmacology and its probitive mentality.
Finally, our point was to show that the pharmakon had not only migrated from Greek
mythology and philosophy into the post-Christian era, but it had actually fueled, in
a new shape, psychotropic Western modernity. This was due to its blossoming as a
magic device, spread out into ever larger assortments of holy substances, chemically
improved, aggressively marketed, and eventually restricted at the threshold between
industrial capitalism and advanced globalization. This was also a moment at which
secularization, its crises, and the psychopathology of the modern individual had started
to generate more addictions than the rational mask of sanity could handle.
Our initial counterpoint embraced not cigarettes and cocaine, but the unadulterated,
ecological tobacco and coca cultigens of native American domestication. Therefore it
should be remembered, once again, that tobacco is different from cigarettes and, above
all, coca leaves should not be confused with cocaine. In Andrew Weils words, it is
good to learn to prefer natural drugs to synthetic or refined ones . . . Moreover, it is
wise to introduce drugs into the body in natural ways . . . Indians who chew the whole
[coca] leaves do not experience toxicity and generally do not become dependent.81
As the study of drug plant-related pathways to health and affective sanity, as well as
socio-existential sustainability, takes its course against the odds, there is a chance that the
millenarian Andean leaf will join and genuinely energize a nonviolent understanding
of sobriety. However, chewing a handful of coca leaves in New York or Berlin, in ways
similar to those that accompany peoples sipping their daily coffee, would be a new sign
of global tolerance and justice, both morally and economically.

Unlearning fear, absolving the ghost of the

Pharmakos: An open genealogy

The pharmakon is not an absolute value, neither evil nor heavenly, which has been
of foremost interest to writers whose respective gallery becomes larger, the more
attentively one looks. Here are some of the best-known namesThomas de Quincey,
Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley,
Antonin Artaud, Ernst Jnger, Anais Nin, William Burroughs. Did intoxication
not become a privileged sphere beginning in the eighteenth century, one which
literature and art could turn into a medium to be used against a plain culture of affairs
associated with the ego-self and an impoverishing life-world increasingly depleted

See Andrew Weil, The Natural Mind, 11314.
Pharmakon and Pharmakos 21

of sensual capability and synaesthetic insight, spiritual energy and kinesthetic /

physiological consciousness but loaded, in turn, with fears, egomania and all manner
of tendentious judgments. If human psychis and biological existence had drifted apart,
were these writers not obsessed with discovering the secret of their relating narratives?
This theme has incited, over the past decades, a corpus of critical works on both sides
of the Atlantic, works whose authors have begun to problematize those notions of
literature which deemed themselves to be above the psychotropic challenge. However,
the present study does not head in this direction. The segment of Latin American
literatures that will provide our field of investigation ranks after modern intellectuals
fascination with narcotics and their potential to provide access to the diversity of
consciousness. There is a dialectic axis that makes these literatures on the one hand
peripheral and to an extent, marginal, but propels them, on the other, to a realm of
experience and reflexivity which is more advanced than in the case of their Western
European and North American antecessors. The chief difference is the way literary
modernitys involvement with narcotic substances and experiences situates itself,
historically and culturally, before the war on drugs. Latin American narcoepics, in
turn, excel as narrative and ethical formations whose major theme is the heterogeneity
of territories and life worlds which the war on drugs has violently affected. The vote
of narcoepics is not necessarily to address this war directly, nor do they simply attain
to the symbolism of social critique. These epics accommodate multiple imaginaries
around a peculiar interface, one that we will define in the next chapter as the dialectics
of intoxication. It is the difference between the modern literary and artistic interest
in ecstasy and a new narratological and certainly paradoxical interest in sobriety,
which requires that we introduce yet another concept. Whereas the hero of the Wests
narcotic literature is the pharmakon, similar to Fernando Ortizs Don Tabaco and
Doa Azcar, the protagonist in narcoepics is the pharmakos (in its metamorphotic,
as well as self-reflexive figurations).
The concept of the pharmakos is genealogically related to that of the pharmakon,
yet this genealogy has become submerged. In the twilight zones of contemporary
disseminations of affective power and stigmatization, such as the distribution of fear
and guilt, as well as in the different realms of literature where the unspoken and absent
are called into presence, the pharmakos is rising to new relevance. Discovering the
hinge between the proliferation of pharmaka for the sake of rising modernity and
psychoactive repression, taking hold in the shadows of modernitys exhaustion,82
presents one area of concern. The second realm awaiting dilucidation requires that
we shift attention, not away from psychoactive substances and factors, but toward a
peculiar mode, by which otherness is constructed or refashioned. This is concerned
with, as well, the status of people and communities, or their images, which are publicly
related to indecent, or abject, or straightforwardly illegal practices regarding narcotics.
But who actually is the pharmakos?
To find the footprints of the pharmakos, one must scrutinize literary and
philosophical imagination, together with the works of mythology. Traditionally, the

See Teresa Brennan, Exhausting Modernity: Grounds for a New Economy.
22 Narcoepics

pharmakos has been an open secret, contained in dynamics where much is known
but unacknowledged.83 Two authors have brought this figure, an anti-creature, to the
closer attention of literary studies, although hitherto to little avail. One was Northrop
Frye who, in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957), and already pointing to Socrates, called
the random victim pharmakos, or scapegoat.84 The other contribution comes from
Jacques Derridas treatise, Platos Pharmacy (1972). Frye offers a hint regarding the
heterogeneity of tragic imagination, which contradicts Hegelian aesthetics. A main
point in the classical acceptation of tragedy (and the impact of violence on human life
as condensed in a hegemonic dramatic tradition) is the special case,85 the distinct,
ennobled individual who, stricken by misfortune, conveys cathartic suffering to the
audience or the readers. In this vein, tragic violence carries a timbre of the absolute
striking from destiny (the power of the gods), or from the sphere of the law, at the point
at which its authority commands a higher, a metaphysical, threat. Here we can talk of
aesthetic homogeneity, and thus intelligibility, in that tragic violence resembles pure
violence,86 and sublime awe becomes the maxim for vicarious affect (the cathartic
force). The tragic hero is the absolute victim. The pharmakos, on the other hand, is
the ironic victim, as it suspends the element of the special, the intelligible case. This
figure does not have a distinct tragic identity or character.
When we deal with the ironic victim, what is isolated from the tragic situation
is a sense of arbitrariness, of the victims having been unlucky, selected at random
or by lot, and no more deserving of what happens to him than anyone else would be
(Frye,41). One might speak of an aesthetic matrix of heterogeneity for two reasons.
The role of the pharmakos is not only ambiguous, it is also paradoxical. It is ambiguous,
since the selection of this creature for catastrophe is inadequate and raises more
objections than it answers (ibid.). It is paradoxical because of the low mimetic mode
that irony confers. In irony, the customary accents of pity and fear are missing. This
paradox merits accentuation. A person falls prey, that is, is chosen for catastrophe
without a deeper reason, perhaps without being guilty of wrongdoing at all, and yet
the poetic form shaping the epic of the random victim is devoid of any pathos of the
terrible. There is a fable without moralizing, and there is realism and dispassionate
observation (42). Here we have a dispositif that deserves further attention, providing
a first signpost for an aesthetics of sobriety. Fryes assertion that irony, as a mode,
takes life exactly as it finds it, is, of course, itself ambiguousit harks back to the
style of the sophists.87 We believe there is still an enigmatic reason beyond irony, as to
why neither heightening nor pathos nor the customary strategies of lament are being

Rosemary Hennessy, Open Secrets: The Affective Cultures of Organizing onMexicos Northern
Border, 310.
Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 41.
the Law says nothing with which you could argue or agree with; it has no content beyond the
sheer performative act of asserting its own domination. It therefore has the formalism of all pure
violence. Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, 1489.
Irony is naturally a sophisticated mode, and the chief difference between sophisticated and naive
irony is that the naive ironist calls attention to the fact that he is being ironic, whereas sophisticated
irony merely states, and lets the reader add the ironic tone himself. Northrop Frye, 41.
Pharmakon and Pharmakos 23

conferred to the pharmakos. It is this paradox that will accompany us in the exploration
of contemporary narcoepics. Resuming the relevant observation from Fryes genealogy
of fictional modes, attention is given to the typical or random victim that the author
considers an archetypical element in Western literature from Adam to Kafkas Trial.88
If the tragic victim stands for the exception that, striking an admired individual,
causes a cathartic shudder along our backswhat is it that the pharmakon stands for?
We meet a pharmakos figure in Hawthornes Hester Prynne, in Melvilles Billy Budd,
in Hardys Tess, in the Septimus of Mrs. Dalloway, in stories of persecuted Jews and
Negroes, in stories of artists whose genius makes them Ishmaels of a bourgeois
society. The pharmakos is neither innocent nor guilty. He is innocent in the sense
that what happens to him is far greater than anything he has done provokes, like
the mountaineer whose shout brings down an avalanche. He is guilty in the sense
that he is a member of a guilty society, or living in a world where such injustices
are an inescapable part of existence. (41)
But how can we extend the meaning of the pharmakonwhen understood as cure,
poison, and magic potionto the genealogical imagination of the pharmakos?
Platos Pharmacy89 offers a playful reading of Platos early text, Phaedrus. The fact that
Derridas recovery of the pharmakon, and of the pharmakeus from Greek philosophy,
focuses on the movement and the play of ambiguity at work90 does not come as a
surprise. His work is bound to experiment with a genuine set of notions that can serve
the deconstructive purpose, such as his critique of Western phonocentrism. Our study is
not an exercise in deconstruction proper, in that it links conceptual discussion to cultural
diagnostics and a remapping of literature. In that regard, however, it engages in a genealogical
outline, through which pharmakon and pharmakos can be shown to meet.
A word about Socrates. This figure combines two distinct dimensions of the human
animal, which Western discourse, beginning with Plato, sought to transculturate
into reasonable, commensurable entities. Socrates is known as a foundational yet
enigmatic philosopher, but Socrates has also been the shaman, more or less disguised.
If this is so, Socrates must have played on both instruments which were probably one
and the same: sobriety and intoxication. Derrida writes: . . . isnt Socrates, he who
does not write, also a master of the pharmakon? And in that way isnt he the spitting
image of the sophist? a pharmakeus? a magician? a sorcerer? even a poisoner? . . .
The threads of these complicities are almost impossible to disentangle.91 Now, why
are they difficult to disentangle? What momentum of exclusion might be at work?
Plato uses the ancient pharmaceutical words, and while doing so, his strategy is
curative: The cure by logos, exorcism, and catharsis will thus eliminate the excess.
But this elimination . . . must call upon the very thing it is expelling, the very surplus

From here, the tragic hero can be recognized as untypical victim. In turn, the hero of Kafkas
Trial is not the result of what he has done, but the end of what he is, which is an all to human
being. See ibid., 41, 42.
Jacques Derrida. La pharmacie de Platon, first published in Tel Quel, nos 32 and 33, 1968.
Niall Lucy, Pharmakon. In A Derrida Dictionary, 92.
Jacques Derrida, Platos Pharmacy, 117. On Socrates pharmaceutical charms (that) provoke a
kind of narcosis, see ibid., 11819.
24 Narcoepics

it is putting out (Derrida, 128). Here we have the series of transgressive terms to
be exorcised: pharmakeiapharmakonpharmakeus. But one word was missing92 in
Platos writing, although it points to an experience that was present in Greek culture
even in Platos day (129): pharmakos. Pharmakos (wizard, magician, poisoner) is a
synonym of pharmakeus (which Plato uses), but with the unique feature of having
been overdetermined, overlaid by Greek culture with another function. Another role,
and a formidable one (130).
Recalling Edward Saids thinking of the beginnings, it is perhaps less important
to ask which of the two words, pharmakon, or pharmakos, precedes the other,93
than to note the overdetermination of the pharmakos. To be overdetermined means
nothing other than to be deeply seated in social, or politico-cultural, real-life existence.
Derrida, drawing on James G. Frazer and the Cambridge School of Ritualists, describes
the formidable role of this character: the pharmakos has been compared to a
scapegoat. The evil and the outside, the expulsion of the evil, its exclusion out of the
body (and out) of the citythese are the two major senses of the character and of the
ritual (130). A. Le Marchant, drawing on Harpokration, tells the story of two men,
scoundrels called pharmakoi who, during the time of the Thargelia in Athens, were
led out of the city to be sacrificed. The men had to go through ceremonial consecration
first, during which they received sacred meals (pharmaka). Their eventual sacrificial
death was carried out in an act of mimetic magic, the restaging of the legend of the man
Pharmakos who was put to death for having stolen, supposedly, cups from Apollo.94
In Frazer who, in his classical study on magic and religion, provides one of the most
extensive accounts we read:
Whenever Marseilles, one of the busiest and most brilliant of Greek colonies,
was ravaged by a plague, a man of the poorer classes used to offer himself as a
scapegoat. For a whole year he was maintained at the public expense, being fed on
choice and pure food. At the expiry of the year he was dressed in sacred garments,
decked with holy branches, and led through the whole city, while prayers were
uttered that all the evils of the people might fall on his head. He was then cast out
of the city or stoned to death by the people outside of the walls. The Athenians
regularly maintained a number of degraded and useless beings at the public
expense; and when any calamity, such as plague, drought, or famine, befell the city,
they sacrificed two of these outcasts as scapegoats.95
For the city to be cured, or purified, it was necessary that the victim be given special
treatment before he or she was sacrificed.

Although the word was missing, Derrida notes, it cannot not have acted upon the writing and the
reading of this text. Ibid., 130.
Thomas Szasz notes,The root of modern terms such as pharmacology and pharmacopeia is therefore
not medicine, drug, poison, as most dictionaries erroneously state, but scapegoat. To be sure, after
the practice of human sacrifice was abandoned in Greece, probably around the sixth century B. C.,
the word did come to mean medicine, drug, and poison. T. S. Ceremonial Chemistry, 19.
Le Marchant considers this legend manifestly unsatisfactory. See A. Le Marchant, Greek Religion to
the Time of Hesiod, 256.
James Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 694.
Pharmakon and Pharmakos 25

The pharmakos thus appears in historical mythology, made prominent by the

influence of Frazer and the Cambridge School, as the representative of a threat or a
mischief. However, to represent the situation accordingly, and to function as a being
that can bring the danger to a halt, the pharmakos himself must undergo a treatment
that actually qualifies him for this role. If, for example, he is given dried figs, a barley
loaf, and cheese, and beaten seven times upon his genital organs with squills and
branches of the wild fig . . . , while the flutes played a particular tune (Frazer, 695), this
is the equivalent of applying certain pharmaka to foster a ritual identity. At stake is
the otherness of evil, yet one perceives that an Other is openly fabricated on and in the
body of the person who is relegated to a special creaturely condition. This inherent
mechanism of transference, the more abstruse it looked, the more effective it must have
been. A collective organism, a city, in order to ward off its being unpredictably infected
or affected, cultivates a low-level infectious presence inside its boundaries. Pharmakoi
were regularly granted their place by the community, being fed, and dressed, etc., in
the very heart of the inside (Derrida, 133). When the moment comes, this impurity
is violently exposed, and expelled to obtain a purging. Can all this be imagined
without a deeper ambivalence that reaches far beyond the chosen victimsone that
shows that the inside of the community is never free of impurity and of evil itself?
As for the history of concepts, Lenson thinks that there must be a primordial word
that holds at its semantic core the notion of purgation, since the drugs referred to (by
the term pharmakon, the author) purge the body, where the scapegoat is the thing
purged from the body politic.96 We also have Jean Paul Vernants description, allowing
us to associate the question: how can a community admit into its heart that which it
proceeds to exorcise?97
Socrates himself was eliminated from Athens public order in the fifth century
before Christ, on charges of heresy and corruption of the young. Much later, from the
eighteenth century onward, he would reemerge as a Christ of philosophy,98 a martyr
and pathos figure vis--vis Post-Christian Western culture. It is not far-fetched to
observe, in the referred context, a line of interest which Edgar Wind, in his short article
The Criminal-God,99 takes up from Frazer. Winds remarks allow for the question if
the paradoxical, pagan figure of the Criminal-God does not provide a powerful matrix
of acting imagination, understood as political force, to which the historical figure
of Christ belongs, as well. Donald Hankss Christ as Criminal, among other books,
could be reread from this vantage point.100 In other words, we find, on the one hand,
a nexus between the words pharmakos and criminal, but according to the cultural

David Lenson, On Drugs, 205, note 4.
Vernant writes: In the person of the ostracized, the city expells what in it is too elevated, what
incarnates the evil which can come to it from above In the evil of the pharmakos, it expels what
is the vilest in itself, what incarnates the evil that menaces it from below. By this double rejection
it delimits itself in relation to what is not yet known and what transcends the known. Jean Paul
Vernant, Ambiguity and Reversal: On the Enigmatic Structure of Oedipus Rex, 131.
See Johann Georg Hamann, Sokratische Denkwrdigkeiten / Aesthetica in nuce, 6773. Here I thank
Martin Treml for pointing to the ideas of J. G. Hamann and Edgar Wind.
See Edgar Wind, The Criminal-God. In: Journal of the Warburg Institute, 1/19378, S. 243.
Donald Hanks, Christ as Criminal: Antinomian Trends for a New Millenium.
26 Narcoepics

memory inscribed in ancient myths, a god can also be turned into a pharmakos. If
this can generate historical realities, Christianity would have emerged from a stunning
misinterpretation of a situation, in which Jesus Christ had to fulfill that primordial
There has been mainly an archaeological concern underlying our incursion in the
above references. Significantly, drugs are not drugs, and the spectrum along whose
lines the meanings of the pharmacological episteme extends awaits more extensive
discussion. Furthermore, if in one way or another, collective affect can be turned into
a practical, that is a political, means, then guilt and fear seem to be susceptible to
metamorphose into political pharmaka par excellence, as do certain aliments and
narcotic substances when mythically charged with a natural drive of excess. According
to the cited sources, and still different from the nonviolent sublimation of guilt through
the Christian tradition, the ritual of the pharmakos served as a purgative medication
to avoid a pervasive spread of guilt. Can it be that Christian reason is then turning this
explicit need of a human pharmakos to be sacrificed, eventually obsolete? This is where
philosophy and literature have to be, once again, visited in order to find the traces of
migration into Western modernity of a figure whose seeming absence can only lead us
to discover an open secret. Laying out the network of clues that allow a reconstruction
of the status of the pharmakos in both cultural history and philosophy would require
a separate study. But a conceptual line has become visible. The pharmakos was, and
seemingly reappears to be, a powerful figure since his or her body can lend itself
to serve two purposesthose of infection and projection. Infection has to do with
impurity, or various kinds of transgression, belonging or attested to this character;
projection helps the greater collective to exteriorize its own maladies by delegating
them onto someone who, from a line of thinking other than that of Agamben appears
to be a genuine homo sacer. In the meaning of the words that we have discussed
pharmakon and pharmakosmedication or cure refers to both intoxication and
deintoxication (purgation). The crucial asymmetry that both allow to historicize,
and thus to rethink is their differing relationship with either selected human bodies or
peoples, or with the body politic of the greater good.

Aesthetics of Sobriety:
Approximating Narratives
from the Hemispheric South

Ethics at an impasse: Toward abnormal interpretation

Our present world is verging on an increasing sense of hazardous or catastrophic

images, an alleged ubiquity of violence, together with unforeseen scenarios of either
exhaustion or crisis, which are now perceived as concerning the very foundations
of existence itself. We are facing the sudden closeness of what seemed to range, as
long as modernitys common sense provided for stable links between self, reflexivity,
citizenship, consumption, and territory, at a conveniant distance: good life on the
one hand, and mere, endangered life on the other. Life, backed by notions such as
the subject, science, democracy, and rights did not appear to be at stake, at least not
in the leading industrialized countries, where the biosciences have been concerned
with perfection-of-life technologies,1 rather than with what Canguilhem once called
biological philosophy,2 or with the exposure of human life that a globally ruling
economy nourishes in the guise of bioderegulation.3 At present, however, there
is an uncanny concreteness of questions related to the condition of living, and new
challenges for rethinking that concept are suddenly with us.
To touch upon the symptomatic relevance of the problematic, let me mention
three different approaches that bring the concept of life to center stage. Giorgio
Agamben, drawing on Foucaults assumptions regarding biopolitics, observed over
a decade ago that the politicization of bare life as such,especially by sovereign
powerconstitutes the decisive event of modernity.4 Conversely, in a more recent
study, Luc Ferry returns to classical philosophys investment in the notions of good life
and happiness. He discusses, in a pro-Kantian way, an ethical soteriology, a humanist
doctrine of salvation understood, philosophically, as an invitation to conquer fears, to
reconcile oneself with life, and to save ourselves by ourselves.5 A third perspective is
discussed by Lauren Berlant, who points to a crucial aporia that has taken hold of that

See Dedria Bryfonski (ed.). Bioethics in Aldous Huxleys Brave New World.
Georges Canguilhem. Knowledge of Life, 59.
See Teresa Brennan, Globalization and its Terrors, 19.
See Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 4.
Luc Ferry. What is the Good Life? 281.
28 Narcoepics

moral-intimate-economic thing called the good life.6 Berlant raises the problematic
of an affective epistemology in a way similar to our search for an aesthetics of sobriety,
as she formulates:
Why do people stay attached to conventional good-life fantasiessay, of enduring
reciprocity in couples, families, political systems, institutions, markets, and at
workwhen the evidence of their instability, fragility, and dear cost abounds?
Fantasy is the means by which people hoard idealizing theories and tableaux about
how they and the world add up to something. What happens when those fantasies
start to fraydepression, dissociation, pragmatism, cynicism, optimism, activism,
or an incoherent mash?7
Half a century ago, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt was still able to elaborate
on the modern dimensions of vita activa with relative optimism, while she preferred
not to acknowledge Walter Benjamins (1921) concerns about the violent aporias
that weighed on the notions of both just life and bare life. Today modernity, once
expected to provide for the most accomplished balance between civility, its borders, and
the outer terrains of destitution and despair, appears in a ghostly lightperhaps it
threatens to change from normativity and conflict into a historical farce of itself. What
lingers in its wake is the exhaustion of many peoples confidence in an unfettered good
life. Can we continue to rely on this assumption as an unquestionable prerogative? In
other words, would it not indeed be, as Berlant holds, an attitude of cruel optimism
to cultivate an aesthetic and social sensorium thats busy making sense of and staying
attached to whatever there is to work with, for life?8
We are pointing to a shift of perception that is of immediate ethical relevance,
although it seems to subvert, at first sight, common assumptions about where the realm
of ethics begins and where it ends. Conflicts over ethics, or perhaps more specifically
over the core and the limits of a criticism both literary and cultural, which see themselves
as ethical, encounter a reframing when we start asking what the common ground is
from which all questions must begin and where they must find their consummation.
The legitimate (Kantian) answer would presumably be good life, as it comes famously
attached to the sublime moral law.9 Good life considered as the playing field is what
should be retained as the minimal basis from which, and within which, ethical questions
should be raised, negotiated, and interpreted. An uncomfortable issue arises when we
start analyzing one of the parallelisms inherent in the present world. The fact that
narratives and episodes from Latin America, and from the hemispheric borderlands
voices of the Global Southhave been addressing, from time to time, an interruption,
or an absence, of vital norms of Western civil life is what fierce opinion-makers in the
North have held as an ontological assumption. Such a conjecture must change at the
point at which citizenship has started to move out of balance on a global scale. I am not
speaking of world-homogenizing patterns but in terms of constitutive asymmetries. The

Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism, 2.
Ibid., 9.
See Paul Ricoeur. Reflections on the Just, 169170.
Aesthetics of Sobriety 29

ontological backwardness of the South, a powerful image, vanishes into thin air in view
of disproportionate globalizations undermining, for example, the states potential for
fostering inclusive citizenship regimes in the highly developed countries as well, where
growing numbers of once rights-bearing citizens are being transformed into socially
excluded internally rightless and stateless persons.10 Globalization qua deregulation
in the name of worldwide market freedom has made the Western situation into
one of anxious contemporaneity, one in which it would be very problematic to view
modernitys peripheries as aberrations from a norm to whose universal legitimacy
we, as naturally self-reflective subjects of the West, could still hold claim. Inequality,
and vulnerability, and heightened neurosis have not only become widespread issues
but have also come to affect both the autonomous individual of the metropolitan
centers and the precarious citizen at the margins of democratic faith, or protection. I
am not contendingas Teresa de Lauretis seems to dothat a spontaneous eruption
of violence is simultaneously occurring in both the postmodern, wireless world and
in the impoverished, oppressive environments of the South.11 The mechanisms for
distributing vulnerability across the globe could hardly be more uneven than they
are today. But the mere fact that the affective make-up of middle-class citizenship in
the most advanced Western countries is no longer attached to socially comforting,
allegedly self-fulfilling mechanisms but instead is imbued with painful fantasies and
experiences may finally enable a more alert perception, as well, of the situation in the
The Global South, which started acquiring its contemporary contours after
1989/1991, is not the Third World. It has become, by force of worldwide readjustment
of the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, perhaps more contemporary than the
Global North. We are dealing with new spaces of self-consciousness and with narrative
and imaginary formations of surprising affective, as well as epistemic force. They
will enable us to speak, in the present book, of new, transnational, epics of sobriety.
Epics of sobriety is related to both affective and conceptual figures; understanding
them calls for rethinking not only the conventions of modern literature but also
new implications of philosophical thought, together with non-Western wisdom and
science from those unfamiliar territories of the South. If we remember Critique
of Violence, one of Walter Benjamins crucial essays, we find a hint of doubt about
Kants categorical imperative (act in such a way that at all times you use humanity
both in your person and in the person of all others as an end, and never merely as
a means). Benjamins critical footnote can be contrasted as well, ex post facto, with
neo-Kantian desires of ethical refashioning of todays antagonisms: One might, rather,
doubt whether this famous demand does not contain too littlethat is, whether it is
permissible to use, or allow to be used, oneself or another in any respect as a means.12
What the Kantian imperative cannot safeguard against, as Benjamin perceived with
bold intuition in Capitalism as Religion, is market capitalisms genuine ability to

See Margaret R. Somers. Genealogies of Citizenship: Markets, Statelessness, and the Right to Have
Rights, 23.
See Teresa De Lauretis. Freuds Drive: Psychoanalysis, Literature, and Film, 12.
Walter Benjamin. Critique of Violence, 241.
30 Narcoepics

make violence immanent to modern societies.13 In the developed Western situation,

oppression appears obliterated, disguised as a free choice. In the words of iek, our
freedom of choice often functions as a mere formal gesture of consenting to ones
oppression and exploitation.14 Contemporary globalization, and especially after
1989/1991, has brought forces to bear on the ordinary imaginary, which threaten to
exhaust, however, the fantasies of material and moral well-being, connected to the
sense of formal freedom, and a general interest in good life. How is it that qualified
life has been subjected, increasingly, to graduation, downsizing, or even enclosure to
such an extent that the globalization of planetary space now functions through the
revamping of the norms of realism and optimism, inclusion and exclusion, centers
and peripheries? How is it that uprooted, or endangered human existence has begun
to acquire unprecedented shapes of immanence while cynical common sense tries to
reason away the heightened inequalities of todays world, or permeable borders are
closed down by enforcing geopolitical rule? How is it possible to access, today, those
vulnerated fantasies, and territories in affective, spatial, and narratological terms?
There are reasons for turning our attention to literature and cultural hermeneutics,
although the interpretive legacy provided by todays academy is up for grabs. The
purpose of the present chapter is to discuss the possibility of an aesthetics of sobriety,
and I would like to start by pondering the notion of abnormal interpretation. The
production of critique has worked in many ways to invent formations of discourse
to the benefit of enlightenment, sublimation, and appropriation of difference. The
values of good literature have admittedly been uprooted, but they continue to be
inscribed in the scholarly unconsciousin community with the intellectual spirits
of qualified life. Curiously, such an interiorized gesture, while aiming at the highest
standards of critical evaluation, has in fact also abolished them. From here, normal
interpretation15 can be defined, in an elementary sense, as those practices that share
underlying presuppositions, institutional frameworks, and a linguistic and categorial
habitus, all of which delimits the realm of a legitimate interpretive community, its
hermeneutic objects, as well as its recipients. At a principal, or perhaps pedagogic
level, scholars feel responsible for upholding the modern assumption that reflexivity
regarding literature and the arts is tied to deeper dimensions of truth, and supposed
to generate substantial effects of the subjects improvement. If lettered reading and
reasoning have preferentially explored the bonds between qualified life and the
genuine anxieties of those who are best entitled to lay claim to it,16 what if we moved
closer to the affective and epistemic narratives of subjects who have no home in the
fantasmatic universe of the (post)modern literary critic? Who are those writers and
artists who have started to assume a new homelessness themselves?

I discuss the problematic of immanent violence in Violence Without Guilt, 247. See Walter
Benjamin. Capitalism as Religion.
Slavoj iek. Tolerance as an Ideological Category, 667, 668.
Nancy Frazers article Abnormal Justice provided the associative blueprint for the term abnormal
interpretation, although I engage in a different discussion. See Frazer, 3934.
At this point resonates, once again, Susan Sontags seminal essay, The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer.
In Against Interpretation and Other Essays, 4957.
Aesthetics of Sobriety 31

A situation of abnormal interpretation arises at the point at which vital narratives

and experiences that emerge from heterogeneous imagination cannot be contained any
longer within constitutive assumptions, the discursive spaces of qualified criticism
the way it has developed from the playing field of normalized lettered citizenship.
This holds for an influential portion of Latin American literary criticism as well, for
our purpose is not to foreground a Latin American exceptionalism but to rethink the
normality of the normal, in view of an increasing number of chasms in modernitys
inner edifice. More specifically, we might speak of homeless interpretation, which, in
the face of certain transnational Latin American epics, becomes affected by globalized
subjectivities that cannot, however, lay claim to enlightened cosmopolitanism, or
even to a stable civility of life and its respective anxietiesthe autonomy of the subject
that could always be problematized, but whose underground we preferred not to
touch. It is here that literary criticism is susceptible to being thrown out of balance,
although perhaps there never was such a thing as fully normalized criticism. In the
terrain of ethics, this displacement becomes paradoxical. Difference and an alleged
turn to ethics17 have been prominent issues around which humanities scholarship
in the past has organized a solid part of its creative, critical potential. But difference
and the proliferation of ethically correct good causes have also been accompanied by
a culturalization of politics, connected to what Zizek deems the retreat and failure
of direct political solutions (the welfare state, socialist projects).18 In Wendy Browns
words regarding a general depolitization of citizenship, the cultivation of tolerance
as a political end implicitly constitutes a rejection of politics as a domain in which
conflict can be productively articulated and addressed, a domain in which citizens can
be transformed by their participation.19
Viewed from our perspective, criticism should face head on the territories of
literary imagination that crystallize affairs of cultures that are under siegethe
Hemispheric South and its unruly imaginaries, where a corrosion of civility and
painfullyits enabling fantasies is a daily experience. What are the contemporary
realms where literary and cultural analysis can demand an ethical presence by
questioning the generalized, timely notion of cruel optimism?20 For example, what
are the relationships between cultural figuration, conceptual narration, and affective
argument by virtue of which new epics of sobriety from the South address the impasse
of living in the overwhelmingly globalized present? Our study will be dealing with
an experiential sensorium and its images, with aesthetic sensibilities and uncommon
territories of reciprocity, viewed through the lens of such epics as they have emerged
during past decades throughout the Western hemisphere. The codes and discourses
contained within an order of normal interpretation are turning pallid in the face of
narratives, at whose core isnot intolerance butan endangered infrastructure of

See Marjorie Garber, Beatrice Hanssen, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (eds). The Turn to Ethics; for a
contrast, see Alain Badiou. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil.
Slavoj iek. Tolerance. Chantal Mouffe writes: What we are witnessing . . . is the triumph of a
sort of moralizing liberalism that is increasingly filling the void left by the collapse of any project of
real transformation. In Marjorie Garber et. al. (eds.). The Turn to Ethics, 93.
Cited in Slavoj iek. 660, note 1.
See Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism.
32 Narcoepics

the ordinary, caused, for example, by the dismantling of a modern socio-economic

edifice in the South, the depletion of human existences and, notably, the rise of planetary
grids of informal labor practices as a result of increasing global adjustments, that is,
inequalities. If abnormal interpretation implies that no state can be gauged in which
the intellect recovers its peaceful routine, a new critical posture becomes necessary, not
from nihilism, not from optimism but from particular strategies of sobriety.

Humiliating sobrietya surreptitious path

Literature here no longer expects anything from a feeling on the part of the author,
other than one in which the will to change this world has allied itself to sobriety. It is
fully aware that its only chance is to become a by-product in a highly ramified process
designed to change the world. An invaluable by-product. The principal product,
however, is a new attitude.
(Walter Benjamin on Bert Brecht)
Heiner Mller, a dramatist and writer from the former East Germany, observed
strategies for turning the most highly developed countries into castles to be protected
against onslaughts from the rest of the world, and remarked that this would be, at best,
a pessimistic yet unethical variant of hope.21 Claustrophobic vision is blind to the
fact that history has not ended, that the third world is power; those, at whose cost we
are living will not remain passive forever. It is not a question of military-economic
strength. It suffices when millions of poor people start to move out of their
confinements.22 Mller was not making an emotional statement, nor was he politically
nave. At issue was a dialectic question: from which legitimate normality or, rather,
from which assumed abnormality should existence and thinking be (re)imagined in
order to loosen the string of fixed opinion?23 Mller speaks in Brechtian diction:
Why was Enlightenment defeated? At a certain point, the development of economy
and of consciousness have come to diverge diametrically. It would be interesting
to design a computer program that plays on the interfaces between the economic
underdevelopment of the Third World, and the intellectual depravity of the First
without previous ideological assumptions.24 In other words, what is it that experiences
from the Global South can strategically teach us, not in terms of representations of
otherness, or politics of either hope or compassion, but regarding our situatedness in
the present world, its severe limits, and its mistaken assumptions?
At this moment, as we are drawing a conceptual map to test against uncanny
narrative worlds, let us consider from amidst the new narrative territories the example
of the narcocorrido as a figure of abnormal ethical import. To avoid misperceptions,

Heiner Mller. Die Reflexion ist am Ende, die Zukunft gehrt der Kunst, 12.
See Benjamin, Walter. Bert Brecht, 368.
Heiner Mller. 13.
Aesthetics of Sobriety 33

here I am not making a case for popular culture, which would mean exalting
narcocorridos as a contemporary phenomenon backed by respectable popular
legacies (the corrido tradition), and which might now be viewed as provocation
or aberration while still pertaining to the treasure chest of plebeyan art. It is worth
remembering what Michel de Certeau wrote under the lemma The Beauty of the
Dead: Popular culture presupposes an unavowed operation: . . . Only after its
danger had been eliminated did it become an object of interest.25 By now it seems
that even the inclination of postmodern art theories toward popular narratives has
further contributed to create a sublime space for the subcultural text, appropriating
the energy by which the subversive and the immoral unfold as acting imagination.
In addition, any categorization in the vein of the popular, associated with being less
than intellectual, less than entitled to ethical life, must be rejected here. We will refer
to nonindividualist, and heterogeneous imaginaries, whose conceptual and aesthetic
values have often been lost by labeling them popular.
The narcocorrido or global corrido, which first started emerging in the 1970s,26
has become a sensitive topic in current discussions on violence and aesthetics. Critics
feel puzzled by the immanent, laconic transgressiveness of narcocorridos. They have
remarked, for instance, that these songs celebrate violence, foregrounding, as their heroes,
popular subjects from the South who are involved in the inter-American, cross-border
narcotics trade.27 Such judgment focusses on sentiments of uncanniness, or simply on
textual referentiality, rather than assuming that global corridos display an intermedial,
performative character. In the same vein, it is implied that the counter-violence of the
narcotraficantes, laconically hailed by ballads on drug trafficking, leaves no room for
ethical, let alone epistemological, reflection beyond manichaean criteria. Do we not tend
to start out using criteria of normal interpretation to address, from that perspective,
what appears as unnaturally transgressive, or even magic and miraculous? But what
would it mean to reverse the terms of study, without finding an alternative normality
in the world of the narcotraffickers, that is, without mythifying it either toward moral
evil or popular resistance?
If we take the perhaps most salient case, the epic songs of the norteo group
Los Tigres del Norte, based in San Jos, California, the pernicious and often deadly
peripeties in the majority of their narcoballads are obvious. Nevertheless, a minimalistic
tone that these ballads convey with their paratactical narration reverses the violent
actions of their plots: narcocorridos are ghostly speech-songs that intone widely shared
experiences: the groups music has enabled, among a large public, the possibility of an
affective awareness of violent conflicts whose consequences are shockingly tragic, but
they cannot convey a legitimate tragic code. As we have argued at length,28 the deviance
of the narcocorridos of Los Tigres del Norte does not consist in the way they foreground

Michel de Certeau, Heterologies:: Discourse on the Other, 119.
For critical studies on the narcocorrido, see Elijah Wald. Narcocorrido; Mark Cameron Edberg.
El Narcotraficante: Narcocorridos and the Construction of a Cultural Persona on the U.S.Mexican
Border; Hermann Herlinghaus. Violence Without Guilt.
Compare, among other studies, John McDowell. Poetry and Violence: The Ballad Tradition of Mexicos
Costa Chica, 198207.
Hermann Herlinghaus. Violence Without Guilt, 88.
34 Narcoepics

violence (ecstasy) but in their rejection of the curse of guilt, which mainline public
opinion, often projecting fear, as well, has imposed on those outcasts who today are a
growing part of the worlds informal working class. To undermine guilt and fear can be
envisioned as a singular achievement of sobriety. I have taken this example to point to
what seems symptomatic for the literatures that will be discusseda defamiliarization
of existing hermeneutic horizons. As interpreters, we tend to pin down compelling
narrative phenomena by incorporating them into manageable categories. But would
we expect that liberation from guilt is presented to us by the imaginaries of those who
have functioned as invisible yet blameworthy subjects? Would we want to assume that
powerful aesthetic standards are defied from that side? What counts is not the magical,
not the metaphysical, nor even the horrorific face of violence, and there appears to be
a strange suspension of the traditions of both tragedy and melodrama, as well. We are
led into a conceptual no-mans land where there is . . . just sobriety.
Ecstasy and sobriety are not mere states of affairs but conceptual matters
that can put reflexivity in a new light. As we will see later, they will also allow us
to aesthetically approach the problematic of violence while avoiding a series of
shortcomings, which has accompanied theoretical thinking about violence, artistic
experience, and modernity. Curiously, Latin Americas new epics of sobriety suggest
that we place one of Walter Benjamins enigmatic formulations (Surrealism, 1929) in
global perspective: The dialectics of intoxication are indeed curious. Is not perhaps all
ecstasy in one world humiliating sobriety in that complementary to it?29 Here we might
think of the example of narconarratives, a realm that includes not only narcocorridos
but also reaches far beyond, into an extensive sphere of prose-fiction, film, music, and
performance, in which the realities of hemispheric narcotics traffic and informal travel
are taken as a lens for problematizing the revamping of NorthSouth conflicts under
the pressures of advanced neoliberalism. These narratives point to an imbalance that
has become strategically sensitive. And Benjamins formulation, when referred to a
hemispheric situation regarding the status of illicit psychoactive plants and substances
that are produced in Bolivia, Columbia, or Mexico, gives way to a powerful conceptual
image. Ecstasy, generated by means of consumption of legal and illicit drugs, is one
of the main indulgences that the Global North is unable to overcome. And there is
sobriety in the South that is humiliating, to the extent that drug plant cultivation
and the export of its derivatives allow social, cultural, but mainly economic survival
in certain Latin American rural and semi-urban areas today, and are not intended for
consumption as elaborate drugs in these territories. There resonates the sarcastic voice
of Gmez-Peas Border Brujo when he addresses his imaginary Gringo interlocutor:
I grow the pot . . . & you smoke it. I need dollars, you need magic, a perfect transaction
Id say. We both need to overcome our particular devaluations, que no?30
The situation gets more tricky at the point at which the North programatically
disavowes its own need for intoxication by keeping the economy of the scapegoat31

Walter Benjamin. Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia, 210.
Guillermo Gmez-Pea. Border Brujo. In Warrior for Gringostroika: Essays, Performance Texts,
and Poetry, 84.
For a discussion of the early roots of the concept, see Ren Girards The Scapegoat.
Aesthetics of Sobriety 35

alive, blaming its outer and inner margins of inertia, contamination, irrationality, or
violent excess. This amounts to nothing less than a war on affect in which (real and
imagined) groups, territories, individuals, and symbols are singled out to redirect
negative energy streams away from the spheres where they originate in social conflict,
moral and political subordination, economic exclusion, and cultural intimidation.
Marginalities that are affectively produced carry the burden by which a moral economy,
increasingly operating in flexible, national and transnational terms, oversees the
reproduction of safe places to counter the zones of contamination and abjection. It is
in the deeply neurotic realms of dominant Western culture32 that the construction of
otherness recreates doses of guilt by means of projection, thus producing a mechanism
for psychically intoxicating the subaltern, or the ex-centric, which can be even
stronger than economic oppression. Here, intoxication acquires a complex meaning,
and cannot be reduced to a state of inebriation caused by narcotics. It is a concept
that is bound up, in one way or another, with Western histories of colonization and
To resume our argument in relation to the drug ballads of Los Tigres del Norte, a
salient case of hemispheric narconarratives: their songs have become powerful by
virtue of an aesthetic thatfar from celebrating violenceundermines the affective
marginalization of the losers in globalizationthose who have moved from poverty into
drug smuggling. It subverts, or fragments sensations of guilt and fear while engaging
in the struggle for survival of the dispossessed, turning the corridos heroes, most of
them low-level drug traffickers and undocumented migrants, noncitizens in todays
hemispheric exchange, into our affective contemporaries. This could be viewed as
immoral only as long as criticism rejoices in the daydream of unfettered normality
the apotheosis of good life that condenses the desire for a natural apokatastasis
(eventual culmination) of history. At issue, however, are aesthetic postures of a strange
kind of realism, one that makes fantasies avowable that speak from the edges of
good life yet resist being codified in terms of criminality or madness. The sober spirit
of the ballads of Los Tigres insinuates that the Hemispheric South is experiencing
what can be called, perhaps, global modernitys dramatic crisis of citizenship. At issue,
aesthetically, are sensibilities that are not caught up in the sublimation of violence and
ecstasis, avoiding those poetics that practice a mastery of containment.
A first tentative resum of our quest must demarcate sobriety as an experimental
notion whose presence, in previous aesthetic and ethical discussions has been, at
best, a marginal one. Todays narcoepics emerging from the South (and we will
later distinguish this term from narconarratives), do not primarily address the
socio-economic forms of violence that generate from informal labor and illicit drug
trafficking across the Western hemisphere. They rather help us scrutinize existing
assumptions of a political unconscious, due to which these processes are perceived as
infelicitous aberrations from a norm, and would thus be irrelevant for epistemological
and ethical debate. Metaphorically speaking, sobriety is at issue not as a sort of
zero-sum vantage point but, rather, a concept that allows us to move into complex

See Norman Brown. Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History.
36 Narcoepics

relationships between human bodies, transgressions of different sorts, and the social
and ecological survival struggle of disenfranchized individuals and communities
throughout vast territories of the Western hemisphere.
In order to advance sobriety as an aesthetic issue, we have to follow Benjamins
untimely reflections on that matter, and scrutinize the dialectics of intoxication for
further hints. Benjamins interest in intoxication does not render tribute to either
Sade or Freud. While Sade fuses transgression into a nihilistic aesthetics, Freud recurs
to pessimistic therapeutics by postulating a moral need for repression and sublimation,
in order for society not to be torn apart by sexual drives and passions. Benjamin, in
turn, focuses on the experiences of French Surrealism. He is not only unimpressed by
an affective codex of Judaic-Christian morality; in fact, with Surrealisms help, he seeks
to wrest the concepts of intoxication and illumination away from the religious domains
where they have been controlled by Catholicism. Not by chance, we can encounter this
very attitude in a text that Mexican author Octavio Paz published, in 1972, on the French
socialist visionary Charles Fourier (17721837), one of the first to excel by his materialist
interest in transgression, directed against a rising, Janus-faced bourgeois society.
Paz argued that Fouriers doubts about the purifying moral constituents of Western
civilization had become a cornerstone for critical thinking. This net of connections can
be drawn closer when we remember that Benjamin had taken a deep interest in Fourier.
To add to the spiral of untimely reflections, in 1947, Andr Breton, the integrative figure
of Parisian Surrealism, wrote while passing through the states of Nevada, Colorado, and
Arizonathe Hispanic Southwest of the United Statesa text entitled Ode Charles
Fourier, in which we read: Poverty, deception, oppression, and massacrethese are still
the same calamities of this civilization that you had once vigorously accused.33
The essay Surrealism (1929) contains Benjamins main incursion into the notions of
intoxication and sobriety. The text presents one of the single most far-reaching reflections
on Surrealism and the historical avantgarde. Prevailing approaches to the essay have given
preference to the concept of profane illumination, as though the summoning of profane
spirits for the liberation of dialectical thought-images would resolve (or dissolve) the
challenges of intoxication.Profane illumination, in a more timely wording, has to do with
worldly wisdom as an instrument for cultural and philosophical criticism, a conceptual
and anthropological attitude directed against both rational determinism and the affective
power of Christian morality. Now, could not humiliating sobriety offer, perhaps, a more
suitable blueprint for imagining how the energies of intoxication34 could be mustered for
an epistemic exercise that is, at the same time, an investment in ethical thinking? Benjamin
uses different figures of embodiment, which can help achieve profane illumination, such
as practices of love, hashish trance, and the magic of writing. But from what vantage point
could they be thought of, today, as elements of a joint ethico-epistemological quest?
It is still surprising that Benjamins thoughts on Surrealism, which offer an important
hinge regarding his Arcades Project,35 encountered one of its main references in Auerbachs
Dante: Poet of the Secular World (1928). As Karlheinz Barck has noted, there are incredible

Andr Breton. Ode an Charles Fourier, 39.
See Walter Benjamin. Surrealism, 215.
See Karlheinz Barck. Der Srrealismus: Die letzte Momentaufnahme der europischen Intelligenz.
Aesthetics of Sobriety 37

connections that still have to be thought through to approach the conceptual place of
the Dante book within the context of Parisian Surrealism, as well as the other avantgarde
movements of that time.36 By referring to a passage in Auerbach, Benjamin models his
idea of humiliating sobriety, discovering a mystical parallel between Andr Bretons
Nadja and the figure of Beatrice in the Divine Comedy. Here it is useful to bear in mind
that when Benjamin speaks of Provencal love poetry as being emblematic of the poetry
of the new style, he takes Auerbachs suggestion that there is what he calls a materialist
anthropological inspiration behind the mystical conception of love. Both authors interest
in the poetry of the new style had to do with the paradoxical conception of realism
which, in both Dante and Surrealism, emerged at the interface of religious imagination
and secular practices of writing or art. It is what Auerbach described as poetrys art of
imitation (of life) at the point at which it is capable of superceding life. Poetry is capable
of creating evidence of the unbelievable, the miraculous.37 However, as Benjamin remarks,
histrionic or fanatical stress on the mysterious side of the mysterious takes us no further;
we penetrate the mystery only to the degree that we recognize it in the everyday world, by
virtue of a dialectical optic that perceives the everyday as impenetrable, the impenetrable
as everyday.38 It is this peculiar approach to realistic narration that will bring us closer
to the errant cosmopolitanism, and bizarre body-consciousness that characterizes the
literary identities of todays doomed border crossers: while their dreams and cultural
driving forces resemble religious simulacra in late modernity, their transgressive deeds
follow a dramatic materialist inspiration. In that regard, mystical energies can be found
in contemporary epics, to the extent that they avoid emphasizing the mysterious side of
the mysterious.
We can now recall the particular way in which Benjamin expounds his interest in
the concept of sobriety in order to get closer to the aesthetic reality effect, that is, to
the real, everyday energies of transgressive (mystical) forces when they are supposed
to serve both poetic creation and political thinking. Referring to Auerbach, while
discussing Andr Bretons Nadja, he writes:
We have from a new author quite exact information on Provencal love poetry,
which comes surprisingly close to the Surrealist conception of love. All the poets
of the new style, Erich Auerbach points out in his excellent Dante: Poet of the
Secular World, possess a mystical beloved; they all have approximately the same
very curious experience of love. To them all, Amor bestows or withholds gifts that
resemble an illumination more than sensual pleasure; all are subject to a kind of
secret bond that determines their inner and perhaps also their outer lives. The
dialectics of intoxication are indeed curious. Is not perhaps all ecstasy in one world
humiliating sobriety in the world complementary to it? What is it that courtly Minne
seeks (and it, not love, binds Breton to the telepathic girl), if not to make chastity,
too, a transport? Into a world that borders not only on tombs of the Sacred Heart or
altars to the Virgin, but also on the morning before a battle or after a victory.39

Karlheinz Barck. Erich Auerbach in Berlin. Spurensicherung und ein Portrt, 211.
Erich Auerbach. Dante: Poet of the Secular World, 2.
Walter Benjamin Surrealism, 216.
Ibid., 210.
38 Narcoepics

The English translation of the original passage in Auerbachs Dante, to which Benjamin
refers, reads:
All the poets of the stil nuovo possessed a mystical beloved; all of them had roughly
the same fantastic amorous adventures; the gifts which Love bestowed upon them
all (or denied them) have more in common with illumination than with sensual
pleasure; and all of them belonged to a kind of secret brotherhood which molded
their inner lives and perhaps their outward lifes as wellbut only one of them,
Dante, was able to describe those esoteric happenings in such a way as to make
us accept them as authentic reality even where the motivations and allusions are
quite baffling.40
In contrast with normal interpretation, it is indeed interesting to note Benjamins
sense for daring connections, which allows him to draw, between Surrealism and
Dante, a conceptual space. In Auerbach, we encounter a perception of that peculiar
kind of realism that he will continue exploring in his famous Mimesis, first addressing
the specific force of reality carried by mystical illumination41 and later, pointing to
Christianitys cunning propensity for magic and bloodlust as affective (political)
strategies that are more powerful than enlightened classical culture and its weapon
of individualistic, aristocratic, moderate, and rational self-discipline.42 Aesthetically
speaking, individual creation, when unmoved by a demand for autonomy, can generate
a nonindividualistic energy (as it recognizes itself as belonging to a kind of secret
brotherhood), one that is able to connect with a movement from the depths, as we
read in Mimesis, from the depths of the multitude as from the depths of immediate
emotion.43 Benjamin is eager to conceive of the dialectical space where the radical
Surrealist strategy of transforming existence and its conditions vibrates, not from
rational discourse, nor from the masterworks of literary introspection, but from an
anthropological materialism that we might understand in the way of an aesthetics of
sobriety. Its force lies in allowing for a profane approach to transgression (the dialectics
of intoxication), which is understood as an immanently reflexive project. Indulging in
the mysterious side of transgression takes us no further, as it will take us no further
indulging in the shocking aspects that global epics of sobriety purport. Therefore, what
had been of interest in the esotheric schools of poetry was not lart pour lart but
the goal to transform life in its entirety.44 Surrealism, for its part, strived to win the
energies of intoxication for revolution; however, as Benjamin warned, any serious
exploration of occult, surrealistic, phantasmagoric gifts and phenomena presupposes
a dialectical intertwinement,45 in which the concept of sobriety seems to have been
the hidden key to the Surrealists strategy, even when they were unable to live up to it
themselves. Sobriety conveys a borderline concept in that it also helps us to connect
different epochs and narrative spaces around the world.

Erich Auerbach. Dante, 6061.
Erich Auerbach. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, 601.
Ibid., 61.
See Walter Benjamin. Zum Aufsatz ber Srrealismus.
Walter Benjamin Surrealism, 216.
Aesthetics of Sobriety 39

In order to move closer to epics of sobriety from the Global South, we have to turn
Benjamins thought-figure to the controversial matter of violence. How would thedialectics
of intoxication relate to the question of violence, at the point at which it surfaces through
narrative imaginaries that challenge both the intellectual posture by which violence is
kept at a dramatic, or sublime distance and todays mass-media-produced low-level fear
as a regulative device of civic innocence? It is, again, Auerbach who can help advance our
search. In The Arrest of Peter Valvomeres, dealing with narrative material of a medieval
nature, he addresses phenomena that will resonate in contemporary cultures as well. There
is that old problem that has not ceased to perplex usthe one that presents itself when we
look at violence as intoxication. Auerbach feels particularly drawnnot without aweto
the stylistic and rhetorico-figural resources developed by early modern literature when
it comes to narrate, and thus take hold, of a terror-stricken world. A lesson is derived
from Augustines Confessions, not for the benefit of sobriety but, on the contrary, for
understanding a refined practice of ecstasy invented by Christianity, one whichwith
capitalismwill metamorphose into an even more powerful drive that arises from market
fetishism. Revealingly for Auerbach, medieval narratives, and Augustine in an exemplary
way, show a greater versatility for condensing violence into realistic narration than does
the antique rationalist tradition. Almost against his own will, he ponders the insight,
in Mimesis, that violence as an intoxicating power is difficult to resist, and it cannot be
confronted head on but requires strategies of cunning reason. To recall his famous yet
almost forgotten paragraph, informed by his reading of Augustine:
. . . in the fight against magical intoxication, Christianity commands other weapons
than those of the rational and individualistic ideal of antique culture; it is, after all,
itself a movement from the depths, from the depths of the multitude as from the
depths of immediate emotion; it can fight the enemy with his own weapons. Its
magic is no less a magic than is bloodlust, and it is stronger because it is a more
ordered, a more human magic, filled with more hope.46
Who was the enemy, by the way, that had to be controlled by realistic narration?
Pagan societies and non-Christian ethnic communities at the threshold of modernity,
or the proponents of cultural heterogeneity in a wider sense? To put magic in order,47
make it serve the monotheistic political goal, construct the gigantic Western universe
of hope from the criteria of the few centers that were obsessed with taking control of
the world, culminating in todays delirium of hyperdevelopmentwas this not colonial
modernitys very project? What were the properly cultural maxims to be imposed on
the oppressed in terms of intoxication, if not those condensed in a discourse and a
politics of containment, based on the opposition of body and mind, non-Western life
and mature civilization, famously invented by Christianity? Containment, however, is
not sobriety but the marriage of ecstasy and its subsequent denial or, to take Norman
Browns words, the universal neurosis of Western culture.48 Not by chance, the
Erich Auerbach. Mimesis, 61.
Michael Taussig elaborates extensively on magical imagery in its relationships to the constitution,
and deconstitution of power/knowledge. See Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study
in Terror and Healing, 366392.
Norman Brown. Life Against Death, 910.
40 Narcoepics

narrative form of confessionintrospection as the journey into the individual Self s

afflictions, prominently guiltemerges in the shadow of the Christian invention of
original sin. Confession will metamorphose, from Augustine to Rousseau and further,
into a literary master discourse accompanying the modern subjects education by virtue
of containment. Therefore, one of the sensitive questions that will resonate throughout
our book relates to the ways how narcoepics bear witness to the pattern of confession,
or attempt to exorcise it.
Containment, inscribed in modernitys culture of subject formation, is
understood as both the use and the regulation of diverse situations of Rausch
concentrated, however, in the domain of powers whose historical march of triumph
rested on their explicit quest for, and their command over purity and order. It is
because of this that Auerbachs words resonate in an uncanny and timely way: the
lesson of Christian realism (not rationalism), for example in Augustines case,
is to cover up civilizing violence with skilled magic and sophisticated morality,
including confession, to make it work beneath the surface, and to fly across the
abyss of domination while unharmed by the forces of resistance and wrath. The
Benjaminian dialectics of intoxication, when extended to colonization and
the transatlantic rise of Western modernity, and going beyond Auerbach, helps
recognize modernity as a large-scale training course, in which both intoxication and
its denial have been constantly practiced. In other words, the modern discourse of
rational containment has become a compass for civilizations moral path, yet it has
at the same time relied on strategies of fashioning an intoxicated, or intoxicating
Other. A stunning phenomen that becomes relevant for rethinking the cultural and
literary history of the Americas today, speaks from the changes that characterize
the move from a psychoactive revolution at the center of modernitys transatlantic
rise (from the seventeenth to the end-nineteenth centuries), to a psychoactive
counterrevolution on a global scale (the twentieth century). Transatlantic, and
later hemispheric trade and consumption of psychoactive plants and substances,
many of which came from Latin America, up to selected narcotics prohibition and
the war on drugs make evident that modernity has never just operated in the
service of secularist separations between society and nature, science and belief, the
body and the intellect. It has, rather, fused the triumph of its hegemonic affective
designs with a both instrumental and transcendental molding of practices of
sometimes approval, sometimes denial of Rausch.
Stretching Auerbachs argument on violence and intoxication still further, so that a
postcolonial hypothesis becomes possible, brute violence as an intoxicating force of
early modern times will find a constitutive parallel, at present, in the attacks that we
can observe on the enlightened, tolerant, and self-contained values of modern society.
But what is rapidly attested to the upsurge of international terrorism in recent years is
deeply connected, underneath our troubled normality, to the weapons with which
Christianity, and later market capitalism, have operated as movements from the
depths. When it comes to struggle, the geopolitics of empire, together with its cultural
machinery, and the applied strategies of market fundamentalism have more efficient
practices to deploy than those of enlightened tolerance.
Aesthetics of Sobriety 41

Is it too far-fetched to think that we might not encounter the actual force of
resistance of those who, today, are globally excluded from the benefits of the West
in an individualistic, and enlightened spirit, either? This is not just a question of
why the oppressed should stick to moderation and rational containment, or of
self-questioning sublimized into confession, if oppression teaches otherwise. It
seems necessary, in the first place, not to rush into sophisticated moralization or
mythification of violence when it emerges from the territories of the Hemispheric
South or, rather, when its images resonate as part of an aesthetic-ethical posture of
literatures that makes us see the abject yet unruly color of globalization. Today,
terror and crime are too unreflexively attributed to civil unrest or deviant survival
strategies of social and cultural actorsmainly the newly dispossessedyet who are
not ecstatic criminals. Benjamins formulation regarding the state of emergencys
being, from the vantage point of the oppressed, the rule keeps resonating, in that it
points beyond (or beneath) the realms of both visible subjective and generalized
symbolic violence. It reminds us that systemic violence is not a fiction, even though
it cannot be seen from the backround of a nonviolent zero level, which we prefer
to hold as the normal state of affairs. Objective violence is precisely the violence
inherent to this normal state of things. [. . .] Systemic violence is thus something like
the notorious dark matter of physics, the counterpart to an all-too-visible subjective
violence. It may be invisible, but it has to be taken into account if one is to make sense
of what otherwise seem to be irrational explosions of subjective violence.49 We are
now close to making sense, again, of a particular image of sobriety, for it makes us
perceive layers and meanings that are otherwise covered by the normal state of
affairs. That is to say, irrational explosions of violence may appear, at first sight, to
be pertaining to the intoxicated subject (the brute criminal, or the dangerous
South); however, there is a sphere that is rigorously complementary to it, the sphere
of humiliating sobriety. When narrative projects engage in this complementarity,
asking for the other side of violence, we are dealing with a mode of aesthetics of

Thinking poverty, relocating aesthetics

Poverty, Herr Keuner thinks, is a form of mimicry that allows you to come closer to
reality than any rich man can.
(Benjamin on Brecht)
A total absence of illusion about the age and at the same time an unlimited
commitment to itthis is its hallmark.
(Benjamin on Brecht)
Epics of sobriety is, in the first place, a concept-figure that allows for making
distinctions. Although the imbalances between Latin American countries and the

Slavoj iek. Violence, 2.
42 Narcoepics

hyperdeveloped North can be objectified by looking into the historicality of conflicts,

there is no objective reason that could account for the emergence of an aesthetics of
sobriety from the Hemispheric South. Rather, our concept helps cut a swath through
compelling yet ambivalent artistic articulations, and is intended to be both analytic and
prospective. The challenge consists in recognizing new narrative formations without
imposing normativity. In that regard, I have been foregrounding sobriety as one of
those minority concepts that allows us to become aware of an abnormal facet in
the trajectories of modern self-reflexivity. By first finding the abnormal in the center,
pointing to a self-conscious gesture (Benjamin) for which the erratic, the dubious
side of Western discursive machinery becomes a movens for criticism, we intend to
come closer to understanding some of todays radical artistic projects from the South.
Admittedly, sobriety from the perspective of contemporary Latin American authors
such as Laura Restrepo, Guadalupe Santa Cruz, Roberto Bolao, Eduardo Antonio
Parra, Alonso Salazar, and others, will turn out to be different from the way the concept
was perceived by Auerbach, Bretn, Benjamin, or Brecht. However, the singularity of
the South vibrates, in part, through its epistemological contemporaneity, and the vigor
with which it can push European thinking to the limits. Therefore, thinking poverty
will include examining in part, and again, a facet of Walter Benjamin. Training our
critical focus on Latin American narratives through the lens of an intellectual nomad
of German origin means confronting his reflections and intuitions with the tectonics
of experiences that would have appeared distant yet not unfamiliar to him.
In the novels that we will study in the chapters that follow, violence and crime are
sedentary issues. However, they do not resemble well-known models of hardcore
crime fiction, disaster films, science fiction, or of sophisticated extremism in works of
art. What matters are not the contention with a world of terror, the overcoming (or not)
of exorbitant dangers, the summoning of fear for dramatic purposes, or an adjacency
of literary creation to violence and terror.50 In epics of sobriety, the aesthetic question
is bound to the other, that is, the seemingly absent side of ecstasy. Ecstasy, if we view
violent action and unlawful behavior or their cathartic sublimation in that vein, is not
perceived in the way of daunting immensities.51
If there were a perspective apt to consider the limits of modern, and contemporary
experience, one could find that writers (and filmmakers) have made poverty a
conceptual, a poetic tool in highly self-conscious ways. Sobriety appears linked
to forms of unadorned dialogue, notarial first-person narration, laconic reports
charged with both oral immediacy and a peculiar worldliness, strange variants of
(anti)confession, and varied types of narrative fragmentation, all of which convey a
sense of embodied speech, transporting an affective posture whose foothold is
hopelessness: the absence of not only a normal, civil state of affairs but also of the
desire for a Kantian sublime. However, for those artists, sobriety enables the creation
of uncommon affective scenarios and, from there, an intervention into contemporary
literary investigation, as well as ethical philosophy.

See Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe. Crimes of Art and Terror, 23.
Here I am using an expression from Terry Eagletons Sweet Violence, 172.
Aesthetics of Sobriety 43

How can we rethink poverty as an aesthetic strategy that serves, at the same time, a
reflexive goal? Poverty of experience, disseminated in the aftermath of the industrial
revolution in the most advanced countries, alongside pathbreaking developments of
technology, signaled, for Benjamin in his reflections during the 1930s, that a surplus
of information, of explanation, and psychological connections52 paired with
the pressures of isolation that weigh on the modern individual truncated one of
cultures most inalienable capabilitiesthe art of storytelling. Storytelling, in turn,
connects with counsil woven into the fabric of lived life53 and shared speech, which
is wisdom. The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was
new. . . . A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates
its energy and is capable of releasing it even after a long time (Storyteller, 148) We
find that a problematic meaning is attested to terms such as expenditure, surplus,
exhuberance, waste, as it is also applied to a surplus of explanation (the boost of
discursive reason). All of them contravene a faculty that is related to a concentration of
energy, a praxis of preservation and beneficial mutual sharing (145)sharing in the
way that counsil lies less in an answer to a question than in a proposal concerning
the continuation of a story which is in the process of unfolding (1456). If storytelling
is the art of repeating stories while retaining their peculiar energy, resting at the same
time on the gift for listening and the existence of communities of listeners (149), it
presents a problematic whose latency at the margins of societys discursive orders
provides a constant, and often puzzling, call to analysis and criticism.
The text that conceptually precedes The Storyteller (1936) is Experience and
Poverty (1933), its argument being that a completely new poverty has descended on
mankind. And the reverse side of this poverty is the oppressive wealth of ideas that has
been spread among people, or rather has swamped them entirely . . .54. It was at this
point that Benjamin proposed a new, positive concept of barbarism (ibid.), one that
we find prefigured in the authors comments on Bertolt Brecht (Bert Brecht), dating
from 1930 and later. The web of conceptual links between these texts and Surrealism
(including Auerbach) is indeed incredible, incredible when viewed from an angle
of urgency and rigor by which normal interpretation is contested. Sobriety, poverty,
ecstasy, illumination, barbarism, (sur)realism are categories that seem distant and
mutually incongruent when related to the modern semantic and disciplinary registers,
yet they strangely converge in the quest for an aesthetics of sobriety. At issue is a project
by which a critical and historicizing impetus can be drawn from aesthetic experiment, to
the extent that this experience is configured in an elementary and drastic way, molding a
framework for reflection that does not expend itself into sophisticated insignificance.
The underlying shift of perspective helps suspending the zero level of common sense.
What is deduced from civilizations heights is precisely a new kind of poverty:
[. . .] our poverty of experience is just a part of that larger poverty that has once
again acquired a facea face of the same sharpness and precision as that of a

See Walter Benjamin. The Storyteller,148.
I have modified the English translation. (W. B. The Storyteller, 146.)
Walter Benjamin. Experience and Poverty, 732.
44 Narcoepics

beggar in the Middle Ages. For what is the value of all our culture if it is divorced
from experience? Where it all leads when that experience is simulated or obtained
by underhanded means is something that has become clear to us from the horrific
mishmash of styles and ideologies produced during the last centurytoo clear
for us not to think it a matter of honesty to declare our bankruptcy. Indeed (lets
admit it), our poverty of experience is not merely poverty on the personal level,
but poverty of human experience in general. Hence, a new kind of barbarism.
(Experience, 732)
On the one hand, there is what Benjamin calls poverty of experience. At the same time,
poverty has become a conceptual dynamizer, a kind of blueprint for resetting the
foothold of thinking that feels asphyxiated and overburdened by an excess of information,
and the wealth of modern knowledge perceived as actual nonknowledge, and repelled
by the nexus between the abstractness of universal ethical categories, and existing power
networks. Heiner Mllers previously cited sentence on the economic poverty of the third
world and the intellectual poverty of the first insinuates that such a thing as poverty of
experience comes inequally distributed. It is for that reason that the intellectuals interest
turns to the margins and to marginal subjects, not as the objects for moral compassion,
nor as identities in search for full-fledged representation in the official Western edifice,
but as spaces that can help reflexivity clear its grounds. The affinity Benjamin felt toward
the young Bertolt Brecht, and which was much detested by friends like Scholem and
Adorno, falls under that light. This attraction rests on a dialectic maneuvre for which
theatre offered an exemplary space. Take the figures of Brechts early plays, such as Mack
the Knife, Baal, or Fatzerthey are not what they seem to be; they are instead heuristic
models that can make us consider an attitude, a condition, a way of speaking. Something
has to be performed first in order to be questioned. Embodiment precedes reflexivity. The
procedure is mimetic, for it works by virtue of embodiment through gestures and words,
which are quotable. Words need to be practiced in the first place, and then understood.
The poetic effect comes last. In that sense, the enigmatic Herr Keuner practices poverty
as a form of mimicry that allows you to come closer to reality than any rich man can.55
What Benjamin will call, in his short text of 1933, the mimetic faculty is thus already
latent in his earlier comments on Brecht.
Of interest in Brecht was the way connections began crystallizing between a new type
of hero in his early plays (Baal, Mack the Knife, Fatzer, and the entire horde of hooligans
and criminals; Bert Brecht, 368), and an intellectual narrator with a new kind of
attitudeHerr Keuner (Stories of Herr Keuner; 366). Benjamin qualifies the person of
Herr Keuner as a political-aesthetic modela man who concerns all, belongs to all, for
he is the leader. But in quite a different sense from the one we usually understand by the
word (367). Such a concept-figure serves as a mirror for the philosopher, the writer, the
artist in search for reorientation. One does not need to be a poor man in order to learn
from poverty. However, as insinuated by those writings, there is no radical learning
(profane illumination) in the desert of the present day (366) without sharing in a
situation of sobriety. The paragraph that follows sounds insinuating indeed.

Walter Benjamin. Bert Brecht, 370.
Aesthetics of Sobriety 45

He is in no way a public speaker, a demagogue; nor is he a show-off or a strongman.

His main preoccupations lie light-years away from what people nowadays
understand to be those of a leader. The fact is that Herr Keuner is a thinker. I
can remember Brecht once envisaging how Keuner might make his entrance on
the stage. He would be brought in on a stretcher, because a thinker does not go to
any pains. He would then followor perhaps would not followthe events on the
stage in silence. For it is symptomatic of so many situations today that the thinker
is unable to follow them. His entire stance will prevent our confusing this thinker
with Greek sages . . . He is rather more akin to Paul Valrys character Monsieur
Teste: a purely thinking man without any emotions. Both characters have Chinese
features. They are infinitely cunning, infinitely discreet, infinitely polite, infinitely
old, and infinitely adaptable. (367)
Could we imagine Herr Keuner as someone who cunningly settles accounts with
the intellectual poverty qua oversaturation of the first world? Even here we might
find a mode for moving from ecstasy (the aggressive production, distribution, and
consumption of contemporary knowledge) to sobriety: We, says Herr Keuner, pose
blunt, down-to-earth questions . . . we have our most refined answers ready to hand
for those blunt questions (368). What kinds of resistances can this concept-figure of
a posttraditional narratoran actor on an experimental stageoffer, according to
Benjamins reading? And what approximates this figure to the concerns that we have
previously extracted from the Surrealism essay? Herr Keuner, we read, is a proletarian
who stands in sharp contrast to the ideal proletarian of the humanitarians: he is not
interiorized (375). Let us recall an insight from Surrealism. Sobriety can workor
should be made to workas a transport into a world, not mainly of the inner Self,
but of things whose revolutionary energies are to be found in unexpected places, in
the immense forces of atmosphere, or as a transport into a life that was determined
at a decisive moment precisely by the street song last on everyones lips (Surrealism,
210). In other words, sobriety can turn illumination outward, make us perceive the
energy that lies hidden in destitution as the great living, sonorous unconscious
(211), so that inconceivable analogies and connections between events (ibid.) make
their appearance in a flash. Conceptually speaking, sobriety stands at a pole opposite
to that of the Kantian sublime.
We come closer to the dialectical vision of the early Brecht, in relation to which
Benjamin sees the reflexive element subordinated to mimetic experiment, to the extent
that we recognize that a polemic vibrates against the traditions and forms of sophisticated,
self-referent introspection, as well as the myth of a majestic (universal) moral law. Since
Herr Keuner is not interiorized, he expects the abolition of misery to arrive only by the
development of the attitude which poverty forces upon him (Bert Brecht, 375):

Stick closely to the bare reality. Poverty, Herr Keuner thinks, is a form of mimicry
that allows you to come closer to reality than any rich man can. This, of course, is
not Maeterlincks mystical view of poverty. Nor is it the Franciscan idea that Rilke
has in mind when he writes: For poverty is a great light from within. . . . It is, in
short, the physiological and economic poverty of man in the machine age (370).
46 Narcoepics

What, then, does this Brechtian idea of poverty mean when it is imaginedand
performedas a conceptual gesture, an aesthetic attitude? Herr Keuner, the thinker
is not a person who resembles a modern intellectual, but instead a concept-figure of
someone who, by virtue of sheer involvement in abominable constellations, together
with a drastic Entfremdung (estrangement) of the publics common expectations, can
produce, as an aesthetic effect, astonishment about the society in which we live. To
the extent that this posture is both anti-sensationalist and anti-cathartic, the resulting
sobriety does not flirt with the expectations of the public, the reader, or the viewer. In
Benjamins commentaries on Fatzer, the egoist, we read: Go on, sink!: Fatzer must
find a foothold in his hopelessness. A foothold, not hope. . . . To sink to the bottom here
means always: to get to the bottom of things. (376) In a somewhat similar diction, this
spells as: Zugrunde gehen heit immer: auf den Grund der Dinge zu gelangen56 (To
experience (self-) destruction always means: to get to the bottom of things.) These
intonations of an aesthetic politics, directed at a peculiar project of epic theatre, are
closely related to a rejection of the long-traditioned model of tragedy. Brecht attempted
to make the thinker and even the sage the nontragic dramatic hero on stage.
Curiously, that kind of hero (for example, the packer Galy Gay in Man is Man) was
intended to act as the center of social contradictions, to become affected by the worst
experiencessocial decline, exploitation, expulsion, manipulation by power, or profit
without being turned into a victim, that is to say, without becoming a tragic individual.
Differently said, and remembering Benjamins Storyteller, the destiny of that kind of
hero is not the dramatic end but an episode in an on-going story. By suspending the
possibility of a cathartic engagement of the public, and by proposing a sober take,
for example, on egoism, asocial behavior, and crime, the thinker is located at an end
opposite to that of a sovereign hero, or of an individual whose inner conflict (when
struck by violence or infortune) we could vicariously assume. Here, the experimental
character of such aesthetic project becomes most obvious. If Brecht sought to imagine,
and to scenically experiment, with the character types of asocial figures and hooligans
as virtual revolutionaries, (Brecht, 369) this was not just a question of sympathy but
of theoretical fashioning: he wants the revolutionary to emerge from the base and
selfish character devoid of any ethos (ibid.).57 However, this posture is not antiethical
but seeks to suspend a reigning moral culture that is blinding by virtue of a generally
accepted opinion.
The seer, the sage is thus designed to inhabit the hypothetic place where the most
drastic poverty, or destitution, can generate a most accute insight, or perceptiona
controversial posture indeed. There is, on the one hand, a rejection of tragedy. This
absence, however, can give way to a mystical experience through which illumination

Walter Benjamin. Aus dem Brecht-Kommentar, 274.
The entire passage is worth quoting: Marx, we may say, set himself the task of showing how the
revolution could arise from its complete opposite, capitalism, without the need for any ethical change
[ganz ohne Ethos dafr in Anspruch zu nehmen, German, ibid., 267]. Brecht has transposed the
same problem onto the human plane: he wants the revolutionary to emerge from the base and selfish
character devoid of any ethos. Just as Wagner produced a homunculus in a test tube from a magic
brew, so Brecht hopes to produce the revolutionary in a test tube from a mixture of poverty and
nastiness (Bert Brecht, 369).
Aesthetics of Sobriety 47

emerges. We have already seen that the concept of profane illumination undermines
a straightforward belief in secularist modernity, but it certainly does not indicate a
return to religious visions. Rather, we are presencing Benjamins attempt to invert the
powers of religious illumination for profane purposes. And it is here that we have come
full circle from the Surrealists mystical conception of lovevia Brechtto a notion
of sobriety due to which destitution, obtained by aesthetic means of estrangement,
offers a path to wisdom seeing, and sensing, in a way and from a space that are
inaccessible to rational commonality (the tidal sludge of knowledge, the unfiltered
wealth [of answers] which is beneficial for a few and detrimental to almost everyone,
the string of fixed opinion, Brecht, 368). Mysticism, at this point, is an epistemic
issue, not a religious one; it is linked to a kind of experimental pedagogy. It evokes a
procedure, or an image, that can cope with most terrifying (or enchanting) realities, but
at its center resides an utmost concentration of energies, from a setting whose means
are drastically limited. In other words, such mysticism has at its core a dispositive
of sobriety. It is that kind of pedagogy that, by operating through sobriety but not
explicitness, marks in diverse fashion the overall aesthetic design of the novels and
audiovisual narratives that we will examine in the following chapters. This seems to be
the case to such an extent that our study will coin the term of epics of sobriety from
the Hemispheric South.
To emphasize our deliberation on poverty a bit further, it now comes as less of a
surprise to read that the untragic hero in Brecht is modeled in part upon the medieval
Christ, who also represented the wise man (we find this in the church fathers)the
untragic hero par excellence.58 This Christ has innumerable contemporaries in Latin
America, and throughout the hemisphere. Benjamin continues to pursue poverty as
experience: the extraordinary tuned down to a primitive dispositive. Its aesthetic
figuration should by any means resist an exaltation of the public. One of Brechts
didactic plays is entitled The Flight of the Lindberghs (the first pilots to fly across
the Atlantic nonstop from New York to Paris). At which point Benjamin evokes T. E.
Lawrence, author of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, who wrote to Robert Graves when
he joined the airforce that such a step was for modern man what entering a monastery
was for medieval man.59 A conceptual pursuit is addressed here, which connects the
Lindbergh play with the later Lehrstcke. Benjamin expounds:
A clerical sternness is applied to instruction in modern techniqueshere, those
of aviation; later, those of class struggle. The latter application can be seen most
clearly in Mother. It was particularly daring of Brecht to divorce social drama from
the empathetic response that audiences were used to.60
When we become concerned, today, with transnational Latin American epics whose
violent dramas are social and existential, as their incursions in human fantasies
and actions involve breathtaking moral postures whose import is nontragic, not
interiorized, nonpsychological yet illuminating, we are touching upon a far-reaching

Walter Benjamin. What is the Epic Theater (II)? 304.
Ibid., 306.
Ibid. On the play Mother, see, for example, Mark William Roche. Tragedy and Comedy, 66.
48 Narcoepics

politics of aesthetics. In it, poverty appears not just as a state of affairs but as a
narratological attitude. We might say that poverty, starting from the frame of
mimetic experiment that Brecht conceived as a critical procedure, carries the potential
for affective disengagement: it is perceived, in overall terms, as detachment from tragic
cathartic sentiment. Sobriety is conceived along similar lines; however, it is more
complex. It will be related, on the one hand, to the global narrative localizations
that have been emerging from contemporary Latin American and hemispheric border
imaginaries. At the same time, it conveys a concept that will allow us to go beyond
poverty, that is, to contrast the disruption of tragic compassion with particular figures
of synaesthetic affirmation. And it is here that an aesthetics of sobriety will be taken as
a lens for detecting figurations that lie outside normal sense-makingthey are not
shaped by what happens within the individual (sub)consciousness. Rather, what we will
discuss through novels, film, and other artistic forms are affective figures of a political
unconscious figures of experience that are linked to historical, cultural, or social
forms of narrativity and imagery through which nonpsychological constellations take
form.61 This is why we have pointed to a dialectics of hopelessness: to sink to the bottom
means to get to the bottom of things. But the bottom of things cannot be located in
subjective interiority when it comes disconnected from social emotion. Introspection
can still provide an escape when the outward forces become too oppressive. But how
could individual introspection work without hope?
Since epics of sobriety are thematically concerned with scenarios of destitution,
transnational displacement, cultures of survival, and transgressive empowerment, and
since affectivity is perceived as both an aesthetic and an ethical marker, the distancing
from tragedy comes immanently linked to the stance that those epics take toward the
imagination of the law. These narratives deal with violence and transgression on a
regular basis, while sobriety reformulates the complexity of imaginary relationships
between human subjects and the law, the way it is represented by certain types of
tragic drama. Speaking in the way of affective investment, tragedy has probably taken
the lead in foregrounding and ennobling suffering. Since this edification tends to
function at the cost of the truth62 or of a higher goal, the metagenre of tragedy is
bound up with an image of (or a feeling of) fear toward the law, as it entailed, in its
antique versions, a fearful exposure to the powers of the gods. Terrry Eagleton writes
that not all tragedy displays insurrection against authority; however, we often see
men and women chastised by the law for their illicit desire, a censure with which
admirable economy satisfies our sense of justice, our respect for authority and
our impulse to sadism. But since we also identify with these malcontents, we feel
the bitterness of their longing, a sympathy which morally speaking is pity, and
psychoanalytically speaking is masochism . . . Pity brings us libidinally close to
them, while fear pushes them away in the name of the Law.63

See George Hartley. The Abyss of Representation: Marxism and the postmodern Sublime, 128, 129.
Terry Eagleton. Sweet Violence, 29.
Ibid., 176.
Aesthetics of Sobriety 49

As we have previously pointed out when analyzing narcocorridos as narratives that are
symptomatic of a dispositif of sobriety, the sublime humanist and psychoanalytic
energies that tragedy invests in the relationships between violence, subjective actions,
exemplary destinies, and the law are not the point for those epics. Light is thrown
upon the aesthetic perception of law from a different angle. Experience is modeled
from beyond, or beneath, the emotional territories of guilt and fear, as well as pity and
vicarious suffering, condensed by a realism dedicated to compelling, sometimes abject
scenarios where marginalization and transgression are ingrained in the everyday spaces
of the Western hemisphere. In the affective spectrum of narconarrative realism, the
towering immensity or the implicitnessthe alleged goodness or unavoidabilityof
the law is strangely absent. It would be simplistic though, and misleading, to argue that
epics of sobriety question the law. What they conspicuously put under doubt is the
force of the law64 as sublime authority in the cases of those who were never reached
by its mediating powers.
For the losers in our civilization, a focus that artists tend to relate to the revamping
of local and transnational reciprocities under relentless neoliberalism, the law has
faded into nothingness as far as its civilizing, equally fearful and alluring promise
is concerned. At the same time, in the South the law is imminent on a daily basis,
not infrequently with deadly consequences. It is imagined as an abject proximity
of coercion, for example, as undeserved evil, rather than an edifying presence or a
regulative mediation. Therefore, tragedy has become useless. What those writers
and artists from the South refuse to imagine any longer is a cathartic ego [that]
fantasizes a state of exultant invulnerability, thereby wreaking Olympian vengeance
on the forces which would hound it to death.65 Epics of sobriety do away with the
daydream of a distance that still separates the self-consciously sovereign citizen from
those marginal subjects who conform the underground reserve army, the notorious
dark matter of planetary globalization. We need only to think of the effect of
todays prevailing mediascapes, nurturing us with that sort of wallowing in images
of violence, and a plague of fantasies that guarantees the grinning innocence of a
public,66 which sustain our Western way of life. Not by chance has tragedys legacy
been best assumed by legions of successful media dramatists and producers. In view
of an infinite spectrum of artistic and moral options, whose mirror stage is a culture of
learned blindness, not continuing to indulge in the masochistic pleasures of the death
drive safe in the knowledge that we are unkillable67 is an ethical option of sobriety
but not nihilism. At issue are those fantasies and territories whose poverty disables
a flirtation with the worst of experience through a kind of spyglass fashioned by an
exhuberant and exhausting, market-driven happy life, and by certain standards of
sublime imagination.
Speaking associatively, sobriety implies simplicity. Simplicity may be a matter
of courage, when by incurring in a simple action, or the creation of an event the

See Jacques Derridas reflection on the concept in Force of Law.
Terry Eagleton Sweet Violence, 173.
Slavoj iek. The Plague of Fantasies, 1767.
Terry Eagleton. 173.
50 Narcoepics

usual framework of affairs is left aside. The circumstances are the conventions and
the etiquette, the rules and the self-understood complicationsall that which we drag
along without questioning.68 Aesthetically, in an event of sobriety, the circumstances
are not erased but they lose their imminent power. In their stead surfaces unrefined
surprise, and nonspectacular evidence. Sobriety can also be ec-static, at the moment
at which it reaches beyond common circumstances, and has people move out of their
selves. Hannes Bhringer says, by engaging in a new action, I risk the precariousness
and naivit of the beginning by becoming vulnerable, and perhaps strange.69
More broadly, sobriety will help our interpretation scrutinize narrative spaces that
have been preempted by the affective side of tragic modes in art and understanding,
touching upon the dimensions of experience in its relationship to violence and
marginality, social and individual survival, and ethical empowerment in the shadowy
spaces of global modernity. Poverty, as will be remembered, is a way of sinking to the
bottom while getting to the bottom of things. The literary spectrum that will animate
our readings offers diverse routes for profane illumination, synaesthetically and
epistemologically speaking. This is the moment to open our reflection to the narratives
in question, epics whose vital entrance into humiliating sobriety will accompany us
throughout the present study. One more time, Walter Benjamin has the word: We
will not offer any conclusions, but will just break off. You can, Ladies and Gentlemen,
follow up these observations with the assistance of any good bookshop, but even more
thoroughly without one (Brecht, 370).

Hannes Bhringer. einfach, 16.
Ibid., 14.

Heterogeneous Genealogies:
From the Latin American
Narco-Novel to Narcoepics


There is no straightforward definition of narconarratives. These narratives stand for

an array of interwoven phenomena whose increasing presence across the hemisphere
seems to correspond to the difficulty in providing a general description of them.
Therefore, genealogical inquiry in the narco-novel, a more delimitable realm, will have
the first word. As we can assume, narconarratives refer to a realm of heterogeneous
imaginaries in terms of cultural matter and artistic format, having inspired the work
of writers, composers, and film directors. A solid impulse for talking about both Latin
American and cross-border narco-imagination came from the rise of narcocorridos.
Narcocorridos helped casting a distinct take, different from the ubiquitous interest
that has been extending across the modern literary universe, which started with the
Romantics zest for altered states of consciousness. Many writers and artists, especially
participants in the historical avant garde movements in the developed world, became
attracted to the relationships between narcotics and creativity. Our point is not to
disregard this line of artistic search that has marked the work of intellectuals of the
importance of de Quincey, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Huxley, Burroughs, and others, but
once we start considering narcocorridos from the Hemispheric South, it is necessary
that we recognize that, from the 1970s to the 1990s and beyond, other imaginary and
epistemological approaches have emerged.
The new perspectives are characterized by what could be called an anthropological
awareness, as well as a change in aesthetic perception. When writers and artists of
the late-twentieth-century wave of narco-imagination take up the problematic of
psychoactive substances, their aim is no longer the self-intoxication of the literary or
artistic subject. There is, rather, skepticism about the hypothesis that the fugitive marriage
of the sensitive and reflective mind with narcotic stimuli could provide special spiritual
gifts, or generate effects of liberation. A change has taken place, one which is, on the
one hand, linked to an increasing sense of the ubiquity and normalcy of intoxication
within modernity, rather than to the privileged state that individual (artistic) subjects
may achieve with the help of psychoactives. On the other hand, we are also dealing with
52 Narcoepics

a heightened awareness of crisis, especially in view of a redefinition of imperial identity

through the war on drugs. Under the guise of that war, a new construct of otherness
has been distributed throughout the worldfocused on a dark enemy against which the
ongoing war is waging its Hemispheric and global battle. Symptomatically, contemporary
narconarratives have emerged mainly from the Hemispheric South: in their majority,
they contradict dominant discursive constructions in which intoxication is blamed on
the South as a region of contamination and multiple threats.
This is one of the reasons why we have been arguing in favor of the concept of sobriety.
Sobriety indicates, in an elementary sense, that there is no essential mysterium about the
issue of psychoactive substances. This premise contrasts with a variety of tendencies that
were launched during the twentieth century, during the course of which mythification and
selective prohibition of narcotics loomed large. The issue that may help us better understand
the idea that psychoactive substances have been a steady presence in modern life isand here
I simplify by using one single conceptdissociation. Dissociation implies a certain latency
of transgressive states in everyday life. It means survival through a particular management
of reality and emotion, as we have discussed in the first chapter. Remembering Benjamins
ironic formulationdreams and hashish loosen individuality like a bad toothit can be
assumed that self-forgetting and reality distortion, help buffering the nervous system and
safeguarding psychological intactness.1 In a word, drugsbe they chemical, cultural, or
religiousare highly esteemed catalysts that help the individual function in an oppressively
modernized world. However, this is at best half of the truth.
One might even devise a geopolitics of dissociation, one that worksdifferent
from Huxleys vision in Brave New Worldagainst the homogenization of psychoactive
stimulation. Globalization has not only to do with the unequal distribution of wealth
and poverty but also of those psychopathological stimuli and repressants that serve
the achievements of Western civilization. For example, why is the largest amount
of illicit (and presumably licit) narcotics consumed in the United States? And why,
conversely, is the United States waging an obsessive war on drugs in poorer countries
such as Bolivia, Columbia, and Mexico, with their long tradition of cultivating and
merchandising psychoactive plants, but without becoming major players in the
worlds pharmacological industries? It is here, in the middle of scenarios that speak
of the imbalances and biases of the current hemispheric and global design, that
narconarratives have emerged as fictions that bear a critical and defiant tone, as they
experiment with uncommon forms of cultural and ethical reflexivity.
Intoxication as a central conceptual issue will be viewed through the lens of new
aesthetics of sobriety. When we refer to narconarratives, we are concerned, in the
first place, with a transnational Latin American phenomenon that came to exert, by
the 1990s at latest, a considerable influence on both the ways that literature and film
condense the affective dimensions of contemporary sociocultural experience and how
aesthetic perception is reshaped today. As we will see, at issue is a dynamic area of
self-consciousness in the Hemispheric South, which is accompanied, increasingly, by a
focus on violence in the imagination of the contemporary, together with attitudes that

Robert Schumaker. The Corruption of Reality, 32.
Heterogeneous Genealogies 53

often subvert the universal claim of neoliberalist market capitalism. We are dealing with
sometimes paradoxical junctures of the aesthetic and the ethical as they are shaped by
narratives that bring the crudest sides of todays conflicts to the fore.

First, Mexican encounter with the low-level

drug business: Diario de un narcotraficante
(Angelo Nacaveva)

We will now look at a series of narratives that appear as the precursors or, better said, as
genealogical blueprints for todays narco-novels. When speaking of pioneer novels and
their implicit connections with fictional texts of the present, we will not argue that authors
in the 1990s and later have worked by way of either rejecting or assimilating these earlier
texts. We look rather for genealogical lenses, for example, by being attentive to the tensions
that arise between the latency of certain actions and conflicts, cultural conventions,
nonliterary dialects and desires, on the one hand, and the ways in which writers have
been extracting narrative experiences from these realms, on the other. We are struck, today,
by the kind of immanent familiarity that seems to characterize narconovelists approaches
to aberrant, terrifying life worlds. This was not yet the case with novels such as Diario
de un narcotraficante, by Angelo Nacaveva (Mexico, 1967),2 and Mariposa Blanca by Tito
Gutirrez Vargas (Bolivia, 1986). Noticing these and other differences will allow us to start
carving out a genealogical map.We will observe, for example, how several of the earliest Latin
American narco-novels venture into an underworld of drug trafficking, while relying on
traditionally realist modes of focalization and in the construction of an aesthetic agency.
At the threshold of the 1990s, in turn, the writers of the global wave introduced a realism
whose understanding is more complex.
In 1962/1967, the Sinaloan author Nacaveva published Diario de un narcotraficante
(Diary of a Drug Trafficker), which our title labels the first literary encounter with
the low-level drug business. Nacavevas purpose was to open the wider publics
eyes to a crude world at a time during which, unlike the 1990s, narcotics traffic was
latent but not yet perceived as a most notorious, transnational issue. Sinaloa and its
narcocultural environment,3 as well as its socioeconomic fabric, had not yet moved
to center stage in the Mexican and the global news. Elijah Wald, commenting on the
Diary, writes that Indio Nacaveva infiltrated the opium business in the 1950s, to
write a journalistic treatise about how rural opium growers were enlisted, heroin was
refined in a Culiacn cellar, and it was then hand-carried across the border.4 More than
a text with a journalistic work, we are concerned with this as a testimonial narrative

Gabriela Polit indicates 1962 as the first publication date. See On Reading About Violence, Drug
Dealers and Interpreting a Field of Literary Production Amidst the Din of Gunfire: Culiacn
Sinaloa, 2007, 564. According to the author, the term narcotraficante started to disseminate across
literature after Nacavevas novel.
See Luis Astorga. El siglo de las drogas: Usos, percepciones y personajes, 8792; L. A. Mitologa del
narcotraficante en Mxico, 238; Elijah Wald. Narcocorrido, 459.
Elijah Wald. 51.
54 Narcoepics

with a curious, ethnographic import. On the first page, the author introduces himself
with a warning to the reader. His colloquial voice is directed to amigo lector, a voice
which is half jocose, half conspiratory, and of that kind of jovial paternalism that is
sometimes associated with a provincialist style. However, we do not consider the
metropolitan literary canon and its dualism of worldly versus localist writing as the
appropriate backdrop for our study. Nacavevas warning to the reader friend states:
If you like strong emotions, this work will give them to you; if youre a Puritan,
dont read it. If you truly want to know about the social problems of those youre
circling around, if youre not easily scandalized, you can read it with confidence,
theres nothing bad in it. Its true, theyre breaking the law, but do you think that if
I dont write this book, or if you dont read it, theyll stop doing it?5
Nacaveva, of indigenous origin, is the real name of the person who became involved in
narcotics traffic in order to examine those zones, and it is the same name under which
his book was then published. A smell of brave confession traverses the opening
paragraphs, a tone that we might well see as ironic, but which is, in fact, rather terse.
This confession, in the guise of a diary, will set out to question what the writer deems
puritan blindness regarding the twilight zones of law and order while, at the same time,
trying to place his adventure in a righteous light. Confession is a narrative model with
a long history, one thatwhen it entered the literary traditionwas deemed to help
narrators and poets invent a medium for self-exposure and self-legitimation through
which their incursions in sinful, terrifying, or abject experiences could give a lesson
to the public. With his awkward chivalrous praise of the reader, Nacaveva downplays
the dangers that were implied by his voluntary decision to submit his life to the rules
of the drug business.
If I risked my life in this, if I wasted my time, if my children were on the brink of
becoming orphans, nothing mattered; the only interesting thing in this case is that
I please you, dear reader, as you accompany me in an adventure in the pages of the
present work (Diario, 7).
Nacaveva, whom his friends call el Indio, is an admirer of los grandes hombres. And
he does not care much if these are heroes, scientists, warriors, or even men who have
excelled as gangsters. He applauds their genius and their bravery. But what can I do,
he adds, since I am not of that wood? . . . I am one of those who like to try hard, and
when the struggle becomes tougher, all the better. (10) Cheap fiction? Not necessarily,
but rather the personal dispositions of someone who, not being an artistically schooled
prose writer, has done an incredible job of entering the drug world under cover and
has afterward crafted a detailed, laconic report of his adventures.
The diary begins on April 4, 195 . . . (referring to the end of the decade), and
concludes on September 20 of the following year. It begins when Nacaveva is
in Culiacn, the capital of Sinaloa in northern Mexico, a city that hides, within its
provincial milieu, a business that assimilates even those people who seem to lead a

Angelo Nacaveva. Diario de un narcotraficante, 7.
Heterogeneous Genealogies 55

normal lifethe trafficking in heroic drugs (23). Thanks to Arturo, a lawyer and
qumico, a friend with crucial connections (11), Nacaveva is able to get involved
in activities that start with purchasing la negra (opio crudo) to be converted into
heroin which is then sold at a higher price to those who take it north, and across the
border (19, 20). Arturo becomes Nacavevas master. He is an esteemed representative
of the local elite who engages, now and again, in this kind of business, but is extremely
cautious to avoid the more dangerous part, such as transporting the merchandise
into the United States. The deal between el Indio and Arturo implies absolute loyalty
between both friends, which means following Arturos rules. But Nacaveva wants to
scrutinize the entire milieu including its transnational trajectories, in order to live
the ultimate experience and capture its hidden truth. A seemingly suicidal gesture.
Indeed, the moment that el Indio starts to act independently, crossing the threshold
of their agreement, things are doomed to get out of control. After escaping a couple
of adventures that almost cost him his life, Nacaveva travels to Nogales, purchases
a passport, crosses the border into Tucson, and sells a small amount of heroin to a
Chinese dealer. Encouraged by this experience, he tries to repeat the adventure by
going to Tijuana, and from there to Los Angeles, only to be arrested by the FBI, which
mistakenly takes him to be one of the major players in a Mexican drug selling mafia,
tortures him with electro shocks, and hands him over to the Mexican Polica Judicial. It
is there, in the hands of special police backed by the judicial bureaucracy of northern
states including Baja California and Sonora, that el Indio taps into the space of death.6
Despite his extraordinary physical robustness, he sees himself close to dying from
unending torture, while he is unable to provide the information that is asked of him.
Only his casually being handed over to the police of his home state, Sinaloa, will lead to
the rediscovery of his true identitya local reporter of Culiacns major newspaper
and thus save his life.
The plot of the novelits structural core based on sequence and successionsounds
familiar, resembling other stories dealing with protagonists who become involved in
drug trafficking. However, material actions and their sequential meanings can deliver, at
best, half of the ethnographic truth about a particular milieu. We therefore have to look
beyond the plot and will comment on several revealing scenarios of the story. The first
relates to the torture that Nacaveva, as under-cover reporter, experiences at the hands of
the FBI and the Mexican special police. The second issue connects us with the particular
cultural repertoire that marks the existence of those intermediary actors who are the
bulk of people in which low-level narcotics traffic isliterallyembodied, that is, bodily
sustained in and throughout space. Thirdly and perhaps most strikingly, the novel brings
us in contact with the actual world of peasants who cultivate psychoactive plants deep
in the rural areas of the northern Mexican sierras. This third realm is mostly absent in
mass-media-based depictions of the illicit business, while it has been the main target of
socio-ecological cleansing carried out by the belligerant operations of the war on drugs.
August 20 is the day on which, according to the diary, Nacaveva succeeds in selling
his merchandise, heroin, in Los Angeles, and receives $8,000. Shortly afterward, at a

I am using Michael Taussigs expression. See Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man, 45.
56 Narcoepics

bus terminal from where Nacaveva tries to head back south, he is arrested by two FBI
agents. The narrative I will now report on a continual interrogation accompanied
by electro-shock torture (called el chirris mirris by Mexican agents), including the
application of shocks to his testicles.

How these hurt me, they are so strong that I feel that they are in the pores of
my skin, I feel that they go to the depths of my brain. Can I support another
interrogation? I dont know when it will be, not which day (335).

This inquisition, during which FBI agents enquire about el Indios identity and that of
major players in the organized crime network, touches, now and then, on matters of
nationality and transnational prejudice. Here we become aware of el Indios patriotic
attitude. Drug trafficking from the South to the North suddenly reveals a hidden
nationalistic tone, one in which historical resentments resonate. Says one of the
torturing agents: Most people involved in smuggling are Mexican, they are the ones
who wage war against us the most. Nacaveva answers, I dont care if theyre Chinese.
Were your neighbors. You guys have waged many wars on us, one way or the other
(329). At this moment, when the drug issue is placed in a larger context of geopolitical
subordination, the US security agent resumes the gesture of coercion, Weve already
got you and your friend (ibid.). The next day, when Nacaveva rejects a chauvinistic
remark (Dont talk about my country, 334), the interrogator answers back, Ha, ha,
ha. Are you so patriotic? As much as you are, or more so, because I do have a country,
I said with the intention to offending them. At which point the officer replies by
invoking the trope of humanity, and thus universality from the standpoint of power,
Well, for your country, for the good of everyone, tell us the truth, help us, humanity
is suffering because of the junk that you guys bring in. Nacaveva: Dont bring my
country into this, pig (3345). Why the discourse that condemns the smuggling of
drugs from Mexico into the United States needs a universal claim is a question that we
should continue to think about. The big H, heroin, is a chemical derivate of opium
poppies, and, poppy plants were not native to Mexico, but were introduced from Asia
via imperial or postcolonial routes during the late nineteenth century.
Nacavevas affirmative image of his homeland falls apart the moment that the FBI
hands him over, at nighttime, to the Mexican police who are in charge of illegal drug
smuggling (la Polica Judicial), and take him across the border to Mexicali. (The money
that the FBI took from Nacaveva remains either in their hands or is shared with the
Mexican police who take him back south.) In judicial terms, the situation now becomes
oblique. According to Mexican law, an arrested person has to be consignedwithin
three days of the arrestto the juridical apparatus of the state (see 344, 351), implying
receipt of a status that includes legal rights. However, it turns out that the situation of
exception that allows, for an indefinite period, torture at the edge of life while basic
human rights are not acknowledged, is handled by the very special police that the state
is supposed to oversee (see 34950). Not only is el Indio tortured at the hands of the
State, but when he finally reveals his actual name and identity he is forcedunder
electroshocks and beatingsto sign an invented report, a confession written by the
torturers in which Theyre blaming me for crimes I didnt commit, even murders of
Heterogeneous Genealogies 57

people I dont know (350). This is one of the sections in the testimony where direct
speech in the form of either dialogue or first-person narration punctuates a dark space
of pre-legal bureaucracy. We cite at length.
I sign the act thinking that when Im with the agent from the Public Ministry, Ill
retract everything that it says, at the same time that I accuse these guys of making
me sign it with blows (347).
Nacaveva is now transferred to the Ministerio Pblico Federal, the legal space
of confession, to deliver his declaration. Here he is placed before one of societys
representatives of the law.
Sit down over hereorders a little guy who I suppose to be the lawyer. Listen,
do it further away, he stinks a lot.
I turn around and look at him, such contempt for a poor detained man, such
ill-treatment, without even knowing if he is innocent or guilty. What defense will
I have being in his hands?
I am gong to read your declarations for you to ratify or to rectify, if necessary, I
am told by the person I presume to be the representative of society.
He reads what I have signed, all lies. Now Ill say that it is not true, they cant do
anything to me. When he finishes reading he says, You signed it.
Yes, sir, but I was forced to do it by the circumstances, by blows (3478).
An abyss opens, which is bound to lead to the second, the definitive destruction of a
human as citizen.
What did they hit you with, huh? Youre a little white dove. I wish that everyone who
ends up here would admit that theyre guilty, that they willingly declare their guilt. Lets
see, you, take his confession, he orders the man who had been interrogating me.
The two agents lift me up and take me to the wall.
We are going to shock him, says the one who speaks.
Do whatever you want, but make him ratify the confession. Its very late and I
have to go to a dinner to go to. I cant waste my time with this stinking guy. [. . .]
Is it possible, sir, that youre going to let them torture me in front of you? Is this
the social representation that we have?
He turns and looks at me like he would like to blow me up with his stare. He
doesnt answer me and says, Make him sign his declaration or take him away. I
cant be wasting my time.
Sir, do you believe that this declaration that I signed under torture and that I will
not ratify in front of the judge will be worth anything? I ask.
Heat him up again a little bit, to see if it will stop his talking.
The agents beat me until Im left senseless. When I wake up, Im again in the
dungeon, thrown down in the middle of the room where they have held me for I
dont know how long (3489).
58 Narcoepics

Why could this practice, backed by the law, be describedto paraphrase an idea from
Benjamins essay Critique of Violenceas a form of mythical violence? It performs
a bloody interference into the bodys bare life while imposing a condition of guilt that
subjects the human to being either sacrificed or exposed to retribution.7 Mythical
violence does not need proof of guilt. As we will see later, violence that is based on an
outright mythification of anything related to the traffic of illicit psychoactives is one of
the issues that is examined in narconarratives.
From the scenario described above, which stands at a culminating point of the novel,
we will now take two steps backward, in order to pay attention to what appears as a
particular logistics of bodies in spacea repertoire of identitarian practiceswhich exists
in the regional, Sinaloan world of narcotics trade. In order to pursue his plan, Nacaveva
had to become initiated into the informal profession in the first place. At the beginning,
he had to gain entrance to a group of people that used to meet everyday at the cantina
of Ismaela dealer of dubious nature. The apparent lack of activity of these idlers was
deeply offensive to the self-motivated Nacaveva and his work ethic. Yet, as his partner
Arturo explained, there was no information from the avatars of Culiacns underworld
whatsoever that would get past the ears of the cantina. In the logistical exchange
processes of finding a provider of opio crudo from the Sierra, buying it, and refining
it in Culiacn, having it taken to the North and resold, and so forth, there were only a
few main actors, mostly in the hierarchy of one or another gang. All the other people
involved consisted of extras. What is the role of the extras? They constitute an informal
communication network, populating, like living bugs, urban space everyday. These
people hang out in bars and cafs, stand on corners chatting or reading the newspaper,
do car washing and vending in public places, or take a stroll with their novia, making
sure that the real actors are informed of any changes or news quicker than the official
information process can run. Thus, time in the life of the newly bred narcotraficante
Nacaveva is divided between long periods of doing nothing, getting exposed to the
cantina habits, which he abhors but which he must nevertheless share, and sudden
periods in which heightened mobility and extremely hard work are required in order
to make use of a good constellation without getting trapped. What looks incoherent
and volatile is, at the same time, harshly determined by unwritten codes. El Indio has to
unlearn his modern daily routines, spend many hours in useless conversations with
people in whose exchange of loyalties he becomes a necessary element, and drive around
to make surein a world before cell phonesthat no information gets lost. Although he
and his master Arturo work on their own, they can both benefit from Arturos profession
as a lawyer who has helped out several members of Ismaels gang whose network he can
now use. The pairs purpose is to become more independent, although they cannot avoid
being eventually approached by more powerful gangs whose deals they do not want to
join. This dilemma leads Nacaveva to make the mistakes that get him into trouble.
Throughout the book, the narcocultural aspect of the business comes into sight
as a question of habits and gestures that exert a fundamental impact on the concept
of the everyday. What the Diario de un narcotraficante offers is a glance into the

See Walter Benjamin. Critique of Violence, 249250.
Heterogeneous Genealogies 59

ecology of relationships among people who had sustained, for decades, the lower,
mostly local spheres of the informal trade cycles at a time still predating the neoliberal
hemispheric design. Thus, the book is dedicated to a phenomenology of the drug
business at an end of an era, when large transnational distribution circles and powerful
systems of patronage including corporate agents, together with the acceleration of the
war on drugs were less pervasive than they are today. The habitus that characterizes
the individuals and small local gangs dedicated to buying raw substances from rural
growers, to acting as urban, intermediate dealers, or to engaging in small-scale
chemical extraction of alkaloids such as heroin, in order to resell the refined powder,
which is then moved across the border, is what occupies the major part of the diary.
Those laborers inhabit the margins of a capitalist work culture that is ruled by the
competitive civil labor market. They infringe the law and risk imprisonment or death,
being, as they are, fiercely motivated to intercept the official exchange mechanisms of
their society.
When Nacaveva complains, in his diary, about the duty of regularly having to
get drunk and having to invite the entire crew of Ismaels gang every time he and
Arturo launch a deal, he rejects a kind of flaneurisman informal public practice
in the provincial metropolis of Culiacnwhich seems to be, in his eyes, the apex
of nonproductivity, and thus lacks righteousness. What he cannot get used to is an
aberrant life style that is attractive to many people, especially at the level of precarious
citizenship or outright social marginalization. The men with whom he shares fiestas, as
well as a fateful conspiracy against one disloyal gang member, never consume the drugs
they deal. When they get intoxicated, they do so in an alcohol orgy, as part of a scattered
crowd that is addicted to the myth of a life of free spending, thanks to the visions of
fortune that the world of the narcotics trade never ceases to promise. Nacaveva wants
to be brave, to earn the respect of an ordinary Sinaloan gang, and to write a book on the
secrets of their craft. He does not understand, however, the identity rituals, that is to say,
the abject flaneurism of people whose habits pervade Culiacns urban culture, much
like the frenetic, monotonous rhythm of proletarian masses marked Edgar Allan Poes
perception of Londons cityscapes in the early nineteenth century. This comparison
is, of course, controversial yet it allows us to remember that Benjamins interest in the
flaneur was not the search for a historical species in danger of extinction, but rather
focussed on the trajectories of a literary figure and its crystallizing (the detective story),
or concealing (anecdotical city anthologies) nineteenth century urban experience
in London and Paris as essentially modern experience.8 In the narco-novels under
consideration, we will repeatedly encounter a kind of group flaneurism that indulges
in the desire of unrestrained expenditure for the hell of it, and against which someone
like Nacaveva tries to safeguard his private identity. These coarse flaneurs are people
either at the lower or the uncertain ends of the social spectrum of a peripheral urban
modernity, whose narrative depiction defies any sort of intellectual fascination with
the popular crowd. However, on the part of the novelists, the aim is not to dismiss

Apropos nineteenth century urban experience in London and Paris, see Christine Schmider and
Michael Werner. Das Baudelaire-Buch, 5723.
60 Narcoepics

the crowd as such but to bring it into sharper focus, at the point at which informal,
globalized economies have pushed it into new maladies.
Our reading establishes an asymmetry, as far as a literary-critical tradition is
concerned (including Benjamin himself), which has tried to imagine the presence of
urban (subaltern) masses as a productive shock therapy for the lonely individual.
Nacaveva, the narrator is an antisublime subject par excellence, who couldnolens
volenslead Baudelaires fantasies into an abyss. Let me cite the passage from Les
Foules, in which the practice of flnerie is presented, for the individual self, as an entry
into the universe of a multitudes soul:
He who easily marries the crowd knows feverish pleasures which will be eternally
unavailable to the egotist, locked up like a chest and the lazy person, shut up
like a mollusk. He adopts as his own all professions, all joys and all miseries that
circumstances present to him.9
In Benjamins formulation of 1938 we read about Baudelaire: The deepest fascination
of this spectacle [of marrying the crowd] lay in the fact that as it intoxicated him it did
not blind him to the horrible social reality. He remained conscious of it, though only in
the way in which intoxicated people are still aware of reality.10 Benjamins formulation is
confusing, since it seems to divert the attention from Baudelaires metaphysical spin in his
search to crystallize modern (urban) subjectivity.11 In Nacavevas book, the narrator abhors
intoxication, while it is welcomedin alcohol orgiesby the people, the scattered
crowd of dealers and ordinary gang members. And it should be remembered that this is
not an intoxication caused by the consumption of drugs but by a confluence of spatial,
socioeconomic, and psycho-cultural factors. We might say that the specific intoxication
that characterizes the idlenessthe nonlife styleof the extras in the drug business, as
they populate the Diary of a Drug Trafficker, is a matter of cultural repertoire,12 a daily
scenario of unconsciously lived group identities, yet one that cannot be translated into the
language of the modern subject that is normatively constituted as individual. Pursuing the
reasons for this conceptual dilemma would mean scrutinizing the historical genealogies
of those subjectivities that become timely to the extent that they actively inhabit and
shape informal space. This is a contradiction without which it would be impossible to
understand how the hemispheric drug business has survived against all odds. At issue is
drawing a genealogical contrast with the figure of Baudelaires flaneur (in Benjamin) not
as the sensibility of the artist striving for the woeful unity (modernity) of the intellectual
self, but as, that which escapes the selfs normative framework of identity.
Vis--vis a provincial, urban world of degenerated manners (see Diario, 258,
284), represented by the scattered crowd that helps the business function, there is
a still more invisible social and human realm. It is to this sphere that Nacaveva will

9 Cited in Margaret Cohen. Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of SurrealistRevolution,
Walter Benjamin, The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire, 31.
Note Margaret Cohens critique., 212.
On the notion of repertoire, see Diana Taylor. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural
Memory in the Americas.
Heterogeneous Genealogies 61

become affectively attached. Since the black-market purchase of the raw material for
the chemical processing of la H (heroin) becomes increasingly difficult for el Indio
and Arturo, they figure out a more direct way of obtaining la negra. They venture
into the mountainous backlands of the Sinaloan sierra (arriving at a place about two
hours by car from Guamchil), where opuim is grown by peasants in remote, secret
areasthe kind of illegal agriculture that evolves amidst dramatic rural poverty, the
lack of modern communications, the threat imposed by the police and army units
to destroy any opium field they discover, and corruption networks that benefit local
authorities used to depriving the peasants of their harvests, thus profiting from their
double destitution. Here, poverty in the midst of poverty reveals a savage presence.
It is, on the one hand, ingrained in rural life that cannot actually sustain itself with
local food production (see 171) but is, on the other, ruthlessly exploited when peasant
communities resortdespite constant threatto the cultivation of alternative crops.
Elijah Wald, in his study Narcocorrido, will write about the Sierra Madre region,
the cradle of the Mexican drug trade, where steep slopes and hidden valleys offer
concealment for marijuana and opium fields:
For the folks in the hills, growing marijuana or opium poppies is not a moral issue,
it is an economic necessity. [. . .] Fortunately, Mexicos northern neighbor has
provided an inexhaustible and consistently lucrative market for the local produce.
Unfortunately, from the point of view of the farmers, it has also sponsored
eradication programs that have periodically turned sections of the sierra into war
zones [. . .]. The result has been a view of the narcotrfico that is quite different from
views in the cities north of the border: it is a dangerous business, but the danger is
not of addiction and social decay. It is of dying at the hands of organized gunmen,
whether uniformed officials of the state or henchmen of the drug lordsor both,
as these categories often overlap.13
The appearance of Nacaveva and Arturo in this worldthe Diary reflects the
late-1950sis narrated as one that brings about a strange mutual solidarity. The two
men are not interestedunlike corrupt policemen, local politicians, and violent gangs
of opium dealersin stealing la goma (a sap collected from the opium poppies;
259) from the peasants. Instead, they want to pay a decent price that they consider
a basic recognition of hard work. That price, which reflects a scale based on a
supply-and-demand logic is, of course, far more attractive than the false price forced
upon cultivators by violent gangs, or bare life that they can, at best, retain when being
robbed by the police.
What makes Nacavevas diary different from a romantic vision that would present
two decent drug dealersboth holding civil professions that allow them to make a solid
livingas benefactors of the poor? (see 283) On the one hand, it is the testimonial,
almost notarial style that avoids romantic embroidery. The entire story could appear,
to a certain extent, inverosimile, in that it applies the classical male pairing of master
and apprentice to the world of regional narcotics conflicts in northern Mexico.

Elijah Wald. Narcocorrido, 256.
62 Narcoepics

However, its style that consists of first-person narration mixed with large passages of
dialogue conveys phenomenological insights beneath or beyond a worldly aesthetic.
As Arturo, the master, and Nacaveva, the stubborn yet inexorable apprentice, come
in contact with local communities who live in a pre-electric world of petroleum lamps,
the perspective of the narrator is of curious partiality, resembling, by condensing the
other world into dialogic form, the veracity of a traditional storyteller.
We meet Don Antonio, a village patriarch at 92 years of age, who was a sergeant
during the Mexican Revolution, has no less than 34 children (252), and still oversees
the affairs of a precarious community that takes care of his existence by paying him
tribute. Recounts Nacaveva:
The strangest thing that Ive seen in the twentieth century: as they arrive they greet
him and they kiss his hand. His children call him apa, and the grandchildren
tata. Everyone treats him with great respect. They talk with him and, if they
dont, he asks them about any problems theyre having, and to each he gives
advice. There is no doubt, he is an open book. How to treat sick animals, how
to sow, this, that. What could possibly happen in the huts that this man doesnt
know about? (156)
From the narrators perspective, the most dramatic tone is not applied in the passages
recounting his own torture by the police toward the end of the book, but to the
moment at which Don Antonio becomes mortally ill, a situation that threatens to
shatter the existence of an entire rural community. To resume the narrative gestus: a
descriptive, traditional realism alternates with popular dialogue, for example when
Nacaveva, talking with the patriarch, touches upon a historical figure from the end-
of-nineteenth-century CuliacnHeraclio Bernal, who became the legendary Jess
Malverde, the saint of the narcotraficantes.14 In the same vein, his own heroic ancestors
will be remembered by Don Antonio who keeps musing about the strangeness of the
name Nacaveva.
Listen, don Antonio, do you remember Heraclio Bernal? I ask him.
Of course, I do. I was already getting big at the time of his adventures. His fame
reached even here. They say he robbed the rich to give to the poor. I heard a lot
about him. I had a brother, who decided that he wanted to meet him, but it used
to be hard to get out of here, you had to go by horse for a great distance. Nacaveva,
hmmm, now I remember, was an Indian.They say he was very brave, he killed
many Spaniards, yeah, he killed a lot. He didnt want them to come in here, to
Don Antonio, and during the Revolution, what happened to you? I always ask a
lot of questions.
The extent to which Don Antonios remembering Nacavevas ancestors is a narcissistic
device belonging to the personal mythology of the diary writer or was part of an

See ibid., 4768. See scar Lieras theatre play about Malverde, El jinete de la divina providencia (The
Horseman of Divine Providence).
Heterogeneous Genealogies 63

obtuse social memory in that region cannot be clarified. What is obvious is Nacavevas
liking of a style that is close to (the virtue of) ordinary life itself. It is, more than a
literary expression, the untrammeled gesture of the mana full-fledged machista, by
the wayin his trying to report on what seems, in overall terms, more trivial than
spectacular. If there is a tendency to subsume his first-person narration to third-person
rhetorical situations, or dialogue, this responds to an awareness that the literary self
is secondary to the peripeties of the adventure itself. The narrator, when reporting on
his actions and observations, sounds mostly impersonal, and he may well perceive
his own reflective consciousness (his self ) as foreign to the actual goals of the
diary project. In this perspective there is a narrative identity that resonates the way
it is understood by Ricoeur: it is characterized by the absence, or better said, by the
displacement of the selfperhaps posing a certain stylistic mode of sobriety? Thinking
of the dialogue cited above, we hear that Nacavevas famed indigenous ancestor killed
many Spaniards in order to prevent their entrance in Mexico; words that are strangely
unspecific, untouched by a differentiating historical consciousness, just resting on a
laconism of honor (the respect for los grandes hombres).
Let us look at the kind of conversation that evolves around the issue of drugs, when
Don Antonio has agreed to help the strangers in their endeavor to obtain la goma.
The village elder enquires about their motives:
What do you do with this stuff?

Arturo explained it. That they make powder, that they inject it, and what the
people who use it feel. That it can also be smoked. Laconically, he tells him a story
of where its from, how it was imported into Sinaloa, where you harvest the high
quality, not so much like in Europe, and that they use it in medicine, and that in
Mexico it has little use.
You dont use it yourselves?
No, not us. We just prepare it and send it to our cousins up north who pay us well,
since there are already a lot of users there who got the habit in the war [the Korean
War], they were wounded and doctors prescribed it to relieve their pains, and once
they got the habit they used it for vice.
Well, if it gives some earnings to us who are poor, its good (166).

So far we have a regional, rural perception about what had started to evolve into a
pervasive and rapidly growing transnational business. When the small reserves of la
goma, or la negra, the gummy extract from opium poppies, which had been secretly
kept in the village are sold as well, Don Antonio suggests that Nacaveva and his lawyer
friend get involved in cultivation and harvesting. Under the guidance of one of his
sons, Juan, they enlist people from the pueblo to sow, cultivate, and harvest an area
of two hectars in a well-hidden mountain valley. The sowing is done in December,
almost too late for that year, and the harvestla pizcastarts on April 7, and will
continue until late May. The opium pizca is a particularly laborious one, in which
the bellota de la amapola (259) is collected in small amounts by hand, placed in
cans, later emptied en una tina grande where the milky sap (285) will coagulate into
64 Narcoepics

a thick, and gummy liquid. This labor is usually cheap, but must be carried out with
extreme caution. When time for the harvest arrives, Nacaveva writes about the people
involved, not without a certain astonishment:
There are a lot of people, men children, and stout women, others young, and
almost all of them wearing pants, and on top of these, skirts, with wide hats and
their heads covered with a cloth that they tie under their chins (269).
. . . the women are better at this and earn as much as the men (260).
The most admirable thing about these people is that they work without malice, so
that it seems that they are working at something totally normal. Could it be that
they really dont know they are breaking the law? How is it that they try to ignore
it? (270)
Here it is worth looking to history, in order to put the completely normal work
habitus of the sierra peasants in context. History is already implicit in the previous
citationwhen we read that opium poppies were not native to Mexico. In fact, opium
was introduced into Sinaloa and Sonora in the modern era by Chinese expatriates, as
well as via the growing popularity of opiate use in the United States after 1870.15 The
situation along the United StatesMexican border changed drastically as a result of the
Opium Prohibition Act (1909), the Harrison Narcotic Law (1914), and the Volstead Act
(1919). According to Mara Celia Toro,
what at the beginning of the century constituted legal exports of minimum value
soon became a significant smuggling activity and later turned into a black market
problem after different Mexican administrations outlawed trade and production
of opium and other drugs.16
Wald, after doing extensive fieldwork in Mexicos northern states during the late-1990s,
describes the city of Culiacn as it looked a hundred years ago.
Poppy beds brightened many town squares, and I met people in Culiacn who
could still remember the clusters of pretty red flowers that used to surround the
cathedral. [. . .] Most people, . . ., if they used the drug at all, would have received
it in one of the standard medical preparations, such as laudanum or paregoric. (It
is always worth keeping in mind that the line between good and bad drugs is
a legal, not a chemical, distinction. Often, the drugs that are made illegal are not
the most toxic, but rather the most common and familiar, hence the most available
for overuse or abuse. Heroin, for example, first became internationally popular as
a cough remedy marketed by the Bayer company). [. . .]
Any understanding of Mexican attitudes to the international drug trade must
take this view into account. Mexico is, on the whole, a producing rather than a
consuming nation, and the traffickers in marijuana, opiates, cocaine, and, most
recently, methamphetamines are generally serving not a local demand but users in

See David Courtwright. Forces of Habit, 356; Luis Astorga. Drogas sin fronteras, 127 ff.; L. A. El siglo
de las drogas, 1538.
Mara Celia Toro. Mexicos War on Drugs, 7.
Heterogeneous Genealogies 65

the United States, far and away the worlds largest consumer. Because of this, even
Mexicos moralists and antidrug forces tend to feel a certain resentment toward
Washingtons approach to international narcotics control.17
This echoes the remark that is made by one of the FBI agents, when Nacaveva is held
captive and tortured in Los Angeles (humanity is suffering because of all the crap you
are bringing in). It cannot be denied that such dicta of an affective war have continued
to resonate, especially in recent decades, within much common-sensical knowledge
in the north. The narcotics realm is perhaps one of the most misleadingthat is to say,
misledtopics in contemporary times, where imperial ideological discourse presents
itself as medical and moral. According to Wald,
the suggestion that Mexico is somehow responsible for its northern neigbors drug
crisisregularly made by US politicians and law enforcement officialsis seen as
both absurd and insulting. It is a simple fact that if Mexico stopped serving as a
supplier, that would not end or even significantly change the drug problem in the
United States, whereas if the Yankees stopped buying, most of the Mexican drug
trade would disappear virtually overnight.18
There is no doubt that the factors that contributed to the growth of heroin (and
marijuana) production in Mexico after World War II were decisively global, related,
on the one hand, to changes in the existing international heroin trade routes and, on
the other, to the increase of consumption in the United States.19 Nacavevas novelistic
account is situated in an epoch that lies between La Gran Campaa, Mexicos first
eradication campaign (1948) in which military units destroyed agricultural lands
across an area of 1,500 square kilometers in the Sinaloan sierra (see Toro 1213), and
the so-called Operation Condor, starting during the late 1970s. This second campaign
was conceived and carried out as joint transnational operation, in which the United
States and Mexican governments launched concerted logistic and military actions to
destroy marijuana and poppy fields,20 forcing several thousands of villages of small
farmers to flee the affected region.21 If, for people living in the sierra, opium and
marijuana have become the crops that could help mitigate, temporarily, their hand-
to-mouth subsistence, this happened only after opium became an economic player
in the twentieth-century hemispheric exchange. Therefore, the gomeros, so called
because they originally dealt in the black, gummy form of opium, or goma, became
part of the regional folklore.22 In other words, the little blueish seed that needs at
least three months to be grown and cultivated, in order to produce a cash crop, was

Elijah Wald. Narcocorrido, 50.
Wald continues: Because of this truth, even conservative Mexicans tend to resent the United States
unilateral policy of certifying Latin American countries as compliant with US enforcement efforts.
If the Americans were serious, Mexicans keep repeating, they would deal with their problem at
home rather than pretending that they could solve it by sending troups into the highlands of Mexico
or Colombia (501).
See Mara Celia Toro. Mexicos War on Drugs, 1112.
Ibid., 1718.
See Elijah Wald. Narcocorrido, 51.
66 Narcoepics

alien to Mexico before the twentieth century, in contrast with the Andean-based coca
plant whose millenniary history began on the South American continent perhaps
3,000 years ago.
Nacavevas Diario de un narcotraficante stands out as testimony that merits a
genealogically alert approach. There comes a moment in the diary when Nacaveva tells
us that, after having survived his adventure, he will return to militant journalism. There
has been no hint, whatsoever, that could help us understand his notion of militancy. Or is
there one, in the end? On the one hand, we might feel estranged by the mixture of pathos
and aloofness that traverses the book. But, on the other hand, is not a repressed pathos
part of the untold generational histories that his name represents, a tragic indigenous
past that he calls heroic? And could not this past, which he acknowleges with a few stoic
remarks, also account for his holding on to the absurd adventure of metamorphosing
with what he abhorsthe traffic in heroic drugs? The Diario winds down across 350
pages of basically the same, somewhat clumsy style, rendering account of Nacavevas
hemispheric adventures and still avoiding the introspective depth that has marked the
ominous Western tradition of confession. The person who endeavors to read Nacavevas
diary as an open source will find, beneath its dragging narration, stunning clues for an
archaeology of regional Mexican drug traffic, speaking to the reader from a time when
narrative contributions to this topic were still extremely rare.
Elmer Mendoza is the novelist who has decisively contributed, almost three decades
later, to turn the northern-Mexican, transborder, narrative substance of the Diario into
a blueprint for a branch of contemporary literatureMexican narcofiction. Among
his works, especially the almost unknown, first novel Cada respiro que tomas (1991,
Every Breath You Take) and El amante de Janis Joplin (2001, Jennis Joplins Lover) trace
the picture of life-worlds in which drug traffic eventually translates into a plebeyan
cultural universe. This goes together with the creation of a new cultural persona
that excells by a perplexing relationship between literary hero and real-life actor: the
narcotraficante. As Mendoza spells out in El incierto trabajo de crear un personaje
narco (2008, The Uncertain Work of Creating a Narco Protagonist), the paradox is
this: literary writing mutates into a multilayered ethnography in which the relationship
between non-fiction and poetic creation has become strikingly unfamiliar.23

Demoniac intoxication, construction of guilt, and the predicament

of cynicism: Mariposa Blanca (Tito Gutirrez Vargas)

Ending coca here isnt possible. Coca will never end. Coca has been here forever.
(Berto Bautizado, Bolivian coca union leader)
We will continue feeling out our course of genealogical mapping, guided by the
question of how to expound the emergence of a literary field around the problematic of

See Elmer Mendoza, El incierto trabajo de crear un personaje narco, 47.
Heterogeneous Genealogies 67

narcotics traffic. Bolivia is of central interest in this regard, although it has received less
attention than the more spectacular cases of Columbia and Mexico. Bolivian literature
has been crucial for understanding the Andean indigenous world as it defies eurocentric
or metropolitan epistemologies.24 Nevertheless, scholars attentive to Andean literary
and cultural legacies have rarely recognized that the age-old tradition and ecological
endurance of coca cultivation and use in the Andes was not only a mark of a genuine
sociocultural universe but can also help advance a critique of Western hegemony
further by addressing the issue of intoxication in relationship to the pathological
status of the modern Self. Here we might find one of the reasons for the lack of interest
that Latin Americanist scholars have had in a writer such as Tito Gutirrez Vargas.
This author seems to float in a kind of no-mans land, since neither the legacy of
Maritegui to Arguedas and beyond nor the innovative trends in metropolitan prose
(from postmodern, to post-dictatorial, to post-Macondo/ McOndo) seem to apply to
his writing. And, perhaps, some critics might find that Gutirrez Vargas prose offers
nothing other than a notorious variant of realismo mgico.
What is it that Tito Gutirrez Vargas trilogy on the cocaine trade on the eastern side
of the Andes can convey to critical understanding? At issue are the novels Mariposa
Blanca (White Butterfly), first published in 1986, followed by El Demonio y las Flores
(The Demon and the Flowers, 1999), and Magdalena en el Paraso (Magdalena in
Paradise, 2001). These texts are set in a fictional time frame that refers to the 1980s in
Bolivia, as well as their aftermath. A double phenomenon calls for consideration. The
spatial focus of these narratives tends to be localist while implying that its seemingly
compact regional cosmos is fissured by hemispheric forces. This produces all kinds of
contrasts, and the effects on social existence and communitarian livelihood are, more
often than not, tectonic. It is here that actions and powers related to the narcotics
business can easily display a mythical spin, whereas its transnational driving forces
may remain somewhat invisible at the local level. Prose literature is not safeguarded
againstas some distinctively modern(ist) attitudes have tended to overlookthe
alienating powers of reality. Rather, it constitutes scenarios of imagination from which
rhetorical, affective, and material struggles display their own figures of intensity, as
well as perplexity, and silence.
The territory of the Chapare (located in the heart of Bolivias eastern slopes of the
Andes), into which Gutirrez Vargas prose compels its readers, is part of a much larger
region, an area in which the cultivation and every day use of the coca plant have existed
for at least three thousand years.25 This world appears now shattered, traversed by a
feverish climate which is due not to the tropical environment, but to the magic power of
the mariposa blanca (the white butterfly). The title metaphor aludes to the suffocating
veil that the traffic of coca and, above all, of crude cocaine paste have extended over

See the approach of Elizabeth Monasterios. Uncertain Modernities: Amerindian Epistemologies
and the Reorienting of Culture.
See Joseph Kennedy. Coca Exotica, 15. Due to a minor quality of the coca leaf in comparison with
the northern areas of the Yungas, the Chapare was not the center of traditional coca leaf cultivation.
It mutated into an axis of trade under the impact of the structural adjustments that changed Bolivias
economy during the 1980s.
68 Narcoepics

the Chapare. Before engaging Gutirrez Vargas imaginary directly, we have to trace
the background against which his novels take shape, but which he does not directly
address. First, the neoliberal overhaul of the Bolivian economy during Paz Estenssoros
final presidential term (19859) generated, among other consequences, a huge new
wave of peasant migrants, accompanied by the displacement of tens of thousands of
miners due to factory shut-downs.
Those miners and peasants who descended to the eastern lowland frontier to
grow coca helped supply the internal (mainly indigenous) demand for coca
leaf as well as the rising cocaine economy. In the 1980s, coca paste and cocaine
became the nations most profitable export commodities, their value approaching
or exceeding that of total legal exports. The income and jobs linked to coca and
cocaine cushioned the economys fall after neoliberalisms crippling blows to
production [regarding mining, agriculture, and urban labor; authors emphasis].26
Different from Perus involvement in the global commodity flow of cocaine since the
final decades of the nineteenth century, coca cultivation in Bolivia was confined to
traditional, local and regional commerce until the 1950s and 1960s.27
Second, from the late 1980s onward, we can register the rise of the coca growers
movement under the leadership of the young Evo Morales, which began to resist
imperialist policies that criminalized the cultivation of the millennial plant. In 1988, the
imposition of law 1008,28 strongly supported by the United States, expanded the basis of
forced eradication. This is a literal case of how a national law was enacted in response
to geopolitical prescription from the North. According to Sylvia Rivera Cusicanqui,
Between 1982 and 1988, the legal bases for the war against excess coca were
installed and, starting in the year that Law 1008 was enacted, the infrastructure,
training and militarization of the bodies that would be in charge of implementing
it were extended. In this process, the coca growers victory of 1982 was reversed
and the conditions for the invasion into the heart of the traditional coca-growing
zone by the state and its foreign bosses were created.
The Embassy of the United States and the army of that country, using satellites, were
making calculations and measurements to locate these excess coca plantations . . . 29
The introduction of the war on drugs in Bolivias eco-communitarian region generated
another dramatic scenario in the Western hemisphere, one whose political sensitivity
has continued to grow. Ever since the increased militarization of interdiction efforts
during the 1980s, the movimiento de los cocaleros, displaying an enormous convocatory
capacity, has continued to organize marches and other civic actions. Its structure has
grown to encompass six unions with 40,000 coca farmers in the Chapare. Its aim has

Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson, Revolutionary Horizons, 96.
See Paul Gootenberg. Cocaine in Chains: The Rise and Demise of a Global Commodity, 328, 330,
See Sylvia Rivera Cusicanqui about the specifics of law 1008, and its imposition. Las fronteras de la
coca, 357.
Ibid., 36, 37; see also Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson, 100.
Heterogeneous Genealogies 69

not only been to resist the drug wars violations of human rights and crack down on
small farmers but, above all, to establish a union-controlled, local coca market that will
help conserve the ancient ecological tradition, while amelliorating unemployment and
hunger resulting from enforced neoliberal economic policies.30 As it foregrounds the
eco-cultural centrality of the coca leaf within a millennial history of the Andean region,
the cocalero movement has simultaneously denied any responsibility for increasing
cocaine trafficking31 as this responds to hemispheric northsouth disproportions,
especially the booming demand in the United States and Europe for cocaine from the
late 1970s onward. Evo Morales insists: I am not a drug trafficker. I am a coca grower.
I cultivate coca leaf, which is a natural product. I do not refine (it into) cocaine, and
neither cocaine nor drugs have ever been part of the Andean culture.32 The difference
between the coca leaf and cocaine (its chemical derivate) has been compared, for
example, to that between grapes and wine. According to Sanho Tree, [coca] is almost
impossible to abuse in its natural state.33 However, international media have tended
to ignore this distinction since a United Nations study called the leaf an addictive
substance detrimental to health.34
In sum, the picture of the Chapare region reveals a double dimension of conflict.
Long before Morales was elected president in December 2005, we find the rise of the
cocaleros national-popular movement becoming a socially vibrant, and politically
serious factor while, at the same time, a harsh, neoliberal refashioning of the country
is forcing a growing segment of the rural and semi-urban population to survive by
turning to the tradition of coca farming. It is commonly believed in Bolivia that it is
shortsighted to lay the blame on poor communities that sell the coca leaves they produce
both to union-controlled market places, and to other market segments including drug
traders, while closing the eye before transnational factors, especially the geopolitical
and economic interests of the North in an ongoing war on drugs. Gutirrez Vargas
novelistic cycle is focused on the Chapare, the province wherefollowing the closure
of the large, state-run mining company in the northern part of the country, a crisis
in altiplano farming, and local conditionscoca cultivation and commerce started to
boom, as did the traffic of its low-quality derivatives. This area became, during 1980s
and later, the main target of military coca eradication operations. In Mariposa Blanca,
the author reports in the opening pages, associating the mid-1980s:
In those days you heard marvels about the Chapare. Throughout the country the
economic crisis gave no hope. In hospitals, babies were born who looked more
like dried up fetuses, many of whom were thrown into the estuary of the Rocha
River. Anemic mothers, who did not eat because the little food they had barely
sufficed for their children. Not many years had passed since a time when it was
said that nobody died of hunger in Bolivia. The times were changing so much. In

See Benjamin Dangl. The Price of Fire, 3940.
See Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson. Revolutionary Horizons, 97.
Evo Morales in Alejandro Landes. Cocalero. Documentary. Argentina, 2006.
See Dangl, 38, note 4.
70 Narcoepics

the papers, there were stories of cases in which people died of extreme weakness or
of suicides caused by economic problems. While this was happening everywhere
in the country, they spoke of the Chapare as the Earthly Paradise. In fact, for a
starving person, paradise is wherever there is food in abundance. Even morality
is a luxury of those who have enough, and the extent to which unsatisfied needs
increase, moral scruples decrease.35
There is a moralizing zest that emanates from what could be called narratorial agency, as
it moves between third-person narration and dialogic passages, especially when emitting
omniscient commentary.While the novel assumes a conventional literary form, often using
inflated metaphors nurtured by an imagery of good and evil, purity and contamination, its
prose is rich not only in phenomenal detail but also with internal contradictions between
social commentary and a sermonizing tone. This tone allows us, apart from looking into
particular forms of survival and labor, to address a scenario of afflicted consciousness that
seems to attest to the writers own introspective identity. At the outset of the novelafter
an exposition that conveys images of the town of Chinahuata with its pathological bustle
related to the sale of extracts from the coca leaf (bolas of cocaine paste), we meet the main
figures, Lzaro and Josefina.36 Their relationship faces an existential crisis. Lzaro, 23 years
old, is an unenthusiastic medical student from a poor family, living in one of Cochabambas
rustic neighborhoods, who inherited a modest dwelling after his parents early death.
Josefina, slightly older, is a woman of pleasure who became attached to Lzaro, not because
she loved him, but because she felt like a tired warrior. After having lived turbulent years,
Josefina needed someone dumb to entertain her illusion of a social anchoring. Lzaro was
one of those stupid ones. Chaste until he was 22, with Josefina he had known not only a
woman, but an incomparable female, she who in such a violent manner had elevanted him
beyond paradise (Mariposa, 18). But it happens that the woman becomes pregnantas
she tells Lzaroand a situation of affliction takes its course. Lacking the money to start a
family, and driven by Josefinas zest for leading an attractive life, the couple opts for a change.
Driven by bizarre rumors that in the Chapare there is money everywhere, they decide to try
their luck in Chinahuata, the drug capital (13), a place where even stray dogs get stoned.
They can only afford to travel in an old market truck in order to get from Cochabamba to
the Chapare. But anything that helps Josefina and Lzaro reach the tropical paradise
land of crazy hopes and bad ambitions (8)is the order of the day.
We learn that by the time of their arrival, Chinahuata was not a village any longer but
a compulsive market. Only a decade earlier, in the mid-1970s, it had consisted of a few
wooden houses, a church, and a small shed. The environment was a paradise, in which
indigenous people led a tacit, needy life. The rural populations precarious existence
does not prevent the narrator from evoking the picture of Eden. Every Saturday, several
trucks loaded with products for use and consumption used to arrive, and the indigenous
peasants who descended from the surrounding area sold a few bags of coca leaves in
order to obtain the basic goods in return. Then, they bought a meal that seemed like

Tito Gutirrez Vargas. Mariposa Blanca, 19.
The timeframe refers to the years 1983/1985, as a reference to the Malvinas War indicates (see
Mariposa Blanca, 112).
Heterogeneous Genealogies 71

Christmas dinner to them, drank chicha or beer, only to return to the monte at night,
with their bundles on their backs and without a single centavo. But something had
happened in the meantime, and it came from towns like Santa Cruz (301)the demand
for coca started to increase exponentially. First, there was the period when provincial
administrations emitted tarjetas, cards that authorized the sale of coca leaves. When
the commerce accelerated, drawing in an ever-increasing number of merchants, labor
migrants and itinerants, these cards were no longer issued, unless people could afford
to pay a huge bribe. The spiral of demand kept rising, and the prices for the leaves
continued to increase. Peasants in the Chapare region had produced little coca before
the 1980s; cultivation was traditionally concentrated in the northern Yungas (north of
Santa Cruz) where it served the local needs of the indigenous population. When, at
a certain point, things started to boom in the Chapare, the commerce that grew up
there was fueled by the growing demand of a transnational market and the drive among
displaced people to follow the myth of the pressing global business.
Several factors knocked down traditional life in Chinahuata during the mid-1980s.
The narcotraficantes were the ones who introduced new money into the place. They
came to buy unrefined cocaine paste, in popular parlance called la merca (38), or bolas
de droga (bollo, 8), which would then be transported to other places like Colombia,
where laboratories were said to turn it into pure cocaine, which would then go on
its way north. To attract the narcotraficantes several conditions had to be met.
Production and commerce were arranged at the local level, so that the coca could first
be purchased by the fabricantes who produced the merca and then sold it to the
comerciantes who, in turn, served as the providers for the major traficantes. In order
to become a comerciante, one needed a tarjeta, an authorization card. The sale of the
cards benefitted the police and local authorities. When things took off, and the cards
turned into hot commodities, alliances between those who had the connections to
get an authorization and those who had the money emerged. The result was informal
societies putting together players from both the economic and the judicial sides
(see 31). At the very lowest end of the game, los cocalerosthe cultivators of the
leafcould finally take an astonished look past the edge of deprivation. Selling their
harvest several times a year suddenly allowed them to take their entire families to the
Chinahuata restaurants, where they tried unknown meals, indulged in bottled beer,
and bought lemonade for their children. While they ate what they had ordered they
spilled out the money on the table and began to count (32).
A popular practice for making some quick money, but without actually climbing
the social ladder, was to become a matn, literally, a killer, also called coca molino
(coca miller). Since young Lzaro was neither adventurous nor unscrupulous, he
became involved in this peculiar occupation. The task of the matones was to pisar
la cocato tread on the coca leaves. This activity, the first step in the informal
process of producing cocaine paste, had to be carried out in secluded, forested places,
scenarios resembling a very odd form of archaic treadmill in the late twentieth century.
These places are called campamentos (jungle camps), or fbricas, a rustic form of
laboratory, and their main equipment consists of large pozos (pits) in which the
coca leaves are put, and treated. The procedure is as follows:
72 Narcoepics

When making cocaine, a group of men (the number of matones is equal to that of
the packs of leaf in the pit, each pack weighs fifty pounds) walks on the coca, in a
mixture of water and acid, for the time of at least two hours (the final time depends
on the speed with which the leaves break down), the first time. Then the resulting
mush is wrung out and the liquid is thrown into the lime pit. Water and acid is
added to the trodden coca leaves and the process is repeated, a third, fourth or
even a fifth time (89).
The result, after a final chemical processing in which lime is added and stirred into the
coca mash, is the cocaine pastela pilcha (83)that is sold in the form of bollos
weighing approximately 100 grams each, or of the larger papayas, both awaiting
further refinement in more sophisticated laboratories abroad (in Colombia, for
example). The process of making coca paste, a rudimentary form of cocaine, in jungle
camps is sometimes called la pichicata (85, 86). It is this rural, southern picture
of dispersed sites of fabrication of the raw material for cocaine, which is seldom
considered by analysts of neoliberal deregulation of human labor. In Mariposa Blanca
we read that, in most cases, the fabricantes do not have considerable capital. Theirs
is a discontinuous, and frenzied style of getting the work done. First, they purchase
the leaf and the basic chemicals, then they contract the treaders (matones, or patas
verdes), all of which is then transported to the illegal camp by truck. When the leafs
are treated for one night, or several nights and the paste is ready, the patron pays the
coca molinos (matones) and releases them. After he has sold the bollos or papayas
on the black market, the fabricante always throws a partya good drink in which
you waste a good part of the sudden riches (49). In fact, there is nothing to be
celebrated during this basic ritual: What they are looking for is a way to calm . . . the
tension that builds up during the hours of work at the site, in which the dangers lie
in ambush like shadows of fear (50). After two or three days, the same procedure is
played out againpurchase of the leaf and chemicals, hiring the matones, a truck, and
up and into the mountain hideouts.
These clandestine coca paste laboratories can function in environments where
large amounts of fluctuating, unskilled labor are availableunder conditions of
dramatic structural crisis as it has affected Latin American economies during these
past decades. Gutirrez Vargas dedicates more than one-third of his novel to Lzaros
experience as a matn in a jungle camp whose chief (el patrn) is called el Profe. The
actual intensity of the novel emerges from the relationship that unfolds between the
young Lzaro and the Prof, revealing the actual dimension of this peculiar text, as it
is linked to a confessional and expiatory narrative journey. The weakness of Mariposa
Blanca is found in a dissonance between pointed reports about the local climate related
to the informal business, together with critical social commentary on the one hand,
and an exhorbitant rhetoric about guilt and evil, on the other. However, this dissonance
will allow us to speak to a more general problem of modern culture in its relationship
to intoxication.
Before addressing the relationship that develops between Lzaro and the Prof, let us
refer to some of the reports that we receive from the narrator, when he is not indulging
in sermonizing speech. There is, for example, a peculiar notion of delinquency among
Heterogeneous Genealogies 73

ordinary people. Several years before the business started to develop, poverty was the
general state of affairs in the Chapare, and it was most telling in the physical appearance
of the children: anemic, malnourished, eaten up by parasites and illnesses . . . (62).
Today, throughout these mountains that are real hotbeds of matones, bolleros, and
intermediaries, no one feels the weight of consciousness and no one considers
himself criminal. The spirit that reigns in a jungle laboratory is the same as in a bakery,
although the tension and the expectations are higher: Will the process generate a good
product and in sufficient quantities? (63) What will be the outcome at the time of the
sale? Will there be buyers? Or will they be intercepted by the forces of repression?
The results can range from a straightforward failure, the loss of money, of liberty, and
even of life itself to great success. Now, reference to the local coca molinos and the
local patrons of the camps means, as well, that the actual people who pull the strings
of the business are enjoying their lives elsewhere. You would find them in the cities,
at the parties of patronage with the best of society, arm in arm with honorables and
excellencies. Speaking horrors about the drug trade, these days, is an easy and cheap
way to gain notoriety, for unworthy ends (63). While the authorities like to imprison
the matonesthe people working as treadersthe padrinos of the drug business
serve each other at secluded party tables. Therefore, the patas verdes do not have a
consciousness problem, they view themselves as peones and victims since, in the
end, it is themnot the traders with moneywho are put in prison (see 133).
How about the role of the armed forces? The army has never combatted drug
traffic (86). What is refered to, throughout the novel, as a constantly pending threat
is calledin an allusion to their uniformslos leopardos, a special unit dedicated
to enforcing the rules for the drug trade: [The leopards] didnt try to destroy the
production and sale of cocaine, they simply conditioned it (86). When they attack
the camps, it is because the bills are not paid up (137). The gallery of functionaries
that operate in the world of the drug trade consists of the fabricantes, bolleros,
compradores, distribuidores, and the encubridores and salvadores. The last two
roles are filled by those who arrange for the big fish who are caught to gain their
freedom in the blink of an eye (139). Then there are los atracadores (224) and los
volteadores (145, 207, 226), who are not considered part of the generally tolerated
game but seen as its cancerous offshoot. The atracadores are violent gangs who
destroy, kill, and intercept the process basically at the lower levels of the business, for
example, attacking and burning the camps to steal the merca and sell it themselves.
There are always reports of violent abuses of the population, especially of women, in
which the dividing line between atracadores and leopardos appears blurred. In
other cases, the leopardos control the roads and intercept cars to confiscate either
la pilcha (cocaine paste), or the money from its sale, thus acting as volteadores. It is
good business and a relatively easy one for those who attack and intercept, according to
the belief that is remembered in Mariposa Blancas narratorial voice.
A commentary about the hemispheric predicament into which the coca plant
has been pushed is embedded in the thinking of Lzaro, the protagonist. As we have
remarked before, this is one technique for making the narrators concerns immanent to
the text. In earlier times, coca was a benign leaf, Lzaro thought, and all the workers
74 Narcoepics

in the mines, the peasants, and the other laboring people understood it that way. In the
midst of back-breaking labor, and due to the lack of sufficient food, they filled their
cheeks with the dry leaf that, like a miracle, dissipated hunger and fatigue. Back then,
we would have put this plant on an altar, when today we can only look at it under the
guise of perdition . . . No one has ever been seen dying for having chewed coca, or even
getting sick (153). Continues Lzaro: We did not invent cocaine! Today they see us
as guilty of destroying those who are initiated by the delinquents up there, in those
countries [of the Global North] who have the impudence of pointing their fingers at us
(ibid.). As if this were not enough, they have built up gigantic forces of repression in
order to subjugate fragile countries without respecting either their laws or their honor.
All this amounts to a low comedy of shame and humiliation, rather than a true fight
against the evil. In the consumer countries, as we read, even delinquents are backed
by the law, but here the law does not even protect the inocent: It is thus that we have
to suffer the beating, and they are on the side of impunity (1534). The picture of
the Bolivian state and its rulers which emanantes from this evaluation of the 1980s is
utterly dreary.

Here everything was a theater of appearances that those shameless politicians

mounted to distract society and to lead many people to the temptation of bribery
and protected delinquency. Military men, judges, police, paramilitaries, ministers.
Who should judge whom, now? The same thing will happen in politics. With our
governments of calamity, which take on power to enforce those laws that they are
tired of walking all over and infringing. So, in the future, we will be judged by
those bad guys who defend themselves with law in order to be criminals. And they
have also made us get used to this! (154)

The summing up regarding the global drug problem is equally sharp: With the
known means of repression, narcotraffic will never be stopped . . . Only if there is not
a consumer will the production end (155).
Mariposa Blanca reveals its controversial meaning at the moment at which we
recognize the intimate dilemma that the matter of coca, on its way to becoming
cocaine, presents to the author. Certain inconsistencies could hardly be explained, if it
were not for Gutirrez Vargas own desire to free himself, at least temporarily, from the
weight of his topic, turning the literary enterprise into a site for projecting his own fear
outward, that is, for engraving it in the text. During the 1980s, it was fairly uncommon
for a Bolivian novelist to face the peripeties, the sudden excesses, and the local imagery
of the drug trade head on. Gutirrez Vargas opted for a hybrid style in which we find,
on the one hand, a naturalistic depiction presenting the impact of a particular
environment on human behavior and relationsthe prevalance over individual
characters of almost uncontrollable social and natural forces, condensed in the feverish,
euphoric, and violent energy that has cast its grip over Chinahuata, Eterazama, and
other zones of the Chapare. On the other, the narratorial voice, with its sudden drive to
generalistic opinion derived from Christian belief, pretends omniscience but sounds
intrusive when trying to hide unmistakable fear behind moralistic assumptions. This
reads presumptously when young Lzaro, the presumable heir to his namesake in the
Heterogeneous Genealogies 75

New Testament, says about the coca molinos (the treaders) in the jungle laboratory
whose group he has just joined: What happened? How can there possibly be so much
confusion in these souls? How could they lose so completely the divine capacity to
clearly distinguish the boundaries between good and evil? (152)
How are we to understand the background of Lzaros own inner righteousness,
the one he considers he is owing to society? Shortly after beginning to work as a
coca molino in this place forgotten by God (137) he declares: I am going to pay
society back for the bit of garbage that I threw on it (1512). Thus he pretends to
continue, against all odds, on his way to moral perfectibility (174). In other words,
Lzaro is never in doubt about what is right and wrong when he succumbs to sinful
behaviorand there is not one single case in which he does not promise himself
to atone for it. One way of unearthing the protagonists actual dilemma is to ask
for his relationship with the phemonenon (and the fantasma) of intoxication. His
exhortations are directed against el veneno (the poison, 103) that is produced (with
his own short participation) in Bolivias laboratories to enter the chemical war, an
imprecise term that is supposed to circumscribe the killing of people through drugs.
Psychoactive artifacts are referred to, in rather unspecific terms, as diabolic substances
that poisoned, as well, the attitudes of the local population in the Chapare tropics
after they were seduced by easy money making, and especially the attitudes of those
whosuddenly escaping from a long, colonial heritage of deprivation and social
marginalizationstarted indulging in ugly, excessive, and animalistic behavior.
When Lzaro derogatively comments on el campesino feo (the ugly peasant, 180),
he implies indigenous laborers, both from the rural fields and from the mines. Racist
remarks (2023) surface several times throughout the novel, such as: I think that
theres nothing in the world more ridiculous than one of our moneyed campesinos,
and the bars in Chinahuata were full of them . . . (38; see 88). Although the narrator
contends that many of the folks in the area who now dance to foreign rhythms and
misbehave while getting drunk and intoxicated by marijuana, unable to distinguish
between excess and delinquency, were previously the victims of hunger, misery, and
parasites, it seems that he favors the timeless image of those who sow maize and
plant potatoes in the mountains and altiplanosthe picture of exhausted faces without
hope, like badly fired clay statues (164). Massive local involvement of indigenous
families in the drug traffic meant uprooting and sometimes monstrous deviations,
but it also meant that Bolivias ethnic lower class started to indulge in things that they
were not supposed to have access to.
The main ethical question underlying Gutirrez Vargas imaginary is related to
the perception and attribution of guilt. The mechanism for locating the site of guilt
in the narratorial consciousness has to start by uncovering the web of projections
that the novel has woven. At the beginning, when alerted to Chinahuatas feverish
climate where people are trying to exchange poverty for money making, we read:
Deep inside those hearts there was a feeling of guilt (15). Now, this does not seem
to be the case at all, since the novel illustratesthe feeling of guilt instead lies deep
inside the individual literary consciousness. The young man who speaks to us as the
afflicted hero of Mariposa Blanca is profoundly fascinated by intoxication, and while
76 Narcoepics

following a need to project his desire outward and onto others, he believes that rational
detachment can make him, at last, the observer of a fallen world, not its victim. It is
that very attitude that Gutirrez Vargas inscribes in his exploratory novel: subjectivity
is constructed in the passage from experience to confession to remediation, so that the
observing and atoning subject can eventually come out first. Lzaros is the daydream
of numerous ordinary citizens to live in accordance with a world of higher principles
in the absence of good authorities; his are the fears of someone who cannot endure
existence without containment (vs. the powers of evil and hell) but who recognizes that
uncontained behaviors and pleasures can be paradise. Evoking literary paradigms,
we might think of a subject that has not come to terms with the transition from
romanticism to existentialism. For the introverted Lzaro, the notion of love had begun
with writing poems to girls he adored, before reality taught him how stupid this was. In
other words, beneath his overall pessimism, severed by his destiny as an orphan from
a provincial, poor middle class background, there lingers a heightened fantasy with its
glow of happiness versus a dreadful, nauseating life. The incommensurable experience
arises when Lzaro meets the persona substitute for his father whom he had never
metwho has stepped even beyond existentialism. This means that this manthe
Profhas not only accepted existentialisms idea of finitude but has actively involved
himself in a negative territory of existence. This happened when he realized that
upholding the positive values of life meant complying with hypocrisy and cynicism.
The erosion of existentialism does not occur in a vacuum of philosophical abstraction
but rather is bound up with the socio-historical circumstances that shape Bolivian
reality. Asking in an associative manner while we think of other novels and films from
the Latin American segment of the Global South, what does it mean for a politically
minded intellectual to come to terms with modernity, not as a lasting promise, but as
the practical degeneration of its guiding principles?
El Profe is the fabricante who runs the primitive laboratory in which Lzaro has
started working as coca molino. He is a man of insignificant stature and with long
hair, somewhat slim and ruddy, and he does not display the charismatic appearance of
Martnel Chivoin Gonzalo Irritus film Amores Perros, nor does he resemble the
stranded philosophy professor Amalfitano in Roberto Bolaos novel 2666. However,
these heroes belong to the same gallery of declassified academic intellectuals,
speaking to us from territories where the most squalid of existential conditions, or the
immorality of certain good standards have caused people to lose their status of highly
educated, cosmopolitan citizens. Mine is a long story, says el Profe, which cannot be
told. I am like a suicidal person who doesnt agree with what is going to happen, but
who pulls the trigger (111). A hemispheric intertextual link appears when we note
that the man likes the border corridos of Los Tigres del Norte. In fact, he likes to sing
variations of the famous narcocorrido La Banda del Carro Colorado: Dicen que venan
de Villa, en un carro colorado, as lo dijo el sopln, que los haba denunciado . . . (129).
El Profe is reserved about his own past, but eventually starts to trust the young man
who, alas, should be completing his study of medicine instead of working in an illegal
laboratory. We learn that el Profe had been imprisoned as a student leader during a
military coup. And that he was tortured by state forces then, and on other occasions,
Heterogeneous Genealogies 77

which was how he lost his innocence regarding justice: I understood how pathetic
law is in the hands of man: its not above all, but rather in the service of some (142,
see also144). At a determinant moment, presumably when he was in desperate need
of help, his family and friends turned their backs on him (the dagger of ingratitude is
the one that penetrates most deeply in the soul, 111). When asked for his real name, el
Profe responds that he cannot remember.
. . . there was a time when I had a family, friends, a name; but when people I loved
pushed me down the path to loneliness, I left my name hanging next to that sign
that Dante saw at the entrance to hell. Since then they call me el Profe, and they
dont think about me, but about those who pursue me. My only hope: a short life;
my only desire: a quick death (171).
Lzaros return from the jungle to Chinahuata to meet up with Josefina, whom he
had left there, and now carrying some little earnings from his work as coca molino
fails sadly. He is told that, while he was gone, his woman has become attached to a
man who has 15 hectares of coca fields, a nice car, a house, and other things. While
wandering along a river bank, he remembers Josefinas words: a man without faith is
like a dead warrior before the fight begins (160). This is his destinyto fight without
faithhe thinks, and takes himself into a cantina to get drunk, only to be brutally
beaten up and have his earnings stolen. Though in terrible shape, he manages to return
to the Prof s camp where he is received with open arms. It is there that he starts gaining
a few insights into narcotics and intoxication.
Lzaro remembers having read a specialists article affirming that chutear
smoking a marijuana jointcauses irreversible lesions to the brain (135). Now he
is told by el Profe that, to some people, it does not cause any harm at all, while it
does affect others, but to widely varying degrees. He also learns that cocaine is not
marijuana, and that chewing coca can even help people resist addiction (see 189191).
The young mans fear of intoxication has, at its root, his relationship with women. In
the presence of his mother who died when he was perhaps 13 years old, he was an
autistic boy. Much later, Josefina, the ex-bar girl, led his body and fantasies, for the first
time, into the experience of utmost ecstasy. After drinking from the glass of unfettered
desire, he is unable to consider this experience as a profane act, overwhelmed as he is
by its boundless tremor, that causes fear and dependence at the same time. Josefina, for
her part, always perceived the young man as ugly and somewhat limited, and did not
hesitate to invent a lie about her pregnancy to make him go with her to the Chapare.
When Lzaro equates alcohol- and marijuana-related forms of intoxication with
the tectonic power of sexual attraction and intercourse, he is almost correct from a
neurophysiological viewpoint of arousal, which would perhaps include the activation
of similar neurotransmitters in the human brain. The problem lies in Christian
morality and its affective aftermath as it has influenced even late-modern assumptions
of normality and abnormal behavior. Lzaro cannot cognitively confront what he sees
and experiences as ecstasy in the tropical Bolivian hustle of low-level drug trade.
From there to the tropes in the novel which link la tierra de la droga to images of evil
and hell is only a single step. Ours is not a Freudian interpretation, since religiosity
78 Narcoepics

as self-deception is not a matter of (childhood) neurosis nor Oedipal relationships.

Lzaros self-deception and moralizing escape appear as a therapeutic self-defense
against reality. While, theoretically speaking, the experience of intoxication could find
a way into cognition, for him there is only the (desired) atonement for sin and guilt.
Ironically, contact with the drug trade reawakens his plans to finish his university
medical studies. But sobriety, for Lzaro, could only be light years away from
intoxication, a distance that he cannot bridge and which therefore has transcendent
meaning. Its ordinary name is morality. What he does not perceiveand the novelist
does not seem to, eitheris that, by being an affective construction, morals can also
function as a colonizing factor of consciousness. Besides, as numerous examples have
shown, modern medicine is not safeguarded against this predicament.
If a narconovel such as Mariposa Blanca can contributeapart from its literary
deliberation to timely ethical reflection, we might have to reverse the lesson that
Lzaro tries to learn when el Profe, the manufacturer of coca paste, is finally killed by
the military. Keeping in mind the authors need to construct a narrative of atonement,
it does not come as a surprise that Lzaro succeeds in escaping with the big money that
el Profe threw to him before being massacred by the armed forces. Lzaro now does
what el Profe has predicted to him: youll get out of this well, I see in you a person
who knows how to think and control himself (94). Indeed, he does know how to
control himself, even during his final meeting with the fallen Josefina to whom the
now-matured young man will not again fall prey. Asked by Josefina what he is going to
do from now on, Lzaro responds:
I have $100,000 in this briefcase, the product of delinquency and death, and I
think they can be put in the service of redemption and life. Im studying medicine,
and with this money Ill be able to help certain dogs who are howling in anguish,
overwhelming the serene nights of our town (280).
What the image of certain dogs implies is a vision of beings who have become
dehumanized, converted into lamentable monsters by excessive drug use. However,
this dog who was once a man, who Lzaro, in his first encounter with the underworld,
saw roaming deliriously around the jungle camp, contradicts the social grounding of
much of what is professed in the novel. The dog functions as one of the poetic devices
that helps by adding shades of monstruosity to the local social cosmos. And it provides
the protagonist with a moral passageway back to normal society.
Problematizing the lesson that underlies the way Lzaros story is fashioned means
concluding our reading not with the young protagonist, but with the scapegoat figure
of el Profe. This man might actually have traveled from the capital of La Paz all the way
down to the Chapare after his own ideas about life and society collapsed in personal
tragedy. Gutirrez Vargas narrative implies that Lzaros substitute fatherbeing a
delinquenthas to die in order for the young man to fulfill his good tasks in life.37
The confessional return narrative (return from temporary sin into self-restauration and
atonement) relies on a modern recit: rational containment bridges both the sanity of

Was what God wanted to teach him missing? says Lzaro when aluding to el Profes death (Mariposa
Blanca, 269).
Heterogeneous Genealogies 79

the individual Self and the order of society. In other words, we are also talking about
the conditions of possibility for the supposedly inalienable right of citizenship. But
remembering the overall socioeconomic situation in Bolivia, described earlier, what then
is the destiny of a multitude that is exposed to fragile, or nonexistent citizenship? Is Lzaro
indeed someone who could credibly represent the path to goodness for people like him in
a country like Bolivia and perhaps in other countries? Or is he a figure who embodies only
a combination of narrative intelligence and repression, which is projected upon him by
the more experienced subject of the author? And why is the other central figure, el Profe,
the person more likely to realize an individual rational project doomed to fail?
When thinking about the relationship between representation and repression,
we should remember that Nietzsche once wrote: Cynicism is the only form by which
ordinary [gemeine] souls can come close to righteousness [Redlichkeit].38 Is Lzaros
identity bound to an unconscious form of cynicism? We leave this pending and turn to
another question. When the novel establishes private tragedy as the condition that marked
the path of the fallen intellectual, el Profe, does it mean that this is a way of bypassing
the historical coordinates of the mans political activities? Could it be that the 1980s were
in fact a time of deep nihilism, regardless of the forms and contents of the alternative
political engagements we might think of? It is not by chance that Mariposa Blanca can be
read as an open disagreement between an explorative social phenomenalism that focuses
on local-transnational constellations of the narcotics trade and the fictional recuperation
of Christian commandments. Historical memory could tell us that Christian values are
especially important for the stability of life worlds in which citizenship, understood as a
complex, rights-bearing status of the individual, is selective and hierarchic, rather than
ubiquitous, in its modern metropolitan form. The lack of specificity regarding el Profes
past does not have to prevent us from recognizing the ethical posture of this figure. Among
his comments about the ordinary people involved in the business we find expressions such
as: all those who have engaged in the simple commerce of bollos and papayas (reduced
quantities of cocaine paste, with just small gains) suddenly felt that they were respected,
being citizens in this demential world. (111) Just like the country produces exaltations of
patriotism, this world generates its own feelings of belonging, and identity, . . . passions and
conditions that suddenly confer [the sensation of] citizenship (ibid.) And he states: You
may think that we, the delinquents of the drug trade, are demons with bloodthirsty eyes
and guns, unable to feel like human beings do. But we are equal to any other Christian,
neither better nor worse than the others (140). And, believe it or not, he continues, there
are not a few who, having made some money here, return to their urban lives as teachers
or students, nurses, or even housewives.
I believe that we, the delinquents, are by no means worse than those judges who
condemn or liberate, depending on who offers the greater or lesser amount of slush
money . . . ; those businessmen who get rich in a few years, while the children of
their workers die of anemia; or those shameless politicians who pocket the money
of the people, and who, not content with this, jail, murder, or pursue the innocent
. . . (141).

Cited in Karl Jaspers. Nietzsche, 405.
80 Narcoepics

Why, one might ask, is el Profe unable to return to the normal world? There could
be several answers, which takes us to an interesting, less conventionally determined
space of the novel. That which is missing at the level of an open aesthetic is provided
in terms of ethical potential, and the question arises if this potential is outdated, or if it
can in any way stand as an antidote to capitalist realism.39 El Profe is an old-fashioned
subject: he has continued to be a man of principles in a cynical official world. He is not
the kind of fictional person who, like Fernando Vallejos Grammarian in La Virgen de
los Sicarios, brilliantly plays a demagogical game to his own pleasure. El Profe learned,
while following a path of political commitment that left him, at a certain moment,
in circumstances of bare life, facing the sheer need to survive, that the narcotics
underworld of the Chapare was not the bosom of evil. Nor do the injustices that affect
ordinary peoples existences originate there.
Let us briefly draw on a particular concept of corruption whose meaning is not
political or economic, but psychocultural and socio-anthropological. Corruption of
reality (John F. Schumaker) can simply mean a regulation of reality by the forces of
religion or ideology turned into emotion, or by other factors that keep intoxication
at that constant level at which a majority of people accepts a constructed normalcy
as objective reality. As the novel shows, guilt and Christian morality provide crucial,
operative valuesin fact, a psycho-practical handbookby which young Lzaro
succeeds in both transgressing the norm and returning to it. In other words, the
young man is a perfect accomplice in the subtle exchange process between what is
and what is make believe, which is also the process of transaction, back and forth,
from the open secrets of society to its hidden untruths. El Profe, for his part, has
experienced first hand how the globally charged drug trade euphoria, in an area that
had been nothing other than rurally isolated and deprived for centuries, has uprooted
and ennervated poor peoples reality. This is a corruption of reality to the extent
that the actual ecstasis of the social body in the underdeveloped region, is based
on illusions of wealth and on physical arousal through excesses of entertainment,
rather than on the transformation of existential and political conditions. A surrogate
happiness, so to speak, yet connected to a collective drive to overcome what has been
the innate, historically ingrained fatalism of the region. Lzaro, in turn, liked to confuse
those levels of intoxication, while conflating surface eruptions of hilariousness and
violence into a mythical notion of evil at whose core he placed the words poison
and drugs. However, as el Profe knows, there is a larger, and more influential realm
of corrupted realitythe psychopathological, regulatory mechanisms that allow
those in power to remain in power. Interiorized feelings of guilt and fear are its steady,
proven intoxicants, and they can generate both social and individual addiction, while
projecting evil outward and onto the devilish cocaine. Paradoxically, the Prof s choice,
if we can speak at all of a choice, was to lead an almost sober existence. He is not
overwhelmed by the local excesses in Chinahuata and, more vehemently, rejects the
condition of guilt (and fear) or Christian hypocrisy that the greater society demands
of people who still aspire a normal life. At issue is what John Schumaker has called

I am paraphrasing from Mark Fishers Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? See 13.
Heterogeneous Genealogies 81

the paranormal self-deceptionsthe vital lies that serve as indispensable defenses

against a human condition for which there is no other remedy.40 In sum, el Profes
nihilism originates from his insight that neither form of surrogate happiness provides
a solution to the problems of a world that he had once endeavored to change. Alluding
to the subterranean links between both realms of a false, yet all to real, happiness
can help foster our understanding of globalization, in a way that makes us think still
further about an ethics of sobriety. At stake are critical perceptions that reach beyond
the regional universe of our novel and into the pathological situations of the modern
Western Self, which are unevenly distributed between north and south. Under the
constellations laid out in a controversial book called Mariposa Blanca, el Profes option
for sobriety leads to his violent assassination. There is another way of phrasing his
tragedy. It has to do with the distance that lies between Gutirrez Vargas novel and the
affirmative cultural, and socio-physiological imaginary of the Cocaleros movement, as
it has become, under Evo Morales, the cornerstone of a new political project in the
The novels that follow Mariposa Blanca, conforming Gutirrez Vargas
narconarrative trilogy bear comparable artistic and moral postures. An incursion in
the Bolivian informalizationunder global economic impactof the long-standing
tradition of coca cultivation and local consumption is traversed by elements of
mythic language and hyperbolic style that the author views naturally connected with
the drug world, and its alienating effects. El demonio y las flores (1999, The Demon
and the Flowers) narrates a drug-war scenario of the 1980s and 90s. Don Ramn,
the Gran Ministro, obtains the countrys presidency thanks to his entanglements
with an influential coca distributor. After moving to the top of the government he
begins to brutally repress the narcotics business, owing to his sudden dependence
on U.S.-prescriptions and international financial flows. From there, a narration of
betrayal and excessive violence unfolds that leads to the invasion of Campo de Nieve,
an area inside the Cochabamba jungles, and a sacred space for the Sipoye aborigines.
The military raid ends in a disaster associating the topos of mythic violence as
threatening, bloody, bringing at once guilt and retribution41, overlaid by the
premonitory myths of indigenous culture.
The third novel, Magdalena en el paraso (2001), resembles a fictive scenario of
magical realism (an anti-paradise) in which the corrupting effects of both the
drug trade and its eradication vibrate along bestial excesses, inertia, and buried
memories. If Mariposa Blanca was dedicated to the rise of the Chapare region as a
post-traditional center of raw cocaine elaboration, Magdalena en el paraso figures
the decay of the business, together with its total destruction presented by the lived
speech, as well as first-person narration of Mateo, a journalist. What surfaces, at the
same time, is a peculiar variant of the ecological novel from the moment at which the
white butterfly appears. Together with bellicose coca plant eradication, a dangerous
caterpillar was introduced in the eastern lowlands. The insects, turning into white
butterflies and spreading like a jungle fire terminate with everything that is green.
John F. Schumaker. Wings of Illusion, 31.
Walter Benjamin, Critique of Violence, 249.
82 Narcoepics

Toward the novels end, an image of the ancient Sipoye tribe is evoked, staging the
reappearance of a lost people. One morning in the aftermath of destruction, the tribe
assumes in Chinahuata (from where the first novel set out), performing its ancient
cult to the plant (Magdalena, 28788). The leading Indians carry with them, like idols,
the few remaining plants. And Mateos, the journalists voice muses: For a moment
I stayed looking how these men and women vanished among the torments of sand,
and I climbed the tower to ring the bell in order to awaken that Being, that had
been slumbering deep in the mountain slopes. Would it be the guide for a seed to
allow for a human society of the future? Would I be heard? (288) Here, the writer
concludes with a fundamental perception of the modern conflicts over the coca leaf:
in the narcotrilogys diction, coca is obsessively alive, be it under the guise of national
perdition, or salvation.

Cinematic writing and the acting brain of a killer:

Lehrstck about the borders of citizenship
(Nostalgia de la sombra, Eduardo Antonio Parra)

. . . a plateau is reached when circumstances combine to bring an activity to a pitch of

intensity that is not automatically dissipated in a climax leading to a state of rest . . .
(Brian Massumi)
Phenomenology asked of actual experience the original meaning of every act of
knowledge. But can we not, or must we not look for it in the living being himself?
(Michel Foucault)

Using a rationale of verisimilitude, we should now focus on those novels that, by

addressing narcotics traffic within the context of more recent fiction, can reveal a
different lens. Some of todays narco-novels invite writers to resist manichaean,
denunciatory approaches and to be suspicious of the desire to instruct their
contemporaries by reducing complexity. The overall challenge consists in not
setting intoxication and sobriety apart. The group of novels for which Diario de un
narcotraficante and Mariposa Blanca are somehow precursors but also provide, in the
end, an ingenious sphere of contrast continues to grow. Fiction authors addressing
the transnational localities and shifting imaginaries of psychoactive trade since
the 1990s as a facet of the global modernity of drugs include the Mexicans Elmer
Mendoza, Leonides Alfaro, Csar Lpez Cuadras, Juan Jos Rodrguez, Bernardo
Fernndez, Cristina Rivera Garza, Iris Garca Cuevas, Yuri Herrera, Rafael Ramrez
Heredia, Heriberto Ypez, Vctor Hugo Rascn Banda, the Colombian writers Gustavo
lvarez Gardeazbal, Alfredo Molano, Arturo Alape, Jorge Franco Ramos, Alberto
Vzquez-Figueroa, from Bolivia Juan de Recacochea, Julio Csar Quiroz, Miguel
ngel Aez Surez, and from Brazil authors such as Marcio Cristino, Patricia Melo,
Jorge Mourao.
Heterogeneous Genealogies 83

We will not pretend to explore this terrain further, whose mere extension shows
that the drug trade has become a convocatory topic that helps assembling experiences
and fantasies of surprising variety. We intend to move from the thematically indicative
narco-novels to the concept of narco-epics, and thus open up our framework. In a
sense, it is the difference between narrative typology, on the one hand, and conceptual,
and ethical geography, on the other that is at stake. To take this step that helps us show
that narco-epics are not necessarily, nor even primarily concerned with drug trafficking,
we will look at a novel published by the Mexican Eduardo Antonio Parra in 2002:
Nostalgia de la sombra. Our intention is not to see what artistic representation as the
equivalent of crude experiences and conflicts looks like, but to discover claims about
imbalances that have come to conform contemporary life in the figurative and affective
scenarios of the novel.
With Nostalgia de la sombra (Longing for Shade), Eduardo Antonio Parra has created
a Brechtian Lehrstck (dialectical-didactic play) that proceeds by blending cinematic
writing with phenomenological prose, together with a sophisticated style that associates
Juan Rulfos Paso del Norte (1953). Let us consider a specific situation as poetological
point of departure: an individual existence is pushed to its utter limitsthrown onto
the threshold of life and death, and the person defending his life assumes violence as a
visceral force, so much so that it fervidly transforms the subject. This man, mutating
into a violent creature, offers a case scenario from which a peculiar realism ensues. On
the one hand, there is the ocurrence as a singular experiential terrain, not shot through
with moral, psychological, or social signifiers. In contrast with the novels that we have
discussed so far, there is no matrix that helps the implicit reader fall back to a distancing
or a hermeneutic comfort zone. Representation and the subject are not respectfully
set apart. The case stands out on its own merit. On the other hand, the constellation is
so radical that it would be a mistake to assume that it is limited to or solely determined
by the intereststhe transgressive subjectivity of the individual in question. Political
and historical content are not absent, but this is not laid out as a flat space within
which the character moves, be its markers socio-historical or metaphysical. If there
were a tapestry of both worldly and power-related factors that embeds the existence
of subjectivity, the given frame precludes its representationits symbolic analogy to
figures of morality, law, logos, and identity. There is also skepticism about interiority as
a distinct narratological asset. The author chooses a narrative style that builds on that
other, sometimes invisible, reflexivity that artists can gain from cinematic techniques.
One is reminded of the interfaces between the search for realism and avant garde rigor,
as it manifested itself, for example, in Dblins programmatic expressionism (1913)42, or
in the experimental aesthetic of the early Bertolt Brecht. We find a mode of narration
and presentation that bans private psychological or explanatory dimensions from the
way in which the novel is told. Of course, we do not have to go back that far in order to
describe a type of realism that restrains authorial self-presentation by foregrounding
experiential factology. In American literature, dirty realism43 is one of the terms that

See Alfred Dblin, Berliner Programm, 11215.
84 Narcoepics

has been proposed to refer to segments of contemporary fiction. In Latin American

fiction, post-avant garde fantasies of the real have been devised, formulated for a
cultural diagnostics emerging from the Hemispheric South. However, avant garde
projects, and we try to avoid the postpost here, are not just formal ventures; they
defamiliarize the normal in the first place. Terms such as dirty realism are descriptive
labels. Nevertheless, the concept of Lehrstck can teach us, even today, to look
behind the shock that the narrative produces in the first place. Aldona B. Pobutsky
states that Parra has established himself as the author of a particularly visceral and
brutally explicit prose.44 And indeed, Parra is interested in the power of mimesis, even
while he attempts to work through a scenario of alienation and to provide an implicit
blueprint for dissection and critique.45
Nostalgia de la sombra begins:
There is nothing like killing a man. The sentence resonates inside his skull and
Ramiro recognizes a slight rise in the blood temperature under his skin. It is the
only way to know for sure that it was worth it being born. He walks slowly, carefully,
adjusting his steps to the irregular surface of the pavement while he avoids the
hawkers of bills and documents, the beggars, the informal sellers who keep the
street in a state of siege. He doesnt see their faces . . . he moves on while looking
down . . . concentrating on the thought that keeps repeating and diversifying in his
mind like a litany. Suppress a neighbor. Put him off the train. Take him out of the
game. He raises his eyes when he gets to the plaza that he always remembers as full
of dissenters, of teachers in tents, of protesting campesinos . . . Nothing like the
feeling that the blood of another is wetting our skin and that we felt his last breath.
See how he breathes his last, how he grows feeble trying to suck in a mouthful of
the air that will never again fill his lungs. He stops beside the fountain above which
a seated old woman dominates the scene. Her profile makes him think of ancient
coins. . . . He lights a cigarette . . . He breathes in the smoke . . . and in his throat, the
alcohol he drank during his meal backs up. Yes, moderate his efforts. Put him face
down. . . . Without anger, without pity, for the simple pleasure of feeling ourselves
powerful.. . . He belches and a feeling of nausea clouds his vision. . . . Getting rid of
a man is easy, Damin. But you never told me to kill a woman (Nostalgia, 910).
For Ramiro, the protagonist of Eduardo Antonio Parras novel, killing is both a mission
and an obsession. There is nothing like killing a man, is the obsessive sentence that
casts its spell over Ramiros feeling brain,46 giving rhythm to the narrative and to
Ramiros life: Ramiro recognizes a slight rise of the blood temperature under his
skin. These sensations that open the text originate in the protagonists first direct
encounter with violence. It took place ten years before the present of the novel: one

See Michael Hemmingson, The Dirty Realism Duo: Charles Bukowsi and Raymond Carver on the
Aesthetics of the Ugly.
Aldona Bialowas Pobutsky. The Thrill of the Kill: Pushing the Boundaries of Experience in the
Prose of Eduardo Antonio Parra, 1.
See Eduardo Antonio Parra. Norte, narcotrfico y literatura, 61.
See Antonio Damasio. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain.
Heterogeneous Genealogies 85

night, the newspaper proofreader Bernardo, who will become the murderer Ramiro, is
attacked on a street of the northern Mexican city of Monterrey and turns from victim
to perpetrator by killing three men. This transfigurative experience is the main theme
of the narration. Parra has set out to explore the implications of the act of killing:
he describes Bernardos evolution from unimportant, middle-class citizen to hit man.
He is particularly interested in the ways a human beings bodily consciousness can be
transformed during an act of violence.47
Parras treatment of this theme is striking in its remarkable frankness and neutrality.
Instead of choosing a moral or psychologizing approach, similar to those of the novels
considered earlier, the author opts for a phenomenological writing in order to
gauge human consciousness with the greatest possible impartiality. If Parra is prone
to phenomenology and French existentialism must be left open, yet the underlying
posture is inadvertently clear: consciousness is not the so-called cogitatio, or the res
extensa (separated from the body). It rather appears as an experience-being. This
approach bridges the gap between the physiological and the psychological. All psychic
activities have to be captured, first and foremost, as physiological sensations. Behind
this vision, and alluding to Merleau-Ponty, we can recognize existence as an entity
with a certain physiological autonomy, rather than as a mere reaction to stimuli or a
simple act of consciousness: there is [. . .] a certain energy in the pulsation of existence,
relatively independent of our voluntary thoughts.48 One might also remember
Gregory Batesons musings on the ecology of the mind.49 Parra deterritorializes such
acceptances while he explores the interface-scenario between an urban ecosystem
(the map of actions associated with Monterrey) and the mental-anthropological
breakdown (transfiguration) of an average citizens consciousness. This constellation
also provides an ethical test case. Can astonishment still be raised by a literary work
that deconditions a sensorium of cruel optimism, that is, of the reproduction
of conventional fantasies of the good life and the usual affective components of
citizenship50 against all odds? What does it mean when a literary work creates a scene
of imagination that suggests shaking the emotional tableau of dissociative comfort?
Nostalgia seems to favor, at first sight, an unbiased view of personal experiences
of violence, yet its style relies on cunning momentumthat of a Brechtian mode of
defamiliarization. How can instinct be pushed so far that it becomes independent
of thinking consciousness? This force of instinct is described as the bowels, the
demoniac, the bestial or animal part, that Bernardo/Ramiro experiences for

See Eduardo Antonio Parra. La Jornada Semanal. Julio de 1996, 15. Cited in Miguel Rodrguez
Lozano. Sin lmites ficcionales: Nostalgia de la sombra de Eduardo Antonio Parra, 72.
There is, then, a certain consistency in our world, relatively independent of stimuli, which refuses
to allow us to treat being-in-the-world as a collection of reflexesa certain energy in the pulsation
of existence, relatively independent of our voluntary thoughts, which prevents us from treating it
as an act of consciousness. It is because it is a preobjective view that being-in-the-world can be
distinguished from every third person process, from every modality of the res extensa, as from every
cogitatio, from every first person form of knowledgeand that it can effect the union of the psychic
and the physiological. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 92.
See Gregory Bateson. Steps to an Ecology of Mind.
See Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism, 9, 23.
86 Narcoepics

the first time in Monterrey during that nocturnal assault. At the beginning, he
(Bernardo) responds passively to these original attackers. He lets the blows and
kicks land on him as if he were paralyzed (see Nostalgia, 40). When he has collapsed
to the ground, drenched in blood and at his assaulters mercy, he finally loses his
temper (mutating into Ramiro). In this extreme situation, danger and pain numb the
cogitatio, his conscious perception and rational decision-making ability. The bestial
part of Bernardo surfaces: blood, anger, an unknown or forgotten ferocity begins
to stir him up. (52) He falls into a state of ecstasy (see 53), into a murderous frenzy,
Achilles-like, which eventually ends with the death of the three muggers. Bernardos
memory of the moment he killed one of his victims with a blow to the heart is
described as orgiastic.
El hombre y la bestia, the Man and the Beast, is the main idea for the initial scene of
Bernardos imaginary movie, the screenplay which intertwines with the novel by virtue
of a narratologically formative mise en abyme. Bernardo meets an old man wearing a
Texas cowboy hat in a bar a few hours before he is mugged. In his perception, the mans
face becomes that of a devilish being (40, 35, 52) penetrating, sardonic, brutal. His
gaze, his provocative injunction: Ive seen you! Hey! Youre frightened, arent you? Ive
seen you! will eventually become the protagonists inner force that denounces his fear
and cowardice. When the bestial breaks out in Bernardo during his beating, he feels as
though the old mans voice were suddenly speaking from his guts. This transformatory
scene signals that Bernardo is becoming Ramiro, the murderer, while it is supposed to
represent, at the same time, the first shot of the imaginary screenplay we read about
above, in the second chapter. Thus, odd numbered chapters provide a glance into the
novels present (Ramiro), while even numbered chapters help assemble a past of which
Bernardos intended film project forms part. Plot and screenplay intersect; Bernardo
progressively turns into Ramiro and thus enters the filmic script that Bernardo had
dreamed of completing one day (323). In this feature, Ramiro has begun to assume
the role of the sicario, the hit man.
In his ordinary life as a newspaper copyeditor, Bernardo had developed a liking
for good stories about gangsters, not those that exaggerated violence for its own
sake. The story that he intended to develop on the background of northern Mexico
pictures the encounter between an an old business chief (34), accustomed
to imposing his will, and a rising drug lord, a narcotrafficker whose power has
grown in the city in an underground way (35). Coincidence determines that the
businessmans son threatens the drug lords daughter. Bernardo fancied that the
movie begins with the drug lords revenge carried out by a perfideous hit man,
one of those who cannot be stopped once they have been inflamed with the desire
to kill. The mise en abyme set forth by the novel accentuates the problematic of a
(possible) transformation, one which is more complex than Bernardos becoming
the hitman Ramiro. While the rise of informal power networks related to the spread
of the narcotics business infiltrates the cultural imaginary, becoming a ubiquitous
narrative topic (reflected in Bernardos film project), the actual issue is found in
the breakdown of a constitutively modern difference. A growing segment of the
population is confronted with the rise of narcopower, especially in the northern
Heterogeneous Genealogies 87

Mexican states, and while the public tries to make sense of it (in mass communication,
politics, art), the socially and ethically learned citizen does not yet realize that the
grounds on which such transformations might still be addressed and represented
accordingly have been fading away.
Bernardos film project does become reality, not as a well-designed work of art,
but as an irruption of the real which cancels out representation, producing both an
ecological (invisibly environmental) and a physiological contamination. Bernardos
purpose was to design a denunciatory movie (una pelcula de denuncia): There
would be a lot of action, and he would try to keep the plot going with a political,
social, psychological background . . . Above all he liked the feeling of tragedy that
permeated the storyline from beginning to end (35). However, the new scenario
in which Bernardo loses himself begins to eradicate the very possibility of tragedy.
Tragedy is a phenomenon that does not exist without distancethe distance of those
whose fear and shared suffering with the subject of misfortune provides the basis
of understanding right and wrong and, above all, reconfirms, affectively, a reigning
commonality vis--vis a violent Other. But what if the onlookers of tragedy, the
morally educated middle-class citizens acting as a voyeur, are drawn into the vortex
of violence themselves? Bernardo, who likes that special air of tragedy, steps into an
experience that makes the tragic obsolete. When he becomes the sicario Ramiro, his
eventual death is not even worthy of filmic representation. This means that the novel
has taken the place of the impossible film. Parra speaks to his readers as a proponent
of a post-tragic epoch, conveying a narrative plateau that is, on the one hand,
nightmarish and boundless regarding the presence of violence and, on the other,
concerned with estrangementneither catharsis nor introspective domestication. It
is a rigorous aesthetic move that the novel advances to the point at which empathy
becomes entirely alien, and where astonishment absorbs the energies that might
otherwise be spent on an individual drama, that is, the loss of individuality. When
Ramiro asks Damin (his superior, a man of the higher society) why he was chosen
to kill the business woman, the answer is: See, you have no identity(22). In other
words, it is from the moment that Ramiros pathological transubstantiation turns
normal, becoming embodied as the prevailing mode of perception and thus an
addiction, that things start looking awry.
The characters definitive assimilation into a lawless urban underworld occurs
when he takes up residence among garbage pickers in a dump that constitutes
the novels most vividly described social environment. This experience of the
fetid and violently insecure existence of Monterreys most destitute citizens, when
combined with the protagonists middle-class past and his subsequent employment
by unnamed participants in the booming business of money laundering for drug
traffickers, affords him . . . an unusual perspective on three urban worlds that . . .
coexist but never touch.51

Glen S. Close. Contemporary Hispanic Crime Fiction: A Transatlantic Discourse on Urban
Violence, 51.
88 Narcoepics

Structurally and epistemically, the novel implodes the already-described constitutive

difference between the representation of reality and contamination (by the real)
the difference that marks the condition of the possibility of modern subjectivity.
At the level of narrative progression, however, a melancholic element rises to the
surface. After ten years of carrying out a sicarios business as usual, the killing of other
men, Ramiro is assigned the murder of Maricruz Escobedo, a beautiful woman who
works as a financial manager in Monterrey. This constellation begins to be charged
by desire, to the extent that Ramiro imagines the upcoming violent encounter as
an ultimate erotic experience. Nevertheless, the melancholic tone resonates as an
opaque, and physically all the more intense reminder of his previous lifekilling
a woman is not what the brusquely decivilized Ramiro is able to accommodate
from his violent condition. And this will finally bring the open or latent drama
that captures the novels present (odd numbered chapters) to a sort of modernist
closure again, in which estrangement fades away: the hitman is unable to carry out
his assignment accordingly, and is himself shot. He thus returns to the world of his
past, Monterrey, where he was a husband and father. Here, the mise en abyme works
by revealing the asynchrony between even and odd numbered chapters, together with
the slightly melodramatic implosion of a transformative experience that, otherwise,
would have left Ramiro on the side of evil. This mise en abyme is, of course, a reflexive
narratological maneuver. It is as though the author were holding up a mirror to his
own novel and, in doing so, hinting at the possibility that the narration is, after all,
just a part of Bernardos screenplay which, however, could just as well be part of the
repertoire of the corridos norteos (35).
The narration unfolds, in the odd numbered chapters, almost entirely from Ramiros
memories, accessible through his acting imagination in which his immediate, corporeal
perceptions take the lead over the work of consciousness. What happens inside his
skull and what is felt under his skin always matters. Special attention is given to bodily
mechanisms such as agitations in the blood system, states of awareness, and ecstasy
that the narrator describes with moral and psychological neutrality. Not only general
and judgmental concepts such as assault or emotion, but also psychologically connoted
terms such as fear, or anxiety are avoided. Parra enables his readers to experience the
protagonists bodily agitation while pursuing his deeds in the sense of phenomenology.
To be a consciousness or rather to be an experience is to hold inner communication
with the world, the body and other people, to be with them instead of being beside
them.52 The phenomenological aesthetics of the novel lets metaphors and poeticity rise
up, while the changes perceived by altered consciousness are not self-serving, but held
together, almost imperceptibly, by a sort of dialectic laconism. The operating mode of
Ramiros memories, one of the central themes of the novel, is described with didactic
precision. When Ramiro goes by the place near the dump where he spent some time
after the attack, one reads: Just like coins, names and nicknames fall into the empty
space of consciousness and trigger echoes that turn into images and anecdotes (161).
While exploring different stylistic modes and speech patterns, the book finds a peculiar

Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology, 111.
Heterogeneous Genealogies 89

affective tone precisely by virtue of its physiological melody. Ramiros memory is

often conditioned by impulses and sensations that keep his body alert and moving.
If psychological elements surface, they are part of embodied experiences, rather than
conforming an autonomous scale, as occurs in one of his encounters with the man who
gives the orders to kill: Damin held out his hand. The glitter of irony was diminished,
his pupils showed a slight touch of disgust, or of sadness, Ramiro couldnt identify it
well. It was a handshake that was smooth, distant, and cold. (25)
There is nothing spectacular about Ramiros ecology of mind, or anything evocative
of evil. What happens is simply the orchestration of a constant awareness about the
environment and his own body and its energy levels. Because of this, distracted urban
wandering is out of question, and strong emotions are detrimental to his kind of work.
No stream of consciousness, no attempt at self-understanding, although the text
conveys the core of an inner experience; it does so by avoiding dissociative reflection and
immersion in memory or sentiment. That way, Ramiro, in the odd numbered chapters
(as distinct from the even sections), is always before (or ahead) of his self, making
sure that he remains inmersed in movement while his sensory-motor system functions
as a seismograph of his environment. Through the act of reading, the reader becomes
the eyes of the protagonist. In contrast to what Damasio has termed the feeling brain,
Ramiros brain appears as the integral neurophysiological apparatus that keeps both the
emotional limbic system and the rational neocortex in check. We are dealing with an
intimate yet nonprivate experience. This is the hinge between phenomenological writing
and didactic-dialectical purpose. In other words, as basic as it seems that the physiological
system and its ecological conditioning predate the meanings that the mind fashions
on its own behalf, it has now and again been literatures ambition to join in or even
accommodate, as Bergson says, the dualisms matter-memory and affect-intelligence.53
It should not be a surprise that it is from here that techniques resembling cinematic
writing help Parra work at the level of immediacies and similitudes. The narration can
thus easily shift focus and frame, it can, for example, leave Ramiros skull in order to
direct the viewers attention to other details, or to immerse the protagonist in his own
environment. This does not disconnect our virtual perspective from Ramiros acting brain,
since it lives by means of a camera-perspective sui generis. We have, rather, two distinct
camera angles, one personalized and the other contingent, both driven by rhythm and
montage. This way, boundaries between inside and outside become contingent rather
than being erased.54 In one instant ocurring in a bar, in the first chapter, Ramiro glances
at the photograph of Maricruz, the woman he has been hired to kill.
Only the emeralds of her eyes glowed, possessors of their own light. Her eyebrows,
her hand, her hair and mouth trembled, and they were filled with wrinkles as if
trying to reflect the womans true age. Ramiro lowered his eyelids, raised his head
and reopened them. The walls of the cantina had moved away from him, shaking
in the twilight until they distorted the faces of the men in the distance. The light
from the light bulbs that remained lit brightened and dimmed for no reason (22).

See Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, 225.
Here my reading is different from Rodrguez-Lozanos. See Sin lmites ficcionales, 68.
90 Narcoepics

What happened? Physiologically speaking, the answer is simple. Im drunk. Thats

good. Ive already lost count of the drinks. Will they keep giving me brandy or some of
that adulterated stuff? (223) Once we talk about an inner experience, focused on the
interaction between body and brain, the matter of intoxication by violence is never an
unmediated one, nor can such arousal function in a continuous, uninterrupted way. For
Ramiro, alcohol is the equalizer, in that it helps him put a break on his overstimulated
circulatory system. Similar to the physical immersion in violence, it reaches every cell in
his body. In the hit mans condition, an elixir is needed to slow down the devilish state
of alertness and movement. How could he otherwise recover the excess-levels in his
bodyregarding motor-coordination, reflexes, reaction time, breathing, self-protective
perceptions, and the like. The banality of the situation is less so, if we remember that
in public parlance, when it comes to the issue of violence and drugs, alcohol remains
embedded deep within the common fabric of life and landscape without being
substantially controlled. The extent to which the life of people engrossed in low-level
drug traffic or crime is actually mediated by excessive alcohol consumptionthe most
ancient and unrestrained drug of choice in the worldis one of the tangential issues
about which narco-novels do not leave much doubt. This is part of a larger perception
arising from these works: if evil is an issue, uncomfortably and ubiquitously, there
should not be an a priori assumption of evil but a specific interrogation of the terrains
of modern Western culture, communication, and economy.
Aldona Bialowas Pobutsky suggests a graphic interpretation of Parras novel, one that
reads the fictive criminal scenario in a Bataillian clue of the eroticization of violence.
Ramiros being hired to kill a woman is viewed as that sort of ultimate intoxication,
leading to both characters shared death, which is supposed to embody the novels actual
transgressive core fused into a sublime combination of love and deaththe antiheros
final transgression.55 . . . [T]here is something morbidly sensual in his planned act of
femicide, since Ramiro will consummate the ultimate possession of this womans body.
Parras novel strongly suggests that seeing her life slipping away will be the most intimate
act the protagonist can perform on her, the supreme sacrifice and the high point of
Ramiros life.56 As appealing as this reading may be, it clings to Batailles universalizing
desire regarding the erotics of violence, of death. That desire is charged by the malaise
of civilization as such; in other words, at the moment of Ramiros violent encounter with
Maricruz, the entire scene could provide for an imagination in which crime opens a door
(of perception and consummation) to the ultimate experience of the otherwise repressed
subject. However, recalling the idea of the mise-en-abyme upon which the novel is designed
points in a slightly different direction. Is there not, in fact, a violent erotics of profane
illumination, rather than a sublime fusion of love and death? Would not the thesis of the
supreme act of destruction as communion displace the aspect of estrangement, by a kind
of counter-cathartic yet purging and empathetic quod erat demonstrandum?
In sum, Nostalgia de la sombra offers a phenomenological and existential allegory
of someone who appears as an extemporal, fiercely globalized version of Musils Man

Aldona Bialowas Pobutsky. The Thrill, 67.
Ibid., 8.
Heterogeneous Genealogies 91

Without Qualities.Fiercely globalized refers to Ignacio Snchez Prados observation:The

world of Ramiros journey is complex because violence is not a product of moral choices
but rather something that happens, a consistent present that becomes a constitutive part
of the social tapestry in the distinct environments he navigates.57 According to this
critic, the novel is not to be read from the trope of the citizenship of fear58 that presents
violence as an Other to be warded off by the individual; rather, it is the narrative of a
citizenship through violence.59 In such a line of thinking, Nostalgia de la sombra can be
viewed as implying a rigorous aesthetic decision, one that requires a conscious posture
of abnormal interpretation in order to sidestep the artistic implications of neoliberal
fear.60 As Susan Sontag once wrote, Reflective art is art which . . . imposes a certain
discipline on the audience,61 and this applies to Parras strategy to design his novel, in a
dialectical way, as Lehrstck on the matter of violence in todays Hemispheric South. It is,
however, difficult to place Parras work within strict formal confines, although it might be
read, as well, as a novela negra of the neoliberal era.62
Nostalgia de la sombra creates a scenario that allows us to look at an endoscopy of a
hitmans consciousness, rather than a suspense-packed crime thriller. It provides an
imagination that does not share Fernando Vallejos (Colombia) sublime mythification
of adolescent hitmen, La Virgen de los sicarios (Our Lady of the Assassins). Genealogically
speaking, Parras novel, while using a different literary method, is comparable to Alonso
Salazars testimonial portrait of the life-space experiences of Medellns teenage gangs, No
nacimos pa semilla (We Have Not Been Born to Life). This similarity resides in their reaching
beyond intellectual unease in the face of brute cultural matter, as it has sometimes translated
into contemplative, voyeuristic, or transcendentalizing works. Delinquency and narcotraffic
are dealt with as mobile frontiers63 and lenses; they not only separate and exclude but also
articulate complex realities, economic and political interests, transformations of subjectivity,
cultural fantasies, literary searches. Parra argues that the rigorous part of the new narratives
from the Mexican north (la literatura del norte) is not interested in heightening violence
nor turning narcocultural tales into items for the wholesale book market. This would instead
correspond to the hysterical and superficial vision of the middle class whose information
comes from the press and television.64 What these conflicts over narcotics, a visceral part of
Mexicos uneven modernity, can help perceive is a nonessentialist, immanent problematic.
Narcotraffic is an integral phenomenon, capable of bendingnot destroyingall aspects
of human (modern and nonmodern) existence, as well as bringing to light all its miseries.65
These words help addressing a clue that, touching upon the dialectics of intoxication, makes
up for the difference that we have been discussing in this chapter, condensed, as it was, in the
passage from narco-novel to narco-epics.

Ignacio Snchez-Prado. Amores Perros: Exotic Violence and Neoliberal Fear, 45.
See Susana Rotker (ed.). Citizens of Fear: Urban Violence in Latin America.
Ignacio Snchez-Prado. Amores perros, 46.
See ibid., 39.
Susan Sontag. Against Interpretation and Other Essays, 184.
Glen S. Close. Contemporary Hispanic, 125.
See Josefina Ludmer. El cuerpo del delito: Un manual. Buenos Aires: Perfil, 1999.
Eduardo Antonio Parra, Norte, narcotrfico y literatura, 61.

The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar

Story: Pablo Escobar, auge y cada de un
narcotraficante (Alonso Salazar)

Escobars story questions all of Colombian society, the political elites, the economy
and the Armed Forces, about the coherence of our state and our ability to construct
a nation in which life with dignity is possible for everyone. And it questions the
international community, and especially the United States, about the charade of
maintaining a war, the so-called War on Drugs, that hasnt diminished drug use and
has created phenomena of criminality and the destruction of life and of nature that
are unprecedented.
Alonso Salazar

Many key words are reserved for the bad guys and their organizationssyndicates,
cartels, gangs, triads, secret societies, mafias, guerrilla outfits, terrorist networksand
they all denote their special and separate status of being unauthorized, clandestine,
underground. Such language constructs conceptual barriers between illicit bad-guy
activities (trafficking, smuggling) and state-authorized good-guy activities (trade,
migration) that obscure how these are often part of a single spectrum. We need to
approach flows of goods and people as visible manifestations of power configurations
that weave in and out of legality, in and out of states, and in and out of individuals
lives, as socially embedded, sometimes long-term processes of production, exchange,
consumption, and representation.
Itty Abraham & Willem van Schendel

Ominous questions

When Pablo Escobar, perhaps the most notorious actor in the globalized cocaine
trafficking networks that traversed the Western Hemisphere, was killed by elite
troops of the Colombian police, with the aid of the United States, on December
2, 1993, the Colombian magazine Semana published the following, spellbinding
94 Narcoepics

He prevented three presidents from governing. He transformed the language, the

culture, the physiognomy and the economy of Medelln and of the country. Before
Pablo Escobar, Colombians didnt know the word sicario. Before Pablo Escobar,
Medelln was considered to be a paradise. Before Pablo Escobar, the world knew
Colombia as the land of coffee. And before Pablo Escobar, no one thought that
a bomb could explode in a supermarket or in an airplane in flight. Its because
of Pablo Escobar that there are armored cars in Colombia and that the need for
security modified architecture. Because of him, the judicial system was changed,
the penitentiary policies were reconceptualized as was the design of the prisons,
and the Armed Forces were transformed. Pablo Escobar discovered, more than
anyone before him, that death can be the greatest instrument of power. (Salazar,
Pablo Escobar, 22)
As the head of the Medelln drug cartel and ruler of both a regional and hemispheric grid
of illicit transactions, the impact that Escobar had on Colombian society and beyond
was so extensive that his execution by the special forces seemed to put a logical closure
to that chapter of la guerra del narcotrfico (the drug war). At least, this was the hope
of many. By la guerra del narcotrfico we mean, specifically, the pressure that Escobar
and other players in the informal economy had put on, and the vendetta they led against,
the Colombian state from 1987 to 1992 to undermine the law allowing extradition of
Colombian criminals to face US prosecution.1 In a certain sense, we would have to speak
of a counterwar that responded to the US-led war on drugs with which the Colombian
state was forced to cooperate. When Alonso Salazar published Pablo Escobar: Auge y cada
de un narcotraficante in 2001, the complexity of the issues put forward in this narrative
surpassed, by far, the criteria that the mass media coverage, political discourse, and public
opinion had thus far established. Escobar miraculously survived, after his death, as part
of Columbias traumatized cultural memory,2 and Salazars project was nothing less than
the presentation of hermeneutic and historical clues to this phenomenon. At the same
time, his book stands out as a masterpiece of investigative testimony.
Salazar, writer, academic, and, from 2007 to 2011, the mayor of Medelln, conveys a
perplexing narrative, perhaps even more so than in No nacimos pa semilla, his book
about sicarios and violent young gang members from the citys marginal comunas.
As one reads one learns that Escobar was not one character but many contrastive
personae in one. This one was always straightforward yet elusive. At first sight, Pablo
Escobar is a testimony sui generis about the drug tycoon, based on meticulous research
in press materials and analytic studies, epistolary sources, anecdotes, and information
obtained across the entire social and political spectrum in which the man had acted or
left his imprint. The voices that the author incorporates in his tightly woven tapestry
include parts of interviews with Escobars mother and other family members, state
functionaries, parliamentarians, military personnel, and lawyers, as well as with people
in the different hierarchies of the drug cartels (especially those of Medelln and its

See Alonso Salazar J. and Ana Mara Jaramillo, Medelln: Las subculturas del narcotrfico, 712. Also
see note 32.
The telenovela Pablo Escobar: El patron del mal, produced in 2011/12, is based on Alonso Salazars book.
The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar Story 95

rival from the Cali area). Salazars free indirect style weaves together a narrative stream
that exhausts readers by the amount of incredible connections and revelations, an
account that neither other biographers nor political analysts of Escobar have been
able to parallel. There is, however, one fictional character, who surfaces, once in a
while, throughout the book and who plays the role of a subcutaneous narrator. His
name is Arcngel (Archangel). Arcngel appears, in the first chapter, as the guardian
of Escobars grave, a scenario without pomp but highly frequented in the years after
1993, and which serves as the initiative site for retrospection to begin. As we read in
the opening pages, the author has given Arcngel certain knowledge and opinions that
witnesses did not dare to publicly present (12).
La parbola de Pablo, a literary hybrid, deploys an imagination that is not simply
fictional but archaeological, a narratological search that embraces the realm of a
personal history that is, on the one hand, a singular outcome of late capitalism and, on
the other, one that breaks some of its main geopolitical rules. It is a difficult reading
due to the challenge of making sense out of several trajectories of the unbelievable
and of realities that appear to be shockingly unrepresentative of what has been
called political modernity. The Colombian political system in the second half of the
twentieth century was not only involved in enabling and sustaining the power of the
countrys transnational drug economy, but played a pivotal role in that process. Pablo
Escobar is also a book about national and human tragedies; however, it refrains from
the Aristotelian and later Hegelian rulesophisticatedly assumed by some of todays
most successful action moviesto give the narrative of tragic violence a cleansing
aspect. Salazar shuns an aesthetic ideology whose stamp is a perverse blend of terror
and delight, when spectators or readers of violence feel comfortable enough to reap
pleasure from it.3 The gentrification of tragedy, rather common today, could easily
capitalize on the Escobar case. But Salazar weaves his testimony together in a laconic
manner, exposing shattering truths about society, morality, and the bases of civil life
today. At stake is a contemporary kind of realism without any moralistic tone, a
realism not simply understood as a condensed representation of a crude reality, but of
an embodyment of uncomfortable topographies of experience, which is enabled by a
writing that uses experimental and minimalistic approaches. The narrative, packed with
surprising patterns of action and moments of drama, is stripped down to a minimal
amount of pathos.
By offering an archaeological incursion into the networks that have conformed
the history and the kingdom of Pablo Escobar Gaviria, Salazar calls on his readers
to ponder other strands as well. He traces a picture of the other, the scarcely known
Colombia within the contemporary Latin American and global realm; in doing so,
he connects the exploration of obtuse zones of geopolitics and neoliberalism as they
have subdued the hemisphere with numerous specific insights into the corruption of
state politics. If the regionaltransnational drug-traffic systems of the 1980s and 1990s
created socioaffective (both traumatic and empowering) realities of enormous scope,
this phenomenon must be read, as well, against the background of increased global

See Terry Eagleton. Sweet Violence, 26, 27.
96 Narcoepics

inequalities and the geo-economic interventionism from the north, which followed the
decline, that is, the systematic defeat of the socialist, or leftist, movements. The illicit
narcotics business and its cultural charisma, which reaches far beyond the popular
classes, have been sensitive toward both traditional and new forms of marginalization
and social need. Pablo Escobar would embark on an militantism sui generis, one that
was transgressive of any Pharisaean convention. It relied on the impetus to create
a kingdom out of narco money, loyalties, and pressures, in which the institution
of the gift acquired an anthropological and political density that was unknown to
Marcel Mauss.4 In it, social workstogether with a flooding of parts of the upper
and lower classes with new drug moneyinstitutional, and, in part, technological
infiltration of the juridical and military apparatuses of the state, stunning networks of
military partisanship5 combined with the self-edification of Pablo as the ruler over
a gigantic cult of friendship, but also over the lives and deaths of a growing number
of Colombians.
Until recently, critics felt comfortably inclined toward the topos of the minor
hero, be it evocative of works of Robert Musil, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and so
many others, the ingeniosity of Michel de Certeaus The Practice of Everyday Life,
or the praise of the ironic and pluri-reflective subject in the field of postmodern
aesthetics. Heroes with extraordinary bad or good qualities and foundational
powers of action seemed to have moved out of place (remember the slogan, our
time is not for heroes . . .). Big criminals, as they continued inhabiting significant
segments of the Hollywood movies complex, seemed to evoke the fascination with
dubious taste, rather than a critical alertness to the experiences of the social world
and even the strategic remappings of the globe after 1989/91. This skeptical spirit
is present, for example, in Ileana Rodrguezs approach to Salazars narrative, which
she entitles Reinventing the Popular Heroic.6 But can such concepts help unravel
the paradox that Salazar is able to turn outdated subjetivities into devices for
understanding complex scenarios of the global present? From another angle, Salazars
compatriot, the writer Fernando Vallejo, has imagined, in La virgen de los sicarios, a
fusion of the big criminal and the intellectual-in-crisis. Vallejo and Salazar occupy
different positions in the aesthetic and ethical spectrum of contemporary literature;
however, the topos of the big criminal at a time when ethics has become, once again,
a battlefield brings closer the works of both. Salazar perceives Escobar as a figure
of both the political and the literary history of his time. It is Salazar, indeed, who
discovers that Gabriel Garca Mrquezs magical-realist world does not belong to
a remote, or nonmodern Macondo but is embodied in the lives and deaths of the
protagonists of the hemispheric narcotics trade. To be succinct, there is nothing exotic
about this coolness of narration whose subject-matter is often violent, but does not
itself indulge in the violent event.

See Marcel Mauss. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies.
I associate this notion with Carl Schmitts study Theory of the Partisan: Intermediate Commentary on
the Concept of the Political.
See Ileana Rodrguez. Liberalism at its Limits: Crime and Terror in the Latin American Cultural Text,
The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar Story 97

Among those of us who started to distrust the systemic alliances between civil
society, market power, and state regulation but vehemently reject foundationalist
narratives, there might be a sense that the expressions of todays violence, which are
labeled/dismissed as terror, emerge along a line of chaos and irrationality. There
can be no legitimate goal where violence is turned into a political means beyond the
authority of state apparatuses. Salazar renders this kind of self-evidence questionable,
by historicizing the conflicts that lead Escobar into an ever more desperate and fatal
politics against the Colombian state. The aim of the book that, in the first Colombian
edition was entitled La parbola de Pablo, is neither to defend the illicit narcotics trade
nor to succumb to an idealization of its hero. But it has to be observed that a case
like Pablo Escobars is not simply an historical accident. It comes, on the one hand,
as a call to see that blind faith in the universality of the liberal-democratic model can
result in the production of monsters. At the same time, one should remain aware of
the possibility that the big criminal embodies a radicalization of actual social dues
and hopes and can, at the same time, embrace a formative project of larger scope. This
reconsideration is not the exclusive domain of those who rule over the discourses of
politics. Writers who invest their imagination in scrutinizing legal givens in the global
arena, such as the war on drugs, are not nave pacifists, nor do they approve of illicit
activities and criminal things. Yet they have become critically attentive to the question
of why intoxication in one world has to be grounded in humiliating sobriety in one
complementary to it. A poetics of sobriety emerging from humiliation can be more
succinct than a discourse on narcoterror.
When Escobar was born on December 2, 1949, his mother, Hermilda Gaviria, named
him Pablo after St. Paul the Apostle. The gesture is remarkable, for she could not know
of the meaning that St. Pauls letters would take on in contemporary philosophical
discussions. Presumably, and connected to the threats that years of the violencia after
1946 would mean for her family and her lower middle-class environment, Escobars
mother always carried redemptive hope. We read, from the personal narrators voice
that is advanced by free indirect style, and thus includes the expressions of people
speaking about Escobar: He was baptized Pablo, like the evangelist who was familiar
with the evil arts but later consecrated himself to offering his life in the service of
God (38). This formulation belongs to the time during which Salazar carried out
numerous interviews, years after Escobars death. If it is derived from a conversation
with Hermilda Gaviria, his mother may have placed the image of her son between
evil and sacredness. Was she just a tormented Catholic from Antioquia? The question
has to be reformulated: what did it mean to adhere to a Catholic identity and, at the
same time, share the spirit of Antioquian modernity, into which the marginalized
wanted to aggressively enter? The ominous fabric of power that enables large-scale
narcotics trade is a worldly matter, not a religious one. Escobars treatment of life
and death, however, seemed to reveal at least as much religiosity as it did pragmatic
aspects. If Escobar and his cartel, when besieged by the state were able to attack major
Colombian cities with partisan (Schmitt) scenarios of assassination and revenge, can
these operations be understood from a standpoint of interests of power alone? Has
there perhaps been ethical momentum, as well, hidden under the monstrosity of a
98 Narcoepics

rebellion that was not devoid of social wrath and political revenge? Escobars most
feared and cursed actions have not yet been looked at under an eschatological sign, nor
has the force of rupture that he introduced into the existing world been considered in
the way of political martyrdom. When the Capo was supposed to be hunted down by
the security apparatus of the state, yet successfully kept hiding in Colombia for several
years, he mounted such an avalanche of violent attacks on what he believed to be an
illegitimate political spiderweb, that only one force should accompany him beyond
deathan unforgiving righteousness of ends, similar to the one that speaks from the
concept of natural law.7

A Revolution without philosophers

After describing Pablo Escobars ascent to become one of the main players in the
Colombian transnational cocaine trade during the 1970s, Salazar offers the following
commentary on the new mafias, including names such as Griselda Blanco (la Reina
de la Coca), the Rodrguez Orejuela brothers from Cali, Gonzalo Rodrguez Gacha (el
Mexicano) from Bogot, and Carlos Lehder from Armenia.
They talked about creole mafias, but in reality it wasnt about lodges with traditions,
rituals and codes of honor like those that are known of in Sicily, . . ., but of groups
of narcotraffickers and bandits for whom the terms magicians and emergent
agents with which they were baptized in popular talk were fitting. Magician might
be an association of mafioso with rainmakerhe who can do everything, or
who suddenly appearsbut emergent has a more obvious meaning: narcotraffic
favored the insurrection of plebeyan sectors that protagonized a profound
transformation of Medelln and of the country, which a writer called revolution
without philosophers. (75)
Salazars text excells as an inquisitive narrative about the illegal narcotics business,
because it is able to provide the readers with crucial, often hidden coordinates of
Colombian political history (see 6971). By 1958, the Violencia, the civil war between
the Conservatives and the Liberals, the two hegemonic parties, had in 20 years
generated such a dramatic displacement of the population that Columbia went from
being a rural country to being a country of huge cities, that is, cities whose peripheries
were populated by millions of poor people (69). In 1958, the ruling bodies of both
parties signed a political agreement that would, for 16 years to come, alternate the
control of government every four years between the two. But this pact did not include
social reforms, nor did it create forms of political involvement of the peasant masses
and the new poor of the cities (ibid.). It was under such historical circumstances
that the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a peasant guerrilla
organization, was formed with initial objectives aimed at a democratic society and the

See Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan, 81107.
The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar Story 99

peasants right to work their own lands (see 70). Other guerrilla groups, such as the
Ejrcito de Liberacin Nacional (ELN) and the Ejrcito Popular de Liberacin (EPL)
emerged during the 1960s under the influence of the Cuban Revolution. In 1970, a
populist movement, the Alianza Nacional Popular (Anapo), began to present a serious
threat to the power of the ruling parties that maneuvered, in a dubious electoral process,
to install their own candidate as president (Misael Pastrana). In response, the radical
part of the Anapo founded the Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19). Salazar comments, The
existence of four guerrilla groups announced that the country would not step soon out
of the labyrith of its ancestral violences (70 and 71).
Within these political constellations, and accompanied by an unstable economic
situation during the 1970s, informal yet powerful interests in Colombia moved to
vampirize sectors of not only national but also hemispheric trade. The narcotic business
metamorphosed into the most dynamic force in the uneven modernization process in
this country, whose economy, with its high unemployment rates, had been relying on
the traditional agricultural sector, mining, and manufacturing. Gootenberg, in his study
Andean Cocaine, states, One of the great historical mysteries about modern cocaine
trafficking is how it passed into the hands of Colombian drug lords and changed, during
the 1980s, into one of historys richest and most volatile illicit trades. He explains that
an international drug trafficking class from Medelln, serving a rising breed of luxury
cocaine users in the United States,8 succeeded in monopolizing extensive continental
networks including those in Miami and beyond by the late 1970s. Although narcotics
trade had moved for decades from Peru and Bolivia through Chile and Cuba / Miami
northward, but then just two actors remained in the unresolved riddle of illicit cocaine:
the Colombians and the Americans to the north.9 Colombians reorganized an already
existing Andean coca capitalism by seizing the rutas del sur. They imported peasant
basic coca paste from Peru and Bolivia, refined this raw cocaine in laboratories that
cropped up in jungle areas controlled or taxed by guerrilla forces, developing a
logistically and technologically efficient network of rutas del norte, and ruthlessly
establishing a sales monopoly in the United States. Among the reasons Gootenberg
provides for the aggressive rise of the Colombian drug trafficking class is the national
political crisis that had weakened the Colombian state, while rendering unforeseen
constellations for the rise of an illicit Antioquian, regional, trans-hermispheric industry.
The state of Antioquia and Medelln, its capital city, were the industrial heartland of the
country until the 1960s, when the manufacturing sector was hit by decline. At this point,
the most daunting of the Antioquians, a population reported to be idiosyncratically and
historically suited to being violent entrepreneurs (a national myth qualifies them as a
lost white race, reputedly Israelites10) seized the opportunity to expand their activities
into the illegal sector and eventually to reinvent the cocaine business. This would be only
half of the truth if we leave unexamined the fact that substantial parts of the traditional
oligarchy and of political and juridical functionaries at all levels were eager to derive
major benefits from the wellspring of illegal drug money.

Paul Gootenberg. Andean Cocaine, 301, 300.
Ibid., especially 3005, 306.
Ibid., 302.
100 Narcoepics

The picture traced by Alonso Salazar resembles the tightly woven pieces of a narrative
tapestry in which political history and the life stories of numerous people intersect. He
also shows that Pablo Escobar is not a historical mystery but someone who appears
as a rebel without transcendental discourse, able to seize on the sudden eruption of
chance, the event,11 in order to produce a substantial change in the situation of his
country. His capacity to transcend the existing Colombian realities was astonishing
and shocking. According to this testimony, and unlike other accounts, there had been
no solid middle class environment in which Escobar could grow up.12 He was born
into a lower middle-class family from El Tablazo, and his mother, a Liberal and Catholic
elementary school teacher, was forced, after the outbreak of the violencia, to undertake
an odyssey across Antioquia to escape being killed by Conservative mobs (Pablo
Escobar, 401). Despite several violent displacements, and with the familys having to
resettle now and again, Pablo, with his exceptionally strong mother and surrounded by
a network of brothers, cousins and uncles who were eager to prosper in several small
and medium businesses, did not bend to the doom of precarious life. Together with
his cousin Gustavo, the young Pablo began selling aluminium markers for gravestones
and other things. A few years later, after a short period of studying accounting at the
Universidad Autnoma de Antioquia, Pablo tells his mother that he is not going to
continue studying but will take care of the family. Doa Hermilda reports this step
retrospectively with a toughness that speaks for itself.
I thanked him for intending to collaborate with me . . . It didnt seem bad to me
that he liked money, because if you dont have a peso in your pocket, youre bored,
sad, you hang your head, you dont find a way out of the maladies. And Pablo, with
the lesson learned, used to say: I wont die poor. . . . (43)
At this time, the narrator laconically says that Pablo ceased to play around with
delinquency and made it his profession. In contrast, in the book by Alba Marina Escobar,
Pablos sister, his quitting the university is presented as having been highly emotional.13
From early on, Pablo Escobar was a dreamer. When he was 14, in 1963, at the
Liceo de Bachillerato of the University of Antioquia, admiration of Camilo Torres, the
Marxist theologian who would become a guerrilla priest, was as common as was that of
Fidel Castro, leader of the Cuban Revolution. The adolescent from El Tablazo absorbed
a series of anti-imperialist and anti-oligarchic wordings that he would use for the
rest of his life. But his own path would be pragmatic and anarchic. In his adolescent
years, Pablo was suspended from school several times for taking on inappropriate
leadership roles. For example, he sat at the teachers desk and told the students not to
take the exam, because they would be the losers (33). Here we can see an early, visceral
distrust of the so-called social moratorium14that organized period of education and

See Alain Badiou. Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, 37.
Gootenberg speaks of solid middle class formation (305) which, according to Salazars narrative is
See Alba Marina Escobar and Catalina Guzmn. El otro Pablo: La historia ntima del Narcotraficante
que dobleg a Colombia, contada por su hermana, 56.
See Mario Margulis and Marcelo Urresti. La construccin social de la condicin de juventud.
The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar Story 101

social assimilation during which the youths of the better-off classes learn to become
efficiently docile and worldly minded people or, remembering Freud, during which
young adults are born by replacing desire and aggressive instincts (the pleasure
principle) with the reality principle.
In a country like Colombia, individual stories of education tend to break the rule.
Escobar the teenager, whose own father was a unambitious, sensitive loner, desperately
seeking a master who could teach him what schools did not conveyturn life into a
radically different thinghad no trouble making his choices. He chose the aristocratic
Padrino over the unruly philosopher. In a filmic glance across urban scenarios that
were familiar to the walks of Escobar and his buddies, Salazar traces the picture of two
personalities who used to walk the streets of El Envigado (a working-class community
that is part of the greater Medelln area). Both were men with a patriarchal flair,
conveying role models of a specific kind.
Between the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s, down the streets of
Envigado walked Fernando Gonzlez, with his beret and cane, a philosopher-
provocateur, as fruitful in his thought as he was useless in a land like Antioquia,
where a refined Catholic morality is proclaimed and people prey without rest,
while agile and at times illegal forms of enrichment are practiced without shame,
in which people dream exaggeratedly of money, of vile coin. (43)
Street scenarios are imagined as the informal theatre of synergetic exchangethose
affective avenues of public space whose energies cannot be directly seen but only
sensed. The philosopher Gonzlez, father of the nadastas, stood for both anticlerical
provocation and poetic dissent. But Envigados actual psychotropic power lay
elsewhere. This little Detroit was not the right place for the useless flower of poetry.
An authentic charisma would radicate from another man:
Through the same Envigado Park don Alfredo Gmez also strolledan old man,
diabetic, conservative, with an aristocratic presence . . ., who in spite of having
obtained his fortune smuggling cigarettes, kitchen appliances, whiskey, fabrics and
porcelains was considered to be a great man. El Padrino . . . came to be so powerful
that he was received almost as if he were a head of state when he visited Panama,
Honduras and El Salvador, countries where he had extensive investments. In
Colombia, politicians and generals asked his permission, and the letter even lent
him soldiers to escort the caravans of contraband. . . . (434)
While Pablo Escobar did not feel attracted by the poetic philosopher, he showed an
olympic zest for becoming Padrino Gmezs apprentice. He was eventually noticed by
the veterans of the business who, for their part, were amazed at Pablos mimetic genius
and his capacity to become the friend of virtually everyone he got involved with. We
might think, for a moment, of that untheorized capacity called practical intelligence,
or even practical wisdom, which in Greek ethymology relates to the word metis,
paraphrased as cunning intelligence by Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant,15

See Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society.
102 Narcoepics

basically the capacity of the gods. In Escobar, it was a capacity to not only mimic
the habits of other people and creatures, but to move with total ease on the basis of
social instinct and an extraordinary logistical talent. Regarding the techniques of
transnational drug smuggling, Escobar would become a bricoleur. He would invent or
perfect, during the 1970s and 1980s, a catalog of methods and camoflages that would
come to be applied across the hemisphere (see 158).
Remembering the series of efforts of social and cultural scientists to understand
the crisis of praxis and theory of socialism as it became manifest during the 1970s
and 1980s, little attention was paid to a conceptually underdeveloped sense, among
intellectuals and academics of the Left, of the magical powers of capitalism and the
specific problems of how these powers could be contested. Revealingly, Benjamins
fragment Capitalism as Religion (1921), together with other unconventional studies,
was absent from main discussions in critical theory, and cultural studies, as well as
postcolonial and subaltern studies, until almost the end of the twentieth century.
Across these realms, secularization was mostly a self-understood premise of a
hermeneutic and critical work concerning the present. If Marxism purported to view
religion as a matter of ideology, not of culture, something similar applied to its approach
to capitalism as a whole. An ideological and macropolitical critique of the basic social
structures in dominant Western modernity contributed too little to understanding
what Benjamin had exposed as the systems unique pragmatic-cultic basis. This had
been the extraordinary achievement of Benjamins approachthe boldness to think
about political economy in terms of interlocking affective, psycho-anthropological,
and monetary mechanisms. For Benjamin, capitalism resembled a universal fabric
that had vampirized Christianitys biggest achievementthat of making people accept
(interiorize) guilt as anatural part of life. More specifically and paradoxically, capitalism
metamorphosed guilt and debt into one psycho-economic reality. By imbuing daily
routines with their dependence on capital as god, turning utilitarianism religious, no
specific theology or dogmatic teaching was needed any more. Daily routines became
fused into an ongoing sacred state that matched the cult of the commodity, with
consumption, money-fetishism (and today credit-vampirism) all pervasive.16 These
thoughts are the key, as well, to Pablo Escobars decision to make capitalism work for
him, which meant two things: first, to actually understand intoxication as a central
issue of capitalist culture and economy and, second, to seize power over intoxication.
If there has been a certain ethical drive, not in Escobars actions and crimes but behind
the sense of righteousness that he maintained until the end, it was linked to his vision
that the verdict imposed on the main illegal narcotics of the twentieth century, was
one that the rich and sophisticated countries accounted for. And that the deprivation
hovering over the countries of the South was not the worlds higher destiny.
A double contradiction underlies Escobars success storyhis ability to move, in
no time, from his lower socioeconomic background to becoming one of the most
powerful, wealthiest people of the 1980s. By intuitively understanding intoxication
as a fundamental force within the global system, he discovered that Rausch was not

See my discussion of Benjamins short text in Violence Without Guilt, 24.
The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar Story 103

the same for the global North and the South. Historically and structurally, Colombia
needed not mind-altering drugs but capital, in the first place, as well as people able
to help the country achieve what it deserveda somewhat nave but also cunning,
rebellious attitude, given Escobars tireless drive to make the most improbable things
work. Was there anything that Southern countries were able to export to the North,
which would be exempt from dramatic price instability and unfavorable distribution
hierarchies across the world market? Well, certain highly valued narcotics seemed to
be the solution to this riddle, and this was because of the Northern consumers high
demand for illicit cocaine, especially from the 1980s onward. It is not far-fetched to
compare the major Colombian and Mexican players in the international drug market
(los grandes capos), their plebeian roots notwithstanding, with those adventurous and
violent entrepreneurs who once acted as early capitalisms pioneers in the process of
the original accumulation of capital. Escobars decision to surpass the existing laws,
or to bend them to his interests, did not mean he would disregard what was at the
heart of capitalist morality and profit maximization. It meant that he would disregard
hemispheric modernity as a Monroe-inspired, geopolitical predicament with
rampant US supervision. However, the time in which a narcocapitalist project from
the South could drastically, as well as violently, change the rules in order to establish
a modified order of national and hemispheric scope had passed. Moreover, Escobars
idealism, his vision of Colombian prosperity based on a transnational narcocapitalist
initiative of fabulous dimensions (the magical aspect), was, in its own missionary
fervor, unimpressed by the puritanist zest that vibrated in the Norths anti-drug policy.
The entire problematic acquired a complexity that even challenged presuppositions
about the existing economic world order, when Escobar and other capos made their
offer to the Colombian state to simply pay off its external debt. The alarm this gesture
caused among the global power players becomes transparent if one conceeds that debt
is a matter of dependence and not of financial return, in the first place.
Building on intoxication, Escobar knew he would be working in two different
directionsthat of manufacturing and providing enormous amounts of cocaine to
consumers in the North, and that of el billete for him, his network, and his country.
Felipe Aljures film, The Colombian Dream (2007), makes pertinent the intoxicating
power that the drug economy held over substantial parts of Colombian culture.
Narcotics traffic changed the status of money in this peripheral country by boosting
an actual delirium with dramatic consequences. The desire to partake in the game
of el billete suddenly undermined the existing structure of social hierarchies and
values, becoming a mediator for the erection of pseudo-dreamworlds in actual life.
An aggressively ecstatic promise, not just for a better but for a completely new life, to
which part of the lower and middle classes succumbed, and in which the upper classes
indulged while trying not to show their face. In the logic of the Colombian Dream,
Pablo Escobar, the Medelln cartel, and their allies literally became the rainmakers of
Colombia by tapping the Norths own need for magic, propelling large quantities of
illicit cocaine into the black markets of the US, and introducing miraculous amounts
of narcodollars into their own country. But the Escobar story has more things to tell. Its
hero completely uprooted the concept of the political status quo in Colombia.
104 Narcoepics

The Rainmaker from the Global South: Power and predicament

The study that precedes this book, Violence Without Guilt, argues that if a leading
part of political philosophy today has started to engage itself in the analysis and
critique of global capitalism, at issue is not only a theorizing about the disaster zones
of contemporary modernity. The Global South is the existential and epistemological
blueprint, from where a critical hermeneutics of our world has to set out. It was
Benjamin who, in his Critique of Violence (1921) repoliticized the concept of
bare life. According to his arqueological inquisition, in which Marxist critique and
eschatological imagination combine, bare life has a primary connotation related to
guilt. Bare life is essentially and naturally burdened by a guiltiness that exists, which
is without visible trace or evidence of wrongdoing. From this unusual focus, bare
life can be thought of as a notion that is eminently political. Agambens well-known
discussion of the sovereigns power over life and death17 shows only one side of the
coin. The other side has to do with the visceral yet cunning interest that ruling powers
take in capitalizing on the subconscious of the peoplea kind of pre-sovereign reality.
What the sovereign is able to instantiate as exception (the right to punish, as Hobbes
would say) is held in suspense as long as citizens, trying to keep their latent guiltiness at
bay, dissociate themselves from practicing nonconformist, rigorous citizenship. Social
contracts, citizens rights, individual autonomy, and rational politics are the signposts
of subjectivation so that subjection can exist. In a world that has been forsaken by God
and a higher good, guilt has become an ubiquitous notion and, not by chance, it is
meant to draw on intoxication. Guilt is that condition that everyone is eager to escape
(thus accepting its spell), but which is omnipresent at one level or another, andin
the shape of ongoing projectionsis all the more required or coopted for sanctioning
those excesses that big politics has been imposing since passing the epocal threshold
of 198991. For example, the phenomenal achievement of the discourse on terror
is not that it combats terrorists, in the first place, but that it creates a subconscious
layer that starts operating as a safeguard against practices or even thoughts that fall
under the diffuse, all-out concept of terrorism. Thus, preemptive strikes against the
potentiality of terrorrism can acquire the status of normal affairs. This strategy is not
a post-9/11 invention. A previous training course, especially since the 1980s, when the
stigmatization of the political Left lost its efficiency was the war on drugs. The aims of
the war on drugs are, of course, manifold and its consequences, in part, beyond control.
But it is never too late to ask the simple question: who benefits most from the the drug
war and, today, from the current politics of democratic wars? This is not to imply that
Escobar was innocent, however. His guiltiness would allow, after his death, making
the war on drugs still more sophisticated and more ruthless, as well as more cynical.
As far as Colombias political ruling circles were concerned, their pragmatic and
ruthless members realized that eventually turning Escobar into a scapegoat in order
to sanitize what was, in fact, a multilayered organism with myriad types of clientelism
and self-serving interests, would allow a great conservative coup that would support a

See Giorgio Agamben. Homo Sacer, 106.
The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar Story 105

neoliberal makeover of the country to be launched.18 One of the authentic tragedies,

inscribed in the concatenation of events and the hidden maneuverings of politicians,
military players, and diplomats during the late 1980s would be the sacrifice of Luis
Carlos Galna presidential candidate and one of the very few who was determined
to put an end to a corrupt system and inaugurate a new era of national politics.
If we concede that Salazars narratives19 help us reflect on the contradictory locus of
homo sacer in the Western hermisphere, it comes as a challenge to consider Pablo Escobars
life and death in the way of a politics of bare life. Even Doa Hermilda herself, Escobars
mother, shows a radical stance regarding the perception of what is termed law and order.
She experienced firsthand, during the civil wars of the violencia, when she and her family
escaped, as if by miracle (40), from being massacred by conservative fanatism, how being
killed outside the rule of law was a reality imminent in life. What her son inherited from
his mother, whom he adored like a saint, was to hate the conditions that had relegated
humans to precarious existence, experienced as surviving and striving in close familiarity
with rightlessnessa drastic form of guiltiness per se. The young Escobars vowto become
a Leftist, but a rich one (33, also 43)sounds no less strange than that of a person who
associates money and possessions with dignity and charisma, but who is also determined
to bring about change for people of his social class and, especially, the local communities of
the greater Medelln area. Later, Escobar spends large amounts of money as a way to show
affection, demanding unconditional respect and loyality, while never perceiving the state as
an abstract authority. The violent aspect of his hatred of bare life, his and his familys search
for respect and for rejoicing, not precisely in spending as others did, but in buying the favors
of others, and in the purchase of houses and fincas, will reside in Escobars turning the
wheel aroundordaining on his enemies the status of homo sacer.
Pablo learned from his mother that combating precarious life was a sacred mission,20
but the lesson provided by El Padrino (Alfredo Gmez, el gran capo del contrabando,
51) was more insidious. What for others would have meant an unlearning or a betrayal of
political modernity had less negative connotations for Escobar, who grew up outside the
virtues of abstract rights, that is, at the margins of a social edifice whose success rested on
its sublimization of justice and reason. In 1974, Padrino Gmez had established a network
inside Colombias conservative political class, one that allowed him and his contraband
business to count on the backing of parliamentarians from different strands. That same
year, the 24-year old Escobar is imprisoned for car theft, and it happens that he meets
Gmez in the La Ladera penitentiaryGmez having finally been caught for smuggling,
using military trucks. He is released after a few months, due to lack of evidence, and
Escobar recalls that politicians of the highest national ranks had visited El Padrino in his
prison cell (53). Pablo benefits from these connections and he, too, is released. In his prison
records registering a lack of proof, there is a prosecutors note that refers to the deaths of
several witnesses and other irregularities. With these events, Pablo understood that his
bosses, in spite of their sins, moved in the legal world with surprising liberty (54).

See Forest Hylton. Extreme Makeover.
We are referring to both No nacimos pa semilla and Pablo Escobar.
See my discussion of the concept of sacred labor in Violence Without Guilt, 113 ff.
106 Narcoepics

In 1976, shortly after he married Victoria Henao, from a relatively prosperous family,
Pablo runs into his first major confrontation with the law. A group of his traffickers is
intercepted by the DAS (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, 57) that proceeds
to set a trap for him. After the police discover cocaine valued at 23 million pesos, hidden
in a spare tire, they seem ready to accept a bribe. The gang members make a phone call,
and shortly afterwards Escobar, his brother Gustavo, and his cousin Mario appear at the
predetermined spot, the La Playa Ice Cream Store in the municipality of Itagu.

Pablo greeted the agents in a friendly manner and invited them to sit down at a
table. Everything in life has a solution . . . Ill give you five thousand dollars as
down payment on a bigger amount and everything will be fixed, he was saying
when other agents stormed the ice cream store. Youre under arrest for trafficking
and attempted bribery. They confiscated three vehicles and took them to
jail. (57)

The case was assigned to a female judge, Mariela Espinosa, who, we read in a terse
description, was a tall, thin, intelligent and honest woman (57). When she started
receiving threats, her answer was If I have to die for putting someone, no matter how
important, in jail, Ill die (ibid.). Pablo, for his part, sets forth a strategy to influence
the judicial apparatus in Medelln.

He managed, without the decision being approved by the Supreme Court of Justice,
no one knows how, to get the trial moved to the court in the distant city of Ipiales,
arguing that the merchandise [the drug] had been bought there. Pablo hired as
his lawyer a brother of the judge himself, the one who had refused the offer of a
bribe, in order to remove him from the case. The new judge agreed, in exchange
for money, to set him free after a few months. (58)

Mariela Espinoza had to archive the case, after declaring that she herself, the director
of the DAS, and the detectives carrying out the operation had been threatened. Pablo
refrained from killing her in revenge, but because of her obstinacy he condemned
her to walk on foot for the rest of her life (ibid.). Every time she bought a car, the
vehicle was stolen, set on fire, or pushed over a precipice. In turn, Monroy Arenas, the
director of the DAS in Medelln, and two police agents who had been involved in the
traffickers imprisonment were killed.
Between the time that he took revenge on these representatives of the state
executive, and the end of Escobars vendetta against almost every prosecutor, politician,
or journalist who had the courage to rigorously address his role in the drug trade,
another eight years would pass. However, the matrix of a dreadful strategy had become
clear. State functionaries who wanted to see him behind bars or in later years handed
over to US justice, were punished for not obeying the unwritten rule of accepting big
money. Escobar, after benefitting from Gmezs infralegal politics, learns the lesson
so well that he surpasses El Padrinos achievements in coopting the law. Escobars
mother, whose memories Salazar uses as one of the testimonial clues, tells us if half
the country isnt in jail for corruption, its because Pablo always paid cash, he never
used checks (22).
The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar Story 107

He gave money to politicians, to high court magistrates who advised him on

judicial formulas, to guerrilla fighters with whose cause he sympathized, to bankers
and builders who projected excellent deals for him. . . . To others, instead of giving
them money, he did them favors. One politician asked him to lend him an airplane
for his electoral campaign, another asked that he kill a hostage. Another one, to
ask him: Please make two attempts against my life, and Pablo, generous as always,
gave him the two attempts for free, increasing his popularity and propelling his
election. (23)
Escobars alleged generosity was not a euphemism, for he was quick to donate large
quantities of money to bring about a culture of favors and assignments that gave
him the image of being an omnipotent provider. Extravagant amounts of illicit drug
money served him as politico-affective means that he calculated meticulously. Across
a spectrum of empire built on informal hierarchies, that is, on a blend of the culture
of the gift and foundationalist capitalist behavior, readers encounter a large gallery
of people who became members of his court and then his adversaries as his ship
began to sink. Is this an anti-modern political art of using big money, or are we dealing
with an underground sphere that is enabled by the excesses of global exchange and
redistribution of wealth? Salazars readers learn of Pablos way of earning and spending,
of his being inflexible and caring at the same time, of his versatility and boldness as he
buys judges, police officers, and politicians, and giving himself, time and again, a
banquet of women with fresh skin, new breasts and toned bodies (54). What seemed,
from the outside, to be brutal and irrational excess was carried out and supervised
by a man whose demeanor was essentially simple, and who detested the snobbish
self-fashioning of the upper class (see 160).
The times in which global capitalism redefined its politics in the hemisphere by
means of what Naomi Klein later called the shock doctrine21 were good times,
in a country like Colombia, for someone with Escobars instinct and talents. Pablo
and his brother Gustavo had become seriously involved with Padrino Gmez by
1973, the same year that General Augusto Pinochet, in order to clear the way for
hemispheric politics conceived of by the Chicago Boys, submerged the democratic
government of Chiles socialist president Salvador Allende in a blood bath. Economic
deregulation became the neoliberal trope, especially in the cases of weaker
countries, which was the maxim that all dictatorships of the Southern Cone pushed
forward. Other Latin American countries were given the same message without a
modernizing coup detatthe promise and the warning that there was only one
path out of the crisis. It might not be far-fetched to observe that Escobar, and all the
other Colombian drug-trafficking cartels that rose to unprecedented power during
the 1970s and 1980s, worked to successfully impose their own absolute economic
liberalism, disregarding even the authority of the superstate north of the Ro
Grande. In fact, however, Escobar was never hostile toward US culture; he admired
the great mythical heroes of the American way of life, drawing lessons from them

See Naomi Klein. The Shock-Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.
108 Narcoepics

that would fit his own genius. In that regard, as well as in others, he was a master of
paradox. During the 1970s, the demand for cocaine in the US grew to such an extent
that the snow business largely replaced the trafficking of marijuana (489). A kilo
of coke in Colombia is bought for seven thousand dollars. In the United States, it is
put in a grinder, chopped up, powdered milk is mixed in and it becomes three kilos.
One hundred and fifty thousand dollars (49).
Put in the words of the implicit narrator,
In spite of the immense sums that are dedicated to curbing the traffic and lowering
its consumption, coke was and is a frenetic business that lives on an anxious
society. And it finds its niche especially with those executives who are after higher
productivity. Coke, with the implicit values that it carries, is the typical drug of
neoliberal capitalism. (158)
In this golden epoch of cocaine, Lpez Michelsen, the president of Colombia, took
a neoliberal measure sui generis. In order to facilitate the influx of dollars for the
nations benefit, he established the so-called ventanilla siniestra (the sinister window),
authorizing the Bank of the Republic (el Banco de la Repblica) to launder the dollars
generated by the marijuana and cocaine trades (60).
Pablo used to allow himself one marijuana joint per day, late at night when he was
sketching out strategic decisions, planning several transactions at the same time and
enjoying a few hours of rapt concentration. But he refused to sell drugs to people
in his own country. On December 2, 1982,22 Escobar accompanied the politicians
Santofimio Botero and Jairo Ortega on their trip to Madrid to attend Felipe Gonzlezs
inauguration as prime minister of Spain. There is an anecdote that after the ceremony,
at a private meeting, a well-known Colombian journalist approaches Pablo to ask for
some cocaine. The answer is brisk: I am a decent man, I do not provide that stuff
(98). During those same years, Escobar seriously tried to become a politician. This
started with his involvement in social work, to improve the existential conditions and
the self-esteem of young people in some of Medellns marginal comunas (see 778,
7981). There he preached against drug addiction. When he was initiating a project to
construct 5,000 new apartments for Medellns poor families (80), as well as supporting
schools, he also tried to launch a social discourse; he organized about 100 committees
to which he provided the financial and material aid to carry out communitarian
projects. Words like ecology, participation, self-direction / autogestion . . . were mixed
in his discourse with a populism and an immoderate exultation of his personality
(78). Salazars narrator believes that, with his social works, Escobar resembled a
somewhat medieval character blending the social bandit, the generous patriarch, and
the primitive politician (812).
In early 1982, Escobar started campaigning for a short period of time to become
a Liberal parliamentarian (91). His connections were important: Alberto Santofimio
Botero, a leading politician from the Partido Liberal, and Jairo Ortega, once the

My correction (October 1, 1982, the date given in Salazars book, does not correspond with the
actual event).
The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar Story 109

lawyer of El Padrino and founder of el Movimiento de Renovacin in Antioquia

(92). A problem arose when, at the same time, Ortega had invited Escobar to be an
alternate on the list of candidates that he chaired for the Chamber of Representatives.
Luis Carlos Galn, the young and radical leader of New Liberalism at the national
level, was campaigning for the presidency. The conjuncture was not good, and Galn,
together with Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, his second in command, decided to expel both
Ortega and Escobar from the movement, which they did at a mass demonstration in
the center of Medelln. Given Galns strong attacks against the corporate ambitions
of the drug cartels (see 723), the act was unusual for Colombias political class, but
it could have been expected. What was startling was rather Escobars role: what made
him join Galns movement when he was the most strongly moralizing among the
presidential candidates (ibid.)? The narrators comment points to the question of if,
and to what extent, Pablos commitment was actually more than a flirting with politics.
Was he eager to become a parliamentarian in the reform movement in order to help
introduce real changes and to commit himself to social works? Did he really share
with Galn the fight against a corrupt ruling class, as he repeatedly said? If this were
the case, his peculiar ethics seemed to believe in the immorality of stealing from state
finances while not contradicting his role as a prosperous exporter of cocaine (ibid.).
Escobars resentment against the Colombian connection, the old nexus between
the oligarchy and government leaders, grew stronger over the years. While he was on
his fabulous rise of illicit income and influence, he even aspired a protagonism within
his countrys high society and was surprised that they, although benefitting from
his business, closed their doors to him. My money is worth the same as theirs, he
argued, while being struck by the double morality of the oligarchy. How poor are
Medellns wealthy! Escobar used to say when he looked at his own, enormous fortune
(see 23). He did not have any problem with cynical, that is, corrupt institutional
and transinstitutional networks that he had learned to use to his own benefit. Yet he
considered himself to be differentsomeone who had not been born into a privileged
home and classbut felt from early on a tectonic zest that would help him become a
sovereign, a prince of his own kind, rising above those rich people that he paid but
also disguised. At the core of this attitude resided a strange, a nonsecular beliefthat
a person like him could impose his will on the existing structures in a contemporary
yet still peripheral society. Amazingly, this attitude could transmute itself into sacred
ambition from the moment that both politics and the law start targeting Escobar:
he metamorphosed into a death-dealing creature that distributed violence beyond
worldly norms. These are compelling yet also precarious analogies; Escobar had a
foundationalist personality, but he despised the secular metaphysical authorities: the
modern state and the law. This might have, in the end, accounted for the affinity he felt
toward Luis Carlos Galn, the reformer. Deep was his rage, then, about Galns declaring
him an undesirable person from the viewpoint of the reform movement. His hurt
egocentrism and limited political rationality, together with the severe misjudgments of
his political allies, led him to join, shortly afterwards, Santofimios own presidential
campaign (93). This 1982 campaign stirred up public debates about the entrance of
hot money into big politics in Colombia. However, as we continue to read, Belisario
110 Narcoepics

Betancur, the conservative candidate, was also reported to have received large bribes
after 1978 (see 97). Betancur was said to have promised, during the 1982 campaign, to
not extradite Colombians to the United States.
A clue to understanding the interest of the Medelln cartel, as well as other groups
(see 89), in fueling presidential campaigns is linked to the matter of extradition.
Having backed the neoliberal dictatorships of the Southern Cone, ruling circles
in the United States became increasingly concerned about Colombia in view of the
activities of major informal players at the local, national, and transnational levels
the three main guerrilla organizations and the drug cartels. While crucial parts of
Colombias political class still backed powerful narco-interests in the 1970s, President
Turbay (197882) congregated with Washington on the matter and in 1979 signed,
almost without Colombian press coverage, the Extradition Treaty23 (72). In the years
that follow, Escobar and his allies venture to figuratively move mountains in order to
undermine this bilateral legal construct of the global era and to counter the eventual
impossibility, for Colombia, to sidestep the geopolitical imposition. Conflicts over the
Tratado de Extradicin entre Colombia y los Estados Unidos propelled one of the worst
escalations of violence that the country was going to face in the twentieth century.24
After Galn and Lara declared Escobar an undesirable person preventing his
participation in the New Liberalism movement, Escobar set a trap and Rodrigo Lara
Bonilla got caught, having accepted a check for hot money from the narcotrfico
(11819). Both President Betancur and Galn publicly backed Lara, who had mounted
a strategic attack on the narcotraficantes, among whom he identified Escobar as the
main capo. The media joined the campaign and, for the first time, Escobar entered
the spotlight in national and international news reports (120). Guillermo Cano,
director of El Espectador, scrutinized archives and republished a note from 1976,
indicating Escobars involvement in the illegal transaction of Itag, which Pablo
had skillfully managed to relegate to the archives (121). The Ministry of Justice had
a case reopened against Escobar and held him responsible for the assassination of
DAS agents several years earlier. The message was clear as Lara, who by then was
the Minister of Justice, made the ongoing denunciation of Pablo Escobar Gaviria a
cornerstone of the new liberal politics, as he simultaneously intensified relationships
with the State Department. El Capo despised what he called a conjunctural attempt to
gain media popularity. At this point, Escobar still held the status of parliamentarian
and saw in these actions a concerted intrigue against his political future. The
situation escalated when Lara succeded, in October 1983, in having the Chamber
of Representatives remove parliamentarian immunity that Escobar had enjoyed less
than one year. When Santofimio eventually presented him the letter of renunciation,
the response was, I am the one who writes the letters, Dr. Santofimio (123). In the
narrators words:

On the matter of extradition see M. Cherif Bassiouni. International Extradition and World Public
Order; Helen Keller. Rezeption des Vlkerrechts, 41360; Kai Ambos. Drogenkrieg in den Anden, 93
ff; Peter Andreas and Ethan Nadelmann. Policing the Globe, 1514.
The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar Story 111

Pablo suffered the first big defeat in his life. Until now he had progressed, his
fortune was immense, he was obeyed by allthe traffickersin Medelln and he
was widely recognized in the guild across the country. Hed achieved acceptance in
important sectors of the military, economic and political establishments, and had
successfully walked along the path of social leadership. He had even thought that,
like the Kennedys in the United States who had moved on from being whiskey
smugglers to presidents and presidential candidates, he and his sons, in a country
like Colombia where last names and honor were bought, could repeat history. But
no. Now it turned out that he was declared proscribed while those who had official
power, also full of sin, could move on in peace. (123)
These last words allude to what would become the underground story of the defeat of
Colombias gran capo. Within the crisis of a system too many of whose protagonists
were guilty, there was a chance to refashion the ancient figure of the pharmakos, the
scapegoat. With his political farewell, Escobar distributed the following words:
I am publicly announcing my definitive and total withdrawal from politics . . .
in spite of the abundant votes of solidarity that have come to me from all the
municipalities and the popular neighborhoods of Medelln. I will continue my
all-out fight against the oligarchies and injustice, and against the party hacks,
authors of the eternal drama of tricking the public . . ., petty politicians: essentially
indolent facing the pain of their neighbor, and the same climbers when it relates
to bureaucratic partition. Because of this, the depressing contrast of those who
have nothing confronting those who understand as their own exclusive legacy the
accumulation of capital, opportunity and advantages, and who are far from filling
any social function, hurts me. I will now establish well the enormous difference
between my seventeen years of arduous and tireless civic battle, compared to the
few months of my active participation in politics, to which I gave myself completely,
thinking that in this way I could direct many things and resources in favor of the
people. In order to finally conclude that those pressures and popular afflictions are
far from the awareness of the politicians, whose egotistical looks are only found
fixed on touching up their own deteriorated narcissistic images and to increasing
their tottering, rotten fiefdoms. (1234)
No doubt, from the beginning Escobar had been badly advised by the politicians
Ortega and Santofimio when they urged him to enter their campaign. The fact that
he was clearly not a master of cynicismthat birth mark of the Colombian political
aristocracy, which Laura Restrepo scrutinizes in her novel Delirio (see Chapter
5)shows the moral and practical dilemma of a hero, in Salazars epic, who engaged
in illegal business while cultivating the illusion that by doing so he could serve the
greater good.
While Escobar was suffering political defeat, Lara Bonilla had become directly
involved with the DEA (the United States Drug Enforcement Administration) to plan
the destruction of what was considered to be the largest processing center of cocaine
in Latin America, Tranquilandia, operated by the Medelln cartel. On the American
side there was the goal of working through specific training scenarios and test cases
112 Narcoepics

in order to enforce strategic and technological control of the hemisphere. Chemical

processing supplies used in Tranquilandia, such as ether, were of foreign origin and
had to be delivered in tanques to the tropical Caquet jungles along the River Yar.
With the help of satellite tracking instruments that the DEA had installed in one
of the tanques, the coordinates of the area were established, and the laboratory was
taken in an aerial police raid on March 12, 1984. To Minister Laras own surprise, huge
amounts of cocaine valued at several million US dollars were confiscated, as well as
three airplanes and two helicopters. An infrastructure including a 1500-meter landing
strip, electric generators, a medical center, a drugstore, corrals for domestic animals,
loads of canned food and beer, and several laboratories was destroyed (see 124). The
narrator tells that, according to the official version, the camp had been surrounded by
guerrillas who fled when the air attack occurred. The United States embassador coined
an expression that would be henceforth used to target several enemies with one shot:
narco-guerrilla (125). As the narration argues, the FARC taxed coca cultivation and
processing, as they did other commercial activities functioning in the region under
guerrilla control. However, armed conflicts and kidnappings showed that the FARC
were not acting as Escobars ally.25 Geostrategically, at this point the DEA had carte
blanche to operate on behalf of Colombian matters, and its use of supraterritorial
weapons and intelligence devices would decisively tip the scales. In other words, the
sovereign behind the scenes was not Lara Bonilla, Minister of Justice, who acted as
the arm of the executive, but instead a foreign governmental agency. This sovereign
nexus between coercive and technological power will become more obvious when
Escobar is persecuted by the newly formed Elite Force of the Colombian Police, but he
could only be trapped, finally, with the aid of the technical apparatus of a globalized
military intelligence.

The drama of extradition, and the impossible sovereign

When Colombia became the central scenario, in the 1980s, of the US-led war on
drugs, the application of philosophical-political categories such as sovereign power,
state of exception, and empire appears to be, on the one hand, suggestive, but results,
on the other, in complications. Salazar, while recounting Colombian history, traces
an anthropology of political conflict; his narrator presents the interplay of political
actors and social subjects but, while paying attention to individual and institutional
motivations and particular circumstances in which decisions are taken, refrains from
personalizing the spheres of conflict. This mode of sobriety seems appropriate in view
of the heated rhetoric and semi-religious justifications of the war on drugs as a global
crusade against evil. By calling things by their names, referring a large variety of voices
about Escobars role, and exploring realms of suspense not as occasions for dramatic
heightening but for immanent revelations, a sense of analytic commitment arises

According to Salazars narrative, the FARC did not negotiate. See for example 1467.
The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar Story 113

without moralization. An alertness is born where the abnormal and improbable is

narrated in its stunning presence, but not turned into a teleological given.
A few thoughts of Carl Schmitts The Nomos of the Earth (1950) come to mind, referring
to the introduction of the concept of exception into international affairs. According to
Schmitt, a new type, and a new image of a state of exception, contesting European traditions
of war took hold with the crisis of the Jus Publicum Europaeum26, that was signaled with
the rise of America after the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine27. Has not the war on
drugs eventually functioned as a hemispheric extension of the post-World War II role that
the United States took on as the greatest, that is, the especially elected authority in a new
world order that emerged from the war against German fascism? Schmitt indeed spoke
of Americas elect(ed)ness, using a religious, pre-secular metaphor in the mid-twentieth
century.28 The air raid on Tranquilandia in Colombias tropical jungles should perhaps
not be interpreted in Schmittian terms, belonging to different historical constellations.
It is, nevertheless, associative of certain Schmittian images of a planetary, despatializing
aerial warfare ensuing from the international (dis)balance of forces that crystalized with,
and after World War II.29 The presence of powerful narcotraficantes as new local and
hemispheric agents from the 1970s onward contributed to extending the discourse of
criminalization, and to moving the laws of extradition forward. From the 20th-century
situation, Schmitt had already pictured that normal wars would become obsolete, and
that an era of absolute war would begin, a problematic that he continued discussing in
his 1963 book, Theorie des Partisanen (Theory of the Partisan).30
Salazars story about Pablo Escobar shows that, at the point at which the extradition of
criminals became part of a geopolitical strategy to redefine the enemy on the Western
hemisphere, and was enforced by sovereign warfare, a conflict scenario arose that was
unprecedented in modernity. 31 Ironically, the escalation of the fight between Minister
Rodrigo Lara Bonilla and Escobar in Colombia becomes recognizable as a clash of
two visions of radical national change, visions that concerned Colombias position
in the hemispheric economic and political playground. Roughly speaking, Escobar
tended toward economic sovereignty and his own political influence and that of his
clan, together with effective social contributions, applying both money and coertion
beneath and beyond the existing law, while using the drug market in the North to his
own benefit. Lara Bonilla aimed at overcoming his countrys contaminated political
system, and simultaneously favored the American hegemonic interest.

See Carl Schmitt. Der Nomos der Erde im Vlkerrecht des Jus Publicum Europaeum.
See ibid., 26465.
See ibid., 265. Regarding the transformation of the concept of sovereignty in Schmitts later writings
like Nomos and Theory of the Partisan, Sigrid Weigel writes, sovereign is not he who decides about
the state of the exception, but sovereign is the victor, who occupies a sovereign states territory
(S. W. Walter Benjamin: Die Kreatur, das Heilige, die Bilder, 66). And, as can be added regarding
the international manufacturing of drug prohibition treaties and contemporary extradition laws,
sovereign is also who interferes in another sovereign states jurisdiction.
See C. Schmitt, Der Nomos, 29398.
See C. Schmitt. Theory of the Partisan: Intermediate Commentary on the Concept of the Political,
For recent discussions of Schmitts geopolitical thinking see, for example, Alain de Benoist. Global
Terrorism and the State of Permanent Exception, 74.
114 Narcoepics

After the attack on Tranquilandia, Escobar, who had previously collaborated with
the functionaries of the legal system, had started to observe the actions of the Minister
of Justice, the person who, supported by the president and foreign intelligence, had
dared to make the countrys executive act against narcopower. According to the
narrative, Escobar offers 150 million pesos to the M-19 organization to kill Lara. They
not only reject the offer but defend this Galanista as one of the governments most
progressive politicians (Pablo Escobar, 126). Leaders of the Cali cartel, on the other
hand, recommend punishing Lara after he had stepped down from his post and become
an ambassador. Escobar is said to have replied,I need the minister, not the ambassador
(ibid.). On April 30, 1984, when he is returning home at dawn in his Mercedez Benz,
the minister is mortally wounded by two young men riding a motorcycle (see 1267).
Receiving news of the successful mission at the Hacienda Npoles, one of his favorite
homes, Escobar feels that he can change the world. There are unmistakable hints in the
text, pointing at his sovereign ambition and his ability to impose on society scenarios
of Baroque excess. He did not waver in confronting embodied violence (the state
executive) with physical, corporeal violencemortal punishment. Escobars obsession
is not congruent with Schmitts modern paradigm of sovereignty (sovereign is he
who decides on the state of exception), but it shows a tyrannical arbitrariness that
is evocative of Benjamins assessment of baroque sovereignty: he who dominates
violence is also sovereign, in that he can bring about a state of exception.32 Benjamin,
in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, famously pictured a particular theatricality
as the (anti-)subjective, the creaturely scenario of tyrannical transformation. In the
baroque theatre of violence, a fatal mechanism brings the tyrant and the martyr close to
one another. It is in this kind of extreme scenario that secular and nonsecular concepts
intersect, played out in the transgressive posture of the creature of the self-appointed
sovereign who destroys himself and many others. But, different from the Baroque
theater plays that Benjamin discusses, Salazars text holds its intensity by submitting
Escobars wrath of vengeance to utmost dramatic reduction.
Escobar, who is not a medieval prince or monarch, seems to associate an imaginary
scenario in which the image of Baroque violence is replaced by the paradoxical
relationships between violence and intoxicationthe drama of intoxication that is
bound to the conflicts over drugs in the local-transnational conundrum of Columbias
globalized modernity. Once again, Benjamin is helpful, not because he indicates the
destructive, fatal outcome of extreme violence, but in that he looks into the paradoxes
of violence as res mixtae:33 phenomena in which the political and the aesthetic, the
religious and the secular intersect, and which cannot be subsumed under common
notions of popular culture nor are of a defaced populism. Salazar foregrounds the
drama of intoxication, a scenario that is evocative of the Baroque drama yet
devoid of a Baroque aesthetic of excess. The drama of intoxication is not a linear
consequence of the production and distribution of illegal drugs, but a complex issue
that is ultimately tied to the geopolitical and geoeconomic predicament of the war on

Compare Sigrid Weigels formulation, Walter Benjamin, 823.
The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar Story 115

drugs itself. Intoxication is associated with the uneven, local and global dynamics of
capitalist enchantment, in Gmez-Peas words: you need magic, we [in the South]
need dollars . . . Pablo Escobar, more than anybody, knew that only by becoming
legal the (narcotics) business would disarticulate itself and the drama would cease
to exist (113).
The burial of Lara Bonilla, the assassinated minister of justice, took place in Neiva,
an occasion during which president Betancur announced to the powers of narcotraffic:
Halt there, enemies of humanity, Colombia will extradite you (128). Similar to
Schmitts rhetoric about the chosen America to perform total justice34, Betancurs
words implied that the enemies of humanity had to be tried in US courts. Escobar,
for his part, saw the presidents public announcement as the breaking of his electoral
promises. First, Escobar considered presenting proof that the Medelln cartel had
supported Betancurs election, but he followed a recommendation not to throw more
wood on the fire. After meeting in Panama, the major capos of the cartelEscobar,
the Mexican (Gonzalo Rodrguez Gacha), Carlos Lehder, and the Ochoa brothers
decided to explore the possibility of bringing about negotiations with the government,
looking for a formula for surrender to the government (1312). They considered
approaching Gabriel Garca Mrquez as a potential intermediary but finally opted
for ex-President Lpez. Lpez who realized that what was at stake was the voluntary
surrender of those who controlled 80 per cent of the cocaine traffic from Colombia
to the Northoffering to abandon and hand over laboratories, airplanes and travel
routes, and the willingness of the capos to present themselves to the Colombian legal
systemcontacted the president on May 29, 1984 (133). It was a time when a juridical
project of unusual dimensions was at issue. Betancur seemed interested, but he
maneuvered the information into the hands of the big press, so that it appeared on the
first page of El Tiempo. Washington reacted immediately and, of course, negatively. The
series of informal political deliberations that had come into being broke off. As reality
would soon show, at this very moment, the possibility of avoiding an unprecedented
avalanche of bloodshed was at stake, which would envelop Columbian cities until
1992/93, together with the devastating maneuvers through which part of the corrupt
political hierarchies tried to save face while other political actors and social groups
were sacrificed.
The year 1985 would be packed with incredible events figuring a national tragedy,
destined to take an even higher toll during the succeeding years. The new minister
of justice continues the measures that his predecessor had initiated, bringing the
legislation on the narcotics trade up to date and proceeding to extradite an increasing
number of people to the United States. At this point, Escobar (who was responsible
for Lara Bonillas murder) decides to throw his (sub)military powers into full-blown
action. The year had just begun. Coronel Ramrez, the leader of the operation against
Tranquilandia who was recently promoted to general, is shot to death. The following
month, the renowned journalist Guillermo Cano, editor of El Espectador who kept
denouncing Medellns narco business is also assassinated. But this is just the starting

See Carl Schmitt, Der Nomos der Erde, 266.
116 Narcoepics

phase of the multiple escalations. In the narrators words,For Pablo, the route of politics
closed. From that time, he tried to destroy that world where he could no longer reign.
He threw himself completely into the world of war, where he fought with the living and
ghosts. He was searching in war, in being invincible, for a new path of transcendence
(135). On a different yet not entirely remote scale, the president had allowed (or was
not able to avoid) the army to arbitrarily interfere into the peace negotiations with
the the guerrilla forces. For many Colombians, 1985 would become the year in which
justice was laid in ruins. On November 6, a unit of the M-19 political guerrilla
movement occupied the Palace of Justice by force and held almost 20 supreme court
magistrates captive, for 24 hours, in order to exert pressure on President Betancur. In
the 1985 action, labeled as mad by the leader of New Liberalism, Galn, and later
qualified as nave by its own authors, M-19 attempted to occupy the Supreme Court
building, and from this place to call upon the media in order to ask Betancur to accept
responsibility for truncating the peace agreement between the government and the
guerrillas. Salazars narrator cites Alejo, an ex-member of M-19:

In the fullness of the twentieth century we did a political reading of the liberal
doctrine of the French Revolution. . . . some people have asked us: Okay, so
why didnt you enter congress where the rotten politial class was? The answer
is simple: because we were going to renew a suit against the President of the
Republic for deficiency, and the competent authority for judging him, according
to the Constitution, was the Court. In this we were following the law exactly. . . .
We knew that by storming [the court building] there would be a gun battle and
deaths, but we did not suspect that the state had evolved toward a presidentialist
state managed by the military leadership. (144)

During this attack, during which Alfonso Reyes Echanda, the captive president of the
Supreme Court, tried to contact Betancur to plead for a cease fire to allow negotiations
but did not get any response from the president, 11 Supreme Court magistrates and its
president died, among some 50 deaths (142). What was supposed to be a violent action
for the guerrilla in order to reach the symbolic stage of justice and to push for political
negotiation, together with an attempt to exert legalistic pressure on the president, ended
up being a blood bath in which the militarys special troops attacked the palace. Salazar
speaks of a holocaust (145). Official propaganda spoke of a terroristic act fueled by
the narcotraficantes in order to destroy the judicial archives and create chaos. But the
ex-guerrilla Alejo, cited by Salazars narrator, explains the drug politics of M-19: We
were the only revolutionary organization that took a clear position on narcotraffic.
We proposed legalizing capital; no extradition, trials of the narcos in the country, and
legalization of drugs as a definite solution (144). Escobars own relationship with M-19
had been complicated and strangely unorthodox, oscillating between the capos sympathy
for the idea of social change and the audacity of guerrilla actions and his outrage when
members of the movement kidnapped the sister of Jorge Luis Ochoa of the influential
Ochoa clan, who was a player in the Medelln cartel. Both illicit movements, the Medelln
cartel and M-19, with solid logistic power and strategic political ambitions, represented
serious threats to the conservative political establishment that, beneath the surface, had
The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar Story 117

not hesitated to accept narcomoney. In one word, 1985 was the year in which the military
apparatus of the state was set on course to attack both forces frontally.35 In Salazars
text, the situation acquires the marks of a catastrophe, and Pablo Escobar seems to act
increasingly under an eschatological sign. As we read, the holocaust at the Palace of
Justice exterminated the public authority of the legislative branch in Colombia, speeding
up a process of deinstitutionalization. A week after the tragedy, a natural disaster in the
center of the country ocurred when apocalyptic avalanches generated by the errupting
Nevado del Ruiz volcano buried more than 30,000 people, and entirely destroyed the
town of Armero. This is how history is made in Colombia. One tragedy follows the
other, without there being time to think about them, and there is sediment forming, of
memories loaded with abundant pain, fertile for revenge (145).
The testimonial novel about Pablo Escobar is not a sublime account, although it
is implicitly fictional. Its fictionality rests on experience and conflict mediated by a
carefully constructed text. This has several implications, one of which relies on Salazars
use of the significant form of the exemplary history (Pablos parable) to explore
the meaning of an authentic case that, in society, has been over-codified by a host of
negative attributions. Since antiquity, the actions and inner drives of hero-villains
have spoken to chroniclers and fiction writers with particular intensity, but it was the
invention of tragedy that actually laid the grounds for placing violence at the center
of representation. Salazar, by eschewing the unfathomable edge of tragic fascination,
may have felt that the legacy of epic writing, in turn, was still open to him. It allowed
him to access contemporary political history in a literary way. Here, epic discovery and
renarration of the life of Pablo Escobar meant that defamiliarization, for the novel
to become a Brechtian Lehrstck (dialectical learning play) was not necessary. Epic
narration allowed the capture of the Baroque excess that marked Escobars life and death
precisely by avoiding any verbal heightening or hyperbolical expression. The principal
of presentation of the epic material is admonitory address implicit. In this specific
case, epic writing moves close to the investigative gesture by which the renarration
of the multilayered Escobar story becomes possible. This way, the entire history can
be brought forth as if it were pure fiction. It was the improbable and unbelievable in
contemporary human history that would be shaped in epic form, whittled down to an
elementary eloquence, so that readers could confront the hidden question: what lends
the Escobar story its profane yet prophetic contours, in one word, its truthfulness?
The features of a singular epic are woven together in the second part of the book,
one that we call the drama of extradition, tuned down to a nondramatic, heterogeneous
narrative whose nerve centers are, of course, all the more dramatic. Situated mainly
between 1986 and 1993, it unfolds from the clash between extreme narcocapitalist
power and the Norths struggle to secure its geo-economic and military hegemony in
the hemisphere, producing scenarios in which, on one side, medieval forms of warfare
intersect with, to use Schmitts expression, telluric36 yet deterritorializing partisan

On the question of peace attempts see Salazar, Pablo Escobar, 145, 146.
See Carl Schmitt. Theory of the Partisan, 2022; Louiza Odysseos. Crossing the Line: Carl Schmitt
on the spaceless universalism of cosmopolitanism and the war on Terror, 74 ff.
118 Narcoepics

techniques while, on the opposite side, the DEA, together with Colombian elite forces,
uses some of the most advanced planetary technology. The Colombian political system,
especially at the level of militarized state politics, becomes the senario in which this
conflict is fought out, as Colombian civil society is deprived, in praxi, of its rights of
democratic agency.
Pablo Escobar and his allies were fiercely determined to make extradition a first-rank
public issue in Colombia. It is here that a martyr-like figuration emerges from a secular
conflict, showing that the great capos of the drug business tried to create this legacy
by acting as informal spokesmen for a nation feeling threatened by unholy powers.
Escobar, el Mexicano, Lehder, and others try to assume the role of los extraditables
(the extraditables) at public events, and they attract the attention of the media by
acting as heroes under siege. Pablo dreamed, among other projects, of influencing the
politics of television, and he practiced speaking in front of a camera and sponsored the
production of several regional television programs in the state of Antioquia. In 1983,
he organized the First Forum against Extradition in Medelln, to which he invited the
adored television actress Virginia Vallejo,37 together with several priests and lawyers
who supported the cause (1001). This kind of initiative was linked to campaigns in the
major cities including a mass demonstration in the Plaza de Bolvar in Bogot. Carlos
Lehder coined its main, heroically self-victimizing slogan: Es preferible una tumba en
Colombia a una prisin en Estados Unidos / A grave in Colombia is preferable to a
prison in the U. S. (156). In June 1987, during a time in which the extradition treaty
was declared formally incomplete by the Supreme Court (155), Lehder is captured by
military and police forces and taken to a police station. In surprise, he saw himself
being put into a helicopter by masked agents and taken to the Catn military base; and
immediately they put him on a DEA airplane (156).
The drama of extradition unfolds with numerous storylines: at its center is Escobars
death-dealing wrath against all opponents, combined with his underground actions to
bring about a juridical situation that would allow him to be legally tried in his country.
However, at issue was not just the capture and extradition of the major capos of the
Medelln cartel, but also a substantial part of Colombias truncated political history.
It does not come as a surprise that the class in power turned to active maneuvering
to either hide or whitewash their own involvement in illegal activities. The killing of
opponents was a strategy that did not exclusively belong to Escobar. Escobar became
used to the idea that he would have to go to prison. In 1989, the parliamentarian J.
E. Nader presents the project of a law designed to invalidate the application of the
Extradition Treaty (199200). The vote on the project is blocked by the two major
protagonists of New Liberalism, Alberto Villamizar and Luis Carlos Galn, who, by
then, had become widely popular and were expected to win the upcoming presidential
election in 1990a constellation that, according to Salazar, the ruling elite perceived
as a threat. As we read, it was no secret to the army and the states intelligence forces
that Escobar sought revenge, but that at the same time, strong paramilitary interests
were opposed to Galns politics. Preparations for Galns assassination were under

See Virginia Vallejo. Amando a Pablo, odiando a Escobar, 2007.
The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar Story 119

way. Galn was aware of the danger; in 1989 several important judicial functionaries
(judiciales) had already been killed (2015). On August 18, 1989, during a public
demonstration in the town of Soacha, the leader of the New Liberalism movement
is shot. In the book that Juan Manuel Galn published about his father several years
later, he reveals that Galn, the candidate, had complained to General Maza about the
insufficient security measures that the state was offering him during the campaign,
but did not get more protection (21012). Even worse, when the wounded Galn was
on emergency transport to the hospital, he was not taken to the nearby Soacha clinic
but to a more distant and less well-equipped center, so that he was literally bleeding to
death. To date, the constellations of Galns murder have not been sufficiently resolved
(see 207). Although the army carried out, after Galns assassination, additional attacks
on the Medelln cartel and its substructures, it had acted with measured negligence
regarding Galns security while he lived (21213). This seemed to be due to the
growing influence of the anti-leftist paramilitary right within national politics.
Given that an entire military apparatus had been set in motion to eradicate the
Medelln cartel, Escobars existence becomes fantasmatic. He and the core of his gang
are on the move and escape constantly, circulating between the numerous hideouts,
fincas, and establishments across both Medelln and the region of the Middle Magdalena
River, which are part of his logistic grid. At the same time, Escobar continues preparing
and coordinating numerous coercive actions against his enemies (selected political
functionaries, journalists, and police, as well as members of his own large network
who he believes are traitors), while he secretly meets with lawyers and allies from
Bogot and other parts of the country. This is the time that witnesses the kidnapping
of persons from the upper class including family members of leading politicians, for
example, the wife and daughter of Villamizar, constellations of an unprecedented
drama that are reported in Gabriel Garca Mrquez novelistic testimonio Noticia de
un secuestro (1996; News of a Kidnapping, 1997). Strategically, Escobar is undergoing
severe loss. The group of Fidel Castao, who has become the head of the anti-guerrilla,
paramilitary organization sides, from now on, with the elite force of the police, directed
by General Martnez, which has been designed to locate and destroy Escobars support
networks, his locations and infrastructures, and himself. At the same time, the elite unit
had gained the support of the rulers of the Cali drug cartel in their effort to destroy el
capo ms desafiante. The narrative through which Salazar tells of Escobars ongoing
flight and retreat is based on different sources, one of which is the reports of General
Martnez. Several times, he is cited verbatim from sources in which he later recalls
the conflict in first-person narrative (2512, 259). Another source is the memories of
Roberto Escobar Gaviria, Pablos brother.38 An immanent narrator takes care of moving
between scenarios and threads:
Pablo was in a wood and zinc cabin in Aquitania, in the middle of the Middle Magdalena
jungle . . . From there, while he walked along rivers and labyrinths . . ., inspite of the
blows, he made his fame as an invincible man grow. He continued to play with aces
in his hand: when the people infiltrated in the Armed Forces told him of operations

Roberto Escobar Gaviria. Mi hermano Pablo; see, for example, 255.
120 Narcoepics

against him, he usually left his refuge, moved to a neighboring municipality and then
returned to the zone of Napols, where he moved freely. (253)
In the summer of 1990, the overall situation is still marked by escalated conflict,
uncertainty, and ongoing fears. In the Elite Corps military base, officials permanently
evaluated: they had eliminated Pablos key lieutenants.His possibilities of communication
were limited, but he maintained . . . control of delinquency in Medelln. A new wave of
kidnappings, with which he made the state bow, showed them that the capo still had
his operative capacity (263). The unimaginable occurs when Csar Gaviria, the newly
assigned president, decides to take the pulse of the countrya country tired of the
proliferation of car bombs, magnicides, and kidnappingsand resolves to negotiate
with narcoterrorism (ibid.). Gaviria knew that the issue was how to deal with Pablo
regarding the theme of extradition without the Colombian government appearing
to the international community to be giving him impunity (ibid.). At issue was a
negotiation that would lead the capo to be tried without being extradited.
The improbable, extreme situation is linked to Escobars being a fugitive, and at the
same time pushing hard to force his will on an unbalanced state apparatus.39 A scenario
unfolds at the edge of, or beyond normative regulation of conflict, being heterodiegetically
embedded in free indirect style, and thus differing from the personalizing narration that
reigns, for example, in Mi hermano Pablo. On the one hand, readers are led through the
puzzles of one of the truly Baroque power struggles40 of the late twentieth century. On the
other, we do not watch the drama from a frontal perspective, for this would result in tainted
realism, in either a tragic or an abject heightening. It is as though readers were following
Pablo Escobars steps from a somewhat displaced angle, a sort of daimon-like take. Fabio
Ochoa, a former member of the Medelln group who had already surrendered himself
to jurisdiction has the idea that, with the help of the priest Rafael Garca-Herrerosa
venerable old man, a Colombian television personality, a great social benefactorEscobar
could be convinced to surrender. A saint would be the proper medium to attract a warrior,
especially a faithful warrior like Pablo. And thus it happens. The magical realism of this
situation is not literary but part of the theatricality of late twentieth-century Colombian
history. According to the narrative, Pablo Escobar was literally taken by the hand by
the 83-year-old priest, and convinced to drop several of his ongoing petitions that had
complicated the process of surrender. Using an image that is not unfamiliar to Colombian
political imagination, the Minotaur is led out of his labyrinth and into the custody of
civilization. But this Minotaur had been alert as he had cunningly prepared the ground
for his reclusion by the state. As though it were a nonplace, worthy of a science fiction
scenario, La Catedral, the only prison that Escobar is willing to accept as his new place of
residence comes into sight (see 278). Tainted with a surreal slight of destiny, given the
overall geopolitical situation, the phrase that concludes Chapter VIII resounds: And on
the 19th of June in 1991, after the Constituent Assembly had prohibited the extradition of
citizens, the warrior turned himself in (279).

According to Coronel Naranjo, the institution was not in the capacity to contain the terrorism any
further (Salazar, 285).
See in Salazar. 266, 267, 271, 272; 2756.
The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar Story 121

La Catedral was a perfect heterotopos; its construction had been planned by Escobar
himself. He had chosen the site, and it seems that he had also arranged its purchase by
the municipality of Envigado whose mayor supervised the construction.41 The place
was located on a steep mountain top, some 7,000 feet above sea level (2,133 meters),
offering a topography that could inspire the image of a castle. Since Escobar had the
idea that air attacks were a special threat, he had chosen a place that was usually covered
with fog from late afternoon well into the morning (283). When the fog disappeared,
the view toward the city of Medelln was splendid. The access to the areas of Itag
and Envigado, and on the less steeper side to the Cathedral itself could be perfectly
observed. Escobar had achieved an agreement in which a main issue was his own safety
and that of members of his gang who surrendered together with him.42
Will Escobar, moving into the La Catedral prison, refrain from directing financial
coups and a hierarchic culture of loyalties through Medellns informal grid of violent
transactions? He has a blend of Machiavellian capacities, but he lacks the caution and
measure that the Italian author had recommended for efficient rulers, even in an age
of absolutism. The problem was that Escobars power would have vanished, or turned
against itself, had he not kept fueling its channels with lots of money and all kinds of
orders, but money and authority were not generated by peaceful or legal activities. The
agreement between Escobar and the government goes bad after exactly one year. For
several years, his enemies from the Cali cartel, in their attempt to improve their position
vis--vis extradition, had been collaborating with the government and its special
forces to destroy the gran capo. Former members of the Medelln cartel also joined
the anti-Escobar crusade of the Pepes (the Persecuted by Pablo Escobar).43 Pablo,
from his new, secure place of reclusion, seeks to avenge and punish, while keeping
his financial channels working (3067). This, together with his rigorous control of the
prison complex and surrounding area, including its armed administration, eventually
leads to the governments decision, as Escobar himself had always feared, to seize La
Catedral by military means.
By entering the Cathedral, Pablo Escobar had indeed obtained a site of his own,
and thus a political status. He himself had established the rules for his imprisonment
and had also set up the rules for control and administration of his new castle. The
Cathedral brought Pablo and the members of his gang temporary security from
military persecution, and it provided a new headquarter from which he could begin
to reactivate his debilitated power networks. Here, he came to resemble homo sacer
most closely and in a particular waymeeting place of the secluded outcast and the
sovereign who could still decide over the lives and deaths of other people. Scenarios of
history can be enigmas to which only aesthetic figures can give a deeper meaning. La
Catedral appears as the actual Baroque stage of the Escobar story. It was at the point
where the drama migrated from temporary movement and discontinuity into a spatial
and even choreographic setting that it became recognizable as Trauerspielas a

See Roberto Escobar Gaviria. Mi hermano Pablo, 456.
See ibid., 46.
Regarding the Cali cartel, see in Salazar. 17885, 31617.
122 Narcoepics

dynamic in which the tragic is replaced by a logic of sadness.44 Let me restateit is the
bizarre, almost fantastic closeness of Baroque contours of the tyrant (in decline), and
the martyr, which discloses the main aesthetic symptom, together with the narrative
convergences of Salazars illuminating book. Escobar, in the year during which he
reigned from the Cathedral, not only sought to prolong an informal state of exception
across the country by keeping in function his politics of life and death, but in his new
castle, he ruled in literal and theatrical terms. After a few months, the prison was called
the Club Medelln, metamorphosing into a meeting place that was visited by the most
diverse members of Colombian societypriests and lawyers, soccer players of national
rank, beauty queens, politicians, journalists, cartoonists.
Escobars fashion sense was strangely unorthodox. He preferred blue jeans, tennis
shoes, white shirts with blue stripes, and an elegant watch but abhorred gold chains or
bracelets that would have made him look like a mafioso. At the same time, he used
a black Russian fur hat that his mother had brought from a Moscow visit and which,
combined with a red scarf from Spain, he attempted to turn into an identity symbol
like Che Guevaras beret (295). Due to his body weight of over 110 kilograms (some
240 pounds), despite his medium hight, and a rapt expression on his bulky face, several
fotographs testify to an impressive countenance.45
On the occasion of Pablo Escobars surrender in June, 1991, a cartoonist in Medelln
had made a cartoon for the newspaper El Tiempo entitled The Epistle of Pablo.
The image showed him with wings and the halo of a saint ascending toward heaven,
accompanied by the blessings of Padre Garca-Herreros. Escobar had Guez, the
caricaturist, brought to La Catedral and gave him an assignment to produce a book
with the cartoons that the media had circulated during the past decade. The book was
actually completed, in a luxury edition of 400 copies and sentafter being signed by
Pablo Escobar Gaviria and finger printedto people of public rank, as well as to the
press, the radio, and TV stations. The head of the Medelln cartel as a cartoon hero. Most
artists had made Pablo not exactly an object of laughter; their targets were rather the
political and military forces that Escobar had embarrassed so many times. Behind what
appeared, at the time the book was manufactured and distributed, as a sardonic attitude
in Escobars self-stylization was a blend of two aspects that rarely combine. On the one
hand, Escobar had never forfeited his respect for the symbols of Catholicism; on the
other, he was unmoved by the kind of fear that religion infuses, according to Hobbes, in
most people and which translates into fear of the law.46 Only this way could he become
a popular cartoon hero during his lifetime. But assembling the book of Pablo Escobar
also showed his metamorphosis into the image of himself, his farewell. This was, in a
sense, a farewell to the mission of the martyr that he could not keep up with.
When the government decides to attack the Cathedral, Escobars castle, by military
means on July 22, 1992, what ensues is a sort of afterplay, involving one more coup of

As we refer to Walter Benjamins Origin of German Tragic Drama (see, for example, 91, 956), our
interest is associative, and heuristic; an analytical differential owes to Salazars ability to renarrate a
political drama of Baroque dimensions by avoiding to apply any kind of hyperbolic device.
One of those photographs is reproduced in Alba Marina Escobars book.
See Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan, 145.
The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar Story 123

the cunning Capo. Escobar, together with his brother Roberto and several of his men,
sucessfully plot their escape from the prison where they had spent 396 days (303).47
Escobar knew, of course, about the new constellation of forces that had gathered across
several dividing lines in order to destroy him and his structures but he was, as long
as he could renitent to accept it as a reality. Finally having to bend to the unavoidable
becomes imperative when his support networks break down and his allies, including his
lawyers are killed while the life of his family is in grave danger. When he can no longer
exert power, he changes his behavior drastically. Within a few days, Escobar gives up all
the precautions that he had maintained for 499 days while he was ingeneously hiding
in several urban localities of Medelln, between the summer of 1992 and December
3, 1993 (30810, 342). On December 2, his forty-fourth birthday, and the following
day, his only desire is to talk on the cell phone with his wife and son, knowing that
this means a hastening toward the end: he is finally vulnerable to the phone tracking
technology that the elite force has been using to locate him, and is triumphantly shot,
practically with his phone in hand, by a squad of the special troops trained by Delta
Force, the DEA, and other players in the anti-Escobar coalition (3412).48
Salazar handles this part, narratively speaking, as though he were using voices-
in-off. One of these voices is that of the elite forces chief, General Hugo Martnez,
both the way it was recorded afterward by Salazar and also taken from Martnez
declarations. Martnezs testimony is neither sensational nor triumphal; it includes
several reflective moments regarding Escobars personality, as well as the overall
situation in which Martnez had been acting.49 The drama is thus reduced to its actual
matrix-structure, conveyed through a narrative that combines biographical attention
with a near-scientific impetus to capture the microscopy of interlocking actions and
actors. This is almost, but not quite, the end of the book.


In the Baroque setting brought about by an informal sovereign who sought to decide life
and death in one of Latin Americas pathological arenas of global capitalism, the disease
did not lie in Pablo Escobars human nature however, but was rooted in an unbearable
degree of social crisis. Therefore, Foucaults assumption about modern transformations
of the mechanisms of biopolitical power during the past centuries50 cannot account for
this turmoil of conflicts, in which belligerant struggles emerge outside and above the
micropolitics of power and are brought to geopolitical resolution.
In his thoughts about German Baroque drama, Benjamin discusses, in addition to the
figures of the tyrant and the martyr, a third onethat of the intrigant, the machinator.

The escape is described in detail by Roberto Escobar Gaviria. Mi hermano Pablo., 68 ff.
Peter Andreas and Ethan Nadelmann describe the tracking down and elimination of Escobar as a
high-profile example of transnational law enforcement. See Policing the Globe, 162.
See general Martnezs disillusionment when narcotic traffic is reorganized (Salazar, 217).
See Michel Foucault. Right of Death and Power over Life. In Paul Rabinow (ed.). Foucault Reader,
124 Narcoepics

The intrigants capacities are of particular interest if one agrees that this figure is not
only a political rationalist but also possesses a certain kind of anthropological, and even
physiological, knowledge. The intrigant is perhaps a true Machiavellian type of person.
He is entirely will and reason,51 his posture is rather neoclassical than Baroqueand
he dominates the important affects of political life, which are love and fear: their
boundlessness. Calculating fear is also, in addition to solid political and economic
interests, a main driving force for the illegal players of the conservative anti-Escobar
coalition, including the members of the Cali drug cartel. The Cali capos expected that,
by helping to take down Escobar, the government would exempt them from the threat of
extradition. Love, on the other hand, was what bound Escobar to his mother, his son, his
little daughter, and his wife who, for many years, had been close to Pablos empire without
actively participating in the narcotics business. When he could not ensure their security
any longer but saw them in severe danger, the world changed. This applies, as well, to
masculine alliancesto the astonishingly extensive pact that had assured Escobar not only
the loyalty, but the fraternal and even saintly love of his fellows and subordinates. Those
who officialized themselves as los PepesThe Persecuted by Pablo Escobarin
January, 1993 (316) and engineered the final defeat of el Patrn embraced diverse factions
of the paramilitary, military, drug trafficking, and political hierarchies. As the fore runner
of the nucleus that possessed the logistic power and the intelligence to accomplish this
mission, operated the paramilitary complex under the lead of the Castao brothers, and
was tightly connected to the Cali cartel and government authorities (312, 333, 334). Fidel
Castao, a visceral anti-leftist member of the landed aristocracy that, throughout the
better part of the twentieth century was on the top of Colombian society, had a criminal
record of being accused of committing several massacres in peasant communities. But
his links to important sectors of the army and his anti-guerrrilla obsession had earned
him not only liberty, but the consolidation of an entire paramilitary operating structure.52
The Pepes were as politically heterogeneous as they could be, both in composition and
(legal and illegal) status. Carlos Castao once described them with uninhibited egotism:
From the President down, we were all Pepes (316). The narrator adds, more specifically,
The office of the Attorney-General of the Nation granted judicial pardons to some fifty
narco-traffickers who at that moment promised to collaborate with the law, in other words,
to fight against Escobar (317). This extensive group of persecuted enemies included
state functionaries, business people, the Cali cartel, the survivors of Escobars retributive
attacks, and other people who had personal interests in the vendetta. One of the first issues
the Pepes took care of was killing Guido Parra and his son, and four other lawyers who
had worked for el Patrn. Pablos brother Roberto and one of the lawyers had approached
Attorney De Greiff in order to start negotiating a second voluntary surrender by Escobar.
But the talks were quickly truncated. On Escobars side, his mindset was expressed in a
letter he wrote to the government, and in which he offers to provide concrete information
to the authorities as to who, among the paramilitary players and the police, had moved
the machinery with which the most active and popular politicians of New Liberalism, as

Walter Benjamin. The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 956.


Corresponding information is provided on the following pages: 838, 316; 1467; 2267; 2412; 323..
The Political Baroque of the Pablo Escobar Story 125

well as numerous representatives of the left were killed, including his own contribution
of money for Galns assassination. In turn, the Patron asks guarantees for the lives of
his family, as well as measures to be taken against the Cali cartel. Laconically, the narrator
notes, the authorities did not respond . . . (32930).
At the beginning of the book, we met Arcngel as a man with one single, laconic
missionto be the guardian of Escobars grave. In the course of the story, Arcngel appears
here and there, and we begin to perceive that he was a member of Escobars inner circle,
although someone who has never committed murder. At the point at which it is noted
that Arcngel surrendered for trial before el Patrn entered the Cathedral, it becomes
clear that this fictive person has an authentic basis, even a biographical relationship to
Pablo Escobar. Arcngel is released from prisonwhere he learned again the art of
patience and of a contained life (14)one year after Escobars death. In other words, he
is not a big criminal but part of the minor population of narcoepics social universean
anonymous man in the crowd, a castaway, an elemental man (18). If Salazars immanent
narratorwith his meticulous research and ethnographic explorationdisentangles
the factual networks underlying Pablo Escobars life, Arcngels mission, in turn, has to
do with a less tangible sphere than that of the Patrons deeds. This sphere is marked by
a situation of memoryit lives through a movement of afterthoughts and aftertastes, in
which there is no sentimentality. Arcngel contributes what the ethnographer of a live
cannot provide. This is a question of sobriety to the extent that Salazar cautions to not look
at the hero straightforwardly, or redramatize his life from the perspective of unbearable
crimes and their eventual punishment. He needed, rather, a daimonic lens, as tiny as it
might belike the daimn in Greek religion which accompanies each man throughout
his life, always looking over his shoulder from behind53 and thus half-invisible. Hannah
Arendt, in speaking from a preferred nexus between Greek classicism and modern liberal
speculations, touches upon the paradox by depriving it of its historicality: . . . the misery
of the mortals is their blindness toward their own daimn.54 In contrast, sobriety can
mean, in our framing, being aware of the malaise. It can suggest avoiding the assumption,
as Salazar does, that Escobar could be neatly assessed by his actions, performances, and
words as such, or as common opinion would handle them. The figure of Arcngel is,
therefore, not comparable to a classical daimn, but Arcngels approach to the man who
was once his godfather, so to speak, and whose grave he is now protecting, could not be
stripped of empathy any further than in the way it appears through Salazars narration.
People who keep visiting Escobars grave are carrying unfulfilled desires, as though a
miraculous social benefactor, or a violent rainmaker, could rise again, or has never
actually disappeared from their world.
But Arcngelwho keeps watching the world from the tomb, in the middle of
a sea of crossesknows that his patron was mortal, definitely mortal. And he
remembers it, asking himself, What does the death of Pablo Escobar mean? And
above all, he remembers his answer: Nothing! Absolutely nothing, everything will
continue as it was. (348)

Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition, 17980.
Ibid., 193, note 18.

Female Castaways: Delirio, Plasma,

and Displacements from

Tambin las mujeres pueden1

Myths tend to attract and confuse, especially when they are linked to women. One
might remember the mediatic images of La Reina del Pacfico (Sandra vila Beltrn),
after she was imprisoned in 2007 charged with having played, for decades, a crucial
role in the organization of hemispheric drug trafficking routes. Arturo Prez Reverte,
author of La Reina del Sur (2000), when asked if his novel was inspired by what he
had heard of Beltrn, could give a novelists happy answer: Certainly not. Rather, he
believed, his narrative had been able to anticipate reality. Julio Scherer recently tried to
make Beltrns story plain in a book, in which he synthesizes several conversations he
conducted with the drug trafficking celebrity when she was in prison. One immediately
senses, at the moment of starting to read, having entered mined territory. Female
histories, especially in the realm of illegal business, are the domain of mail assessment.
In the journalists style of conducting the interviews, judging from their final discursive
form, the paternalist ductus appears as a natural ingredient.2 Or perhaps one could
argue, in this case, that this has been a matter of both moral indignation and heightened
curiosity, verbally disguised.
Womens involvement in the trafficking business is not a new issue. Elaine Carey
writes in her text, Selling is More of a Habit Than Using: Women and Drug Trafficking
in North America, 19001970, that the Mexican Lola la Chata emerged as a dominant
figure in the illicit narcotics trade during a time when womenparticularly elite women
of European descentwere portrayed as the victims of urban narcotics peddlers who
allegedly swarmed to urban centers throughout the world in the 1930s.3 The first
means of making this phenomenon culturally familiar to contemporary audiences
were narcocorridos. Who does not remember, far beyond Mexicos boundaries, the

The expression, translatable as Women can do it as well, is the title of a narcocorrido sung by Los
Tigres del Norte (see Los Tigres del Norte. Jefe de Jefes).
See Julio Scherer. La Reina del Pacfico: es la hora de contar.
Elaine Carey. Selling is More of a Habit than Using: Narcotraficante Lola la Chata and Her Threat
to Civilization, 19301960, 77.
128 Narcoepics

corrido Contrabando y traicin, composed by Angel Gonzlez and performed in

1971/72 by the still unknown Los Tigres del Norte. Elmer Mendoza, in Cada respiro que
tomas (Every Breath You Take, 1991), renders tribute to the corridos heroine, Camelia
la Tejana, who had become a legend in popular consciousness across the northern
Mexican states.4 When young women from lower social strata enter the world of illicit
trafficking and remain trapped in scenarios in which life becomes a matter of turning
ones body over to the rules of the game of violence, the world looks more like the ones
fictionalized in Jorge Francos Rosario Tijeras (Colombia 1999; made into a film by Emilio
Maill in 2005), and Mara llena eres de gracia (Maria Full of Grace) by Joshua Marston
(Colombia, 2005). The spectrum of narratives dedicated to womens entrapment in the
narcobusiness has continued to grow, extending to television melodramasSin tetas
no hay paraso (Without Boobs There Is No Paradise) is one example, a telenovela
based on Gustavo Bolvar Morenos novel of the same title (2005). From there, the
public has become acquainted with a dubiousthat is, mass-marketedtypology of
specific female roles: the one who gets involved by her family and friendship relations,
la sicaria (the contract killer), la mula (the carrier), la mujer trofeo (the trophy), and la
capo (the chief).5 All these types are more or less close images in social dramas in real
life. Masculine approaches dominate the new literary interest in the involvement of,
especially, marginal female subjects in the topographies of violent survival. Several of
these novels and films have made a point about an aporia, and they have thus turned
into successful works. Women are shown to resort to aggressive masculine behavior for
the sake of progress, personal power, and self-defense, trying to escape from a life that
doomed them to poverty and multiple submissions. Not surprisingly, the film heroines
excel due to their beauty and astuteness. Teresa Mendoza (in La Reina del Sur) has
learned to defend herself with all available means and to use men to reach her business
goals. Rosario Tijeras, a young woman from the Comunas, was raped at the age of eight;
when she is 13 and confronts the same act of violence, she takes revenge by castrating
the perpetrator with a pair of scissors, thus earning her name. Through her brother, a
sicario, she then enters into the low sphere of the drug business.
The aporetic phenomenon, foregrounded by the artists, is this: What looks like an
audacious project of female empowerment has to undergo, in order to succeed, an
assimilation to aggressive as well as ritualistic modes of action belonging to a masculine
canon. Temporal female liberation by means of participation in, and sometimes
cynical, often erotic appropriation of archaically enforced identitiesthus could be
the visceral label of these works. Novels and films that take a more complex, partly
subversive perspective on cultural identities as contractual narrations6 are less prone

Elmer Mendoza. Cada respiro que tomas, 535.
See Mnica Lavin. Las damas del narco; Elaine Carey and Jos Carlos Cisneros Guzmn. The
Daughters of La Nacha: Profiles of Women Traffickers; Howard Campbell. Female Drug Smugglers
on the United StatesMexico Border: Gender, Crime, and Empowerment; Francisca Gonzlez
Flores. Mujer y pacto fustico en el narcomundo: Representaciones literarias y cinematogrficas;
Luis E. Molina Lora. Narrativa de drogas: una investigacin transatlntica en la produccin cultural
de Espaa, Mxico y Colombia; Aldona Bialowas Pobutsky. Towards the Latin American Heroine:
The Case of Jorge Franco Ramos Rosario Tijeras.
See Carole Pateman. The Sexual Contract.
Female Castaways 129

to being noticed. This is not necessarily an issue of female versus male writing, as Vctor
Gavirias film La Vendedora de Rosas (The Rose Seller, 1998) has eloquently shown.
We will focus on two novels of singular scope, although academic criticism has thus
far paid them little attention: Delirio, written by the Colombian novelist Laura Restrepo,
and Plasma, created by the Chilean writer Guadalupe Santa Cruz. The assessment of the
narcospace in both is different from that of the previously mentioned works, as there is a
displacement of the decorum of heterosexual stability, on the one hand, and an alluring
notion of female criminality, on the other. What we might perceive from these novels,
at first reading, is the womens escape from, or resistance to, contemporary scenarios of
violence and cynicism. But we also find approaches to the problematic of intoxication in
which the somatic, the political, and the ecological interact in surprising ways.

The impossible healing: Delirio (Laura Restrepo)

You have the enormous eyes of a starving child . . ., but only momentarily, because
when she looks at me without seeing me, I feel that she no longer has eyelashes,
nor retina, nor iris, nor eyelids, and that instead, the only thing she has is hunger; a
ferocious hunger that cannot be satiated (Delirio).
Delirio (2004) is a novel about various absences. We meet the main character,
Agustina, but among the chief narrative instances hers is missing, except for her
childhood voice. Behind this desubstantiation, an atmosphere of delirium appears
as a latent form of the womans torment. Two male figures are modeled, at the level
of prevailing perspectives, by their inability, or unwillingness, to assume liability for
Agustinas state of mind; both talk to her in off, her husband, Aguilar, in order to fill
the silence of not knowing what disturbed his wife during the weekend he spent with
his children from a former marriage, and there is another man, by the name of Midas
McAlister, speaking knowingly. Perplexity about Agustinas fantasma is a crucible for
the narrative. As we enter the reading and learn that the heroines family belongs to the
Colombian aristocracy, confronting with the dangers of disintegration by the force of
global modernity and engaged in recovering finances and political status by all possible
means, the narcotics business comes into sight. The play, for members of the traditional
upper class, to capitalize on drug traffic without publicly assuming its existence proffers
the larger framework for the authors quest. The impression that we are dealing with a
fictive case scenario of a womens flight into transgression springs up. But Agustina is
not Emma Bovary. If her situation were associative of a late-nineteenth century, Western
European context of rising psychoanalysis, delirium could be imagined as related to
both madness or hysteria, and the female (struggle for) subjectification. Restrepo might
play with this possibility, yet her pledge heads in a different direction.7

Agustinas condition ranks somewhat closer to that of other mad, female characters in modern
Latin American fiction; see Gabriela Polit. Sicarios, delirantes y los efectos del narcotrfico en la
literatura colombiana, 134.
130 Narcoepics

The novel begins by insinuating a threshold state of subjectivity, an escape from a

societys symbolic order, especially its language. Agustina has abandoned her identity
with herself, in other words, her illusion of identity that drives daily existence created
by the adult, discriminating, moderate, and verbally articulate conviction that an
individual is all of a piece. The young woman, in her mid-twenties, has suddenly lost
the ability to speak coherently and accordingly to communicate: She is frantic and
disconnected and overwhelmed, her head exploded into pieces (18). It seems as if
another person had taken possession of her body (19). Aguilar, a professor of literature
who gives up his post, mutates into the floundering (frustrated) biographer of his wifes
past. Midas, in turn, speaks from a special insiders perspective. The voices of both
men, respectively, fill the void opened by Agustinas absence. One would expect that
here we have Laura Restrepos indirect, ironic, perhaps poetically programmatic way of
putting in doubt the male soliloquy as an overbearing institution. This obstinate and
adaptable institution finds its background in the patriarchal myth of the grammarian
as father of the nation, or at least of the political edifice in which Colombia made its
presence from the nineteenth into the twentieth century. Fernando Vallejo provided
this myth with a fictive scenario, one that is as radical as it is frightening. His novel La
Virgen de los sicarios (1994, Our Lady of the Assassins), belongs among narcoepics as an
antidote to most other works. What a comparative glance into both novels would not
unlikely show is an uncanny contrast between the male figure of Aguilar and that of
Fernando, the grammarian. The former is the image of a mediocre humanities professor
and his partly melancholic, partly melodramatic affair with an ex-centric upper-class
beauty, vis--vis the violent drama that was Colombian society; the latter demands
an ecstatically violent yet calculated renewal of sovereignty, enabled by the itinerant
intellectual aristocrat. As for the novel, it is surprising that irony is almost absent when
Restrepo traces the masculine attempts to unravel reality, and present-time history for
Agustina. As we will see, a restitutive hope, on the authors part, wishes to give Aguilar,
the husband, the kind of opportunity that can bring Agustina back to this world. But
is it really Aguilar who matters? If the novel unfolds an overall pathological situation,
in which intoxication lingers close to denial, Agustinas role might be that of the victim,
or of the seer, or of both.
In a sense, Delirio becomes the missing autobiography that the young woman
attempted to write, four years before her mischief occurred. This very project is the
reason that the couple began their relationship, when she approached the man for help.
Professor Aguilar, Im the woman from the other day at the film club, and I need to
ask you for a favor. Its that I would like to write my autobiography, but I dont know
how to do it . . . Its an obsession that I have, and I think you can help me with this,
its for some reason that youre a professor of literature (my emphasis; 199). The irony
was spontaneous, unintended. Nevertheless, in our eyes, Aguilar cannot but exist as
an ironic being, the more melancholic his belated retrospective becomes. Therefore,
his voice is only one among many. The novel resembles a narrative stream with no
coherent structure; it unfolds through several signifying realms that intersect, diverge,
and substitute one another. Syntactically and morphologically, no visible marks
accompany the constant shifts in narrative perspective. Critics have suggested terms
Female Castaways 131

such as heteroglossic and multivocal narration. Readers are immersed in a journey,

back and forth, across an in-between of four episodic contexts, where the order of time
is at best a puzzle. It can be deduced that, events occur in the mid-1980s, when Pablo
Escobar had created a kingdom out of drug money and flooded sectors of the upper
classes with money, gifts, and requests for absolute loyalty, drastically interfering into
the national political spectrum.8
One sphere of references is linked to the floating presence of Agustinas state of
consciousness, present in the husbands speech, swinging between resignation and
loving hope. Another touches upon the diaries of her German grandfather and her
Colombian grandmother, as Aguilar remembers Agustina talking about them. In a
third realm, the voice of Agustina, the child, emerges heteroglossicallyher first-person
narration accompanied by third-person rhetorical ornament, or segments of direct
speech, which are not emphasized as suchdevices that Restrepo uses throughout
the novel (see 447). The fourth scenario, incidentally interrupted and later taken up
again like the other parts, is the soliloquy of Midas McAlister, speaking to the heroine
in second-person in an evocative way, marked with a spirit of intimacy, sardonism,
and distress.
Agustinas genealogy reads like one of those fables, familiar from the prose of lvaro
Mutis and especially Gabriel Garca Mrquez, that lend humans a weird staturetheir
independent, usually tragic life stories owing to their eccentric distancing from
the norms of the ordinary world. Thus the German grandfather, a composer and
musician, whose name sounds like that of a circus artist, surfaces: Nicols Portulinus
had a difficult relationship with words, which explained those profound silences of
his which were becoming more and more extended . . . But at other times, he would
talk torrentially, and he got trapped with one phrase and another forming ambiguous
and giddy run-on sentences in bad Spanish (92). No wonder that such a grandfather
could provide the magic blueprint for Agustina, the child. Nevertheless, the actual
learning experience is magic only to a degree, since in its background the phenomenon
of dissociative disorder lingers. The strange Portulinos is painted with anecdotal
brushes; his folkloric image reveals a drama that becomes rampant when a person
discovers that she or he is part of an insane family structure and is unavoidably destined
to vanish. Portulinus had been prone to states of delirium himself (93). Obsessed with
numbers and rivers, he sometimes used to name all the German rivers in alphabetical
order. His affinity to the number two was not merely a cabbalistic preference, but a
performative way of compensating for an absence. He was obsessed with hearing the
litany nosotros dos (the two of us) as often as possible, uttered by his wife Blanca,
in order to find peace outside his nocturnal dreams. Portulinus encounters a fatal end
when, one day, he apparently drowned himself in the local river during the years of
la violencia under circumstances that remain in the dark. Here, Agustinas mother,
Eugenia, who was supposed to take care of her father, opens the deep undercurrent of

See the previous chapter of our study. Vania Barraza Toledo has enumerated details in order to
situate the novel in and around the year 1984 (see La Reestructuracin y el desplazamiento social en
el espacio urbano de Bogot, 273, 2789); however, the circle of temporal allusions is spread across
the 1980s, and beyond.
132 Narcoepics

the novel: guilt and its denial by way of projection. The suicide, or death, of such an
eccentric German was not allowed to besmirch the honor of the family; and an official
version was prepared for the annals of the clan: Portulinus had decided to return to
Europe. Thus, he was deprived even of a tragic reputation.
Agustinas childhood unfolds in the shadow of an open secret, in which nude
photographs illustrate the issue. The girl has discovered a bunch of pictures that
show her Aunt Sofa naked, as she poses for her father, Carlos Vicente Londoo. The
relationship between her father and her mothers sister has not led to the destruction
of the foundations of the family, nor will it, as long as things remain concealed.
Agustina, prone to a divination from early on, makes the photos a fetish that she
and her homosexual brother Bichi attend on a regular basis. The childrens ritual is
situated between curious play, and their first learning experience of dissociation. When
the hour comes, Agustina and Bichi, naked from the waist down and surrounded by
several receptacles of water, summon the photos from a hidden place, like the host
from the tabernacle, look at them one at a time, and cast a spell. This is to protect Bichi
from their fathers beatings, because of his abnormal condition and, at the same time,
to make a pledge that the secret will not be revealed. Thus, the children dissociate
themselves from two unpleasant issues: the fathers infidelity toward their mother,
and his violent stance toward Bichi. Their ritualistic play, in the end, protects the
promiscuous and authoritarian father, who is violent toward his feminized son from
a transgressive stancegoing to bed with his childrens aunt. The case is prefigurative,
insofar as it reveals the roots of Agustinas personal agency. She longs for a place in
which her difference of consciousness and her brothers identity have a natural right to
exist. Agustina has an inclination rooted in her unconscious, to surround herself with
symbols of purification, making water vessels her daily companions. She does not know
that guilt is not only a pervasive issue in her family but is also affectively transferred to
the more eccentric family members by means of both violence and intrigue. Her brother
Bichi whom she loves and protects whenever she can is the weakest part. Agustina and
Bichi are paradigmatic queers, so to speak, punished and eventually disinherited by
the others under Eugenias lead. As much as they try to dissociate themselves from their
surrounding reality, they remain helpless vis--vis the dominant drive to repression
and demagogy.
The mothers cold-heartedness toward the crazy Agustina and the homosexual
Bichi is just the opposite of the way she pampers and promotes her other child, Joaqun
(Joaco): macho, vain, and a reckless entrepreneur of conservative rut who, as an adult,
works with Midas to do business with the drug hierarchies. In a desperate attempt
against her violent father, Agustina finally brings the secret of his dalliance with Aunt
Sofa to light. But to her surprise, Doa Eugenia, the victim of his infidelity, is quick
to invent, once again, a false explanation: the photos were not taken by her husband,
but they were actually pictures that her son Joaco took of the maidservant (Delirio,
321). Here the center of the maternal ideal, dramatically hailed by a moral canon in
Colombian society discloses a terrible facet. Judging from several literary works, among
which is also found No nacimos pa semilla, strong maternal characters, especially from
the lower and the upper extremes of society, conform an informal yet fierce underside
Female Castaways 133

of contemporary power structures. At issue is not simply permissiveness regarding

masculine superiority, but a quasi-religious invigoration of an affective economy by the
specter of mothers as moral saints, or by their acting as simple mirrors of patriarchal
culture. The power of such figures is shown to be crucial in a world of disintegrating
truths: when they are strong enough, they can make us believe the most improbable, or
recreate values that have ceased to exist.
Midas is known as the mythical king who wanted gold and glamour at all costs, but
he was punished, and finally became ridiculous. Midas McAlister, in the beginning, was
not a member of Colombias high society. He excelled by taking chances and became
a mediator between the old rich elite and Pablo Escobar, when the Capo decided to
invest his money in Colombian real estate and in the larger economy. According to
Midas, without his help, all those traditional fortunes . . . would have disappeared.
Talking evocatively to Agustina, and presenting himself in third-person, your father
and your brother Joaco . . ., because before, if they were rich in pesos, it was he, Midas
McAlister, who multiplied their earnings for them, making them rich in dollars, that
there was a reason they called him Midas . . . (44). For him as for the others, these
were delirious times, so much so that, when Midas got Agustina pregnant, he refused
to marry her. Under the spell of big money and in its rampant opportunism, Agustinas
family accepted the affront, and continued to tolerate Midas as a friend. The mishap
was forgiven; after all, was not Agustina unpredictable and difficult to handle? The
narrative agency that is Midas speaks from the point at which he has fallen in disgrace.
In fact, he has earned Escobars distrust; only from this situation does he return to
Agustina, by virtue of what we consider the novels main voice, his offering to deliver
her past to a woman who appears to have lost both her mind and her memory.

Im going to tell you about it a calzon quitado because you have the right to
know it, Midas McAlister tells Agustina. After all, what am I risking by telling
you about all of this, if I dont have anything left. Your husband walks around lost
like a cork in a whirlpool, trying to find out what the devil happened to you, and
you yourself dont know much, because look, pretty Agustina, every story is like
a big cake, each person cares about the slice that hes eating, and the only person
responsible for everything is the cake maker (12).

The enigmatic beginning of the novel, Agustinas advanced delirium, owes, as we later
realize, to the machinations of Midas. At the outset there is Aguilar, who recovers his
wife from a hotel room and is desperately worried about Agustinas having lost her
mind. It was Midas who had taken the woman to the hotel, with a body guard looking
after her until her husband arrived. And it had been Midas who anonymously called
on Aguilar to tell him to pick up his wife. What had happened? During the weekend of
Aguilars absence, Agustina attended one of the old family gatherings at which Midas
was also present. There Agustina overheard that her mother and Joaco, the macho
prodigy, once again, were going to insult her brother Bichi because of his homosexuality.
This made Agustina lose her balance, and enter a mental state of furious absence; but
due to another interference, she will not be able to return to a reasonable condition,
as she had done in other cases in the past. Midas is responsible for the aggressive
134 Narcoepics

disturbance, after which he takes her to Bogots Wellington Hotel, and by so doing,
he virtually delivers her body back to her husband while her mind, in Midas view, will
finally have to understand what life in Colombia has been about. From there, Midas
voice sets out on a journey of both explanation and self-justification. Well, get out
of this romantic novel, nineteenth-century doll, because your grandfather Londoos
productive haciendas are nothing more than countryside today, so come to earth in
this twentieth century and get down on your knees before His Majesty the King don
Pablo, sovereign of the three Americas (71). Blaming Escobar for his truncated destiny
is a way of bowing to a godlike force, a step that makes it plausible that Midas, the tiger
of rapid businesses, will mutate into a confessant.
Why is nothing left for Midas when he offers to tell the truth, this man who could
once afford to reject marriage with Agustina and prefers business without distractions?
Why has he suddenly had to jump into a hiding spot in Bogotas urbanian world, as if he
were returning to his place of origin? Pablo Escobar has become a major threat to him,
setting a trap for him, and making him pay for the arrogance that is worth Midas name.
Midas had turned away two women from the Capos less mundane family circle from
his elite fitness studio, ridiculing their lack of physical noblesse. Now he finds himself
in a situation in which several of his former partners, among them the DEA agent
Rony Silver, hold him accountable for the disappearance of millions of dollars. Midas
is sought by the police, as well, because of a murder that occurred in the studio. The
gym existed, like numerous new establishments all over Colombia after the marijuana
business9 was replaced by cocaine traffic, as a place for laundering money from Escobars
transnational activities. Eventually, the fitness establishment becomes Midas downfall.
Restrepo makes it the scenario of abject excess that has befallen part of the upper-class
camarillathe murder of a woman, staged for entertainment purposes.

Between abjection and objectification:

Mapping the aesthetic impasse
There is no doubt that Laura Restrepo, with the vexed reconstruction of Agustinas
memory, demands responsivity toward an extraliterary realm. As a former journalist
of Semana, she met with Garca Mrquez after he had won the Nobel Prize. An admirer
of Gabriel, Restrepo and other younger colleagues criticized the so-called magical
realism of Cien aos de soledad (A Hundred Years of Solitude) for its ahistorical
fatalism.10 However, and while she remains loyal to her ambition to be a political
and cultural chronicler of the present, Restrepos Delirio is not devoid of brushes of
influence. If the text opens an aesthetic field of historical references, seeking the roots
of the dilemma in the decay of the Colombian upper class, its antecedents remaining
tied to the historical times of violencia, and its present marked by the anachronistic
entry into global modernity, what then is the status of the figure of the delirium? The

Laura Restrepos novel El leopardo al sol (1989) is dedicated to Colombian constellations of the
marijuana boom of the 1960s.
See interview in Elvira Snchez-Blake and Julie Lirot (eds.), El universo literario de Laura Restrepo, 359.
Female Castaways 135

metaphorical superposition, embracing an individual state of consciousness and the

intoxication of Colombias bourgeoisie with narcocapital, provides a suggestive frame,
but what is the aesthetic and epistemological challenge? If delirium is taken as a lens,
that can condense that which systematic inquiry cannot, then what is the particular
momentum that the transgressive order of things can reveal? Or otherwise, if the
novel provides, at last, a somewhat healing narrative, what are the limitations inherent
in Restrepos restitutive drive? We will come back to these questions.
Let me take a closer look at the male voices as structuring and guiding devices.
Midas offers a condensed assessment of the machinations of Agustinas mother and her
favorite son, the macho, who are the perfect duo for producing convenient historical
revisions and big lies, the coincidence of which becomes an epidemic force
Bichi went to Mexico because he wanted to study there, and not because his girlish
mannerisms received constant chastisement by his father; Aunt Sofi doesnt exist,
or at least its enough to not mention her in order that she not exist; Mr. Carlos
Vicente Londoo loved his three children equally and was a faithful husband until
the day he died; Agustina left her paternal home when she as seventeen as a rebel,
a hippy and a pothead, and not because she preferred running away to confessing
that she was pregnant to her father; Midas McAlister never got Agustina pregnant,
he didnt abandon her afterward, nor did she have to go alone to get the abortion
. . . Joaco didnt steal their paternal inheritance from his siblings but rather did
them the favor of administering it for them; there was no one named Aguilar, and
if he perhaps were to exist, he doesnt have anything to do with the Londoo family
. . . (264).
This is, according to Midas McAlister, the Londoo catalogue of basic distortions . . .
(265). Toward the end, one learns what happened during the mysterious weekend. After
having escaped from the cynically violent reign of the Londoos and living in Mexico
for years, Bichi announces his visit to the family. Because of this, Agustina accepts the
invitation to join a gathering at the finca de tierra fra en Sasaima, where Midas is also
present. But things turn out to be worse than ever, and what ensues is a plot to deny the
younger son his right to enter the family ambit. The experience becomes present through
Midass voice. Midas focus is effective as it oscillates between a third-person voice that
acts as if an omniscient shadow were speaking in his stead (see above), and a second-
person angle speaking to the woman: . . . Agustina, my life, seated there at the other end
of the table, and I realize that hearing all the repertory of misrepresentations one more
time . . . was for you a martyrdom . . . (263). Midas perceives how Agustina, for whom
Bichi was the only member of the family that she loved, is close to being stricken by the
. . . first your hands that you were wringing, then that ugly grimace that twists your
face, and then the maximum SOS, which is your voice when it turns metallic and
starts to pontificate . . . everything that you do tends suspiciously toward religiosity,
I dont know if you understand me, you start saying grandiloquent words and to
predict things as if you were a prophet, but a petulant and unpleasant prophet . . .
and without a helmet (2745).
136 Narcoepics

When Midas decides to take Agustina out of this intolerable situation, we would
expect that he is concerned with her well-being; however, while he takes her, on
his BMW motorbike at sonic speed and without a helmet to his aerobics studio,
he gives in to a diabolical idea. Sara Luz is the name of the young woman whose
murder in Midass studio (her disappearance, according to some members of the
club) is causing growing suspicions. Why not ask Agustina, he thinks to himself, to
act as a seer for the curious crowd that would come together for the super rumba
dance on that Saturday evening, to give some visionary yet distracting spin to the
sensible matter. Parapsychology in the service of covering up a crime, so to speak.
When Agustina hears about Sara Luzs disappearance and passes her fingers over
the signature that the unfortunate woman had left in the entry book, senses that
there is a message emerging, one which she might be able to capture. Midas, in
turn, knows that delirious adivination can only produce nonsense. But as Midas
reproaches later that evening, Agustina, once she started sniffing around in the
studio and than entered into a trance again, did not do what she was expected
to do. In front of the entire crowd she came up with an announcement of blood,
inconfessable blood innundating the channels . . . of the edifice. That woman,
they killed her here, here, Agustina revealed, and they stomped her to death.
Stomped her, no, Agustina, Midas put in, control yourself, doll . . . (293, 294). Who
would not think of Garca Mrquez and his gallery of illuminated characters at
this point?
In her trance, Agustina visualizes images resonant with the murderous scenario that
was organized, shortly before, by Araa. Midas calls Araa an Old-money offspring
of the Colombian aristocracy, one who has quickly learned to appropriate the code of
narcopower without losing his demeanors of a minister without briefcase.
An accident during a polo game paralyzes la Araa Salazar, Salazar the
Spider, from the waist down; thus, destiny desexualizes one of the most ruthless
of the richs, formerly accustomed to exposing his manly attributes together
with his material power acquired through dirty business. Araa, defaced and
attached to the wheelchair, appears as an allegory of decay, by becoming a subject
of defilement. He asks the younger Midas, to pay off a bet, to allow a special
spectacle to take place in the studio, a cheap and sordid sadomasochistic show
that is supposed to stir up the Spiders lost virility, featuring Dolores (Sara Luz)
and her executioner partner. Araa: Miditas, son . . . let me clarify that ever
since last night, Ive had the greatest desire to watch a small bitch who really
suffers . . . (1534). At night, with the fitness rooms closed, the event is narrated
indirectly by Midas references to Araas ecstatic shouts that he overhears from
his office, while third-person voice and first-person narration slide into one
. . . if now and again from down below I heard a roar of la Araa demanding
blood, I acted as if her were not with me . . . and if my ears suddenly heard some
feminine lament, I acted as if I didnt hear it, Im sorry, Dolores, girl, I cant help
you, youre off my screen, but sure, at time she complained horribly and then Midas
got nervous and couldnt think about anything else (192).
Female Castaways 137

At one point, Araas bodyguards come to Midas to tell him about an inconvenience;
and as Midas realizes that Dolores was tortured to death, he finds an Araa full of
resentmentresentment against the young woman who, he says, played a dirty
trick against the men; deepest perversionto cultivate death, and then blame the
excessively tortured victim of having committed a fake (195). The narrative opens into
a void, after the suffering and horror were represented indirectly, that is, with a low-key
intensity. Can the identity of the narrator, Midas, be sustained the way it existed before
the horror show? Yes and no. From hereon, Midas speech becomes recognizable as
a confession. Confession can carry the worst, once it is animated by someone who
becomes the sublime addresseeAgustina. The attempt of getting Agustinas help to
distract the public from the murder failed, and Midas becomes inextricably trapped.
Cold fear sets in, so he recurs to the religious device. Desperate desire, of course, ensues,
desire that, through confession to the afflicted woman, promises Midas temporary
relief. Here we have a major, perhaps the decisive, agency of the narrative. Despite
sophisticated superpositions, the blending of different voices, and an overall structural
mode of decentering (making the novel appear as a hybrid of modern and postmodern
writing),11 there is one main narrator, in that it is only Midas who provides the lens for
us to start grasping the deeper issues. Desire for Agustina conforms the real, only after
Midas is thrown out of his spiral of success. His new borderline existence, becoming
a hunted man, has moved him close to the young womans boundary-subjectivity. In
the absence of any durable affective bond, confession takes the lead. Confession opens
the valley of abjection. In one sense, Midas is the abject herohis consenting to Araas
terrible bet, as well as to other crimes, was driven by opportunism; he would have lacked
the courage and thoughtless exhilaration to actually be a monster. The abject hero,
according to Michael Bernstein, has no absolute recklessnes or pride; he is immoral,
sinister, scheming and shady.12 But Midas emerges, in addition, as the abject narrator.
He confesses to Agustina, through the lens of her familys machinations, his successes
and failures; and while doing so, he keeps admiring the authentic monsters that act on
a limitless scale, and allow themselves to reject the normal codes by remaking them, be
it in the case of el Patrn (Escobar), or that of Araa, or Agustinas mother and elder
Now, how about the literature professor, Aguilar, the character that Restrepo
converts into the restorer of memory, and thus the chief narrative voice? Aguilar is
morally defined against Midas. However, we will show that Midas is epistemologically
set vis--vis Aguilar. Both are structural agonists, imaginary speakers in a forum,
the impossibility of which in Colombian public society led Restrepo to create her
novelistic agora. Aguilar is Agustinas husband, whom Midas called to pick up the
woman from the post-disaster hotel room. And this is the very beginning of the text,
conveyed through Aguilars voice: I knew that something irreparable had happened
the moment that a man opened the door of that hotel room and I saw my wife sitting
on the other side, looking out the window in a very strange way (11). Says Aguilar

In 2004, Delirio obtained the Premio Alfaguara de novela.
Michael Andr Bernstein. Bitter Carnival: Ressentiment and the Abject Hero. 26, 29.
138 Narcoepics

that, before this weekend, when I left nothing strange could be seen, self-assurance of
not having committed a mistake, followed by an . . . only God knows . . .. Then comes
a retrospective part, referring to the years of mutual relationship, the voice shifting to
third person for a moment: He had tried every way to make her see reason, but she
wont give her arm to be twisted and insists . . . (12). A few paragraphs later, Midass
voice notes, Your husband is lost like a cork in a whirlpool. Shes useless, but I love
her so . . . (62), says about Agustina, Aguilar who, holding a PhD in literature but
having to sell dog food, does not feel supported by his wife in his efforts to earn a
living. She is not the least bit concerned about having been deprived of her part of
heritage by her own brother.
The way she doesnt comb her hair, it means that she doesnt want to be bothered
with anything related to reality, and nevertheless, her messy hair makes Aguilar
want her and, like everything about her, makes him tremble, given the privilege of
having at his side this splendidly beautiful creature who so graciously refuses to
grow up . . . (63).
The rhetoric is not unfamiliar, when the mystery called female creature or enchanting
Other is perceived as devoid of a history, overwhelming or frightening by its sheer
presence. We hear the husbands protective melancholy:
My wifes disturbed reasoning is like a dog that bites me and at the same time sends
me a cry for help with his barking which I am incapable of responding to; Agustina
is a starving and badly wounded dog that would like to return home but cant do
it, and the next minute is a street cur that doesnt even remember that once upon
a time he had a home (12).
Aguilar is not to be blamed for his active ignorance, since the Londoo family regarded
him as nonexistent. But how can he overcome his masculine blindness that was unable
to comprehend that the woman had once approached him for biographical help and
that she had meant it seriously. There is Agustinas crucial phrase, in which Aguilar finds
no sense: she told me it was the lies that were driving her crazy. What lies? . . . And
what does she say about her own lie, exploded Aguilar, about going to a hotel with
a man behind my back that weekend? (48) Aguilar contacts Anita, the hotel maid,
trying to uncover a possible liaison of his wifes, becoming into a detective who is
guided by the affect of redundant jealousy.13 At this point, Aunt Sofi appears in the
couples house like a magic: she is the woman who knows, not only about things such as
the secret photo sessions, but she is also fully aware of the abysses in the Londoo clan.
Sofi emerges as the other voice that will take Aguilar by the hand, enabling him to
assume his role as the legitimate chronicler. Sofi warns Aguilar of the self-intoxicating
powers of jealosy, for she has come on a missionto help fill in the gaps in the drama
of Agustinas afflicted memory. She is the one who knows about the debacle from the
inside, as does Midas, and she now sides with Aguilar in the attempt to rescue her niece

Regarding further musings regarding Aguilars failures, see Vania Barraza Toledo. La
reestructuracin . . . , 275, 276, 289.
Female Castaways 139

from the delirium. The aunt had left the family ambit after Agustina, when she was
17 and because of her fathers excesses against her brother, had revealed her fathers
As the ensuing story goes, split into the above-mentioned narrative streams, Sofi helps
Aguilar unravel the psychic spacethe dark box of Agustinas mindby uncovering, or
making plausible the origins of insanity within the history of the family and the country:
The group of Sofi, Aguilar, and Agustina, finally travels to Portulinus and his wifes previous
casa de campo, in order to find the grandfathers diaries.14 What was once the hot zone
of political violence in Colombian history (la violencia, 194657),15 and later became
an area controlled by guerrilla groups, and is still traversed by drug trafficking networks
serves Restrepo as a kind of spatio-historical archive, from which the visceral origins
of Colombias malady supposedly can be reconstructed. Now, has Agustina become an
allegory of a nationwide dilemma, that is, a female symptom of the absence of peace,
tolerance, and truth? In other words, would the delirium be perceived, in this artistic
logic, as the effect of Agustinas assimilation of the compulsions of an unredeemable past,
in which the countrys original sin, and that of her family, seem to converge obtusely: a
female victim of the national predicament. Allegories can be powerful, as well as blinding.
But they cannot be healed by the narrative repair of blocked memories. What do we do
with the allegorical insight? If allegory somehow signals immutability, it cannot, in and
of itself, account for this state of affairs. At the immanent aesthetic level, a more complex
interpretive challenge remains to be confronted.
Imagining with Restrepo that in the destiny of the grandparents, Portulinus
and Blanca, lie the origins of omission and denial in the Londoo family, and that
Portulinuss death could have been due to that mythic original sin immersed in the
violencia period (see 2412), one understands the digressions that the novel takes
into the grandfathers anecdotal world. According to Gabriela Polit, The story of
Agustinas grandparents is a series of scenes that echo the stories of old Melquades
in One Hundred Years of Solitude.16 Shot through with a mythic air, here we find an
overlapping of family history and political past inherent in the spatial referents, both of
which converge in Sofis recalling the sexual dilemma as the nucleus of intolerance and
violence. It starts with her mother Eugenias horror of her own sexuality, from where
ensues a compulsion to
censure and regulate the sexual lives of others . . . an attitude that she shared with
Carlos Vicente [Agustinas father], in this shady inclination the two met, and this
was the pillar of authority as much for the one as for the other . . . as if by hereditary

Gabriela Polit holds that in this novelistic section, Restrepo attempts to construct the archive, the
archival core of her novel by appealing to both the Colombian literary tradition and to a mythical
original sin: the violencia years. In Sicarios . . ., 139.
Forrest Hylton resumes: La Violencia (194657) was a mix of official terror, partisan sectarianism,
and scorched earth policy that resulted from the crisis of the coffee republic, the weakness of the
central state, and the contest over property rights. It was distinguished by the concentrated terror
used to suppress radical-popular politics and confine rising racial/ethnic and class conflict within
bipartisan channels (Evil Hour in Colombia, 39).
Gabriela Polit. 139.
140 Narcoepics

apprenticeship they knew that whoever controls the sexuality of the rest of the
tribe gets to rule . . . Its a kind of force more powerful than anything else . . .
interpreting the sexual lives of people as a personal insult must be an ancestral
characteristic of the families of Bogot . . . the heart of pain dwells there, a pain that
is inherited, that multiplies, that is transmitted . . . (2456).
On a comparative note, the sexual psychosis that is inherent as an ancestral
characteristics (246) in the ontological somatology of Colombias aristocratic race,
accounts for the programmatic, although highly sublimated rage that energizes
Fernando Vallejos novel La virgen de los sicarios. In Restrepos novel, however, when
an explanatory drive starts to surface, the delirio ceases to be addressed as a complex
issue and turns an episode awaiting resolution. Aunt Sofi, speaking of the vertebral
column of the familys psychosis needs Aguilars rhetorical reassurance: I dont know
if you understand what Im referring to, Aguilar. Of course I understand, said Aguilar.
If I didnt understand this, I wouldnt be able to decipher this country, (sic) (245). All
in all, to decipher Agustina, the husband has to decipher the country. Polit says it that
way: In Restrepos novel, feminine delirium is a manifestation that confronts power
. . . This suggestive proposal, however, negates itself the moment that the author tells us
the history and origin of this delirium and converts it into an object of reason.17 The
inner logic of the novel points from abjection to objectification.
Revealingly, Delirio conveys an anachronistic design. It purports a certain narrative
avant-gardism and heteroglossic dissonance; however, when confronting the dialectics of
explanation and containment, it opts for making things clear; and as though this were
not enough, at the end, Agustina will send out to her husband Aguilar a positive sign for
melodramatic re-encounter. We are left with a kind of recuperated peace and love between
the upper-class ex-centress and the debauched yet rehabilitated literature professor,
which is supposed to insinuate a space of tolerance, as well, in which characters like the
homosexual Bichi can find a legitimate home. Colombias Agustinas continue seeking the
aid of the Aguilars, which enables moments of recognition and re-encounter with the
Bichis that intolerance had expulsed from the country (Polit, 140). The main difference
between Delirio and La Virgen de los sicarios becomes pertinent at this point. The moral
Janus face and extreme sexual intolerance, paired with opportunism of Colombias
aristocratic elite, is addressed by both Restrepo and Vallejo. Vallejos aesthetic extremism
pushes imagination beyond the possibility of a moral integrity contract between the
established classes. Restrepo, in turn, seems to be longing for exactly that.
So what, in the end, is the actual enigma of the Deliriums delirium, remaining in the dark?
It is not uncommon among audatious artists that they open a Pandoras box and fail in their
attempt to close it again. Restrepos healing narrative is unable to come across an affective
matrix that resounds in Agustinas situation. It is what we call Agustinas hypothetic role as a
female pharmakos, a scapegoat, a creature who, like her brother Bichi, her family establishment
needs to sacrifice, in order to maintain a moral contract based on denial, and hence violence.
Only from here can we become aware of the existent, subcutaneous relationship between

Ibid., 141. Augustinas delirium loses symbolic force when the discourse that contains it gives way to
an explanatory logic (Polit, 139).
Female Castaways 141

dissociation, on Agustinas side, and violent projection on the side of her mother and elder
brother. At stake is the kind of delirium, that can arise when the force of dissociation from
the real world (the symbolic order as a sickening power) grates against opposite forces of
reality simulation, in which cynicism and demagogy take the lead. That is, the hidden conflict
is actually manifest on the affective plane: Agustinas forces of distancing and adivination are
exhausted by the energies of projection that her mother and elder brother generate from
every fold of daily existence. As an effective means of self-protection, dissociation cannot
cope, in this case, with the poisonthe evil pharmakon of olympic family guilt when it is
exteriorized and transferred. For this kind of poison is transmitted across hidden spheres.
Agustina the illuminated queer, a master of dissociation, has always been obsessed
with purifying rituals without knowing why. The novels voices speak of liesthe
absence of truth accounting for the familys poisoning. Purification, however, cannot
work in the service of the abstract category of truth. When guilt, unassumed by the
responsible parties of domination, is being projected onto others, both silently and
aggressively, how can the targets of projectionthe pharmakoi resist or fight back?
This is the deeper and unresolved question that lingers in the novels underground.
There are forms of intoxication, both physiologically and in the social psyche that are
difficult to combat by methods of purification. Explanation, laying out the historical as
the anecdotal referents of disavowed memories, as was practiced in the healing attempts
by the husband Aguilar and Aunt Sofi, would be a rationalized form of purification. Yet
guilt lies beneath the referential world, lingering at the crossroads of soma, affect, and
immanent histories. If projection functions as an aggressive mechanism of intoxication,
healing might have to work, for example, on the plane of either immanence or an
existential mysticism, while the happy ending seems merely to postpone the actual
problem. Such is the dramatic issue, or the epistemic question, that makes us hold our
breath while we read Laura Restrepos Delirio. So one might visualize, as well, another
scenario, in which the symbolism of bowls of purifying water adorning the private
space, and the historicizing pact between the reponsible husband and the loving aunt,
would be rather helpless against the visceral matrix of terror, ingrained in a sphere of
Colombian moral and political culture.

Toward an ecological aesthetics, postoptimistic:

Plasma (Guadalupe Santa Cruz)

Something in her makes you let down your guard, distracts your attention, erases the
tracks (Plasma).
Plasma (2005), by Chilean author Guadalupe Santa Cruz, is an austere masterpiece,
an outstanding text of minor literature when viewed in a Deleuzian light.18 Scarcely
known in the academy, the novel has an unecstatic intensity that, by enabling a sense

See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature.
142 Narcoepics

of poetic intoxication, contrasts with the very meaning of the word drugs.19 This
term does, however, lend the narrative its visible design, that of a detective story. At its
beginning, we see a tableau of dispersed papers, filthy, and in runny ink: Greasy waste
sheets used like composition paper, the backs of tickets, napkins, stained, . . . unnumbered
pages, pages and pages of loose paragraphs, the margins of magazine pages scribbled
in the same writing, the same feeble and rapid writing . . . (Plasma,9). These writings
conform the dossier of Rita Rubilar, a woman whom the police suspect to be dealing
in drugs.20 Bruno, the detective, receives the order from his superior to find, between
and behind the scribbled letters the drugs themselves, the estupefacientes. Decipher
the texts! Since there is no paperwork regarding Ritas antecedents and biography,
Bruno learns that the tracks are offered, most likely, in the writings that she abandons
everywhere. (Plasma, 11)
Another character, an impersonal one, emerges in italics, la Cordillera. But who
speaks when La Cordillera emerges through images, and broken surfaces?
The Cordillera is cracked into its faults at this hour, it splinters in shadow, it becomes
tinder and ferocious. Its grayish-purple grooves are avalanches of dryness between
the pallid terraces, lost monuments of sand holding up the rough elevation of the
slopes. No, no, its not about climbing them or falling down them, but rather of
resting the body that flees through ones eye across this indifferent medium . . . (9).
La Cordillera is a text, as well; it is, at the same time, an entity that reverberates,
indifferently, as it simultaneously speaks through and with a voice in first-person
narration. Is it Ritas? Is there a relationship between the notes that Rita carelessly
leaves behind and her environment? Writing as movement, cryptically embedded in
the geographicatmospheric presence of the Cordillera . . . Bruno leaves the city, Siago
[Santiago], and travels northward, heading to the town of Fajes, located in one of the
many folds of the Andes mountains. Fajes is inhabited by Ritas world. Why Ritas world,
and not just Rita? Driven by other questions, Bruno cannot grasp the dimensions of
this impression. He carries Ritas notes, papers that the police collected in several
places in the village. A fragmentary, profane art, agency of transference between
energetic-as-sensorial awareness and the tremendousness of a surrounding nature, an
unromantic, yet inebriating poetry. Where did the energy of these writings come from?
Was it not actually due to the womans being stoned? This seems to be clear, at least for
the police. The detective begins to immerse himself in the scribblingsthere he would
find the right track, as per his superiors order.
Guadalupe Santa Cruz has opted for a heterogeneous work; her minimalist, 157-page
long novel combines several modes of style and different voices, both immediate and
latent, together with a variety of narrative forms. Moreover, a distinction between
poetic writing and a profound documentary sense for a region and its people would
be difficult to make. Geographically, the novel speaks from Chiles Norte Grande,
bordering on Bolivia and Peru, home to Aymara populations and inhabitants of the
Atacama areas. A self-reflective playfulness, postmodern as it might be, is not the matter
Guadalupe Santa Cruz, Plasma, Santiago de Chile: LOM Ediciones, 2005, 9.
See ibid., 10.
Female Castaways 143

at hand. The text is intuitive and consciously figurative, offering an afecto-cartography

called Plasma, from whence a precarious spirit emanates. Rita, whose closeness to a
heightened or different consciousness can be associated with the delirium of Restrepos
heroine, comes from another world than that of Agustina, a noncosmopolitan universe.
The books chapters bear the names La Cordillera de Fajes, La Cordillera de Caica,
La Cordillera de Quispe, La Cordillera de la Sal, and La Cordillera de Bernal Bello;
still, there is no geographic code to this sort of territory. Rather, Bruno, whose task is to
find clues in Ritas village Fajes, sinks into perceptions of . . . a great desertic area with a
slick that is not an oasis . . . a dried-out river . . . ravines related to Rita Rubilar, since
ravines hold suspicions (10), concealing their humidity in the intermediate gulches . . .,
carrying seeds soaked in moist, and contamination all over. In the heart of the aridity,
the chasms generate rain, they make the soil speak. Ravines are oblique, they attract
strangers, wreathing clandestine trails . . . people from the border (ibid.) They all are,
apparently, related with Rita, allowing an indigenous immanence to resonate: Chiya,
Dopque, Misca, Pasama, Vilica, Aspa, Caripi. . . . a zone were rules and taxes are suspended,
Bruno thinks, and suddenly the aroma of wild fruits abounds. Then, not printed within
any scale but insisted upon in the police dossier, there is a fugitive shadow escaping
the administrative projections: the floating population of Fajes, the incommensurable
outlanders (afuerinos) and their dead freight (1011). The image combines a harsh and
overbearing geographic formation, suspicious soils, contaminated all over, and people
from the border. The contamination is not metaphoric, as the reader will see. A flair
of lyrical omniscience permeates the detectives perception; it will accompany the slow
undermining of the mans consciousness, emerging from a twofold female agencythat
of Rita Rubilar and, from a slight distance, that of the writer Santa Cruz.
Brunos first-person voice muses about the lack of clues, a situation that starts
nurturing his imminent desires. First, the detective lacks consistent information from
his superiors, so any available expedient contradicts the previous one. Ritas notes, left
abandoned in diverse places of the environment, are irregular, with altered letters, as they
come scripted in an album of disposables. An urgent calligraphy, persecuted by time,
saying slow and useless things (11). Bruno, when dislocated and transferred into the
Cordillera region del Norte Grande, faces a different world from that of the city of Siago,
familiar as enormous luminous board, factory of electric blood (13). Electric blood,
one of the texts ecological oxymora, is a chief factor of the networking society to which
Bruno was accustomed, even physiologically attached. Computers and cell phones,
prime devices of utility, had become his factish gods of existence.21 Being extensions of
the body only dissimulated their actual power: they created a sort of hyperphysiological
landscape, remaking space and redefining life by virtue of a new commonalitythe
joint flow of neuronal and artificially encoded energies of all connected people. The
world of electric blood conforms the background against which the contours of other
bondages and exchanges, both fleeting and dense, are modeled. Reading the novel, one
senses that there was a portent, slowly pulsating, perhaps a silent illness, or a siege . . . and,
at the same time, a flow of embodied imagination carrying a different energyRitas

For a pointed discussion of this notion, see Bruno Latour. On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods.
144 Narcoepics

moving beyond Self -understood things. If there is a deeper contention that can be
associated with the novel, it unfolds, perhaps, at the level of configurations. Plasma is
a fluid part of blood, a liquid sustainment; it is also a figurative formation, a Gebilde
of connecting shapes, and it therefore provides the metaphor for an ecological form.
There is latent tension, lingering behind the images of tectonic surfaces, which the text
conveysan intermingling and wrestling of embodying substances, and movements of
bodies, or even a conflict between matrixes, so to speak.
In other words, plasma connects nonindividual sites of embodiment. One of Ritas
notes says: I inhale the powder, tiny pieces of cordillera, fossils that are activated in
contact with my wet tongue and my blood. Im its torrent, its course. Im not afraid of that
rocky dryness, I dont fear its cutting splendor (13). Here emerges a neurophysiological
metaphor of the bodys intoxication by an environment that is not premised on an
idea of passive exteriority. The detective, sitting in the airplane where his displacement
commences, a fish with various eyes, a metallic fly (ibid.) reports, I underline the word
inhale, the noun little dust. Bruno overlooks what the little extracts of the cordillera,
fsiles are about: they have nothing to do with biochemical drugs. And they are not about
mental health, in the modern medicinal sense. Rather, these extracts connect body
mindmatter with a sustaining force for whose understanding the term hallucination
does not suffice. The status of the cordillera insinuates a before- and in-time, something
that unfolds and refracts across thousands of years, or in the course of a second, but
which is now digesting civilizations waste. Later in the text, the man will say, I dont
know what Rita is addicted to, while he slowly becomes addicted to Rita (88). Both,
addiction and plasma are contested issues, seemingly easy to grasp and yet fugitive
notions that confound the conscious search of the knowing, and controlling subject.
At the end, after a long nomadic venture, in which Rita and her partner are followed
by the detective whom they will rescue when he is about to die, she is imprisoned in
Siago, to be condemned on a trumped-up charge. In order to establish a narrative of her
felony, photos showing the ravine and wild seeds are used in combination with notes, in
which Bruno speaks of the intoxicating power that Rita Rubilar had exerted on him. The
discourse of the tribunal, functionalizing information against its context, does not allow
Ritas language: The advocates say that . . . it wasnt my job to give information to the
court, that I took on inappropriate attributes . . . (1456).
Who, then, is Rita? Bruno the detective, when arriving in Fajes, is taken in by the
womans presence. His first-person ego seems still intact when he realizes that Rita is
everywhere. I saw her, here and there . . . without apparent direction of her movements
. . . mimetized with the landscape (17). It would not be easy to surprise her, since she
confuses the onlooker. Her itineraries vary, her moving through space resembles a
flow, her posture is inclined slightly forward: no terrain presents an obstacle for this
woman. With her indolent steps, Rita paves the earthen streets and sidewalks (18),
paratactically inhabiting the village, lacking the purposefulness of the ordinary citizen.
Ritas way of walking her environment is as diffuse and incongruent as the notes that
she leaves on disposable paper sheets. I walk after that rarity, writes Bruno in his diary,
after a person who is a natural dissimulation, not even possessing a proper home.
Female Castaways 145

The entire tableau might sound a bit magico-realist, until the novel, the
afecto-cartography, starts to reveal its charges of an ecological and bio-economic
threat. Silent tension and ongoing contention gravitate around something too big to
be named: the remaking of the space of the living, embracing all living beings, and
including inorganic matter. Here emerges a new type of existentialist drama without
dramatic plot, or so to speak a consciously misconstrued one. Rita, in her natural
wandering across the desolate village space, flows into the Fbrica as if that were not
her place, her work routine, then she abandons it in the same way, without any apparent
marks of her working day, her work routine of the shifts, of the rhythms (18). This
means Rita is actually two personsshe belongs to an unskilled female workforce of
the globalized periphery, and she is part of an eccentric, antineurotic, and harsh world
called the Cordillera. Suddenly Fajes, that remote place uplifted to a transnational,
decentralized production site, has uncovered its reason for being, its predicament.
What surfaces, as if from nowhere, is a glass-and-steel complex with large production
and assembly lines (34), connected to the outside world by a railroad track, a mountain
road, and of course electronic networks. The surroundings are marked by chasms that
are not geological; from the ground, covered with toxic grains, the strange light of a
screen that has been turned off emanatesit envelopes Bruno in a shining blindness,
overlaid with an air that vibrates under metallic radiation, (41). This village is not a
village; it is turned into a town the wrong way.
There is a saying that the Factory is a packaging company. Bruno, following Rita into
her environment after obtaining a false labor contract, observes her amidst the mass
of female workers. He also perceives the particulars of this business without getting its
story. Standing in a production line when an error occurs, Brunos hands are suddenly
tainted by a viscose substance of a dark scarlet color, and he asks his neighbor if this
was real jelly, and the answer is, No, Caballero, it is plasma (3940). The story of the
Fabrica is about what only few Latin American readers would not be able to deduce;
it is written from invisible hands of market corporativism, within a framework that
is much more extensive than the Andes. In the Fabrica, there are transportation and
assembly belts, but also laboratories and workshops. Some products circulate visibly
on the conveyor belts, while others, more delicate, are transported by technicians on
little trolleys, or trays to the confidence units. This is not where Rita works. But the
detective has gotten close to that which strict vigilance keeps intruders away from:
chemical laboratory procedures with jelly like substances that are bottled and packaged
and the presence of strange larvas (37). In a word, at issue is the preparation of an
elaborated drug, although the simple story is that Rita is making boxes for butterfly
larvas, destined for exportation (36).
We will address the labor scenario in a moment. This must be done from the premise
of difference. Rita is a decentering presence. Her behavior in the Fabrica is hieratic, and
so she has a kind of immunity to the regime of suspicion and regulation that presses on
the female labor force. At this point, her dissociation acquires a complex and diffuse
meaningit helps her to be unaffected by suspicious male managerialism; behind this
shield, it allows her a basic integrity as a person, as a creature whose transgressive
leaning has taken on a natural spin. Rita Rubilar suddenly resembles a metaphorical
146 Narcoepics

being, whose self-protective behavior reminds us of the environments patience vis--

vis its ongoing depletion. Calculated self-protection is not the issue here. Rather, this
strange female subject becomes an ethical person. This poses the problem of a womans
self-protection, not as a learned art of tricking society, but as a particular mode of
being-in-the-world, in other words, as an ecological problem. This aspect signals the
strength and, even more so, the fragility of such nature. Displacement from oppression
is not its contestation, and Ritas body remains, in Brunos eyes, a moving target; but
displacement does allow for a stance beyond the rational double bind, from where
the abuse of human and ecological life can be distinguished, but without assuming an
autonomous and healthy state.
In search of the dope that he expects Rita to be transiting, Bruno observes every
move she makes in the Fabrica. His account is graphic:
Not only have I regularly inspected the different artefacts in the restroom, removing
the covers of the toilet and water tank, but Ive also manipulated the hand dryer,
the soap dispenser, and the toilet paper looking for hidden packages. Although
up to now Ive only collected new manuscripts in Ritas handwriting, abandoned
without pretence on the different surfaces in the restroom . . . (36).
The male inspection of the womens restroom,naturally framed in an autobiographical
mode, is evocative of the new rules of economic globalization in decentralized
production sites. The chronically detrimental working conditions of low-skilled female
workers in the regions of the former third world include sophisticated techniques of
biological and corporeal vigilance. A major issue is identified by Melissa W. Wright
in her book, Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism. Thus we find
Chiles remodeled rural environment in proximity with the post-NAFTA landscapes
covering the southern zones of the MexicanUnited States border, especially the
thousands of maquiladora factories. From one angle, it seems that Santa Cruz has set her
heroine in conscious contrast with the female victims of both physical and emotional
wasting away (in the assembly factories) and brutal violence (in the surrounding
semi-urban environments) that the name of Ciudad Jurez has become so strongly
associated with. Her protagonist seems to hold back and sidestep the wearing out of
the workforce, as well as the environment caused by one type of neoliberal assembly
and production company, massively distributed across the globe. Ritas world would
show us another visceral atmosphere, not that of the dehumanized women from Santa
Teresa, thematized in Roberto Bolaos novel 2666 (2004). However, as we will discuss
in the next chapter, there is an implicit dialogue between the works of the two Chilean
writers. Plasma and 2666, published in almost in the same year share a figurative, and
political denominator that criticism has not yet addressed. These imaginaries explore
a heuristic possibility: the revival of the ancient pharmakos in and through the body
of the female scapegoatwomens exposure to anachronistic and atrotious practices
of violence in the contemporary climate of the Global South. Bringing back to light
the etymologico-conceptual relationship between pharmakon and pharmakos, which
we outlined in Chapter 1, and looking into the modern, and global conflicts about
narcotics, these novels foreground new ways of looking at a contested field. They can
Female Castaways 147

open up our perceptions to an elementary truth: in the shifting history of the West,
when drugs were considered to be either straightforwardly beneficial to health or
poisonous, or occupying a grey middle ground, in most cases economic, political, and
cultural interests have been at issue. Unmasking reality can be a matter of asking simple
questions, together with some explorative imagination. And there is one question that
must be asked in the most concrete manner possible: when a pharmakon or a person
associated with certain pharmaka is turned into a pharmakos, when does this happen,
why and where and by whom is this transaction carried out? This illuminating thread
that contemporary narcoepics help us perceive, turns Plasma and 2666 into ethical
works, that are among the most advanced examples of contemporay art.
In Plasma, after scrutinizing Ritas work environment, the detective realizes: Ive
been working for uncountable months in the Fbrica, observing a women I still
dont know, without finding any indication that proves drug trafficking (43). But
this insight does not matter anymore in the eyes of a legal apparatus that requires
guilty people to come from among those suspicious populations that inhabit the
margins of decent language, hygienic norms, convenient morality, and proper
(urban) space. Ritas final condemnation by a tribunal in Siago is due to strategic
alliances, between a globalized corporativism and the law. This becomes pertinent
when we see Rita sharing prison space with other women, all of whom are driven
by a particular concern: Cirila, water, Elisa, light, La Inmueble communal earth, and
Vilka, writing. A female group formed around the concern for existential notions,
related to collective traditions in the use of nature and its resources. Water is the
central issue. Cirila, who defends the natural sources of water as a common good
while lacking education and modern registration as a specialist is accused of water
robbery. The accusatory argument is presented from the standpoint of privatization,
which sets the resources aside for use by transnational mining companies. Rita, when
the charge of drug trafficking is dropped due to a lack of evidence, is accused of
killing the detective Bruno, who had eventually died of exhaustion during his long
persecutory trek across the northern Cordillera.
As we proceed, we must consider this trek. In Fajes, Rita lives in an old house,
together with her parents and other renters. There Benedicto, her father, who
complains about it to Bruno, sees Ritas work in the Fabrica as her having abandoned
the family rules, based on paternalist sexual contract.22 Rita does not prepare lunch,
nor care for the chickens, nor does she stay at home to take care of the housekeeping.
Bad woman, always in the street, chasing men. Shes not virtuous, Rita. It doesnt
work, she doesnt know what world shes living in . . . Born bad, born bad, continues
the fathers litany (46). Worst of all, says Benedicto, Rita would not accept her fathers
speaking on her behalf; even though she is not terse, but because she does not know
how to respond with an answer (47). She speaks but does not answer. Being a
useless woman, she gives things a twist leaving the father in bad standing. Rita
leaves her father mal parado in a double sense, by speaking without listening, and
by not respecting the relationship between a woman and a home. Who is Efran, by

On the marriage contract, see Carole Pateman. The Sexual Contract, 154 ff.
148 Narcoepics

the way? asks Bruno. He is the enlister who is always hanging around with Rita,
someone, says the father, who recruits men as workers for offices, and workshops
(46). Is not he courting Rita? The Rita is useless . . . On the same day, in the shabby
restaurant El Pjaro Azul, Bruno overhears Rita say, we are going to leave (50), and
here La Cordillera de Caica begins (53).
For Rita, Efran is an artisan, is a master craftsman, and he is a drummer.
When both abandon the village, are they heading to the Fiesta de Cuyo taking
place many miles from Fajes? Something alike speaks from Ritas immediate notes
that are guided by the drums of a band: The heart is pulled along by the beating
on the drumskin (55). This is why, paradoxically, there cannot be a destiny. The
drums anticipate an energetic journey led by a dance of molecules in which bodies,
surfaces, shape and color join, vibrations that Brunos nervous system cannot but
register with irritation. The drums also mark Ritas sexual perception of vast and
arid nature, her embodying a particular space-time, her excitement and intoxication
without drug use.
This sand is particles fallen from the notes, sand full of drums that are the
immensity of our bodies echoing across the pampa. The sand is my musical frenzy,
the wind instrument that raises me up, that makes my sex wriggle and rubs it to the
explosion of reds pulled across this vastness (55).
With the beat Ritas anxiety pulsates, as well: Im afraid for the water that doesnt run,
for the dry rivers and their rocks stranded in mid stream, Im afraid for the shadow . . .
(ibid.). With the drought, the world loses its shadows, and its green sound, but as long
as the drums persist there is a sensual knowing, a vibration that places the body above
the ego, a kind of hope sustained by healthy intoxication.
From ravine to ravine, from one green to another the detective follows on Ritas
and Efrans tracks, as he notes: I had a dogs legs and a dogs nose in order to step on
their heels in those inhospitable wanderings (57). In this scenario, the pathological
assumption is turned on Bruno himself. Not only has the detective become a
doglike being; as a spy he is finally unable to survive when this condition takes him
beyond the citizens secure terrain. For the first time in his life, the scarcety of water
becomes his problem. In Cuyo, a no-place, a village of arneros, everything resembles
collectors, sieves, absorbers, especially for water (59). A voice in first-person plural is
heard, behind which Brunos first-person seems to fade away. Three days of partying
begins. Dancers and musicians are possessed, as though an all-mighty had set them in
motion, as if their bodies had consumed hallucinogens to erase their fatigue. All the
town was a soul in sorrow, repeating without knowing the same gestures thousands
of times, transported into collective pulsation by the arid, untuned sound of the flutes
(60). And the narrative we becomes a moment of alterity in Brunos perception of
the world.
We only talked about the towns that had disappeared because their waters had been
drained by mining, of the villages buried beneath the waters of the mining dam,
of the shortages of water in Cuyo in order to supply the miners, of the allotments
of water for the fields after the mines have been supplied, of the diameter of the
Female Castaways 149

tubing in the Quelam Valley, in Corral Quemado, in Aguas Negras, in Chumata,

always smaller than the diameter of the aqueduct that crossed the mountains in the
direction of the mines. The water canals dried up and the springs stopped bubbling,
the ponds didnt fill completely. In parts of the desert cracked by the drought you
could hear the murmur of water running within the hard rubber aqueduct, they
said. With moist eyes they heard this noise, their encapsulated dream in which
their green oases were reduced and drained, their ancient grapevines, the plantings
of corn, of bran, of quinua, of papaya trees jostled and disappeared. Water was
returned to them like merchandise in the tank trucks that went from town to town,
at the price of gold (634).
From the perspective of a certain cruel optimism, that is, a stubborn attachment to
conventional good-life fantasies23 it might be hard to understand the extent to which
the word water has begun to acquire, in both rural and urban Latin America today an
alarming, even an utopian, sound. Another narrative that puts viewers in the throes
of this existential drama is Alex Riveras movie Sleep Dealer (2008), presenting Mexicos
near future as a brave new world where high-technology allows the exploitation, across
large distances, of a peripheral workforce, without migrants having to cross the border
northward anymore. Plasma is not a counter-utopia, but rather a tale obsessed with
singular bodies and spaces, and the ways language generates their existence; it pictures
the theme of water from the meaning of plasma as it points to the universal component
of blood, condensing experience as movement, exchange, and fluidity, together with the
attempt of reigning institutions to turn those universal fluids into lucrative assets.24
After roaming for weeks across the territories of El Norte Grande and through an
equally vast vocabulary of Chilean regionalisms, Bruno, the detective, is close to dying
of thirst. He has himself become drugged, due to the implacable rays of the sun, the
energy charge of the desert soil and mountains, his instinctive chewing of coca and
cebil leaves, and his madness caused by Ritas unbearable, inexplicable pleroma,25
which has begun to produce a growing desire toward the woman. Hallucinating,26
Bruno senses the proximity of voices: some birds were talking to me (68). It is Rita
and Efran who have found him. Blue. Blue. Blue. It entered me through my eye....
It entered my through my eye, totally exposed in spite of my eyelids, it entered me
through my nose, I inhaled blue, I listened to blue in the heights, my orifices waiting
(70). When Rita eventually discovers the detectives written notes, she is upset not about
the compromising fact as such, but about her fathers words that appear recorded as
those of a witness. In his mindless state, Bruno overhears how Rita rejects Benedictos
accusations by indirectly calling her father to account for his double morality: Does
he think I did not see . . . how they tortured . . ., the injustices that he ignored in the
village? Silent, and sometimes violent submission to the order of things in a globalized

Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism, 12.
Guadalupe Santa Cruz. Communication to the author, April 16, 2011.
See the usage of the term in Gregory Bateson and Mary Catherine Bateson. Angels Fear: Towards an
Epistemology of the Sacred, 16.
The skies flow and the cove is a thread of water where strange figures of animals quenching their thirst
can be seen, nursing at milky aureolas, urinating translucid and fertile liquids (Plasma, 68).
150 Narcoepics

locality like Fajes has not only harmed women; it affects children and animals, and it
has victimized the environment. Rita, in turn, becomes involved in a sexual relationship
with Efran without standing in a social contract to him. The detective learns that Rita
and Efran saved his life. Brunos voice, previously the first-person guiding instance of
the text, repeatedly shifts to we.
We were three, from place to place . . . We crossed plains and low hills, . . ., small
oases, trading music for food or a roof when, after noticing goats or burros grazing
among the peaks, surfaced in the vastness a human settlement. We lay down next
to stone walls or between the walls of abandoned ruins. Outside the towns, first
the dogs appeared, then the garbage scattered by the mongrels, rusty pushcarts
without wheels, the insides of mattresses, strips of plastic and rubber, car batteries
and old-fashioned military boots. I threw the uncharged mobile phone that was a
weight in my backpack toward one of these piles (789).
Spaces of commonized poverty and yet nonplaces, testify against their will to
the historicist arrogance of modernizing discourse. There is no track of time and
visions of water have populated the no-mans land of the imagination. In Quispe,
a harbor town, Bruno, Rita y Efran find themselves exposed to the other extreme
of the fluid element, a space where the winds of the Cordillera and the Pacific
embrace and writhe (83).
I know that Im facing a throat of water that can swallow us in its somber quietness.
They are thousands of horses of indigo-colored blood, disposed to lift themselves
up with their muzzles snorting foam, they are currents that, when they combine,
will knot together in a single direction, lights of the darkness that, its blindness
awakened, would trample one another to spy further on . . . Its not a glass of milk.
It is the recipient of the tsunamis (88).
Bruno has become a farce of himself, a pleasing deformation girds itself around this
mask of me (84). Being esperpentos was the transition for becoming other, words
that allude to the carnival that has just started to permeate this coastal zone. Being
another was the antechamber for being many . . . Everything mixed up with everything
(86), and Bruno begins a sexual encounter with Rita as if he were under the force of
a tectonic event. The detectives language has ceased to be his own, but at the edge of
self-understood being, it has become infinitely more intense. It has mutated into a
glossolalic enunciatory flow, almost unmediated by instrumental purpose and rational
balance. Throwing away the cell phone meant getting rid of the last anchor that could
attach Bruno to the worlds coordinates, previously confirmed in his notes as they were
dictated by the requirements of the law. In the meantime,
I write without a pencil. I dictate the words to the rocky wall (73). There is no world
of life anymore which could lend the man an unwritten yet subjectively experienced
attachment, a state that becomes manifest in his body under erosion. The desire to
understand the phenomen called Rita is now absorbed by an unnamable addiction,
beyond any conceivable substance that could produce addictedness. It generates a
lethal fear in Bruno.
Female Castaways 151

Where were we marching and why? We walked with the weight of chains on our
feet (90, 91). There is solidarity among the three people, Rita, Efran, and the detective,
in order to calm the hunger, but there is also an abyss seperating them. We didnt
talk the hatred (92). Within an impossible menage--trois Bruno feels hollowed out,
pulverized. When Efran made a fire on the beach, the image of plasma turns abrasive,
drawing the detective in as if into a vortex.
My carousel of fear began again, it was melting the things that hurt me. Derailed
cross-ties, dancing an alien son. Rails turned into scrap metal at the door of the tall
smelter, mixed with faucets, spigots, water taps, unused containers, metallic bundles
of pieces of wrecked car, bearings, crankshafts, airplane wings . . . in a deafening
noise of metallic scraping, of knocking, of sonorous teeth of iron, of rattling, all
destined to be reduced, to be melted and thwart my journey . . . Spinning around in
a basin while the gigantic spoon dissolved the motors, the last trace, the end of the
propulsion which I was going to witness, drinking a black coffee (912).
The apocalyptic image still carries a laconic tone. Voices, nonidentifiable voices, carry
insults, throwing into the detectives face everything that I still had to know.
These are voices that conjure up the repressed past of the countrychains, slaves,
murders. The trip had led them into dark regions. Abandoned cemeteries at the
beach testify to a collective subconscious populated by massacres and wars. This
coast, metonymic topos and exhausting presence is also the non-place of Ritas
past, the place where she and her mother were violated during the war time.27
While Bruno is inhabited by other voices, he realizes that writing had been his true desire,
but it was buried by his fabrication of reports about other peoples delincuencies. This is
the moment that his first-person voice fades away. From chapter three to chapter four, the
narration becomes an immanent dialogue between the woman and the detective, with
Rita assuming the narrative lead. Her voice is removed from the sections written in italics
(as read by Bruno), and turned into the regular instance of the discourse. Swallow your
solitude, Bruno. Rita and Efrain talk as if you werent present . . . they make love in your
apparent absence as if you had never crossed their lives (108). Rita talks to Bruno until
he cannot hear her anymore (Are you listening to me, Bruno? Bruno?) Brunos death
signals Ritas taking over the narrative agency, a form of plasmatic transubstantiation,
so to speak. As Rita resumes her return to their place of departure, she names her own
fatum: We didnt have to do it and we did it; we went back to Fajes, we returned with
the corpse over our shoulder (115). In Fajes, a delegation of legal persons from Siago is
already waiting for them. But worst of all, there is Ritas father Benedicto with his head
uncovered, as if he were at a funeral, clutching his hat with a trembling hand (117). Rita
feels herself being hand-cuffed and pushed toward a gray van.
In a way that is evocative of Kafkas The Trial, Ritas first-person voice takes the novel
to its end; and it generates a remarkable textual hybrid. On the one hand, a self-reflective
mode emerges that is not, however, narcissistic.28 Rita, the unschooled woman who

Lisa Quaas. Review of Plasma. University of Freiburg. February, 2012, 34.
152 Narcoepics

lived as if she were part of a larger aleatoric stream, writing down poetic messages on
the waste papers obtained from everyday space, starts to narrate what she experiences
in prison and how she feels about it. At the same time, and after months of incessant
attacks on her queerness, her entire presence remains a mise en abyme, as it rises against
the hyperformalized, speech-saturated environment of the courtroom. In contrast, but
also in conjunction with the Fbrica, the local site of globalized, low-skilled labor in La
Cordillera de Fajes, another spatial metaphor surfaces, now referring to the Cordillera
de Bernal Bello that surrounds the capital Siago La Farmacia, the Pharmacy. Ritas
trajectory, at the structural level, a sphere that she kept neutralizing and unsettling by
her transgressive mode of being leads from the Fbrica to the Farmacia. It is this other
company that offers to act in support of the womans exoneration before the law,
provided that she gives up her stubbornness.
The syntax becomes passive and urgent (They pushed me down on the back seat
[of the car] with a slap, they blindfolded me, 121); and violence turns into a linguistic
reality that disturbs Ritas energetic way of being herself. In other words, violence
inflicted by physical means on her body is not what unbalances her being; it is the
language of the police and interrogators that causes injurious effects. . . . Questioning,
questioning, crushing with questions, crushing me completely with the questioning,
until I dont understand, until I dont listen to the questions . . . knife voices, hammer
voices, drill voices, broken glass voices . . . (ibid.). A significant semantic shift is implied.
Some judicial speech can be divided between perlocutionary speech (speech that is
not itself the effect or is not a violent utterance as such) and illocutionary speech
(it has immediate injurious effects, for example, hate speech).29 In Ritas perception,
this distinction does not apply. The inquisitive interpellations and cross-questionings
that she is peppered with are themselves perceived as injurious, and to the blows of
questions they separate the words that I receive (122).
Narco-theque, psycho-pill, anesthetic, elixir-pharmacy, pharmacopoeia, dosage
indicators, substitutes, they ring, they ring, the words ring like bells, they clash
one with the other until they die, they are bleeding me out and I dont understand,
they dont refer to me, they are words pronounced by another needy tongue that
shoots in my name at the words, that takes revenge by thrashing the words, its
torturing them to make them die, its hollowed them out and it can drive me crazy
listening to them like this . . . narcotic, pharmo-psychotropic, barbituo-coexcipient,
antidote-magistral (ibid.).
While the syntactic and semantic components of the interrogation are instrumentalized
in order to categorize Ritas past within protocols of drug use and narcotics trade,
the interviews take on a ritualistic spin. Religion is paradoxically at stake, not in
the sense of canonized belief, but as a practice of interpellation that is supposed to
clear the mind of the addressed person. This clearing of the mind presupposes an

By narcissistic we alude to Linda Hutcheons describing a narrative operation: a work is apt to
produce within itself a dramatized mirror of its own narrative or linguistic principles (Narcissistic
Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox, 1718).
See Judith Butlers reflection in Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, 39.
Female Castaways 153

intoxicating intensity in its own right, like obsessive prayer, a siege of the interrogated
consciousness by means of loud, repetitive, hypercodified, and cumulative speech, a
practice that unleashes a substantial amount of energy and propels it in a specific
direction, energies intensified by the sheer number of male bodies surrounding Ritas
deterritorialized creature. In order to unravel wound after wound, Rita returns to
her antiquity of words (122), which is neither a recovery of something pure nor
a noncontaminated meaning. She simply turns language into an aleatory instance
again, so that it can resonate, together with a different type of energy, while not ruling
out the languages of body and the environment with specialized codes and forms of
Explanatory language, administered by the rulers, interpreters, and transcribers of
codes, is anagrammatically disorganized and thus, in part, reappropriated.
When they attacked with the word addiction, I had already trained it. I snatched
from them, inside my blindfold, the a, and they loaded their revenge in diction, but
the a was mine, and while I had custody of the a, the a would be my alphabet, it was
my alphabet, they could not diccionar, they could not dictate pain to me, because
the a was encrusted on my lips, in the blindfold of my eyelids, a small bruise of
alphabet in solidarity with me (123).
Ritas voice testifies to her victimization, and it simultaneously falls back on passages
of catachretic and anagrammatic style, as if taking refuge from the avalanche of
prescribed and rhetorically imposed meanings. It is also a way of distracting her fears,30
as she distracts her interrogators to the point that she unbalances the discourse in the
courtroom. In the courtroom, Rita is again asked the evil question: In what world
do you live in? I dont know what defective globe is attributed to me, so that their
enormous distrust is put upon my shoulders (140). There is no world, she thinks,
there are only paths (caminos). How could Rita be accused of dealing drugs? When
she recognizes, among the witnesses gathered to testify in her case, people from
her hometown, Fajes, she realizes that in the eyes of the others, she had become a
mysterious creature, moving in a no-mans land, while belonging to her family and
to the workplace, La Fbrica. But perhaps she was as alien to La Fbrica as to her
own parents. People in Fajes, in the presence of this female castaway, were aggressive,
provoked by her cunning silence, her shrewd loneliness (143), her visceral otherness,
her nomadic immersion in the Cordillera, whose border regions, crossed by seasonal
workers, immigrants and dealers, could only belong to those evading the law. Rita is an
ethnic figure without indigenous background, and she generates an antipatriarchal air,
although her floatingness resists categorization. The papers that Rita had covered with
hermetic, lyrical notes, writings that seen through the lens of the law were suspected
of containing clues to the narcotics issue, as they seemed to be written by a drugged
person. Rita refuses to sign the accusatory documents that she does not understand.

death appeared to me, seated on an armchair and death was seated there, the mother said to her
daughter (who was) death (le deca a la hija muerte), she asked why the daughter of her death was
so thin, she asked the person of the death, seated person, person comfortable on the armchair, death
talked with her daughter, death accepted a question (1234).
154 Narcoepics

Finally, she is not charged as a narcotics dealer, but from behind the lack of evidence,
another charge has come up to replace the first one. She is declared guilty of the murder
of detective Bruno Alfonso Cuneo Ton for not giving assistance in the face of his
evident disability (154), which is contrary to the facts of the matter.
In prison, Rita is put with women who had been displaced within and from
specific geographies that have been intervened in and mercantilized by foreign
interests.31 Around the controversial issue of ecological justice, a new politics of
criminalization has emerged. The women with whom Rita shares prison space are
emergent personalities who create a favorable atmosphere for the reorganization of
some globalocal zones from the bottom up (18), resisting the recodification of natural
resources to benefit global capital. The laws special interest in taking these women to
account can be explained from a neoliberal logic. At stake are the natural resources
that share an age-old communal genealogy that the modern state has made national
properties, and which global economic adjustment turns into privatizable, highly
lucrative assets. Water is the biggest concern. Cirila, who defends the natural water
resources as a communal good and had launched a legal claim in favor of the irrigation
of water-deprived areas, is accused of water theft. In its accusatory logic, the charge is
made on flexible grounds, so that the guilt of the person can be upheld under different
evidential circumstances. Similarly, when because of the lack of evidence the charge
of drug trafficking becomes pointless, Rita is accused of having killed the detective
Bruno, who had eventually died of exhaustion on his long persecutory treck across the
northern Cordillera. According to urea Sotomayor, there is a legal subtext in which
right and wrong regarding the countrys crucial resources have been preventively
updated. Chiles constitution, rewritten in 1981 during the regime of General Augusto
Pinochet contains the so-called Water Code which, by splitting the natural waterearth
binomial, allows water to be marketed to the highest bidder and forces the Aymar
and Atacameo peoples to emigrate.32 Isabel Mara Madaleno uses the term The
Geopolitics of Thirst in Chile to describe a form of displacement directed at the
emigration of indigenous peoples from their original enclaves places that are rich
in metalsafter depriving them of their agricultural lands and pushing them toward
the city.33
Rita Rubilar is not an activist dedicated to socio-ecological rights; therefore, she
is even more suited to becoming a pharmakos, a scapegoat. There is certain irony,
neither sophisticated nor naveas Northrop Frye would have itbut an irony
whose implicitness is ethically charged. We remember, irony isolates from the tragic
situation the sense of arbitrariness, of the victims having been unlucky, selected at
random or by lot, and no more deserving of what happens to him [her] than anyone

See urea Sotomayor Agua, espacio y Derecho en Plasma, de Guadalupe Santa Cruz, 12. Also see
Isabel Mara Madaleno. The Geopolitics of Thirst in ChileNew Water Code in Opposition to Old
Indian Ways.
urea Sotomayor., 6. The 1981 water code establishes the liberty regarding the ways of usage of
water, the acknowledgment of the concession of rights and the limitation of the role of the state
and public institutions regarding the regulation of this usage (Isabel Mara Madaleno and Albero
Gurovich. Usos conflictivos del agua en el Norte de Chile, 35372).
Madaleno and Gurovich, 354.
Female Castaways 155

else would be.34 In the confusion of voices that assail Rita, or otherwise prone to the
catachretic expressions that she knows how to handle, she senses that the matter of
water and the issue of drugs are intertwined: Listen, the narco-splitters call to one
another. The distributive frames of water are narcos. They want to detour you. The drug
isnt yours. (They want to) break you away, theres no net, they are the ones who have
the wires (127). In the discourse of the trial, water and drugs are connected through
rhetorical traps that blur the distinctions between speech and conduct, imposing a
protocollary meaning that is almost impossible to reject (144). On the other hand,
both issues are indeed related to one another. If there is an existential right to water
that should not be subordinated to aggressive geo-economic interests, can there be also
one to self-administering the psychotropic needs of ones own mindbody system?
Rita says, For Siago I am a criminal, a cimarrona (runaway). Why? Her practice
of self-intoxication has been genuine, uncompromised. She does not share a culture
of enchantment for which the countrys capital has become the epitome and which
somehow reminds us of the soma-induced happiness of Aldous Huxleys Brave New
World (1931).
Ritas legal punishment consists in her relegation to Siago, where she must stay,
forbidden to go back to her Cordillera. In other words, her genuine transgressive state
was not wanted in a production site like La Fbrica. Now there is one single company that
exerts sovereignty over a luminous urban worldthe big company, La Farmacia (The
Pharmacy), and for Rita, there is no way to sidestep its orbit. My state of estrangement
is unmeasured (155). La Farmacia has covered the surface of the entire city with visual
and symbolic prescriptions, with patriotic, religious, or educative images and motives of
how to be happy. The people chew their pills and floury pastes admiring the lights of
the city, they are beautiful, they move, they make waves and run the length of this dark
mass that is the Bernab Bello cordillera, Siagos mountain horizon. Rita, along with
many others, is provided with pills and capsules that produce a certain taste (1556).
When she cannot create, in her imagination, a perception that takes her back into her
mountains, she realizes that her existence as such is at stake. . . . I am being relegated
but I dont want to be . . . [my emphasis] (156). Being, in the womans experience,
was plenitude, was a form of unity that could combine body, mind, and matter, and
keep desire active, unasphyxiated. But how can Rita avoid being under the spell of
the omnipresent new taste, that La Farmacia benevolently provides? Ritas epilogue is
secretive, sobering: Perhaps back at the quebradas will she find a name for that which I
write, this flavor (156). The rest is simply a matter of paradox.
Guadalupe Santa Cruz has made her eccentric heroine, by way of a poetry of the fluid,
a singular proponent of what Paul Carter once called water consciousness,35 a poetic
sphere in which a new, an ecological epistemology of the sacred36 finds figuration.

Northrop Frye. Anatomy of Criticism, 41.
See Paul Carter. Trockenes Denken: Vom Verlust des Wasserbewussteins und von der Poesie des
See Gregory Bateson and Mary Catherine Bateson. Angels Fear.

From Pharmakon to Femicide:

2666 (Roberto Bolao)

I did not feel indebted to the boom in any way.

Roberto Bolao

Thinking from the Pharmakon, approaching

literature otherwise

New books, to the extent that they become pathbreaking, tend to realign interpretive
endeavors and concepts along their imaginary trajectories. This happens all the more
avidly, the more these books stand in the way of proven categorial conventions. In other
words, there cannot be an equilibrium between a formative narrative energy as it unfolds
under the impact of obsession, illumination, andto put it in a more visceral way
hunger, and the existing academic and advertising apparatus of sense-making. Roberto
Bolao continues to incite, especially since his tragic demise, an increasing academic
interest that, not surprisingly, carries the weight of progressive specialization. Interpreters
have placed his works alternatively within the parameters of detective fictionor the
black novelor within a new cosmopolitan Latin American prose, built on the ruins of
national cultural values, a literature of redemption, or even late sequels to Julio Cortzars
Rayuela and Leopoldo Marechals Adn Buenosaires.1 There is an ongoing search for
metaphors that can help capture the provocative aspects of the writings of the Chilean
author. Nevertheless, the astonishment that results from Bolaos imaginings, fused into
a strange narrative machinery, persists.2 It seems that there is no single, specialized
approach that can make Bolaos adventure accessible to interpretation, an adventure
that is somatic and conceptual, fictional and existential, dialectical and pedagogical at
the same time. Among the novels that we have discussed so far, 2666 is the one that
relates, perhaps most provocatively, to the dialectic expressed in Benjamins comment on
Brechtit leads us to focus on a work and an attitude that resemble a total absence of
illusion about the age and at the same time an unlimited commitment to it.

See Heinrich von Berenberg, Jorge Herralde, Ignacio Echeverra, Rodrigo Fresn. Roberto Bolao:
adalid de una nueva literatura, 74.
See ibid., 75.
158 Narcoepics

The international literary market of the last decade has been in obvious need of a
new Latin American prodigy of the stature of Gabriel Garca Mrquez. Roberto Bolao,
who died at the age of 50 in 2003, has been selected to fill this gap. This is not the main
criterium for including his posthumous novel in my study. My interest is heading toward
an in-between space. The novel 2666, instead of providing one of the decades three
most salient cases of the master genre of prose, conveys a narrative experience, as well as
a mystical adventure of different scope. Let us remember the pharmakon, the way this
concept emerged in Greek mythology and philosophical thought. Plato, in his Phaedrus,
drew on the ambivalence of the term whose meaning oscillates between poison,
philter, and cure (see Chapter 1). Socrates and Phaedrus famous yet still perplexing
dialogue revolves around the affective and the cognitive status of speeches and written
texts, both viewed as pharmaka, whose inherent powers become a matter of debate. As
we will show, Bolaos novel falls under the rubric of narcoepics, not primarily because it
relates to hemispheric narcotics conflicts (which it does, as well) but owing to the complex
inscriptions that suggest that we actualize the concept of the pharmakon. Platos use of
the word pharmakon in relation to the seductive, as well as addictive, powers of either
masterfully constructed and delivered speeches or of logography (speech writings)3
is not the only reference point in Greek culture, as far as the ambiguity of the term is
concerned. Its genealogy relates, in considerable part, to the narrative and epistemological
reservoir that has been discussed by Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant in relation
to the concept of metis.4 When analyzing Bolaos novel, we will eventually apply the
term pharmakon to refer to the concept of cunning intelligence, and we will address
the figure of the scapegoatpharmakosthat we introduced in the first chapter.
Derrida, in Platos Pharmacy, argues in such a way as to displace rhetoric in favor of
the art of writing, which he has set out to put in its proper place (that of deconstruction).
His reading of the classical Phaedrus gives a value of ultimate ambivalence to the written
text under the signs of presence and intention, not representation: writing is both
drug and play.5 Derrida, debating the discourse of Socrates, becomes a sophist himself
when he approximates the pharmakon to writing, on the basis of an equivalence of
the pharmakon and ambivalence. According to this view, the pharmakon is the
expression of a preexisting condition, one that precedes all oppositions, and is called
contamination. The pharmakon appears as that medium in which oppositions are
dynamically at play with one anotherspeech / writing, inside / outside, good / evil,
body / intellect.6 Against the classical idea that speech comes first and writing second,
Derrida argues that nothing comes before the pharmakon whose enactment of the
movement of ambivalence relates more to the arbitrary sign (Saussure)written, or
otherwise encrypted signsthan to oral rhetoric, since living speech is finite while
the sign can outlive death.7

See Jacques Derrida. Platos Pharmacy, 7780.
See Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society, 96,
note 48.
See Jacques Derrida. Platos Pharmacy, 126127; see also Derrida. The Rhetoric of Drugs, 24.
See Jacques Derrida. Platos Pharmacy, 127.
See ibid.
From Pharmakon to Femicide 159

What Derrida is less concerned with is an anthropological, often body-related,

preexisting quality of the pharmakon: psychoactives as a means of life and survival,
as well as weapons of struggle and conflict management, all of which is limited neither
to the written sign nor to oral rhetoric. The sophistic shifting between writing and
speech is not the only problem when it comes to addressing the pharmakon as a
first-rate yet widely forgotten conceptual tool. Both speech and writing are susceptible
to being overturned by the pharmakon, or to becoming pharmakological media
themselves. In Greek mythology, for example, the pharmakon surfaces in relation to
nectar and ambrosia,8 substances to which the gods owed their vitality and eternal
youth. Pharmaka were of high use value, as well, in the struggles between the gods
and the titans and, time and again, in the conflicts between humans and gods. Their
potency was appreciated in those situations in which sheer violence was of no help. The
cunning knowledge about how and when pharmaka could be beneficially applied was
a matter of both wisdom and political intelligence. In Platos dialogue, revealingly, the
pharmakon relates not only to speech and to writing, but to a heterogeneity of things, for
example, to several forms of behavior, and to four types of divine madness among which
we find the oracular wisdom (the gift of prophecy) received from Apollo, the mystical
rites of Dionysus, poetry conferred as the gift of the Muses, and erotic intoxication.9
In other words, the ambiguity of the pharmakon is a physiological, anthropological,
mystical issue (and, of course, poetic), one not necessarily resting on the matter of
the ambivalent signs speculative or mediatic status. Today, neurophysiological findings
have given evidence that intoxication and addictionin their difficult ambiguity of
poison and curecan be issues of either drug consumption or specific, culturally
inflected practices like religious prayers or ritualistic dances, for example, even as
they can also be induced by certain effects ascribed to mass communication and
electronic media.10 Thus, the conceptual origins of the pharmakon can help us better
understand an often paradoxical complexity, which a belligerant discourse on drugs
tends to conceal.
At this point we are touching, again, upon the scope of our concept of narcoepics.
Writers in the Americas have become increasingly concerned with the realm of drug
traffic and its human and socio-ecological consequences, and about the contradictory
role of narcotics economies as part of the neoliberal design of contemporary
capitalism. Nevertheless, as these writers also show, the problematic of psychoactives
(a term that can and must be correlated with the Greek pharmakon) is far more
complex than the trade and consumption of substances, and its present-time violent
outgrowths across the hemisphere, could indicate. If we recall our discussion of
Benjamins dialectics of intoxication, at stake is a pathology of modern life in ample
terms, and not only as far as its abject deviations are concerned. Drugs are major
agents of psycho-physiological states, cultural practices, political conflicts, and
economic developments and, at the same time, these developments are connected

See Marcel Detienne and Jean Paul Vernant. Cunning Intelligence, 120, 123, 126.
See Plato. Phaedrus, 267, 334.
See Bernard Stiegler. Von der Biopolitik zur Psychomacht, 52.
160 Narcoepics

with addictive ways of life that are not biochemically but culturally induced, as well
as nurtured, by economic factors and technological media. Under the guise of similar
complexity, modern writers and artists have often dealt with the issue of narcotics.
At the same time, the anthropological-political density of the conflicts surrounding
intoxication and addiction might not sustain a belief in the power of literature as the
ultimate poison or cure. The perplexing issue is that literature cannot, perhaps,
have the last word about the pharmakon, but it can certainly offer a unique agency of
perception and understanding. Literature can have a role not as literature, but as a
kind of pharmakon itself, due to which a novel, or a poem suddenly approximates
narcotic imaginationimplying a spiritual impact on the body through which affect
resonatesrather than resembling an artistically codifiable text. In Roberto Bolaos
case, we will address his strategy of sobriety that helps pierce through several layers
of intoxication. This literary strategy is certain to cunningly outplay, or expose, the
destructiveness and exhaustion of the experience of the contemporary. Bolao assumes
the ubiquity and the contradictions of the pharmakon in his own way. Other writers
of narcoepics have done this as well, including, for example, Fernando Vallejo. Vallejo
is not a virtuoso of sobriety but, instead, of verbal aggression and religiously charged
rhetoric and, from there, of a strategy of intoxication, staging a scenario in which
violence is fictionalized as both poison and cure.11 What approximates Bolao and
Vallejo in terms of critical perspectivization, however, is not a similar sense of reality
and history, nor a comparable style, but rather their enactment of literary writing as a
(pharmacological) agency of transgression and affective transport. It is in the sense
of that formulation that we come close to Socrates use of the word pharmakon.
Affective transport, as Benjamin has argued in his comment on Auerbachs Dante
(see Chapter 2), is not simply a matter of emotion or sentiment, but an aesthetico-
political strategy. Foregrounding the concept of the pharmakonpoison, philter, or
cure without clear boundaries between these agentsand perceiving Bolaos 2666
in a close relationship to it, the question should be how this novel engages the creative
borders of literary writing and pushes reflection toward the thresholds of the possible.
Writing, while trying to live up to the ambiguity of the pharmakon, endeavoring to
compete with the drug that is not a drug, is about to cross its own boundaries, and is
thus taken by surprise. At the same time, writing, to the extent that it becomes a practice
of both somatic involvement and disengagement of the body, is thrown into that
dimension of experience that the dialectics of intoxication is all about. In a word, 2666
is of interest as a tectonic presence that resurrects the body, an attempt to achieve
a singular being-in-the-world and, from there, historical intuition and memory, in
whose wake follows insubordinate silence, and perhaps wisdom, and only from here
can we speak of a global, transcontemporary Latin American novel of its own kind.
Bolaos sober narrative is a way of beginning, cutting a swath in a terrainthe real-
life utopia of global capitalisms ludicrous excesseswhere beginnings are believed
to be henceforth impossible. As we should remember from Edward Saids reading of

Curation, in Vallejo, is classically related to a figure of sacrifice; see my analysis Inverted
Christianism: A Sacrificial Romance in Violence Without Guilt, 15665.
See John F. Schumaker, The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health.
From Pharmakon to Femicide 161

Vico, a beginning can be understood as a genealogical attitude under circumstances

whose ever-accelerating presentismor should we say, the overintoxication due
to consumption and all kinds of pressing anxieties in our age of insanity12have
blocked our perception of untoward living and thinking.

Globalized academics in the wake of cosmopolitanism

The novel 2666 consists of five large sections that, taken together, conform an opus
of 1119 pages in Spanish, and 893 pages in the English translation:13 The Part About
the Critics, The Part About Amalfitano, The Part About Fate, The Part About
the Crimes, and The Part About Archimboldi. The narration starts in Europe and
ends, not precisely in Mexico, but in a visionary Ciudad Jurez called Santa Teresa.
At the extremes of a huge narrative grid that extends across territorial and temporal
displacements, as well as transnational encounters, we find three major scenarios that
are incongruent with one another, allowing Bolao to construct a reign of startling
interconnections. First, there is a group of intellectual characters from Western
Europeliterary critics who find their joint purpose in the search for a German
novelist named Benno von Archimboldi; second, but conforming the final part in the
novel, we encounter a stunning, twentieth-century-wide caleidoscope of the life of
Archimboldi himself (whom the critics never succeed in finding); third, the ghostly
world of Santa Teresa, an urban nightmare at Mexicos northern border modeled
upon Ciudad Jurez and its present-time reality of hundreds of femicidesMexicos
most merciless and unpunished crimes14rises up to become the center of attention.
We will begin by exploring the first two partsThe Part About the Critics and The
Part About Amalfitanoin which the uncanny tension between modern and global
perceptions of the self of the academic literary critic takes shape.
Four European literary specialists, Pelletier, Morini, Espinoza, and Liz Norton,
academics who excel through intelligence and determination, turn out to be masters
of projection. At one side of the libidinal map that guides their endeavors, there is
the vision of a novelist, an image that provides them with the foundational myth to
nurture their enlightened selves. The enigmatic, always absent Benno von Archimboldi
is deemed by them the greatest post-war German writer and should, therefore, be a
candidate for the Nobel Prize. Their utmost satisfaction would be to find Archimboldi,
giving him proof of their genuine understanding of his work, and leading the evasive
writer to public presence and recognition. Speaking in terms of the pharmakon,
Archimboldi functions as a placebo text15 for the Critics. At the same time, when the

According to Jorge Herralde, Bolaos original idea was to publish the novel as one single piece,
not as five separate books. See Jorge Herralde, Para Roberto Bolao, 57. See also Marcela Valdes.
Introduction: Alone Among the Ghosts, 16.
Vctor Ronquillo. Las muertas de Jurez: Crnica de los crmenes ms despiadados e impunes en
For a discussion of the term placebo text, see Richard DeGrandpre. The Cult of Pharmacology,
162 Narcoepics

four academicsthe Archimboldian apostlesmeet the Chilean literature professor

Amalfitano who, in his exile from dictatorship, has become stranded in the Mexican
Santa Teresa, the Europeans derisively declare this Latin American colleague (who
is a specialist on both Heidegger and Archimboldi) to be a disastera nonexistent
professor at a nonexistent university (2666, 114). The need for an inferior Other
complements their search for a superior object of desire, much like the tidal movement
reveals, and turns invisible, the face of the dark earth beneath the water. Pelletier,
Norton, Morini, and Espinoza, regular attendees at academic events across Europe,
at one point decide to make a trip to Mexico, after meeting a Mexican student at a
seminar in Toulouse who reports that Archimboldi was recently spotted on his way
from Mexico City to Hermosillo. Imagine, said Pelletier, Archimboldi wins the Nobel
and at that very moment we appear, leading him by the hand, back to Europe and into
public light (ibid., 105). Bolao, however, subverts the game of cultivating otherness
through projection. Their travel to the MexicanUS border leads the European
academics to the edges of their way of life as constantly self-referential, worldly subjects
of higher thought. What unfolds is an implicit critique that contrasts the novel 2666
with that part of modern and postmodern travel writing at whose symbolic center
there reigns the sovereign cosmopolitan perspective of the Western subject, even if
its individual representatives end up failing.16 Bolao affords much irony to Western
cosmopolitan self-consciousness, althoughat first glancea worldly predestination
of his heroes appears to be the main topic of his fiction. The cunning game by which
Bolaos narrator, in 2666, takes the criticsthe Archimboldian apostlesout of
their stable world unfolds on the gentle soles of a Socratic coup.
In the face of this gigantic and uneven novel, our reading will have to work across
different layers. Conceptually, this requires probing the focus that we have opened
through the pharmakon. Remember that Phaedrus is Platos only text placing Socrates
outside [the city] of Athens, where he finds a countryside inhabited by nymphs and
spirits. At the beginning of the dialogue, the interlocutor Phaedrus is surprised to find
Socrates outside the city (you never leave town to cross the frontier nor even, I believe,
so much as set foot outside the walls). Socrates responds: You must forgive me, dear
friend; Im a lover of learning, and trees and open country wont teach me anything,
whereas men in the town do. Yet you seem to have discovered a drug for getting me
out.17 The philosopher admits that this time Phaedrus has led him into an exception:
the speech on the matter of love that he brings from Lysias acts like a pharmakona
drugon Socrates who says: A hungry animal can be driven by dangling a carrot or
a bit of greenstuff in front of it; similarly, if you proffer me speeches bound in books I
dont doubt you can cart me all around Attica, and anywhere else you please.18 Socrates
follows Phaedrus but, in fact, he follows the pharmakon of Lysias artful speech that,
in the form of a scroll, Phaedrus hides under his tunic. Sickness of obsession is what
draws the philosopher out of his confines, as he wants to learn about every good

I have dealt with the concept of cosmopolitanism in Zur neuen Krise der kosmopolitischen
Imagination (On the New Crisis of Cosmopolitan Imagination).
Plato. Phaedrus (230 d), 7.
From Pharmakon to Femicide 163

(speech) writing available. The issue is less anecdotical than it might seem. Intellectual
curiosity and the drive toward cognition, together with the search for representational
righteousnessa more active term than legitimacyare deeply resonant with bodily
desire. In order for them to become forces of action, a dry idea would be insufficient
unless it worked as a placebo. What the wisdom of Platos early text implies seems to
partially invert, on the side of the Socratian argument, Platos more mature ideas. In
contrast with the classical hierarchy in which thought and abstraction rank highest (a
norm that Socrates will, at last, pretend to obey), the pharmakon teaches otherwise.
Those substances and artifacts that can simultaneously unleash forces of poisoning and
curing are of the highest value among a contemporary intellectual elite (e.g. Bolaos
European Critics), as well as for those agents who can compensatein the best of
casesfor their lower status with knowing about pharmaka. Socrates should know for
sure, and contemporary neuroscience could testify to this matter more generally.
There is a certain postcolonial sarcasm in Bolaos leading us to compare the superb
scholars Pelletier, Morini, Espinoza, and Norton, an avant-garde academic group at
a time of harsh and divisive globalization, to the hungry cattle, alias Socrates, who
would let the pharmakon drag him across Attica. Hunger for the extraordinary, from
which the need for a mediating placebo, to nurture a superior mission, arises, is a more
suiting trope for understanding the contradictions of intellectual labor and identity than
has been admitted so far. At least, this is Bolaos own experience, one which we find
disseminated across the entirety of his writing. In 2666, The Part About the Critics
helps him settle accounts with a segment of the European intellectual heritage, in that
it brings the visceral side of the modern critics identity to the fore. Discourse and
rational or sublime artistic logic are the ornamentsthe flowers in the crown of the
enlightened habitus that has been stabilizing, against all odds, the course of a ship called
Western literary humanities. But the actual driving forces for the late modern critic,
in addition to the self-understood desire for a life backed by the academic institution,
have been connected to a perpetual, delirious reinvocation of the fleeting saintthe
literary or theoretical super hero. In other words, we can speak of a deep, secularized
desire for religious experiences. Amalfitano, the Chilean professor relocated and
stranded in Santa Teresa, is less obsessed with the literary saint Archimboldi than is the
group of European academics, since he inhabits the precarious site of the global fabric of
symbolic powers that makes him more vulnerable, as well, to affective marginalization.
His reasons for ending up in Santa Teresa are entirely different from that of the neatly
established critics. Amalfitano will experience a kind of pharmacologico-religious
passage that is not mythically charged, as in the case of his European colleagues, but of
a peculiar, profane mysticism. In washing awayto be read, as well, as a physiological
metaphorthe melancholy of the deterritorialized professor, it liberates a deintoxicating
force. Meanwhile, hunger for the living saint known as Benno von Archimboldi (the
Placebo text) is what pushes the Critics on their way toward the unknown, and it will
leave them ashore in the late twentieth-century MexicanUS borderlands, a territory of
violence, exhaustion, and human as well as communitarian erosion. But to decipher the
novels paradoxes, we have to move more slowly. Let us first approach the presence of
the pharmakon in Bolaos narrative in a more explicit way.
164 Narcoepics

Perhaps not by chance, it is through Amalfitano, the academic from the Latin
American periphery and a Chilean like Bolao himself, a loser in the eyes of
the four Archimboldian apostles, that the reader encounters the novels primal
pharmacological scene. Amalfitano, after Pinochets military coup, had exiled himself
to Spain, where he married a Spanish woman, Lola, in Barcelona, and their daughter
Rosa was born. A major portion of The Part About Amalfitano is dedicated to Lolas
eventual abandoning of husband and daughter, and her subsequent relationship with a
Basque poet whom she keeps visiting in an asylum. Here, Bolao weaves a tale in which
images of Almodvars All About My Mother resonate. Lolas peripeties are toldas
happens with many others in Bolaos bookin a cool and dry manner, without a
wallowing of the narrative voice, and without raising tones in any kind of dramatic
manner. Lola, after deserting Amalfitano and Rosa, loses herself in an existence
where she spends her nights at cemeteries or in the street, indulging in fleeting sexual
relationships, and not disturbed by either destitution or excess. After an absence of
seven years, she suddenly reappears before her husband to tell him that she has another
child, that she has AIDS, and that she will soon die. Shortly afterwards, Amalfitano,
whose contract at the University of Barcelona is about to end, leaves Spain with Rosa
and moves to Mexico to become a professor at the University of Santa Teresa. Similar
to a famous scene in Almodvars movie, there is a male character who weeps in silence
in the face of utter misfortune, while women do not flinch from the terrible (see 185).
After Amalfitano has lived in Santa Teresa for several years, he is suddenly struck by
a fleeting memory that is evocative of Socrates fascination with the pharmakon. One
day, a dubious Mexican friend mentions the Austrian expressionist poet Georg Trakl
to Amalfitano. Trakl, a pharmacist, was drafted into the German army at the beginning
of World War I, and he committed suicide in 1914 by taking a drug overdose. The
sudden naming of Trakl makes the Chilean professor think about a drugstore near
where he had lived in Barcelona, and he remembers that in this store, a young
pharmacist, barely out of his teens, extremely thin and with big glasses, . . . would sit
up at night reading a book when the pharmacy was open twenty-four hours (227).
One night, Amalfitano asked what books the young man liked. The response was that
he liked books like The Metamorphosis (Kafka), and Bartleby (Melville), among others.
For Amalfitano, there was something frightening about

the taste of this bookish young pharmacist [the Spanish original reads enlightened
young pharmacist, 289] who in another life might have been Trakl or who in
this life might still be writing poems as desperate as those of his distant Austrian
counterpart, and who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones.
He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby Dick,
. . . (227).

What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Today, not even enlightened pharmacists
have enough courage to confront the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze
paths into the unknown (trans. modified; Spanish, 289). These young pharmacists
prefer the perfect exercises of the great masters. They want to watch the great masters
spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against
From Pharmakon to Femicide 165

that something, that something that terrifies us all . . ., amid blood and mortal wounds
and stench (227; Spanish, 290). Amalfitano, in his preference for the allegedly
imperfect, for the crude side of the great masters, may sound somewhat pathetic, or
nave. However, he implies that pharmacists with a vital inclination toward literature,
in particular, should know that venturing into the unknown, walking on perilous
grounds, is what marks the combates de verdad (the real battles), where there is
blood and mortal wounds and stench. As for Trakl, it was his inner struggle with the
experience of a pathological, decadent bourgeoisie, and with the shock of the World
War I, that had led to his taking the drug overdose that killed him. We will later see that,
in the case of the European critics, the pharmakon seems to work, with the exception
of one violent scene, as a benevolent, sublime force. However, Amalfitano holds that
the pharmakon has to do with real intoxication, as that something that terrifies
us all, on both the part of the creative (individualist) mind and a more objective,
material it that leads consciousness out of its learned self-containment. Due to the
ambivalence of the pharmakon, there can be more or less subtle interpretations. The
young Catalan pharmacist practices a mild yet ongoing cure by devouring the minor
works of the masters, which excel simply as decent exercises in the mtier of writing.
Amalfitano, in turn, shows himself skeptical about texts (and readers) that cultivate
the art of intellectual containment, or sublimation. He instead judges great works by
dint of their imperfection, their zest to become involved with poisonous, intoxicating
experiences, to the extent that these can shatter (the imagination of) life itself. The
memory of the drugstore conveys an associatively rich juncture, contrasting with a
notion of literature as it is held in the reifying and canonizing tradition, as well as with
the status of criticism as an objectifying agency. On the one hand, there is the allusion
to an altered state of consciousness as it nourishes the most intense experiences in
the work of artists, musicians, and writers. On the other, for Amalfitano, reality itself,
especially in its conflictive, transformative movements, generates dangerously altered
states of mind. In other words, the appearance of the pharmakon in Bolaos narrative
shows how crucial intellectual and existencial matters are susceptible to turning into
mind-altering forces, like in the Greek mythological conflicts over life and death,
knowledge and power, beauty and deformation, or the annihilation of creaturely
bodies. A hermeneutical attitude is required here, going beyond (or beneath) the dual
distinction between the subjective and the objective. The pharmakon shatters, or
preexists, the dualism. Amalfitano, struck in his destiny by personal and political
disaster, cannot expect much help from Socratic wisdom and the promise (in Phaedrus)
that the power of the pharmakon could be sophistically negotiated. However, he is
closer to Socrates, the philosopher who was unable to leave a written work and who
became a martyr,19 than he would probably admit. Amalfitanos obsession with books
is, in the end, an excentric one, and the idea of the pharmakon will help us untangle
what otherwise might look like a crazy game.
In the eyes of the four critics, Amalfitano, who will give his European colleagues
a hand in their search for Archimboldi after they arrive in Mexico, appears like the

See Johann Georg Hamann. Sokratische Denkwrdigkeiten: Aesthetics in nuce, 6973.
166 Narcoepics

unknown soldier in a doomed battle against barbarism (114). On the one hand,
Amalfitano feels pushed by the forces of destiny, the exile that leads through Europe
and to what seems to him to be the most inverosimile place, to the extent that he does
not understand why the hell he and Rosa are in Santa Teresathat densely-populated
city standing in defiance of the desert on the border of Sonora and Arizona, where the
University [. . .] was like a cemetery that suddenly begins to think, in vain (185). In any
case, he earns a monthly salary working there (163). On the other hand, and against what
readers might take as primary evidence, Amalfitano is a conceptual figure, a character
whose fictional life world comes close to being a Brechtian scenario of hopelessness,
representing someone who has sunk to the bottom, so that we can see the bottom of
things (134). The Chilean professor whom destiny has taken to the opposite end of the
Latin American continent, to one of the hellholes he had not known before, now lives
in a little one-storey house in Colonia Lindavista (199), in a barrio with neighbors he
never sees because of their high entrance gates and an ominous state of abandonment of
the houses, giving the impression that the neighbors might have left in a hurry, with no
time even to sell (ibid.). Relocated to this place, Amalfitano brought with him his now
17-year-old daughter Rosa, with whom he shares the house, and books from different
periods of his life. One afternoon, the professor stumbles over a volume that he does
not remember ever buying (185), Testamento geomtrico (actually published 1975) by
Rafael Dieste, a Galician poet (133, 186), mathematician, and speculative thinker. How
did this book end up in his library? How was it possible that it had disappeared from
his memory? (188) His musing about this strange occurrence functions as a narrative
device that helps him remember situations from the past and thus adds pieces to the
puzzle of his shattered trajectory. When the closeness of the Testamento geomtrico
becomes unbearable, Amalfitano converts the book into a readymade la Duchamp.
The professor himself is not free from the burden of a controversial pharmacological
questionthe one he had in mind when he was talking to the young pharmacist in
Barcelonathe question of what it takes (or risks) to turn chaos into order, especially
if this occurs at the cost of what is commonly held as sanity (189). Not knowing how
Diestes book ended up in the middle of his intimate space increases his perception of
chaos. Reestablishing a primary sense of personal order implies turning the dangerous
proximity of the Testamento geomtrico into freedom, even if freedom meant no
more than the perpetuation of flight (189). The book is moved, in an odd ritualistic
gestureor in a flight of madness?from the center of his homehis home officeto
its edge, the yard. The idea, of course, was Duchamps (190). Amalfitano

walked into his devastated front yard . . ., and he gripped Diestes book tightly . . .
And then he looked up at the sky and saw the moon, too big and too wrinkled,
although it wasnt night yet. And then he returned to his ravaged backyard and for
a few seconds he stopped, looking left and right, ahead and behind, trying to see
his shadow, but although it was still daytime and the sun was still shining in the
west, toward Tijuana, he couldnt see it. And then his eyes fell on the four rows of
cord . . . It was the clothesline. [And he clamped the book with three clothespins]
and hung it from one of the cords and then he went back into the house, feeling
much calmer (190).
From Pharmakon to Femicide 167

Regarding the ludic idea of exposing the book-object to nature, the Surrealist artist
Duchamp was reported to have liked the idea of humiliating the seriousness of a book
full of principles, saying that, in that way, the treatise would indeed learn the facts
of life (191). Amalfitano pretends he is performing the same kind of experiment
being curious about how the volume will endure the assault of the desert climate of
northern Mexico. Yet the issue turns into a double-edged event, and the professor will
soon be seduced into a rituala hunger for illuminationthat becomes the focus of
his daily life. The Geometrical Testaments relocation to the margin creates the effect of
a new crucial space, in addition to being an allegory of Amalfitanos own destiny. The
professor falls into the habit of inquiring, the first thing in the morning and whenever
it occurs to him during the day, if the book exposed to the desert wind, the sun and the
other elements has learned anything about real life (see 195).
What happens, instead of changes affecting the book, is that Amalfitano starts to
perceive forces that act upon him. The intertextually inclined reader might think of
a passage in Benjamins Surrealism that speaks of the revolutionary energies that
appear in the outmoded things, pointing to a genuine Surrealist way of transforming,
for example, enslaved and enslaving objects into (a perception of) revolutionary
nihilism (W. B., 210, vol. 2.1). But Amalfitanos personal and political map, his nihilistic
grounds so to speak, are different from both Bretons and Duchamps. His working on
or with the hidden energies that (can be made to) operate in his world, if we want
to apply this mystically charged expression, is susceptible to being contaminated by
terrestrial winds and atmospheric spirits, as they have mingled with social conflict, and
violence along the hemispheric border. The geometry book starts speaking back in a way
that gets Amalfitano away from his usual thought patterns and into drawing Borgesian
figures on paper (1924). These are drawings that include hypothetical groupings
(taxonomies) of names that he perceives as the product of his affected mind. He
draws simple geometric shapes, triangles, and a rectangle, and at each vertex he wrote
whatever name came to him, dictated by fate or lethargy or the immense boredom
he felt in the heat of his Mexican environment (1912). The names that appear at
the corners of his figures are mostly those of renowned European philosophers, but
he suddenly adds others such as those of the Portuguese Jesuit Pedro da Fonseca, the
Argentine physicist Mario Bunge, the German surgeon Trendelenburg, and the critic
Harold Bloom, and even Vladimir Smirnov, who disappeared in Stalins concentration
camps in 1938 and, at the opposite end, the name of Mikhail Suslov, Soviet party
ideologue and statesman (194). What Foucault had perceived as a dissolution of the
ordering epistemes of Western thinking (our age-old distinction between the Same
and the Other20), linked to the intent to reveal a positive unconscious of knowledge
when referring, in Les mots et les choses, to a certain Chinese encyclopedia by
Borges, becomes, in the character Amalfitano, a kind of gnostic distancing from, or a
sarcastic take on, the genealogical project of deconstructing modern philosophy while
maintaining its discursive bases intact.

Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, xv.
168 Narcoepics

At first sight, we might find in Amalfitano, a strain of modern (Nietzschean) nihilism

together with epistemic chaos and, conversely, an orderly map of self-referential
discourse and mythic fables, Self and Other, in the Archimboldian critics, as hegemonic
counterparts of the doomed Chilean academic. Nevertheless, Bolao will send
the search of the European academic missionaries into a no-mans land where they
encounter nonknowledge, noisy silence, and fear. Amalfitanos search is a gesturing
toward imperfection, in which the lesson of the great writers struggling with crude
lifeits forces of intoxication and violenceresonates between existential exhaustion
and a stubborn reflexive attitude. In his doomed and often sad gestus, Amalfitano is
nevertheless more spirited than Pelletier, Espinoza, Morini, and Norton. As we will see,
one of the major thematic foci in Bolaos novel is the places that the diverse protagonists
occupy on a map on which insanity spreads across the globe. Amalfitano is aware of
his desire for an ordered state of mind to better organize his chaotic living, but he also
senses the closeness of this order, this guarantee of a neatly working consciousness, to
a hidden virus of insanity (189). Asking for a fictional map of insanity requires that
we move back from Amalfitano to (The Part About) the Critics, and then forward to
the final Part About Archimboldi, before eventually discussing The Part About the
Crimes. Roberto Bolao is looking for the big picture, one of the reasons why 2666
has been called a hallmark of global fiction in the wake of the twentieth century. Yet, it
is the novels virtue that it defrauds us of any expectation of fictional fulfillment. Can
the contemporary world be imagined as an apocalyptic one? On Bolaos side, there
are only some metaphors that could chrystallize the apocalypse, such as the dream
image of the crater that befalls several characters. We might expect that the suffocating,
terrible everyday of Santa Teresa will condense into symbolic form. However, there are
only narrative identities21 and numerous traceseach one being more disconcerting
and frightening than the other. There is, in addition, an awareness of violence as deeply
ingrained in the history of the globalized earth, as well as in its present-time pulsations
that are, insanely, saturated with boredom and the most pointless of routines. Thus
Bolao is skeptical of the aesthetic pharmaka of sublime horror, or pathetic drama,
or other cathartic dispositifs in relationship to violence.
Amalfitano, the most precarious subject among the protagonists, becomes ethically
and aesthetically a threshold figure. Forced exile is one of the compelling factors that
can push people into depression. Amalfitanos odyssey seems to embody this; the way
he experiences loss marks the condition of an intellectual fallen into hopelessness
(loneliness, sarcasm about everything concerning Chile, his homeland, self-doubt,
boundless sadness, 114, 134). Hanging the Testamento geomtrico from the clothesline
in the yard of his new home, a nonplace in an alien land, means mimetically doubling
his own existence as a vagrant ready made, exposed to the forces of the environment,
and with no protection other than his learned humanistic competence. By hanging
the book in the back yardfar enough away so that observation from inside the
house is possibleAmalfitano also performs an act of dissociation. He has invented a
scenario that allows him to exteriorize an important part of himself (his bookishness)

See Paul Ricoeurs framing of the term in Time and Narrative. Vol. 3, 2467.
From Pharmakon to Femicide 169

and thus start looking at his self anew. The performance has a centrifugal effect on
his lettered self. What derives from the object is a magical power, taking power away
from what the book should (but could not) representthe ordering, centripetal mind
of the academic. The mimetic procedure is similar to the relationship that Taussig
described as out-fetishizing the fetish.22 The scenario of the excommunicated book,
instead of providing a case of schizophrenia, opens an unexpected way for dealing with
pending insanity. Insanity is understood as a profound mental disorder, the opposite
of psychological well-being in existence, invisibly connected to the state of affairs of
the real world.23
One night, Amalfitano is assailed by a voice. It says, Hello, scar Amalfitano,
please dont be afraid, theres nothing wrong (201).24 Here we have the voice of an
invisible authority whose purpose is to bring about a transformation in the called-
upon subject. Thus far, one could presume that the Testamento geomtrico, still
hanging in the yard, might resemble an idol, even a totemic fetishthe object of
a curing process, as it is attended on a daily basis. But could it speak back with a
voice as the sign of its invisible embodiment, or just an energy? The professor feels
deeply alarmed and rushes through the house and yard . . . but finds nothing wrong.
Soon the voice returns: I beg you to forgive me. I beg you to relax. I beg you not to
consider this a violation of your freedom. Of my freedom? thought Amalfitano . . .
(202) The mans ensuing night is one of disrupted sleep traversed by an image of his
deceased wife Lola standing behind a high fence and waving at him (202). A (formally)
omniscient, immanent narrator reports that that same night, at dawn, the Santa Teresa
police discover the body of another teenage girl, mutilated and killed, disposed of in
a vacant lot in the outskirts of the city. This is followed by a filmic, atmospheric image
connecting, as in a parallel montage or a very large tracking shot, different spaces in
the city.
. . . a strong wind from the west hurled itself against the slope of the mountains to
the east, raising dust and a litter of newspaper and cardboard on its way through
Santa Teresa, moving the clothes that Rosa had hung in the backyard, as if the
wind, young and energetic in its brief life, were trying on Amalfitanos shirts and
pants and slipping into his daughters underpants and reading a few pages of the
Testamento geomtrico to see whether there was anything in it that might be
of use, anything that might explain the strange landscape of streets and houses
through which it was galloping, or that would explain it to itself as wind (2023).
Additional perceptions that reveal an uncanny, cosmically charged aspect of the
environment follow the next day, when Sylvia Prez, a colleague from the university,
takes Amalfitano and Rosa on an excursion. Sonora presents a landscape that
overwhelms Amalfitanoviolent formations of basaltic rock, tuff and sandstone, . . . a
landscape that seemed best suited to the young or the old, imbecilic or insensitive or

Michael Taussig. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, 1, 2.
See John F. Schumaker, The Age of Insanity, ix, x.
This associates the reiteration of the clause do not be afraid in the Gospel of Luke (The New
170 Narcoepics

evil and old who meant to impose impossible tasks on themselves and others until they
breathed their last (205). As far as the United States on the other side of the border
is concerned, a dream imagethe professor falls asleep in the cardepicts Mexicos
northern neighbor in the shape of quicksilver arising from the autochthonous
landscape of prehistoric rocksthe sad American mirror of wealth and poverty and
constant useless metamorphosis, the mirror that sails and whose sails are pain (206).
When Amalfitano returns from the outing he realizes that the shadow of Diestes book
hanging from the clothesline was clearer, steadier, more reasonable . . . than anything
theyd seen on the outskirts of Santa Teresa or in the city itself, images with no handhold,
images freighted with all the orphanhood in the world, fragments, fragments (206).
The relationship is nevertheless dialectical. The object becomes a foothold when it is
set vis--vis petrified natureit becomes spiritualized. At first, Amalfitanos reaction
to the imbecilic landscape and its timeless, violent formations seems to convey a
sentiment of planetary abandon. But the shadow of the hanging book, the image of
the imaginary object, insinuates a locus that, rather than being independent of the
outside world, will help gather mystical energies in order to open our perception to a
hidden side of realitythe world of the crimes.
With the eventual return of the nightly voice, Amalfitano believes himself close
to madness. Dont worry, says the voice, you have not lost your mind, all youre
doing is having a casual conversation. So I havent lost my mind, said Amalfitano. No,
absolutely not, said the voice (209). Hermeneutically speaking, one tends to cling to
the referential aspects of a speech, rather than to the mode of experience that is enabled
by an utterance or a dialogue. A mode of experience25 is not necessarily an issue of the
consciously involved subject, but of a something that works through the subject, goes
beyond it, or is immanent in the speaking subject so that, under certain conditions,
what is said is secondary in relationship to the way in which the utterance itself takes
on an interactive life. An interactive agency, or a sort of flow, starts to occupy the
place of the speaking subject, as with the iterative clause so I havent lost my mind, said
Amalfitano. No, absolutely not, said the voice. This mode of reconfirmative address,
in which the subject, instead of producing his (Amalfitanos) own message, gives in to
a contractual linguistic relationship, characterizes several exchanges between the voice
and the professor. There is a Brechtian tone to Amalfitanos situation that, however, is
less Brechtian than it is prone to a mystical tropethe trope of learning how to get
lost.26 But was not Brechts method of Verfremdung (estrangement) a way of gaining,
for example, a sense of transformative knowledge from Chinese wisdoma knowledge
that was supposed to theatrically enact the loss of learned preconceptions? This
enactment would not work through discourse (messages to the public), nor through
catharsis, but instead would rely on a pedagogically conceived space for transgression,
similar to the strictured dialogic spaces that Michel de Certeau describes as the
condition of possibility for mystic speech.27 The Chilean professor, in Bolaos novel,

For a discussion of Spinozean, and Deleuzean ideas regarding modes of experience, see Daniel W.
Smith. The Place of Ethics in Deleuzes Philosophy: Three Questions of Immanence.
See Michel de Certeau. Mystic Speech, 80, 813.
See ibid., 91, 92.
From Pharmakon to Femicide 171

understands ending up in Santa Teresa as getting lostlosing the formative and

identitarian reference points of his life, except for the presence of his daughter. At the
same time, beginning with his excommunication of the geometry book, he starts
experiencing a more active way of getting lost, although it might just be a case of
losing his preconceived forms of knowledge. This procedure, which we could view as
one of several of Bolaos incursions into the mode of mystical writing, is dialectically
linked to the way the nightly voice starts speaking through Amalfitano. This enables
Amalfitano to start looking through the things (in German: etwas durchschauen).
Here we cannot evoke mysticism as if the mystic texts from the dawn of modernity
were at issue. Today, there are many ways of addressing the relationships between literary
writing and altered states of consciousness, although interpretive knowledge has remained
precarious in that regard. There is a profane mysticism at work in Amalfitanos situation,
one in which his alien, northern Mexican environment acquires a plasticity that his
learned philosophical ideas and ordinary knowledge would have prevented him from
perceiving. It might, however, be helpful for us to scrutinize some historical contexts of
Western mysticism for basic analogies. If, according to de Certeau, the mysticism of the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries provided the historical trope for an epochal loss
the decadence and falling apart of the Christian world, both as belief and as experience
Bolaos novel hints at a global state of affairs of similar dimensions. The mystics place in
the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, their historical status and situations, belonged to
social milieux or factions in full retreat, affected by the consequences of socioeconomic
degradation, or marginalized by progress or by war (see Certeau, 84). Among those
milieux we find singular experiences of people embarking on a perilous walk that turned
into a spiritual journey. Particular practices of writing, performed in specific places and
under certain ethical, physiological, or communal rules, could lead to situations that
transform loss into intensely illuminating endeavors that could work back on the
real world. These experiences were, in the full sense of the term, a matter of the event.
They could, for example, arise from the existentially threatening, culturally erosive, and
sometimes singularly empowering situation of gifted minorities with no assurances for
the future (ibid., 85). The present, for them, was the restricted scene upon which the
drama of their doom was enacted . . . They had nothing left but present exile (ibid.).
Mystical writing as a genre of literature, as understood by de Certeau, transforms an
experience of fundamental or existential dimensionsfor example, disasterinto a
mode of utterance that excels through its unusual powers of imagination, an imagination
that affects the body in the same way that it can influence the surrounding world. We
are talking about singular (sacred) confluences of consciousness and energy, forms of
plenitude that can help people survive under the most adverse of circumstances, generate
effects of healing, or create a sense of spiritual-somatic freedom.
After Amalfitano placed the Testamento geomtrico among the forces of nature,
and from the way the professor is being spoken to by the voice (2666, 208), a peculiar
Gelassenheit28 (letting-be attitude) emerges, together with an alertness. The voice offers
Amalfitano a mutually beneficial relationship (208). It says that the condition for this

See ibid., 81 (on Meister Eckhart).
172 Narcoepics

relationship to work out is calmness (its absolutely crucial that we stay calm, 208).
Let us look into this mystical colloquium. The voice:
Calm is the one thing that will never let us down. And Amalfitano said: everything
else lets us down? And the voice: yes, thats right, its hard to admit, I mean its hard
to have to admit it to you, but thats the honest-to-God truth. Ethics lets us down?
The sense of duty lets us down? Honesty lets us down? Curiosity lets us down? Love
lets us down? Bravery lets us down? Art lets us down? Thats right, said the voice,
everything lets us down, everything. Or lets you down, which isnt the same thing
but for our purposes it might as well be, except calm, calm is the one thing that never
lets us down, though thats no guarantee of anything, I have to tell you. Youre wrong,
said Amalfitano, bravery never lets us down. And neither does our love for our
children. Oh no? said the voice. No, said Amalfitano, suddenly feeling calm (208).
Again, a Brechtian outcome. Now the exchange about madness ensues, in which
Amalfitano is told that he has not lost his mind. He recapitulates: So everything
lets us down, including curiosity and honesty and what we love best. Yes, said the
voice, but cheer up, its fun in the end (209). One cannot but feel estranged at such
an antilogical fiat that reveals the authors inclination to turn ambivalence into a
methodical tool. The expression everything lets us down is not a statement of truth,
but part of a methodical alienation of the familiar, in order to establish a foothold
in hopelessness, which is understood as a particular state of sobriety in the absence
of the certainties that a normal state of affairs was once supposed to provide to the
sovereign citizen. Brechts early aesthetics was conceived in the varying terms of a
strategy, in which a variety of paradoxical moves and heterotopian figures emerges
through estrangement as an intrusion into the numbness, the false familiarity of
the everyday. Bolao does not have to be a connaisseur of Brecht in order to make
Amalfitano a conceptual figure. An overall question that resonates throughout 2666
has to do with the search for aesthetic energies that can help to productively engage
with the negative. What happens to Amalfitano as he keeps arguing with the voicethe
it? He becomes irritated when it reveals a sexist spin (the voice asked him, begged
him, to be a man, not a queer, 207), a possible hint at Bolaos interest in the masculine
figure of the artist-detective, or at his corroding approach to a certain artistic posture.
What is it you have against homosexuals? whispered Amalfitano. Nothing, said the
voice. I am speaking figuratively, said the voice (209). The voice is sarcastic regarding
a certain habitus bound to artful chaos, a sublime chaos used by some artists as a mask
to cover up what is just a desire for anesthesia (209). But there is an implicit allusion
to the femicides in Santa Teresa, and what Amalfitano perceives, especially when his
daughter is mentioned, as a warning to be on the alert. (Youll have to be careful, my
friend, things here seem to be coming to a head, 210). Past midnight, perhaps around
two or three o clock, the professor steps onto the porch and sees that someone has
been watching the house from a black car. He can even make out the features of the
driver as he drives offa fat man with very black hair, dressed in a cheap suit with no
tie, 210). When he was gone, Amalfitano came back into the house. I didnt like the
looks of him, said the voice the minute Amalfitano was through the door (210).
From Pharmakon to Femicide 173

In the mystic voice a scurrilous rhetoric reverberates, pertaining either to a

declassified prophet or a preposterous detective, or both, shot through with a
paternalistic pathos, all of which exerts a strong effect on the exiled professor (Do you
understand that you have nothing to fear from me? Yes, said Amalfitano, 210). In an
odd yet intense manner, the voice becomes therapeutic in order to lead the professor
out of his unacknowledged fear and his lethargy, thus producing a de-intoxicating
effect. There is no bad blood between us. The headache, if you have a headache, will go
away soon, and so will the buzzing in your ears, the racing pulse, the rapid heartbeat.
Youll relax . . . (210). After the departure of the suspicious observer in the black car
in the street, the voice tells Amalfitano to do something useful. Something useful like
what? asked Amalfitano. For example, wash the dishes, said the voice. And Amalfitano
lit a cigarette and began to do what the voice had suggested (210). After Amalfitano
has done quite a bit of nightly washing, cleaning, and tidying up andlike an addict
looks for additional things to take care of but cannot find anything left, he goes to sleep
without undressing (211). When Rosa wakes him three hours later, it had been a long
time since Amalfitano had slept so well. Amalfitanos classes that morning would be
entirely incomprehensible to the studentsan additional hint that he had experienced
another state of consciousness, as well as the sudden absence of his melancholy.
Psycho-physiologically speaking, there is nothing sensational about the energies that
this nightly event, the encounter with the voice, has provided Amalfitano. As Aldous
Huxley stated in his essay, The Doors of Perception, there are proven methods at hand
that allow us to change our ordinary mode of consciousness as to be able to know,
from the inside, what the visionary, the medium, even the mystic were talking about.29
However, the places that can give way to experiences of illumination will always remain
precarious, or stunningly distinct, from the worlds where ordinary men and women
live. As for Bolaos character Amalfitano, it is not his spiritualboth somatic and
mind-openingexperience as such that is extraordinary, since plenty of Western artists
and writers have been interested in the borders of consciousness. Rather, the singularity of
his experience lies in the geographical, sociointellectual and narratological background
against which it is staged. It is the peripheral intellectual who breaks the spell of
sophisticated blindness, words are uttered, but fail to enlighten (Huxley), whereas the
Archimboldian apostles, the Critics, protagonists in the first part of the novel, will seek
this experience in vain. Actually the Europeans are much more alert to this general
deficit of illumination than Amalfitano, which is why they obsessively pursue the
writings and existential traces of Archimboldi, the literary barbarian whose work is late
in emerging from the avatars of an overburdened twentieth century. But the Critics,
as they approach the mystery of Archimboldi, will never succeed in tapping it, while
Amalfitano is the threshold character whothrough his own transformationhelps
tear away the veil from the mythified literary genius. The particular interest that Bolao
shows in the trope of the detective novel becomes understandable. Any expectation
that the big referential enigmas of 2666Archimboldis real identity and that of the
perpetrators of the femicides of Santa Teresawill be solved is bound to fail. In fact,

Aldous Huxley. The Doors of Perception, 2.
174 Narcoepics

the detective novel only makes sense as a precarious trope that helps launch different
kinds of narrative personnel on their inquisitive journeys into the no-mans-land. In the
face of an incomplete secularity, both violent and civilized, of a global state of affairs
toward the end of the twentieth century, as reimagined by Bolao, the energies that
suggest tearing away the veil of mythification will start to build when critical perception
meets mystical experience. This is what lends Bolaos novel its genuine stature in
contemporary literature and, as we have been arguing, this is what starts to come to the
surface when we think about the estrangement-effect to which Bolao submits the
basic tropes of his book (human empathy through shared dialogue, the wordly project
of the European critics, a narrative habitus derived from the black novel, the longing
for an affective solution to fundamentally tragic situations and inhuman realities, and a
new, a sober kind of hero).
We begin to realize that it may not be the legitimate academic voices from
renowned universities that will help uncover the novelistic personalityor the
heuristic narratological functionof Benno von Archimboldi but, rather, the character
Amalfitano, at the moment when he abstains from melancholy and fear by recognizing
his minor self. Keeping in mind Benjamins reading of Brechts dialectical dramaturgy,
Amalfitano makes use of hopelessness when he overcomes the thickness of the doom,
the silent pulsation of tragedy, which his daily exhaustion and latent nervousness have
imposed on him. He really hits bottom, something thatin another state of body and
mindcould quickly end in a nervous breakdown or other severe pathological state.
Amalfitano, astonished, realizes that he is excited by what he has just lived (I feel like
a nightingale . . . 211). Of course, as the voice said, that is no guarantee of anything. It
is, perhaps, comparable to the trope of the nihil volo30that special disposition in the
mystics experience in which unflinching will unites with an emptiness of purpose,
thus opening an enhanced subjective perception of the things or forces to comea
sobering experience by which an active disposition is created, instead of an action
based on the rational or the customary mind. Here we find an example of nihilisms
invigorating ambivalence. Different from a Nietzschean nihilism, as it is, for example,
read by Hannah Arendt,31 the purpose of Amalfitanos turn has nothing to do with an
abstract philosophical judgment of the world. When the voice asks the professor to
rediscover the perspective of the simple things in life (209), this means speaking in
clues. Recalling another moment, in which the nightly voice interpellates Amalfitano,
you havent thought seriously about whether your hand is really a hand (210). If what
resonates is nothing less than the perspective of life itself a simple and antiquated
and ridiculous sentiment (211), at issue is an awareness that is commonly obstructed
by both the disembodied intellect and the rules of conduct interiorized via common
sense at a given time in a given context. This is why an academic intellectual may be
spellbound by situations of danger and catastrophe, yet unable to (re)act. Amalfitano
breaks that spell with his newly acquired awareness. His awakening translates into an
alertness without fear, that is, without the previously looming nervous breakdown that
the Santa Teresa environment seemed to impose on the exiled philosophy professor.

See Michel de Certeau. Mystic Speech, 92.
See Hannah Arendt. The Life of the Mind. Part Two, 16970.
From Pharmakon to Femicide 175

The perspective of life itself could, for example, be a matter of survival. It could also
be a matter of sanity, to the extent that it looks behind those ordering powers that
have proffered life its modern, and cynically violent destination.
Amalfitano, in his materialist leanings, discards the possibility that the voice
belongs to a superior or divine spirit. Perhaps it is a lost soul (212), or was there
a connection to the saint from Hermosillo, Madame Cristina? This woman seemed
capable of piercing through the morass of Santa Teresas violence. It is the time, or
the state of perception, that makes the professor see, in dream images (210) and daily
ocurrences, that the disappearances and killings of women are a subterranean part of
the entire citys life world. His colleague, Professor Sylvia Prez, together with a group
of feminists, participates in the organization of protests that demand transparency
in the investigation of the murders. Their posters say No to impunity and End
to corruption (213). Yet an occult force in late twentieth century has invaded the
everyday life of a city that appears as urban and agitated as it also seems inevitably to
belong to the desert. Paraphrasing Michail Romms film title, The Ordinary Fascism,
one might say that Amalfitano feels the ordinary presence, the atrocious immanence,
of the Santa Teresa femicides (in Spanish feminicidios)32, even in his private and
academic environments (see 215).
His is a sobering experience that makes him alert and more practical, on the one
hand, and more sarcastic, on the other. Getting his daughter Rosa out of this country
becomes his primary concern. When Rosa says goodbye to her father and joins Fate,
the black American journalist from New York who came to Santa Teresa to report on
a boxing match and is now about to return to the US, focalization and description
converge to give way to a downcast scenario (344). It is a filmic image, as we can recall
from a series of contemporary movies: the moment before the two young people
depart on their trip, Professor Amalfitano leaves the house where the book is always
hanging in the backyard, wearing a very wrinkled white shirt and jeans, bare-foot, his
hair mussed up, and crosses the street, to start talking with a neighbor, while his body,
seen from behind, is retreating. It is not just this undramatically sad image, whose
posture is similar to those of the final scenes of Amores Perros (Mexico) and Un Oso
Rojo (Argentina), in which the figure of the father moves into an inscrutable void.
Amalfitano is somehow close to the characters of the ex-guerrillero and outcast el
Chivo, a former university professor from Mexico City, from Amores Perros, and el
Oso, a man from Buenos Aires lower-middle-class who got involved in crime in order
to provide for his wife and daughter. In all three cases, a father abandons himself to
a hopeless destiny, but before doing so, he has conscientiously enabled or secured a
future for his female child, trying to guarantee a place of unfettered citizenship for the
daughter by distancing her from the precarious, dangerous world of the father himself.
These scenarios belong among the calamities of neoliberal development, whose
pressure on parts of the academic middle-classes in Latin America have been growing
increasingly. A nonmelodramatic, silently tragic yet antisublime gesture resounds

On the programmatic change of the term femicidios into feminicidios see Marcela Lagarde y de
los Ros, Sinerga por nuestros derechos humanos, 6384.
176 Narcoepics

here. As an outsider, Amalfitano is not concerned about getting an alternative for

himself. Neither is he simply driven by external circumstances that he cannot evade.
As a character who has found his foothold in (the stoic attitude of) the Geometric
Testament, facing an alien environment yet taking elementary precautions to protect
his female child, the professor may look old-fashionedly, benevolently patriarchal. This
active nihilism, acting from hopelessness, however, is one of the marks of a stunning
narrative figure from the periphery that articulates the position of the intellectuals
planetary homelessness.
Let me introduce a prolepsis, so as to better illustrate the hinges that Bolao installs in
his multilayered, open-ended, dark odyssey. Amalfitano occupies a placethe threshold
of the normalto which the books main characters are drawn: Santa Teresa on the
Mexican border, facing the sad American mirror of wealth and poverty to the north.
The point is not that the philosophy professor will directly meet all those characters,
although he does encounter most of them. Rather, his transformation into someone who
sees helps him get closer to the underside of the discursive world. The structure of
detective fiction tends to create an expectation that enigmas will eventually be solved.
But Bolaos purpose is to approximate uncanny scenarios and to let them press on one
another. A breathtaking loop that folds far distant moments of world history together
becomes transparent when Rosa is leaving Santa Teresa. She knows Guadalupe Roncal, a
feminist reporter from Mexico City, whom she decides to accompany to the Santa Teresa
prison before leaving the country. At this same time a German, Klaus Haas, is accused of
committing several of the Santa Teresa femicides and is held in a Mexican state prison
during an endless series of half-finished trials. Later, toward the end of the novel, it turns
out that Klaus is the nephew of Benno von Archimboldi, whose original, pre-artistic
name was Hans Reiter. This last section of the novel, The Part About Archimboldi,
reveals the writers former roleas an ordinary, young recruit who was drafted at the
beginning of World War IIin the crimes that the German occupation army committed
in Poland and Russia. Much, much later, when Archimboldi is over 80-years-old, he will
embark on what is presumably his last trip. From an unknown place in Europe, perhaps
Italy, he travels to Mexico City, then to Hermosillo, and from there to Santa Teresa in
order to see what he can do to help his imprisoned nephew. The European critics, who
are always after the writer, trying to track him down and make him a public figure,
cannot understand, however, that his last journey forges the impossible link in the
historical picture of the twentieth century. It brings a particular outline, even a blueprint
of modernitys global historicity of violence to the fore. This connection reaches from
Europe to todays Western hemisphere or, more specifically, from fascist Germany to the
MexicanUS border, generating a vision in which the links between barbarian crime,
suffering, and desire in ordinary people, moral anemia and psychic exhaustion in the
better-off middle-classes, the socially infectious impact of political corruption, and the
erosion of a cosmopolitan intellectual ideal have come to converge in one single picture.
Here, pain is a matter of nontragic, antisublime aesthetics. Hans Reiters journey takes
him from his being a soldier in World War II, across Western Europe in the postwar
years, where he becomes Archimboldi the writer, and then toward the end of his life, to
Mexicos northern border, one of todays most extreme sites in terms of the proliferation
From Pharmakon to Femicide 177

of violence, together with the casualties that uneven globalization keeps sending forth in
the Western hemisphere. Ironically, Reiters nephew, Klaus Haas, falls prey to the judicial
mockery that plays out in Santa Teresa at the end of the 1990s.
Thus it occurs to the Mexican authorities from the state of Sonora to set up a trial
in order to convict a man who appears, in Bolaos imagination, as a deterritorialized
version of the classical pharmakos. The pharmakos is that figure that possesses,
or acquires, a specific capacity for being turned into a scapegoat to be sacrificed or
punished, to strenghten the others, or to get rid of a problem. In his physical appearance,
Klaus is a younger version of his uncle Benno von Archimboldi, alias Hans Reiter.
He is a German of gigantic stature, blond hair, and timid manners who came to Santa
Teresa from New York to open a computer supplies store. When narrating the scene
in the Santa Teresa prison where Guadalupe Roncal and Rosa meet the accused Klaus,
Bolao takes care to give this character an aura of the ogre of mythic tales, so as to
make him suit the role not of the guilty man but of the typical pharmakos who, in this
case, plays his part with a semblance of mockery. From the visitors room, both women
hear the footsteps and noises signaling that a portentous creature is nearing.
The footsteps came closer [. . .]. Suddenly a voice began to sing a song. It sounded
like a woodcutter chopping down trees. [. . .] I am a giant lost in the middle of a
burned forest. But someone will come to rescue me, Rosa translated the suspects
string of curses . . . And then the footsteps and the laughter could be heard once
more, and the goading and words of encouragement of the inmates and the guards
escorting the giant. And then an enormous and very blond man came into the
visitors room, ducked his head [. . .] singing the German song about the lost
woodcutter and fixing them all with an intelligent and mocking gaze. (349)
The appearance of the prison giant at the end of the third part of the novel forebodes
a perception of the actual Archimboldi (who will supposedly come to rescue Klaus),
although we do not yet know that the writer is the imprisoned mans uncle. The only
aspect we can intuit is that, in both men, the imposing stature seems to cover an
incalculable and vulnerable personality, a contrast whose prospective meaning can be
illustrated by a formulation of Northrop Frye. The pharmakos is neither innocent nor
guilty. He is innocent in the sense that what happens to him is far greater than anything
he has done provokes, like the mountaineer whose shout brings down an avalanche.
He is guilty in the sense that he is a member of a guilty society . . ..33 The words in
the prisoners song, I am a giant lost in the middle of a burned forest. But someone
will come to rescue me, are not only an anticipation of the uncles final appearance
in Santa Teresa (which will remain invisible) but apply to Archimboldis own identity,
especially his mocking of the literary critics in their intent to rescue his excentric,
real-life appearance for the sake of academia and public fame.
Archimboldi, the German alien writer, and Amalfitano, the exiled Chilean
philosophy professor, are the intellectual nomads of the novel, yet they never meet.
Their exposure to precarious existence and to becoming victims or, in the case of

Northrop Frye. Anatomy of Criticism, 41.
178 Narcoepics

Klaus Haas, accused of being a perpetrator of crime in the greater political story seems
to lead both men into forms of spiritual transgression. This confers on them, on each in
his own way, a peculiar wisdom of how to survive. Amalfitano and Archimboldi both
stand for a sobering dimension of subjectivity, which is not properly modern yet global
in the crude sense of the word. Following this somber vision, to be an intellectual
means having no home and getting the closest possible awareness of the violent state
of affairs that has so deeply infected the world. It can also mean, as we will see in the
case of Archimboldis story, becoming an amphibian and hiding, like the cuttlefish
that shoots its ink as protective pharmakon, from both his enemies and academic

Placebo intellectuals

After presenting this overall examination of the novel, we will now take two steps
backward, in order to pay closer attention to its beginning, The Part About the Critics,
which allows us to look into the ambivalent spheres of that part of the world that
is said to represent a balanced, Western European modernity. There is a tendency,
especially among students and scholars of Latin American literature, to read 2666
with the major emphasis on part four, The Part About the Crimes, which focuses
on the most disturbing acts of violence inflicted upon women along the USMexico
border, and overlooking those that are just normally disturbing. This is because of the
vibrations of veracity that emerge from this huge, novelistic section in which Bolao
displays, notably drawing on Sergio Gonzlez Rodrguez book of testimonios and
documents, Huesos en el desierto (2002, Bones in the Desert), a monumental corpus of
documentary representations. These elements are fused into a narrative that unfolds
with paratactical intensity: fragments of newspaper reports, forensic descriptions of
the mutilated corpses of women, articulations of feminist civil activism, together with
numerous references to the dehumanizing aspects of the maquiladora system and
economic accumulation throughout the border regions, the violence committed by
police and organized crime, narcotics traffic, and state corruption. Yet the centrality of
the experience of violence at the USMexican border does not give the novel a mark of
geographic exceptionalism. 2666 is a book about a planetary state of affairs, pointing to
the heart of everyday existence as a figure in which the uneven development generated
by global modernity translates into particular pathological scenarios, spanning diverse
human groups including both the well-established European literary critics and the
phantom characters of bestially murdered young women from Santa Teresa, most
of whom were unskilled workers in the maquiladora factories. In the background
of a map in which subjective trajectories of Chileans, Mexicans, US-Americans, and
Europeans flow together, or diverge, there lurks the phantasma of the German writer
Benno von Archimboldi. If the Chilean professor Amalfitano serves as a threshold
figure regarding the spiritual design of the novel, Archimboldi will turn out to be the
actual connecting figure. But the roads for the hypothetical detectivea person
From Pharmakon to Femicide 179

who exists only as an immanent force in the narrativewho would want to resolve
the big enigmas of the plot are closed. Therefore, we must continue disentangling that
intensive yet sober stream of transcontinental experiences and visceral inquietude that
constitutes the subversive heart of 2666. Let us look more closely into The Part About
the Critics. Why has Bolao chosen the somewhat frivolous undertakings of a group
of academics from the humanities, of European descent and professional status, as the
initial staging ground from which his novel sets out to become a global odyssey?
In some ways, 2666 can be perceived as a book about academics, dealing with
the desires of a group of European scholars to indulge in the uniqueness, not only
of their masterful literary understanding, but of substantial intellectual life during
times that seem to erode any idea of persistence of avant-garde purpose. It should
be noted that Bolaos own generational experience is not that of the Critics.
Having left Santiago de Chile, as did his character Amalfitano, shortly after General
Pinochets coup d tat, and going into continental and transatlantic exile, Bolao
was propelled out of the context of the socialist political culture that marked Chile
and other countries of the Southern Cone during the 1960s and early 1970s, to
find himself reemerging in global space, in an ongoing struggle for survival that
included several ruptures. The Critics, in turn, experience a different displacement.
Driven by their search for Archimboldi, theirs is a voluntary, temporary move
from an always-contested yet economically privileged, and thus relatively stable,
Western metropolitan life world, to the savage territories of Santa Teresa. When
they spend a prolonged period in this environment along the MexicanUS border,
Pelletier, the professor from Paris, and Espinoza, his colleague from Madrid, make
their headquarters in a central hotel of the city where Pelletier passes entire
weeks rereading Archimboldis novels and drinking cocktails by the swimming
pool area, while Espinoza distracts himself by acting as the benefactor of a modest
family with one of whose daughters he entertains a dalliance. It is from this rather
genteel cosmopolitan positioning that these visitors to the Hemispheric South can
view Amalfitano, who offers to help in their search for Archimboldi, as a loser, a
non-existent professor at a non-existent university. Bolao might have vitriolic
contempt for the self-assured Western Europeans, but he is never caught employing
explicit judgment. Rather, the notarial tone that characterizes his immanent
narrator keeps even irony, in overall terms, at a sober levela borderline aesthetic
attitude, so to speak. Intellectually, the Europeans and Amalfitano share the same
admiration for the late lamented German writer, and they may be close to each
other in their artistic preferences and personal philosophical libraries. However,
Amalfitanos experienceas was Bolaosis marked by disaster capitalism.
This explains his spiritual affinity with Archimboldi, the German outsider turned
into a writer and nationless creature in the course of the belligerent twentieth
century. Intellectual affinities between vehemently globalized academics, such as
Amalfitano, and an always cosmopolitan liberal critical elite notwithstanding, it
makes a world of difference if someone is not generically part of the well-to-do,
academic middle-class of the West. And it may occur that, at this point, the affective
spirit of the novel calls for an unusual posture of criticismas happened in the
180 Narcoepics

life and thinking of Walter Benjamin, and as we might find in the imagination of
Roberto Bolao, as well. What we perceive has to do with an attitude of humiliating
sobriety as a matter of an aesthetics at a threshold, and perhaps as a philosophy of
intellectual survival.
But what is The Part About the Critics actually all about? How can we approach
the habitus of intellectual self-fashioning as it is exposed in the initial part of the
novel? What was often understood as a primary focus regarding Western rationalism
and modernity was the idea of a higher end, from whose vantage point means and
methods to achieve that end could be derived and justified. A prevailing concept of
subjectivity was influenced by a similar logic: what usually matters for the subjects
identity is what makes the subject an individual author. What counts is production
and achievement from a pre-established prospective vantage point: first, perceiving
the image or shape (eidos) of the product-to-be, and then organizing the means and
starting the execution.34 In other words, and we draw on Arendt here, the emphasis lies
on a critical approach to the famous what by which homo faber came to tendentially
occupy the place that was once held by God, based on the Platonic separation of
knowing and doing. Is not the work of the critic, as well, supposed to be concentrated
upon a worldly matter (literature, culture), that can be objectified through the analysis
and interpretation of texts and guiding ideas or of discursive constructs? Is not the
quality to be achieved and upheld by the academic interpreter of texts predetermined
by an expectation of the uniqueness or the singular importance of his or her object of
study? And is there not a subconscious power at work that seems to suggest, for example,
that scholars in the humanities do good by choosing and reinterpreting the gallery of
intellectual founding figures and geniuses from Plato to Derrida, or their equivalents
across fields, instead of independently exploring the realms of minor literatures and
less codified conceptual and cultural articulations? On the other hand, if this were
viewed as a matter for debate, we might wonder if the famous whatwhat one thinks
and writes in terms of a projected autonomous quality, that of the-author-subject
determines the individual subjectivity of who one actually is.
From here on, I want to discuss the paradoxical issue of who the four literary
critics arethose academics whose endeavors stand at the center of the first section
of Bolaos opus. Taking into account that academic striving, scholarly habitus, and
intellectual identity are crucial topics throughout Bolaos work, what is the status that
he confers to the debated norm of the idem35 in his book? What can we makewith
Bolaos helpof the powerful convention that the work of the literary critic depends
on the weight and uniqueness of his or her object, linked to the aspiration that the
critic can become an auteurist as well? Is not, in the end, the literary-critical enterprise
supposed to make a difference where the hermeneutic and ethical appropriation and
redeployment of experience in the wide sense of the word is concerned? But our novel
might also instigate, at some point, the question of whether the institution of academic
literary criticism is not especially susceptible to the cultivation of misconstrued

Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition, 225.
See the distinction between idem and ipse in Paul Ricoeur. Time and Narrative. Vol. 3, 2467.
From Pharmakon to Femicide 181

identities. This concern is intertwined with particular cartographies of scholarly action

and legitimacy. Bolaos CriticsPelletier, Espinoza, Morini, and Nortonrepresent,
from the beginning, a position in the real as well as in the symbolic world, which
was not afforded to someone like the Chilean professor Amalfitano. They never reflect
about the legitimacy of their own existence as critics, which situates them at a select (or
perhaps a dead?) end of Bolaos narrative map. Now, how did it all begin? And how, in
fact, does the novel begin? This is the way it starts.
The first time that Jean-Claude Pelletier read Benno von Archimboldi was
Christmas 1980, in Paris, when he was nineteen years old and studying German
literature. The book in question was DArsonval. The young Pelletier didnt realize
at the time that the novel was part of a trilogy (made up of the English-themed
The Garden and the Polish-themed The Leather Mask, together with the clearly
French-themed DArsonval), but this ignorance or lapse or bibliographical lacuna,
attributable only to his extreme youth, did nothing to diminish the wonder and
admiration that the novel stirred in him (3).
A few observations come to hand. The simple fact that the novel begins in a conventional
realist fashion does not say much about its rationale, apart from the observation that
Bolao seems to be free of the ambition of high literary experimentation. Imaginary
transgression is not pursued as a matter of aesthetic introversion in the first place.
As readers might notice with a certain surprise, there is the inclination of a French
man toward a contemporary German writer, an attitude that will also characterize the
ambitions of the other protagonists of the first partthree young literary critics from
Italy, Spain, and England. Strangely, the German novelist bears the name Benno von
Archimboldi. His works, judging by their titles (for we will never know much more
about them), are thematically atypical, slightly bizarre, being as they are committed
to nonGerman, or excentric topographies. But above all, the project of the literary
critics-to-be to focus their work on the admired masters fictionthe way their search
is narratedis, and will remain, unconcerned with any kind of specific artistic qualities
of Archimboldis books. The more intense the fascination of Pelletier and his colleagues
with Archimboldi becomes, the less we will get a chance to learn about the fictional
cosmos of the German novelist. This is not a kind of creative mistreatment of artistic
matter by a self-conscious writer (which is fairly common in modern and postmodern
prose), nor does Archimboldi simply function as narrative bait in the manner of
detective fiction. Bolao is skeptical about a presumed transcendence of literary
representation. Paraphrasing Arendt, he is concerned not about what Archimboldi
has written as an acclaimed novelist, but about who this person is as the medium
of a life story that becomes tangible ex post facto. A similar mechanism applies to the
narrative construction of the critics as well. Who somebody is or was we can know
only by knowing the story of which he is himself the herohis biography, in other
words; everything else we know of him, including the work he may have produced and
left behind, tells us only what he is or was.36 Now, the Critics have made it their project

Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition, 186.
182 Narcoepics

to find out, interpret and publicize what Archimboldi is or was. This is their job, so
to speak, but the artistic content of this mission is either exchangeable, or irrelevant
for closer examination in 2666. Bolao narrates, extensively, the academics routine
commitment to the what of their subject in order to actually expose their who, as if
their scholarly project and entire existence were a sort of occupational therapy. There is
a latent irony at work when the Critics also try to reconstruct Archimboldis personal
trajectory and decide to embark on their own journey to Mexico, to meet the writer
in person. However, the who of Archimboldi is what they cannot uncover, and it is
this dialectical procedure of exposure by omission that allows Bolao to mount a
both subtle and pointed critique of Western European, academic self-modeling. The
Archimboldian apostles remain stuck in the famous Platonist search for the idem.
Their unsuccessful project to discover the ipse is reflected back upon themselves, and
their own identity will become recognizable as being based on the placebo principle:
they need, as exemplary academics, the pharmakon of a literary giant who always
remains at a distance, in order to fulfill their most basic needs and bodily desires,
starting with their daily bread. That is to say, by building on a literary (or philosophical)
myth, and abstracting from a real story that has no author but only a precarious
hero without heroic qualities37 (the artist as a physical and socio-anthropological, a
speaking and acting, being), one can, as a scholar and under certain circumstances,
make a good living.
This discussion regarding The Part About the Critics is of an epistemic nature. I
do not mean to reduce to dry theory the brilliance of the Critics purpose and their
hermeneutic obsession of making an outsider part of the distinct canon. In the end,
we are reflecting about desire and intoxication and, from there, sobriety, all of which
makes us now return, for the sake of the story factor that Bolao is indebted to, to
the metropolitan life world of Pelletier and his befriended colleagues. Still a student in
the German Department, Pelletier decides to become an Archimboldian, which means
creating a framework for constructing a literary celebrity almost from the start, since
none of his professors has ever heard of the writer. So the young enthusiast writes
to the Hamburg press that published Archimboldis works, undertakes, at the age
of 22 (2666, 4), the translation of DArsonval from the German into French, to then
develop his dissertation from there, and a few years later translates other books by the
adored novelist in order to eventually become the accepted authority on Benno von
Archimboldi in French academic and editorial circles. When Pelletier was still young
and poor (4), he felt that he needed to be an ascetic, hunched over his German texts
in the weak light of a single bulb, thin and dogged, as if he were pure will made flesh,
bone, and muscle without an ounce of fat, fanatical and bent on success (5). This
worked on him like a drug (5), a drug that helped remove obstacles by setting his
emotions in the right condition, between tears, rage, and whatever else.
Archimboldis work, even when still that of a barely known writer, is the pharmakon
that sets the young Pelletier on a brilliant career (5). When we speak, from here, of
the placebo-text principle, this means, first, that a drug that unites body and mind in

From Pharmakon to Femicide 183

an altered state does not have to be of a chemo-biological nature, such as nicotine,

alcohol, or LSD. Books, and the images that they (are made to) produce of their creator,
together with their pneuma, their disembodied spirit, can figure among the most
powerful drugs in modern times. It means, second, that to become an aficionado who is
uncompromisingly bent on his or her project implies a daily praxis, a life style, and all
the necessary incitement and pressure to be put on the self, which can then result in a
neurological and physiological disposition that results in a particular type of addiction.
Again, addiction does not have to be a primordial matter of ingesting harmful narcotic
products. When a book comes to play a narcoticizing role, there is no uniqueness per
se about this book, but rather an aura that is formed through complex yet concrete
relationships, in which physiological realities play their unacknowledged part, even in
the case of works that produce their effect through fame, or mythic appeal. In the first
part of 2666, the enigmatic writer Archimboldi and his books are a steady reference.
When the novel abstains, nevertheless, from any particular incursion into Archimboldis
literary universe, it shuns, in a sense, the famous narcissistic or postmodern literatures
search for metafictional construction. Bolaos opus is obsessively dedicated to critics
and writers, yet his is not properly metafiction the way it has been understood in
postmodern literary thinking. In that way, The Part About the Critics seems to make
the point that it is the pharmakon that works as the movens for the Western scholar
something that cannot be reduced to the metareflexive mind. What the pharmakon
helps to enforce, in agreement or in tension with preexisting, more specialized aesthetic
references, is curiosity, astonishment, latency of desire, image-making, associativity, and
temporary release from lifes profane pressures, together with a craving to continue the
adventure. Any literary universe with the powers to satisfy an inherent craving, or even
hunger for gratification in the reader and, in the given case, the scholar, can turn, under
circumstances, into a placebo text, working as a drug. Of course, more subtle intellectual
motives are at issue, as well. However, in Archimboldis case, the Critics point is merely
that his work is different from anything else known, conveying a mystical oeuvre at the
margins of contemporary, lettered sophistication. But could this not be said of many
others of todays imagined, and actual, writers? Had Bolao specified the outstanding
concerns and aesthetic qualities of Archimboldis writing, the sense of autonomous value
might have created a legitimacy in and for itself. In that case, select ideas and figures of
the sublime would appear to be the moving forces of the Archimboldian apostles. But
2666 is dedicated to a spontaneously Socratic, rather than an Aristotelian oeuvre of
Archimboldi. If we remember the Phaedrus, the pharmakon that can help us feed on
one or another sphere of divine madness can be strongerreading between the lines
of Socrates cunning speechthan abstract ideas or artistic values.
The careers of the three other critics are variations, and suddenly almost replicas,
of Pelletiers story. The scholar Piero Morini, a teacher of German literature at the
University of Turin who, although he had first read Archimboldi four years before
Pelletier, did not translate the first novel of the German author into Italian until five
years after the Frenchman had already embarked on his respective effort (5). Morinis
translations in Italy had to overcome greater obstacles than Pelletiers in France, but
persistence and eloquence helped him succeed, even though he had been diagnosed
184 Narcoepics

with multiple sclerosis and was left permanently in a wheelchair. The third of the
academic musketeers (possessing iron wills, 8), is Manuel Espinoza from Madrid.
His approach to the field of German literature leads via a frustrated reception of the
writings of Ernst Jnger. His career is marked by several detours, but by the year 1990,
Espinoza has also become a regular participant in German literature conferences
across Europe. Like Morini and Pelletier, he had a good job and a substantial income,
and he was respected (to the extent possible) by his students as well as his colleagues.
He never translated Archimboldi or any other German author (8). The fourth Critic
is a woman from London by the name of Liz Norton, whose discovery of Archimboldi
was the least poetic of all. Being notably younger than the three male Archimboldians
of great drive, she came across one of Archimboldis novels in the house of a German
friend when she was living in Berlin for a few months in 1988. In addition, she was
more suspicious, and her mindset less focused as far as the adamant drive toward one
single literary authority is concerned. Besides, and used in a personal sense, the phrase
achieve an end seemed to her a small-minded snare (8). Is this why Liz Norton, at one
point, shows the closest though fleeting aesthetic perception of one of Archimboldis
books? Reading the novel Bitzius, on a rainy London day, makes Norton run out into
the park, where the grass and the earth seeemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their
incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs or the briefest crystallized
vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton
had drunk a steaming cup of peyote (9). The hint of the book as a drugan agent
that substitutes the narcoticizing peyote experiencecould barely be more suggestive,
But the truth is that she had only had tea to drink and she felt overwhelmed, as if a
voice were repeating a terrible prayer in her ear . . . (ibid.).
A significant momentum does not arise from the ways in which the Critics meet
each other (we have already suspected that their encounter happens at academic
congresses on German literature); rather it is due to the fact that they discover their
joint spirit during an epochal threshold at which Europe and the world cease to be
what they were during the four post-World War II decades. In fact, the entire novel
sets out from this scenario of drastic change. We are talking about the years of 198991.
Pelletier and Morini meet at a literature colloquium in Leipzig in 1989, when the GDR
(German Democratic Republic, 194990) was in its death throes, and then they saw
each other again at the German literature symposium held in Mannheim in December
of the same year (a disaster, with bad hotels, bad food, and abysmal organizing) (10).
There reverberates, on changing German soil as well as among the Germanists,
a certain sense of chaos. On the one hand, an existing academic vocabulary has
become paltry and volatile but, on the other, a spirit of a decline of critical thinking
seems to be latent wherever the Critics go. They do not perceive this situation as a
problem, since their actual hero, Archimboldi, is neither canonized nor has a major
discursive fieldfor example, postmodernist, interculturalist, gender-oriented, or
postmarxistcrystallized around the interpretation of his works. Thus, the Critics
are more like a kind of secret brotherhood, those select few who really know about
the Germans oeuvre as the great black shark of contemporary literature(11). In 1992,
Pelletier and Espinoza meet Morini, and all three full professors meet Liz Norton, a
From Pharmakon to Femicide 185

26-year-old doctoral candidate at that time, at a symposim in Bremen, in 1993. What

initiates their deep mutual affinity is, only randomly sketched, a polemic that unfolds
between our Archimboldians from Paris, Madrid, London, and Turin, and, at the
opposite end, a group of eminent German criticsPohl, Schwarz, and Borchmeyer
(11, 12). The German Archimboldi specialists are bound to their own, constrained
background, comparing the novelist to Bll, Drrenmatt, and Grass. They speak, for
example, of suffering, of civic duty, and of humor (12), which meets the sarcastic
affront of the nonGerman scholars.38 The Critics seem to hold upand here the
narration conveys bits of scholarly discourse only indirectly, or in ironic allusionsa
Nietzschean posture regarding Archimboldis work, one that, in addition, emphasizes
a certain dreary energy stemming from Medieval and Renaissance literature. That is,
while the usual Germanists apply either a national, mainly West German (as well as
Swiss, in the case of Drrenmatt) framework of reference, the group of the Critics
perceives in Archimboldis work a terrible, unrelenting side, together with an atypical,
trans-German core.
This barbarian aspect resonates from the background of those years, in which
Eastern European state socialism is dismantled, and that which is widely advertised as
revolution turns out to be the economic incorporation of the East European countries
not into the European Community on somewhat equal terms, but into a global
capitalist system already in the process of restructuring according to neoliberal rules
that marked the end of an era of social democracy.39 Bolao, a Chilean writer who had
embarked on his diaspora almost two decades earlier, at a time when Pinochet started
to impose what would become the South American, neoliberal economic model on
dictatorial grounds, is, apparently, sensitive toward these European and global changes.
But he doubts that there can be one single, succinct narration capable of representing
the transitions that he has been experiencing as violent and monstrous. If we perceive,
in the Critics craving for Archimboldis work, a sense in which a larger climate of
intellectual depoliticization could be encapsulated, then the story of Archimboldis
life itself, emerging to light at the end of the 898-page novel, is stunningly political,
although in an uncomfortable way. Let me show how the years 198991 are condensed
into an imagination that is disturbing, also one of the rare moments where satire takes
the lead. It is not the Critics facing these changes from a close yet alienating distance
but, again, Amalfitano, the diasporic outsider who was left ashore in Santa Teresa, who
is the seer, the one who sees through the suffocating surface of the modern-global
everyday. In a ghostly dream, the Chilean professor meets the abject image of the last
Communist philosopher of the twentieth century (227). The man is singing a song
in Russian, but it is not always the same, for there are words in French and English
as well, even pop melodies and tangos, ballads that heighten drunkenness or love
(228). When the last Communist philosopher finally reached the crater or latrine,

See also the laconic report on a 1995 international literature congress in Amsterdam, in which a
hegemonic English and Anglo-Indian rally-like presence is referred to with mockery, and where
the German-literature discussions are viewed as more productive (17).
See S. Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe, 229.
186 Narcoepics

Amalfitano discovered in astonishment that it was none other than Boris Yeltsin
(228). Yeltsin takes a look at the professor as if it were he who had invaded his dream,
then gives him a little instruction, starting with listen carefully, comrade:
I am going to explain what the third leg of the human table is.. . . And then leave
me alone. Life is demand and supply, or supply and demand, thats what it all boils
down to, but thats no way to live. A third leg is needed to keep the table from
collapsing into the garbage pit of history, which in turn is permanently collapsing
into the garbage pit of the void. So take note. This is the equation: supply + demand
+ magic. And what is magic? Magic is epic, and its also sex and Dionysian mists
and play. And then Yeltsin sat on the crater of the latrine and . . . took a flask of
vodka out of his suit pocket and said: I think its time for a little drink.
And after he had drunk and given the poor Chilean professor the sly squint of a
hunter, he began to sing again . . . And then he disappeared, swallowed up by the
crater streaked with red, . . . and Amalfitano was left alone and he didnt dare look
down the hole . . . (228).
The dream-image reveals an allegorically sharp perception of that populist politician, if
we remember that Yeltsin, before becoming the head of the Soviet state in the process
of its undermining, was notorious for his drinking escapades and sexual affairs. His
actual merit was to embark, after completing an instructional visit to the United States,
on ethnically based, nationalist demagogy, inventing a new political legitimacy that
eroded the remnants of perestroika40 in an overall situation of the collapse of socialist
regimes in Eastern Europe. In her overview of the main factors that marked the
transition in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the years 1989 and 1990, Susan
Buck-Morss argues that what was publicized, by Western satellite media, as a popular
revolutionary quest for democracy and freedom were in fact new forms of civil
society emerging inside the old Party regimes, under the effect of the radicalization of
various dissenting forces. But soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the outstretched
arms of the West carefully transmitted a corrected meaning: instead of radical reform
and incorporation of the East as equals, economic and political subordination under
the neoliberal breeze of global market ideology was strategically at issue. Located in
such a contextual framework, with which Bolao was closely familiar, the novelist
reminds his readers of Yeltsins recipe by which the politician captured, for Russias sake
and beyond, the worlds most pervasive, globally unifying forces: supply + demand
+ magic. Why is magic so important, in order to prevent market society from
collapsing into a hole (a garbage pit of the void) of historically emptied life worlds,
which pulsate endlessly in their reproduction of the meaningless? Here we might
recall, again, Benjamins little-known fragment Capitalism as Religion, in which he
thinks of capitalism, in a bold conceptual vision, as a cultic-religious phenomenon

Perestroika is briefly synthesized by Buck-Morss as market reform within the framework of the
socialist economy and democratic reform within a one-party political system (of the Soviet Union;
Walter Benjamin. Capitalism as Religion, 288.
From Pharmakon to Femicide 187

without a specific body of dogma or theology. What makes capitalism permanent is

the freedom to consume as an ever-repetitive, cumulative yet purely cultic religion,
perhaps the most extreme that ever existed.41 And yes, epic and sex are part of the
cult that impregnates daily routines with their dependence on capital as its god. In
other words, the fetishistic (magic) quality into which supply and demand have
been elevateda form of low-level, self-perpetuating ecstasyobscures the opposition
between use value and exchange value, so that the utilitarian and ritual dimensions
of market societies become inseparably linked. Yeltsin was keenly aware, as Bolao
implies, that the triumphant capitalist coup in Russia and beyond relied on that
duality. The novelist also calls on his readers not to overlook the dint of cynicism in the
image of the execrably Dionysian Yeltsin. After having completed his political duties,
the monstrous colporteur takes his place in the entrails of the latrine of historynot
without the sly squint of the hunter. It is this type of spectral criticism, working with
sometimes chilling, sometimes grotesque visions and dream-images, which signals the
sites of crisis in the contemporary, globalized world whose furthest boundaries are
hard to establish, but which will come into transatlantic perception in the liminal space
of Santa Teresa.
In the meantime, the Archimboldian critics, relatively unmoved by a changing
Europe that, in turn, is strongly affecting Amalfitano, pursue their mission with
enhanced energies. This is because of the spirit of the newly constituted group, which
Liz Nortona blond Amazon who speaks fluent Germanhas not only become part
of but where she is turning into a Muse-like medium of desire. There is an intertextual
moment to it. If we remember Benjamins interest, in Surrealism, in Auerbachs
figure of the mystical beloved, it has to do with a dialectical concept of love in which
the lady . . . matters least. What bespeaks is a gifta moment of divine madness,
summoning Socrates zest in Phaedrus once morewhich incites illumination rather
than providing a down-to-earth, sensual pleasure. That way, chastity can become
a transport of surprising force. We know that Benjamin was imagining a certain
analogy between Dantes Beatrice and Bretns Nadja, the issue being thatbeyond the
well-explored, masculine fascination with a female, nonrational essencethe physical
absence of a beloved creature can still enable an energetic relationship, thereby causing
a transgressively sensual effect on imagination, the original intertextual clue that led
Benjamin to formulate his dialectics of intoxication (see Chapter 2). At such a point,
ecstasy became thinkable, for Benjamin, from a condition of sobriety. In addition,
one of Bretns perceptions regarding the character of Nadja says: When I am near
her I am nearer things which are near her. In Benjamins reading: He is closer to the
things that Nadja is close to than to her.42 But what are these things, or why are certain
things so difficult to rescue from an authoritarian quotidian existence? For the male
Archimboldian apostles, in 2666, Liz Norton is the creature that seems to lead them
closer to Benno von Archimboldi, because she is the least methodical and calculating
of them all. It is not that she has a deeper knowledge of Archimboldis work, nor is
she aware of the masters distant undertakings. Yet she is more intuitive and, in a way,

Walter Benjamin. Surrealism, 210.
188 Narcoepics

more undecided than her male colleagues. The intertextual irony lies in that our male
Critics are unable to respect a female mystical potential that might then produce, in
the best of cases, actual illumination, as fleeting as it might be. In the end, the male
scholars all long (and eventually succeed in that longing) for a sexual relationship with
Norton, and they also long, each deep within his ego, for a petit-bourgeois marriage
(children, a nice house, and an end to too much group-bonding).43 The irony points in
this and in another direction: was not the matter of sobriety the weakest link, even in
the Surrealists conception of love? Its not about avoiding sex, to be clear. In fact, sex
would not stand in the way of a life philosophy of sobriety, as Benno von Archimboldis
narrative identity will later show. The issue is rather how to overcome the restraints,
that is, the egocentric anxieties of the individualistic subject. At stake, for example, is
ascetism together with those forces that could compete with the dominant emanations
of myth (Yeltsins magic, for example), but also with a comforting, almost conformist
indifference: a smooth, humanistic self-assurance that a certain academy seems to
guarantee to (or require from) those who are legitimately dedicated to their metier
such as the life of the Critics flowing conveniently in accord with the placid river of
European university German departments (40).
There is an ocurrence, during which Pelletiers and Espinozas adoration of their
gorgeous female colleague, shaped by a greater force (17) finally collapses into
an egoistic explosion of violence. Sexist and racist modes of empowerment, or
subjectification, can become particularly pervasive when projection is at work.
Pelletier and Espinoza have come from Paris and Madrid to visit Norton, asking her if
she still loved Pritchard, an intimate London companion of hers. Her answer is no, or
perhaps yes, but why this kind of question, the young woman wonders, perhaps out
of jealosy? Upon which both men reply that it was almost an insult to accuse them
of being jealous considering the nature of their friendship (73). This implies that
the nature of their bond is linked to a superior project. Then they go out for dinner,
talking cheerfully like children, until night falls, about the desastrous consequences
of jealosy, and the sweetness of certain open, delectable wounds (ibid.). The three
academics are still engrossed in their conversation after leaving the restaurant, taking
a taxi and passing Harmsworth Park and the Imperial War Museum, and other sites
alongside the nightly streets of London. The cab driver, a Pakistani, looks as if he
cannot believe what he is hearing. Norton calls his attention, indicating that he has
lost his orientation, and the driver confesses that London was such a labyrinth. This
causes Espinoza to
remark that hed be damned if the cabbie hadnt just quoted Borges, who once said
London was like a labyrithunintentionally, of course. To which Norton replied
that Dickens and Stevenson had used the same trope long before Borges in their
description of London. This seemed to set the driver off, for he burst out that as a
Pakistani he might not know this Borges, and he might not have read the famous

After having sex with Pelletier and Espinoza, respectively, and after a detained period of reflection,
Norton decides to commit herself to a relationship with Morini, the professor from Torino in the
wheel chair, who is impeded from being as self-serving as the others.
From Pharmakon to Femicide 189

Dickens and Stevenson either, and he might not even know London and its streets
as well as he should, . . ., but he knew very well what decency and dignity were, and
by what he had heard, the woman here present, in other words Norton, was lacking
in decency and dignity, and in his country there was a word for what she was, the
same word they had for it in London as it happened, and the word was bitch or slut
or pig, and the gentlemen here present, gentlemen who, to judge by their accents,
werent English, also had a name in his country and that name was pimp or hustler
or whoremonger (73).
The Critics, taken totally by surprise, need a moment to react, and then tell the driver
to stop his wretched car (74). Which the Pakistani does, not without pointing to the
meter to settle the account. This seemed ok to Norton and Pelletier who wanted to leave
the issue there, but it was an unbearable affront to Espinoza, who stepped down and
opened the drivers door and jerked the driver out, the latter not expecting anything
of the sort from such a well-dressed gentleman. Much less did he expect the hail of
Iberian kicks that proceeded to rain down on him (74). Pelletier joins in kicking the
Pakistani who was down, curled into a ball on the ground, despite Nortons shouting
that violence wouldnt solve anything . . . The kicking continues,
shove Islam up your ass, which is where it belongs, this one is for Salman Rushdie
(an author neither of them happened to think was much good but whose mention
seemed pertinent), this one is for the feminists of Paris (will you fucking stop,
Norton was shouting), this one is for the feminists of New York (youre going to
kill him, shouted Norton), this one is for the ghost of Valerie Solanas, you son of a
bitch, and on and on, until he was unconscious and bleeding from every orifice in
the head, except for the eyes (ibid.).
A day later, a local television station reports that the drivers body was found with four
broken ribs, a concussion, a broken nose, and hed lost all of his top teeth (77). At the very
moment of the event, when the Archimboldians stop kicking the defenseless man
they were sunk for a few seconds in the strangest calm of their lives. It was as if
theyd finally had the mnage trois theyd so often dreamed of. Pelletier felt as if
he had come. Espinoza felt the same, to a slightly different degree. Norton, who
was staring at them without seeing them in the dark, seemed to have experienced
multiple orgasms. A few cars were passing by St. Georges Road.. . . (74)
Bolao, by constructing this scene, goes beyond recasting those academics as violent
perpetrators, which means that he does more than expose how the respectable and
educated can step into the abyss of punishing an uncivilized intruder, thus arriving
at the verge of their humanistic habitus, and meeting their colonial unconscious. The
ocurrence is linked to the novels deeper core of violence. Let us pay attention, again,
to the matter of intoxication through violence, one of the single most controversial
aspects where the aesthetics of violence are concerned. What can we make of Bolaos
exposure of the group orgasm of his critics? It might be helpful to hark back, for
a moment, to Auerbachs thoughts about medieval and early-modern literatures. The
philologists interest in violence is stylistic, yet he is also taken in by the transgressive
190 Narcoepics

effect that a violent event can exert at the point at which it is depicted in the form of
brute, pictorial realism. Two realms intersectthe (allegedly) intoxicating effect of a
brute and sensory, violent experience as such, and arts capacities to either capitalize
on such an anthropological effect, or to raise a critical awareness, or both. The example
Auerbach provides is taken from chapter 8 of book 6 of Augustines Confessions, where
Augustine refers to Alypius, a student of law in Rome who, in his intention to uphold the
worldly purpose of education and rational perfection abhors the Roman gladiatorial
spectacles. One day Alypius is drawn, by his fellow-students, into an amphitheater in
which that kind of terrible and deadly shows takes place. The context is different from
Socrates situation in Phaedrus, when Socrates desires to be seduced by the pharmakon
of Lysias speech, however, the epistemic issues at stake are somewhat similar. Alypius
states his resistance to bloodthirsty violence and enmaddened mass spectacle like this:
Though you drag my body to that place, and there place me, can you force me to give
my mind and lend my eyes to these shows? Thus shall I be absent while present, and so
shall overcome both you and them.44 The humanist student pretends that, even when
coming in close contact with the inhuman sports, he will not relinquish his educated
moderation, his rational self-discipline, and inner distance to such badness. As we can
foresee, this is wishful thinking, a rational illusion. Alypius, who decided to close his
eyes during the show, is suddenly seduced by the outbursts of the crowd to unlock
his eyes to see that blood, and to imbibe a sort of savageness, drinking in madness
unconsciously, and being delighted with the guilty contest, and drunken with the
bloody pastime.45 We are facing, once again the problem of intoxication and eventually
of addiction, without the matter being linked to the ingestion of drugs. Do not Bolaos
literary critics fall, when they beat up the Pakistani, into ecstasy by imbibing a sort of
savageness, as well?
It is revelatory that the novelist foregrounds the issue of intoxication through violence
in relationship to the European academics, before moving the narration entirely to Santa
Teresa in The Part About the Crimes. What the second citation shows is the way the
violent act functions as a release, an unchaining of refrained desire: It was as if theyd
finally had the mnage trois theyd so often dreamed of. But since Liz Nortons role,
in 2666, is more tricky than that of a female object of desire, we have to note that the
possibility for her to turnlike Brtons Nadjainto the mystical beloved fails. It fails
not only because of the possessive interests of her male colleagues but also due to her
own fascination with different dalliances, her down-to-earth undecidedness. This does
not pose a problem for Liz, nor for the men, since they all share a sense of having a
superior missiontheir secret, erudite closeness to the literary saint Archimboldi. This
attitude, directed at an experience of totality, never becomes an issue of reflexivity among
the critics. They never question themselves. What had begun as an academic affinity
evolved into a transcendent project of quasi-religious dedication. At this point one can
associate Arendts synthesis of the Platonic tradition of means and ends. In numerous
modern contexts, not only politics but also life is thought of in terms of superior ends,

Erich Auerbach. Mimesis, 59.
From Pharmakon to Femicide 191

and he who wants an end must also want the means (229). Apart from the libidinal
discharge that accompanies the Critics brutal beating of the Pakistani taxi driver, there
is an assumption that is shared by Pelletier, Espinoza, and Norton. It implies the principle
of the pro-domo righteousness of the liberal democratic tradition of European standards
vis--vis the fundamentalist outgrowths belonging to certain people and cultural
attitudes from Islamic countries. Remember the justifying consecration of the kicks
they gave the defenseless body, devoting them to the feminists of Paris, the feminists of
New York, or Salman Rushdie. It is not that the Archimboldi-scholars would act as overt
racists and defenders of anti-immigrant policies; in that case, the driver would have been
susceptible to being turned into a pharmakos, a scapegoat. The Critics, following their
brutal behavior, feel remorse and temporally out of place. However, they also feel that
theirs is the pivotal space, the core of a sublime and enlightened humanity, its heigher
ends. A deeper symbolic order speaks out of their subconscious that can make them
forget the ugly means that are sometimes an inescapable part of existence. Owing to
the concatenation of circumstances, the taxi driver had the bad luck to unwillingly touch
upon a topic that was sacred to Espinoza and Pelletier, and thus the Pakistani, as well,
was turned into a placeboa body of projection upon which an unfulfilled desire, or an
obscure anxiety, was acted out to get the mens troubled sexual affairs straight.
The Critics dedication to the work and the myth of Archimboldi is not removed
from the dilemmas of this world, as far as their artistic interest is concerned. In fact,
they can perceive how radically, and how enigmatically the Germans fiction focuses on
the experiences of violence and loss, on the one hand, and a chilling sense of plenitude,
on the other. There must be something in the fictional Archimboldis novelsif we are
allowed the speculationthat resembles the somber spell that certain medieval and early
modern literatures had cast on Auerbach: a mode of writing that could clothe the subjects
immersion in horror and distortion, power and destructiveness, hatred of the world, or
humility, ascetism and love in an extravagantly pictorial style,46 a paradoxical realism
that we find so stunningly restaged, as well, in several of Pier Paolo Pasolinis films. Still,
the Critics remain distant from what might be the clue to understanding Archimboldi:
a mode of sobriety that, by forging a genuine link between life experience and aesthetic
invention, makes the fragile human creaturethe one that in the twentieth century
becomes affected by disenfranchisment, war, diaspora, together with physical, sexual, or
affective marginalizationsink to the bottom, so that we can get to the bottom of things.

Benno von Archimboldi, the Amphibian

We penetrate the mystery only to the degree that we recognize it in the everyday
world, by virtue of a dialectical optic that perceives the everyday as impenetrable, the
impenetrable as everyday.
Walter Benjamin

See Erich Auerbach. Mimesis, 57.
192 Narcoepics

We are facing an immense, multilayered novel that is rich in narrative ploys and
images, whose gruesome aspects are neither based in pictorial realism nor sensual
excess. Bolao, in the way he introduces the untoward and unexpected into the
ordinary and lets it resound from there, brings Borges to mind. To assume that the
extraordinary faces of the everyday world call for an exploration of the fantastic
element of existence, implies that histrionic or fanatical stress on the mysterious side
of the mysterious takes us no further.47 Looking at the pharmakon, we might ask
how it is possible to make sense of this concept without giving in to, and getting
lost in its boundless ambiguity? Ours is a reflection that itself performs a decentering
move. Testing the conceptual challenges of the pharmakon against the density of
Bolaos 2666 meant approaching the novel less as a literary composition, properly
speaking, but instead to look at it sidewaysthrough pharmacological glass. When
we recalled the use of the pharmakon in Platos Phaedrus, it did not mean favoring
a universal symbolism of classical philosophy or philology. Rather, the association
was inspired by a mechanism that could reveal sudden coincidences: nonhistoricist
legibility emerging from a few astonishing thought-images. The historicality of
concept-images is a volatile issue, but it still has its point in the way it was once
developed in contrast to Heideggers abstract phenomenology. Benjamin, in The
Arcades Project, emphasizes an indexicality of thought images versus the essences of
Heideggers historical hermeneutics.
These images are to be thought of entirely apart from the categories of the human
sciences, from so-called habitus, from style, and the like. For the historical index
of the images not only says that they belong to a particular time; it says, above all,
that they attain to legibility only at a particular time. And, indeed, this acceding
to legibility constitutes a specific critical point in the movement at their interior.
Every present day is determined by the images that are synchronic with it: each
now is the now of a particular recognizability. [. . .] It is not that what is past casts
its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image
is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a
Benjamin wanted to access an associative energy paired with the momentous clarity
of visual-reflective perception, which could be effective as a counter-narcotic. He
called classical historiography the strongest narcotic of the nineteenth century and
sought to summon up a counterveiling force. Our earlier discussion of the dialectics
of intoxication implied that contesting a narcotic historicism49 would not lie in what
Horkheimer and others held as strictly secularist critical theory. At stake was a
method that would not mark the opposite side of intoxication but could rather be
a form of mtis, dealing with intoxication in the interest of sobriety. Can we now
perceive the aura that accompanies Archimboldi in the clues of a literary-aesthetic
mode whose force lies in sobriety? Although this character has a life story of his own,

Walter Benjamin. Surrealism, 216.
Walter Benjamin. The Arcades Project, 4623.
See ibid., 463.
From Pharmakon to Femicide 193

his main role in the novel is perhaps that of a medium. Archimboldi is certainly
not the singular hero or antihero of the book, yet he is the organizing ghost that
movesfor the readers, if not for some other fictive charactersfrom nonpresence
to presence. In doing so, he remains the one whose existential attitude is that of the
evanescent person. After all, even for the people who meet him in passing, he becomes
an image eventually devoid of the personality traits that we would expect to belong to
a renowned writerhe exists as a very tall mans shadow.50 Our following observations
are guided by an assumption. There are moments of an historical index ingrained
in the memories of the twentieth century, which might become legible only from
the way in which tensions and connecting points arise between 2666s fictional edifice
as a whole, and the part that is dedicated to the life story of Hans Reiter/Benno von
Archimboldi. How does the Archimboldi figure attain to legibility by resisting the
implicitly historicist conventions of interpretation, such as that of national philologies
and the extraction of global experiences from there (German literature vs. Mexican
literature, for example), or the postmodern cultural-contact models of approaching
the transgression of spatial and temporal boundaries from an angle of hybrid and
flexible identities? 2666 escapes both interpretive traditions.
I suggest recalling, as well, Benjamins sarcasm regarding the dilettantish
optimism of certain social-democratic poets during the 1920s, an optimism based on
moral metaphors fusing together desires for reconciliation and change. Instead, the
call of the hour was the organization of pessimism: to organize pessimism means
nothing other than to expel moral metaphor from politics and to discover in political
action a sphere reserved one hundred percent for images. This sphere, however,
can no longer be measured out by contemplation.51 Citing these words associates a
concept of imagination that was deduced from the attitudes and actions of the Paris
Surrealists. To organize pessimism reminds us, as well, of Benjamins understanding
of the early Brechts aesthetics of poverty. In our novel there is a sphere in which
the enigma called Archimboldi can only be accessed through images, not through the
mythical vision constructed and upheld by the Critics, images of a personal political
destiny as constellations that are strangely immune to moral metaphors. If we ask
more straightforwardly yet speaking in paradoxes, can Archimboldi be imagined as a
genuine figure of the German/European subaltern, one whose destination, however,
will be the Western hemisphere.
Consonant with an ongoing mode of estrangement, the myth and the life story of the
German writer with an Italian name provide the phantasmatic thread that permeates
Bolaos transnational narrative. If cosmopolitan imagination has a paradigmatic
modern core, it spans two seemingly discrepant sidesconcrete experiences of
travel, displacement, or any other kind of de-provincializing adventure in the realm
of metropolitan or trans-metropolitan life, on the one hand, and the projection of a

Mrs. Bubis, the former Baroness von Zumpe and one of the two women who have known Reiter
best, when asked by the Critics what Archimboldi is like, laconically replies: Very tall, very tall, a
man of truly great height. If hed be born in this day and age he likely would have played basketball
Walter Benjamin. Surrealism, 217.
194 Narcoepics

disembodied self, on the other. In the so-called travel narratives and their scalings
of transculturation, we repeatedly find this contrastive matrix, and it is often the
observer-self, including the autobiographical narrative mode, that seeks to guard the
dream of nonparticular if not universalizing (sovereignty over concrete) experience. In
2666, one of the outstanding cases of a novel of displacement and globalized experience
in the wake of the twentieth century, the described matrix is led into erosion. Chakrabarty,
in 2000, writes in Provincializing Europe, that Europe has already been provincialized by
history itself.European history is no longer seen as embodying anything like a universal
human history.52 The author goes on to argue that what he intends to decenter is rather
an imaginary figure of Europe, one that in several academic disciplines still characterizes
clichs of universal political modernity.53 Focusing on this imaginary that has often been
renewed as a target for postcolonial criticism, but without paying equally deep attention
to the more recent universal attempt of a US-based cultural hegemony, has jeopardized,
to a certain extent, an interest in the borders and heterogeneous aspects of the European
cultural and intellectual geographies. Cultures speak to us in plural, and do so suddenly
from unfamiliar places. What about Europes local or subaltern histories that extend
beyond the well-known romantic or high-cultural literary visions, providing, instead,
outlines in which globalization is prefigured in more tragic and paradoxical ways than
have been considered thus far? I am not referring to life and literature under East
European state socialism that do not play a visible role in the novel, but to a Europe
whose contemporary global predicament, its other modernity, starts taking shape, in
the eyes of Bolao, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Surprisingly for a novel
committed to the force of perspectivation as it arises today from the Hemispheric South,
its most complex character, the German Hans Reiter (alias Archimboldi) will acquire his
actual education, the one that marks him for the rest of his life, in both Germany and
the Soviet Union, that is, as a German soldier during World War II who becomes a seer
after being wounded and coming into contact with the life story of a murdered Russian
Jew by the name of Boris A. Ansky. Nevertheless, the experiential world of Archimboldi
does not become a modern construct of disembodied subjectivity, a sovereign observer,
or an introspective stream of consciousness, nor is it reduced, on the other side, to
the image of a merely empirical individual. Few novels defy our received notions of
literary fiction as radiography of experiental history in the way that 2666 does.
It was into utterly precarious, personal, and political constellations that Hans Reiter
was born in 1920. It might not be an exaggeration to read the way in which Bolao sets
up the images of the new-born Reiters home in the allegorical terms of one of several
German Tragic Dramas. Reiters mother was blind in one eye, his father was lame,
having lost a leg in the World War I, and both came from poor peasant families. We get
a sense of the matter when the immanent, stoic narrator, at the beginning of The Part
About Archimboldi, relates how the father survived in a military hospital near Dren
(North-Rhine Westphalia)by smoking. A soldiers tobacco is sacred (637). Reiters
father, while recovering in a hospital, offers this divine sensation to a mummyone

Dipesh Chakrabarty. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, 3.
Ibid., 34.
From Pharmakon to Femicide 195

of his totally impaired comrades, lying in the bed next to him (He had black eyes like
two deep wells.)
He lit a cigarette and tried to find the mummys mouth among the bandages.
The mummy shuddered. Maybe he doesnt smoke, thought the man, and he took
the cigarette away. The moon illuminated the end of the cigarette, which was
stained with a kind of white mold. Then he put it back between the mummys
lips, saying: smoke, smoke, forget all about it. The mummys eyes remained fixed
on him, maybe, he thought, its a comrade from the batallion and hes recognized
me. But why doesnt he say anything? Maybe he cant talk, he thought. Suddenly,
smoke began to filter out between the bandages. Hes boiling, he thought, boiling,
Smoke came out of the mummys ears, his throat, his forehead, his eyes, which
remained fixed on the man with one leg, until the man plucked the cigarette
from the mummys lips and blew, and kept blowing for a while on the mummys
bandaged head until the smoke had disappeared. Then he stubbed the cigarette out
on the floor and fell asleep (6378).
When the man wakes up in the morning, the mummy had died and been taken away.
It was not the destiny of the earlier mentioned Trakl, but perhaps that of one of his
terrible shadow images.
In Hans Reiter, Bolao weaves several questions together. How do we approach
the biographical and ethical design of a subject that emerges from constellations of
disenfranchisement and banality, and whose trajectory will not conform to what Jean
Franco labels The Magic of Alterity?54 Can we understand the contradiction that
someone who acted, during World War II, as a good German (a Mitlufer, who although
not evil, goes along with atrocities and killings, not rebelling against them), later becomes
not only one of societys radical outsiders but a figure, as well, that provides a sense of
a different kind of humanism? Thirdly, if this literary character helps blend together
scenarios of violence and biopolitical apocalypses that are commonly kept separate from
one another (Europe during and after World War II; the MexicanUS border during the
1990s), what would beif there were oneBolaos deeper concern? And, last, how does
this novelistic vision that, at first sight, seems to be infested by an obsession with German
culture, become the complex, self-reflexive approach of the Chilean-Latin American
novelist to the violent junctures of Western modernity and globalization? Remarkable
segments of the more than 250-pages long Part About Archimboldi have to do with
Reiters childhood and youth, his getting lost in the German occupation army in Russian
territory, his post-war vagrancy and contact with an influential, left-wing publishing
house in Hamburg, his becoming an extraordinary writer under the pseudonym of Benno
von Archimboldi while virtually disappearing from the map of personal, let alone public
relationships, and, having reached his eighties, his leaving Europe and moving to one of
the most frightening places in the worldSanta Teresa, alias Ciudad Jurez.

See Jean Franco, The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City, 159 f.
196 Narcoepics

Reading about Hans Reiters childhood in a small town close to either the Baltic or
the North Sea,55 which smelled of dirty clothes and pissed-upon earth (643), while
his one-legged father dreams of a Prussia that no longer exists (643, 673), but who is
fiercely skeptical of the rising National Socialists zest for a Greater Germany (652),
may somehow connect us to the atmosphere that emanates from scenes in Michael
Hanekes film The White Ribbon (2009). Bolao does not lack the talent to make readers
shudder when he paints, with allegorical brushes and in laconic, awkward sequences a
local scenery, ghost towns, that seemed to be inhabited by the living dead. Thirteen years
old when Hitler seizes power, Hans leaves school because of his apathy and idling and
is sent to work in the country residence of a Prussian baron where his task is to dust the
books in a huge library (653), and where he occasionally meets the barons nephew, a
young cleptomanic from Berlin by the name of Hugo Halder, son of a painter, who was
used to drinking cognac and smoking while devouring history books, and his nerves
were always near the breaking point (6546). The barons nephew introduces Reiter
to good literary books (657), and it may be that the devil had it that the book Hans
Reiter chose to read was Wolfram von Eschenbachs Parzival (658). Halders comment,
when observing that Eschenbach was the writer in whom Hans would encounter the
closest resemblance to himself, sounds like an omen.
Of course, there were German medieval poets more important than Wolfram von
Eschenbach. [. . .] But Wolframs pride (I fled the pursuit of letters, I was untutored
in the arts), a pride that stands aloof, a pride that says die, all of you, but Ill live,
confers on him a halo of dizzying mystery, of terrible indifference, which attracted
the young Hans . . . (659).
What Hans Reiter liked most about Parzival, who according to the narrator was a lay
and independent knight living in vassalage, with no lands and only a few protectors,
what made him cry and roll laughing in the grass [while reading Eschenbachs
book], was that Parzival sometime rode (my hereditary office is the shield) wearing his
madmans garb under his suit of armor (659). This does not mean, to be aware of a
necessary distinction, that Reiters life story would come close to a picaresque model.
Thanks to Hugo Halder, when the baron closes the country house in 1936, Hans finds a
job in Berlin that provides a tiny wage, and then works as a watchman in a rifle factory
(661), sending almost all of his meager earnings to his parents and sister. Halder also
takes him to the worst cabaret in Berlin as well as to the Caf des Artistes (662),
where Hans gives the impression, to an acclaimed German orchestra conductor, that
he was an untrained, powerful mind, irrational, illogical, capable of exploding at the
moment least expected. To which the narrator adds, with the mocking laconism that
Bolao holds dear, Which was untrue (666).
In 1939 Hans Reiter is drafted. A few months later the war begins, and as a soldier in
a light infantry regiment he sees himself, without understanding, crossing the border
into Poland, imagining that under his Wehrmacht uniform he was wearing the suit or

The closeness of the sea coast is crucial for Reiters childhood, and Bolao, who names his village

allegorically, makes allusions to both the North and the Baltic Seas.
From Pharmakon to Femicide 197

garb of a madman (670). Bolao dedicates almost 100 pages to Reiters involvement
in the war, which can be read as a novel within a novel, disturbing and extraordinary.
Reiter will indeed embody the madman, and part of the consternation arising from
these pages owes to the tension between experience and action. He is unable to conceive
of what is happening, but officers and recruits of the seventy-ninth Infantry Division,
to which his regiment belongs, view him as a very courageous soldier. Reiter senses that
he is going to end up being shot (694), and he hopes for it the sooner the better. One
of the sergeants notes about his behavior that Reiter, of course, was the same person as
always, but when going into combat, it was as if he wasnt going into combat, as if he
wasnt there or the quarrel wasnt with him (672). Neither did he refuse to follow the
orders, nor was he caught in the kind of trance that often resulted from most soldiers
heightened fearit was rather something else that happened with him. The sergeant
could not say what it was, but Reiter had something evident even to the enemy, who
shot at him several times and never hit him, to their increasing dismay (ibid.). What
crystalizes are sudden perceptions, images linked to aspects of possible distortions, or
adivinations of the improbable, but there are no coherent links whatsoever between
a dramatic logic and (the motives or affects of) human behavoir. The artistic tension
arises between particular images and a caustic yet nonlinear narration. If madness is
an issue, it is not backed by a respective set of behavioral or dramatic patterns, nor is
it focalized in an introspective way. It is both a latent possibility in an insane world,
andin Hans Reitera rare dispositif, as we will see. We have already discussed that
Reiters ambivalence invites some of the novels characters, for example, the Critics who
later (yet earlier in the novel) get to know him from a distance, to perceive him as
a mythical being. However, and acknowledging that Bolao skillfully plays with this
possibility, Reiters transgressive self, a not-self to an unusual extent, is of a different
Given Hans Reiters childhood, adolescent experiences and precarious education, it
is out of the question to consider the possibility of his consciously opposing the Nazi
occupation of Polish and Russian territories. What he does ponder, fleetingly, is that
a better education and a different place in society would perhaps have prevented him
from the worst. When his regiment is temporarily stationed in Normandy, he comes
close to deserting. What could he do under those circumstances? The vision of the
19-year-old sounds awkward. After deserting, he would live

like a tramp in the Normandy, finding a cave, feeding himself on the charitable
offerings of peasants or small thefts that no one would report. I would learn to see
in the dark, he thought. In time my clothes would fall to rags and finally I would
live naked. I would never return to Germany. One day I would drown, radiant
with joy (677).

This drowning with joy is not a ludicrous idea but rather an actual clue. It relates to an
underground image that can lead us in the direction that we have hinted at when naming
this subchapter Archimboldi the Amphibian. We need to take a second look into Reiters
childhood. After he was born, he looked less like a child than like a strand of seaweed
(639). What the child felt attracted to, from the moment he could sense visions, was the
198 Narcoepics

seabed, that other earth, with its plains that werent plains and valleys that werent valleys
and cliffs that werent cliffs (ibid.). In other words, Hans did not and would not inhabit
the metaphors that Germans felt drawn to. When his one-eyed mom placed the baby in a
washtub, he slid from her hands and sank to the bottom, with open eyes, contemplating
the wooden cove as if it wanted to remain underwater. Reiter, raised in a village close to
the Baltic (or the North) Sea, started to swim when he was four (640), and he was far too
tall for his age and unsteady on his feet. Hans Reiter was unsteady on his feet because
he moved across the surface of the earth like a novice diver along the seafloor (ibid.).
The narrative voice that animates the letters in Bolaos fiction recounts that, when Hans
discovered a seaweed forest for the first time, he was so touched that he started to cry
underwater (641). He came close to drowning several times when he was eight and nine.
The first time, he was saved by a tourist from Berlin who at first mistook his head bobbing
in the waves for a clump of seaweed (645). The tourist, Vogel, was tormented by the
delusive image, asking himself afterwards how he could have mistaken a boy for seaweed.
He also asked himself if a boy and seaweed could have anything in common (646). In the
end, Vogel resolves that he must pay more careful attention to his mental health.
When Reiter is a recruit of the Wehrmacht and stationed in Besneville in Normandy,
he often goes swimming and diving bare-faced in the Atlantic, no matter how cold the
water is. It was not so much a matter of swimming but of floating underwater and losing
himself to a state that offered him safety and radiant calmness, together with a kind of
consciousnessless, cosmic embodyment, sometimes paired with a strange, powerful
despair that threatened to keep him at the bottom of the sea forever (6767). At these
moments, and in order for him to survive, it was necessary to come up to the surface
of the water quickly. Medical staff who one day visit his company find Hans completely
healthy, except for his eyes that were excessively red as a result of their exposure to
salt water. Not knowing about Reiters preferred habit, the doctor assumes that the
young man was probably a drug addict. (How is it that in the ranks of our army we
find young men addicted to morphine, heroin, perhaps all sorts of drugs? 677). The
physicians presumption is not entirely mistaken, since the bottom of the sea of cold
waters (the Baltic, the North Sea, or the Atlantic) clearly has an intoxicating effect on
Hans. Reiters rare transgressive condition, his seaweed syndrome, so to speak, puts him
in a paradoxical light. In some sense, and in the eyes of people who are close to him, he
is untouchable, that is to say, always somewhat detached from the rhythm of common
behavior and speech. At the same time, his is a peculiar vulnerability, regarding both
sensual perception and practical carelessness in relation to some of lifes needs. During
the events of the war, it looks as if he can get closer to death than other people, showing
neither visible fear nor certain rational precautions against imminent danger, sometimes
surviving like in a miracle. In a way, he has, as a young man drafted into the Wehrmacht
and sent into foreign territories, given up on the world of humans around him. We read
that all he sought was a bullet to bring peace to his heart (701). All this would perhaps
amount to the invention of another character in the gallery of eccentric persons and odd
outsiders, marked by modernitys violent predicaments or self-exiled from the existence
of ordinary people, if it were not for the constellations that make Hans Reiter a diver
into the worst spheres of historical, as epochal and dismal, prophetic experience.
From Pharmakon to Femicide 199

Using a distinction that was made by Aldous Huxley, we could say that the Critics,
whom we have met mainly in the first part of the novel, exist by giving faith and stamina
to the principle cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), whereas Reiter appears as a
creature that seems to respond to the principle cogitor ergo sum (I am being thought,
therefore I exist).56 From this, one could presume that the Nazi apparatus of domination
can so easily determine the fate of the young man Hans, lacking consciousness,
and make him an instrument in the war against Russia. There is, of course, no easy
comparison between epochs and constellations as different as those of the late modern
literary critics and of Hans Reiter, who was born in the aftermath of World War I.
However, Bolao is not at all convinced that the state of identity and mind described
by Huxley as the self-centered, ego-driven personality that lives in verbal sunshine,
self-perpetuating habits and abstract yet prejudiced notions at the problematic center
of the sociable human species57 would actually do better regarding individual political
decisions and the rational-ethical organization of life. On the contrary, the Chilean
writer is alert to the dubious side of advanced civilizations rational culture, and
Huxleys words come surprisingly close to his skepticismthis world of light and
air is also a world where the winds of doctrine howl destructively; where delusive
mock-suns keep popping up over the horizon; where all kinds of poison comes pouring
out of the propaganda factories and the tripe mills.58 It is for some reason that the
excellent literary scholars Pelletier, Espinoza, and Morini, whose lives unfold long after
the war, make a peregrine German writers imaginarythat part of Hans Reiter that
will condense his experiences into his post-World War II novelistic workthe center
of their obsession, their placebo par excellence. Although we learn almost nothing
about the content of Archimboldis later novels, these are supposedly works written by
an amphibian, a writer who inhabits several incommensurable universes,59 and whose
embodied spirit, his not-self the human that moves across the surface of the earth
like someone floating along the seafloorwill play tricks on a self-centered or fanatic
or exhausted realm of subjetivity where insight that ends should never justify means60
is still far away.
In the winter of 19412, with the Soviet counterattack setting in, the soldier Hans
Reiter is severely wounded and sent as a convalescent, after leaving the military hospital,
to the Ukranian village of Kostekino, on the banks of the Dnieper River (705). This is the
place where he discovers a force that actually pushes him into drowning, a submersion
from which he will not recover, in terms of his existential and intellectual horizon.
He becomes drowned when he starts to read the notebooks, written in German, of
a Russian Jew, which he discovers in a farmhouse in Kostekino. Most of the houses
are empty, a result of the attack on the civilian population, earlier that same year, by a

See Aldous Huxley, The Education of an Amphibian, 17. Aldous Huxley, in his essay, writes these
remarkable words: Living amphibiously, half in fact and half in words, half in immediate experience
and half in abstract notions, we contrive most of the time to make the worst of both worlds (ibid.,
Ibid., 17, especially 3.
Ibid., 3.
We are paraphrasing Huxleys expression, see, The Education of an Amphibian, 14.
See Huxley, ibid., 15.
200 Narcoepics

squad of the Einsatzgruppe C which eliminated all the Jews in the village (706). One
of Reiters wounds was in his throat, and he cannot speak, but only see and read. It is
winter, and the village resembles a frozen paradise (707). While other convalescents
gather in the main house, made of bricks, where the fire is always lit and there are huge
pots of soup, smelling of cabbage and tobacco, Reiter withdraws to one of the empty
wooden houses, not knowing if he is searching for something or deciding to slowly
freeze in the cold since there was no hope (706). Taken as a Brechtian allegorythere
was no way of sinking deeper, this was the bottom. The house has a straw roof, which
Reiter starts scrutinizing while he is shaken by nightmares and objects floating in the
candlelight, spawns an indefinable air of femininity. Looking for something to use
as a bandage for his throat, he finds the papers of Boris Abramovich Ansky. These
notebooks are also the source, in their final sections, of Reiters first acquaintance with
what will later become his artistic nameArchimboldi (see 729, 7345).
As he recovers from his wounds in a place that must be more than an utterly remote
spot in relationship to his original, northern German homeland, a place beyond time,
an extraterrestrial orbit, with the unspokenness of its catastrophe, the 22-year-old
soldier learns that Ansky had a special fascination with the Italian painter Josephus
Arcimboldo or Arcimboldi (15271593) (729). A spirit of simplicity, a combination of
minimalism with pure bliss in the art of Arcimboldi, can be happiness personified
(734). This spirit helps Ansky to cope, for moments, with the sadness that has taken
over the atmosphere of Moscow, where this Jew from Kostekino had become a
member of the party, but where he was turned, with Stalins rise, into an enemy of
the state (737). When I am sad or in low spirits, writes Ansky, I close my eyes and
think of Arcimboldos paintings and the sadness and gloom evaporate, as if a strong
wind, a mentholated wind, were suddenly blowing along the streets of Moscow (735).
Bolao puts the adjective mentholated in italics, as if pointing to a pharmacological
phenomenon. Reiter also learns that the simplicity in Arcimboldos paintings is not
a matter of harmony because it can include horror (734). So we have a particular
constellation taking shape among notions of low spirits/ sadness, ecstasy (bliss),
simplicity and mentholated wind, shot through with narrative testimonies of two
extreme historical scenarios of the twentieth centurythe Stalinist turn in Soviet life
from the 1920s to the 1930s, and the Einsatzgruppe Cs depopulating Jewish villages at
the turning point of the German occupation of the Soviet Union. This is what Benjamin
would have called an image of singular historical indexicality: a dialectical image, in
which the (fictional) experience of the German character Reiter, when meeting his
daimon (Arcimboldo) produces, like in a flash, that moment of legibility that can
become an element of todays critical, noncodified imagination.
Anskys notebooks should presumably have been written in first-person narration,
but they are not presented in that way. Rather, Reiters third-person voice laconically
puts the elements of this story together, interrupted only by the soldiers short
situational references about his stay in Kostekino. The content of these notebooks
occupies a considerable part of Reiters testimony about the war years. Attention is
paid to how the young Jew from Kostekino was involved in the tasks of the Bolshevik
Revolution, first becoming a Red Army soldier and travelling across Siberia, and
From Pharmakon to Femicide 201

two years later being drawn in by the effervescence of the artistic and intellectual
climate of the capital, Moscow. He became a cultural activist, cofounder of a theater,
participating in the foundation of several magazines in Moscow, Leningrad, and other
cities, working at the same time as a journalist and literary critic. What helped him to
set foot in Moscows intellectual and creative circles during the 1920s was his contact
with a mature writer by the name of Ivanov, a mediocre artist but agile inventor of
science fiction stories with a spin that engrossed the Russian reading public. Bolao,
or better the shadowy narrative agency that would be a quotation-marked Bolao,
touches upon, in an overall notarial, sometimes parodic and suddenly sarcastic style a
nerve of the Soviet situation during the 1920s and 1930s. Cultural politics, on its way
to both conceiving of and bringing about a proletarian culture, was open to a wide
array of projects and artistic interventions, but it was at the same time dedicated to
channeling their impulses into the practical-political field. Among writers, painters,
and audiovisual artists, especially during the early 1920s, a utopian enthusiasm loomed
large, fusing technological visions, industrial prospects, hopes for a communitarian
society of a new type, and even for the future inmortality of the human species into
the most daunting or abstruse expressions, driven by the spirit of superlatives that
the revolution had unleashed. Ivanov, the science fiction writer and party mentor of
the young Ansky (who would later fall victim to the Stalinist purge), is among those
who create unheard-of fairy tales, whereas the Russian avant-garde experiments
with all kinds of formal and metaphysical ruptures, seeking genuine condensations
of artistic energies in the pulsating stream between the primitive, the suprematist,
the minimalist, and the folkloric. Reporting on Anskys undertakings during those
frenetic years, Bolao is able to capture an inner dynamic, and the eventual tragedy
of the early Soviet intellectual and artistic atmosphere, and its actual tragic turn.
Utopian energies and liberating narratives became legitimating ones, as fantasies of
movement through space were translated into temporal movement, reinscribed onto
the historical trajectory of revolutionary time.61 Ansky, like other Russian intellectuals
of his generation, is not opposed to serving a revolutionary state ruled by the party
of the formerly dispossessed; he is instead wildly enthusiastic about all that which
seems to lead him into an authentic future. But the ecstasy of artists and intellectuals,
as both spiritual awakening and dream experience, has a logic that allows it to reach
beyond the normative containment that marks the pragmatic turn, and the ideological
domestication of revolutionary social and cultural change by systemic state politics.
Although the narration does not reach into the spheres of Stalins rise to the role of
the divine sovereignto paraphrase Schmittit follows Anskys being caught by a
destiny close to that of the young Russian Jews who made the revolution and who now
(this probably refers to 1939) are dropping like flies (7289).
One of the episodes conveys a critique of the hierarchic sexualization of revolutionary
politics. On the day he becomes a party member, Ansky is taken to the writers restaurant
in Moscow to celebrate. One of his sponsors is Margarita Afanasievna, a biologist at
a Moscow institution, who drank like a condemned woman (714) and who, in a

Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld . . . , 45.
202 Narcoepics

moment of orgy grabs, with her tiny hand, Anskys penis and testicles. Now that
you are a Communist, she said, . . . youll need these to be of steel (715). Does the
womans condemnation lie in serving masculinist cultural hegemony? Her allusion
to symbols of a phallo-mythic exaltation seen in some official Soviet monuments and
a corresponding style in the refashioning of public spaces as revolutionary cityscape
is unequivocal. What is interesting is Anskys reaction to the patronizing gesture and
to the older womans reproach that he, the Jewish brat, confuses desires with reality
(that he is a dreamer instead of a realist). Ansky calmly replies to Margarita that
reality can be pure desire (715). And he tells the bizarre story of a Siberian hunter
whose sexual organs had been torn off so that he was forced to pee through a little
straw, sitting or on his knees but who manages to impose his desire on reality,
first by getting married, and then resuming his wanderings in the forest and across
the frozen steppe, to become a forger of life by transforming his surroundings, the
village, the villagers, the forest, the snow, . . ., utterly oblivious of what we call fate
(716). But Ansky himself will not be able to escape the fate that strikes from the phallic
delirium of degenerated authority, although he is determined to hide from the eyes
of Stalins secret forces, and will finally travel back home to Kostekino. We remember
Reiters sense of the feminine air that hovered in the house of Anskys parentsthe
house that he found emptied by death. Hans Reiter imagines, when reading Anskys
notebooks in the winter of 19412, that his parents were taken, along with the entire
Jewish population of Kostekino, to a German concentration camp, toward us, toward
death (737), he says to himself. He saw Ansky in his dreams too. He saw him walking
across country, by night, a nameless person heading westward, and he saw him felled
in a hail of gunfire (ibid.).
Sexualization can mean the narcoticization of daily life under circumstances of
severed survival. For Ansky it was the year 1936, when his mentor, the science fiction
writer Ivanov, became a victim of Stalins first great purge. Ansky meets the student
Nadja Yurenieva, and they make love only a few hours after running into each other.
They make love, excessively and self-forgotten, suspended in a rhythm that performs
the communion of gift and desperation as if they had only a little time left to live.

Actually, Nadja Yurenieva fucked like many Muscovites that year of 1936 and Boris
Ansky fucked as if when all hope was lost he had suddenly found his one true love.
Neither of the two thought (or wanted to think) about death, but both moved,
twined their limbs, communed, as if they were on the edge of the abyss. (725)

As Reiter reads the testimony, he finds that the pages are repeatedly overwritten by
marginal notes regarding the question of sex (revealingly, not of love). Only sex,
nothing but sex? Ansky asks himself, or in a slightly different reading, sex always
seems to linger, in one way or another. But what was its secret, if there was one? Is there
a mystical core, a question evocative of Auerbachs, and hence Benjamins, musings on
a mystical conception of love? Ansky ponders the ubiquity of the matter of sex, joking
about Lenins sexuality, writing about the American continent of sex, discussing
homosexuality, mentioning Dblin, the drug addicts in Moscow, the sick, his parents
(728). Sex is the matter that Hans Reiter is about to discover for himself, and that he
From Pharmakon to Femicide 203

will practice in the decades to come, as a form of drugged madness, a secret space of
human encounter in loneliness, a triumph over the masculine forces of the violent ego,
an actual possibility of bliss in a sunken world. Reiter, when he becomes Archimboldi,
will know that one of the liberties that the ruling powers have not yet entirely subdued
and normativized has to do with the mysticism of the genitals, nurtured by either
physical communion with an enchanting body-spirit (a person, even a group), or
through the miraculous energies that can be brought to life between people making
love across a distance of space and time. This is the encapsulated meaning of Anskys
hunter story. This is, at the same time, that which Archimboldi the amphibian will
discover as the movens that can be turned into writing, as that communion of entirely
different states and practices that makes sense of the powers of the pharmakon.
The years during that Ansky lived obsessed with his work as a cultural activist and
literary critic were, according to the vision emanating from his testimony, marked by
a changing logic that accompanied the Bolshevik Revolution in its tensions between
transgression and establishment. Ansky belonged among those who, intellectually
and artistically, made the revolution and were devoured by it, although it was no longer
the same revolution, not the dream but the nightmare that hides behind the eyelids
of the dream (729). However, all this material, handwritten in German, has a quasi
utopian impact on the wounded soldier Hans Reiter, so much so that the Russian Jew
from Kostekino appears in the potential contours of Reiters alter ego, although there is
no alter ego, properly speaking, due to the antiphallic, feminine side of the emerging
affinity between both men. We might speak of a tragic yet energizing experience of
intellectual mentorship, that takes shape from the moment at which the German is
drawn in by the hidden manuscripts of Ansky, the Jew who wanted to be a communist
claiming the actuality of a future, hoping to touch a blissful world with his own hands.
We can perceive the affinities between both men in their natural propensity to loosen
the self and to experience everyday outlets of madness. There is this other, properly
intellectual part that lay dormant in Reiter from the beginning and which was at the
point of being killed when he became a soldier, following the orders of the Nazi regime.
But there are energies that are still awake in Hans outlandish simplicitya natural
loneliness without feeling lonely, an inborn, heightened sense of the eros (his feminine
perception), a capacity to recover, from death, that which is life in its most intense and
yet sober sensethe testimony of the other one, so intimately close and so violently
distant at the same time. For several days Reiter was haunted by the thought that it
was perhaps he who shot Ansky62 (737). A feeling that made him believe he was dead.
And every so often he opened one of the notebooks at random, and started reading
Anskys notebooks are full of names. Names, names, names (717) that Reiter has
never heard of in his life, writers, artists, paintersnot only Russians but Europeans,

Reiter will then discover, in a dream image, that it was not he who shot Ansky. His dream shows
him somewhere in Crimea, coming upon a Red Army soldier, facedown, fearing that the dead man
would have the face of Ansky. He discovers, with more relief than surprise, that the corpse had
his own face (738). At this moment his voice, that was blocked by the injury returns: Thank god, it
wasnt me! (737)
204 Narcoepics

such as Sade and Lapishin (728), Mayakovski, Malevitch, Evgenia Bosch, Ivan Rajia,
also Gustav Landauer and Alfred Dblin, and many others, including Gorki, the
controversial proponent of socialist realism. Names that will mark potential signposts.
If there is a way to recover a substantial part of the lives and the historical imagination
that were destroyed, or devalued, in the course of the twentieth century, together with
an unending stream of erring subjectivitieserring viewed as suspension between
modernitys olympic promises and its violent predicamentsthere is the possibility of
reading and rereading the secret materials written by the unruly spirits that practiced
intoxication in order to change the world. These materials are secret, not because they
cannot be accessed, although it might take rigor and faith to dig up that which lingers
in irrelevance, such as that which we have seen in the case of the Critics who make
Archimboldis works known across academia, and among wider circles of readers.Secret
has that other meaning that harks back on the amphibian condition. Who or what can
provide the clues, not for understanding once and for all a deeper poetic meaning, but
for an entirely different hermeneutics, one that makes the ecstatic practice of reading
a sobering experience itselfan experience of sinking to the bottom in order to access
the bottom of things (auf den Grund der Dinge gelangen)? This would be a kind of
secrecy that is set, according to Bolaos novel, to unravel and to resist the powers of
destruction and exhaustion, and of arrogance and contempt, evil powers that work with
the tools of intoxication, as well, and which can only be tricked with the weapons of
metisa sobering intelligence that is capable of walking through intoxication in the
conflicts of a degraded, humiliated world. By reading Boris Anskys notebooks, Hans
Reiter consciously discovers his own condition as an amphibian, awaking to humiliating
sobriety. He, the one who perceives invisible feminine airs in the environment (770),
is also the one through whose amphibiousness the voices and bodily energies of the
murdered women of Santa Teresa, Mexico, will resonate.
In Bolaos novel, there is one ferociously sentimentalist character, a high-ranking
Nazi officiary who is begging for compassion after the end of the war, and whom Hans
Reiter meets in an American prisoner-of-war camp close to the town of Ansbach (747).
After deserting when the few remainders of his division were fleeing the Soviet Union
and Poland just ahead of the advancing Red Army, and trying to hide wherever he
could, Reiter surrendered to American soldiers in May 1945. In the camp, a man excells
among the prisoners who possesses an enviable serenity (749) but who, after trying to
find out how Reiters interrogation by American officers went, shows dispair. The aim
of the interrogation is to seperate the low-level soldiers of the defeated Wehrmacht
from those who were suspected of being war criminals (750). The above-mentioned
Nazi whose name is Sammer, but who presents himself as Zeller, served not in the
military but on the economic and political battlefield (751). He was a government
functionary, given an administrative structure and stationed in a Polish town during
the war, where he was responsible for supplying workers to the Reich, forced labor,
destined primarily to work in the armament factories. Since this person shares a place
in a shelter with Reiter, Hans has to endure Sammers nightly confessions, as though
the Nazi longed for atonement in the presence of the young German, while trying to
elude interrogation by the American troops. This is also one of the moments in 2666 in
From Pharmakon to Femicide 205

which there is a connection between distant events that form part of one and the same
dramathe spirit of the detective has interfered in the plot, so that Reiter again runs
into the fate of the Ansky family through an abject testimony. It turns out that Sammer,
during the growing chaos resulting from the defeat of the German troops throughout
1944, is faced, in the Polish town that is under his administrative rule, with the delivery
of five hundred Jews, men, women, children by train (752)a misdirected train that
was supposed to go to Auschwitz (758). Most resources are thrown toward the front
that is receding westward, and Sammer is assigned to resolve this problem by his own
means. Authorities from Warsaw speak of disposing of the Jews. What ensues for over
ten pages is Sammers self-centered, self-righteous, although lamentful account of what
happened from there, presented in the first-person singular. Let us remember that Boris
Anskys notebook was presented in third-person narration. Sammers confession is a
mixture of the autobiographical report of a haunted person and black farce, propelled
forward by the mans intention that he was always concerned with a rational solution,
one that would be as ordered and measured as possible. In the end, however, he was
left with no choice other than to form a gang, including the police chief of the town
and a group of impoverished, drunken Polish adolescents, to carry out the slaughter.
A historical narrative and a sordid, sinister tale blend. Bolao unfolds this story with
an amazing grasp of abject abyss that lingers in Sammers personality, a reading that is
hardly bearable. The destiny of the Ansky family is not directly addressed but is present
at every moment of the account. Why does the novelist present this account with such
shocking explicitness and length, combined with the inanity of Sammers utterings?
Are we touching upon a narrative that, in addition to World War II, points toward
the present, toward the Santa Teresa femicides? Could this be a way of addressing
the fact that the violent disposal of undesirable elements of the population is not
only an issue of the past, but can point to large-scale, biopolitical nightmares at the
end of the twentieth century, as well? One morning in the prisoners camp, Sammer is
found dead, close to the latrines, strangled. Among the prisoners who are interrogated
is Hans Reiter, who says that he did not hear or see anything unusual during that past
night (767).63
There might be no way of tracing Reiters experiential, often outlandish and highly
associative, journey after the war, without presenting an additional excursus, which
must be left to another study. What remains to be addressed, however, is the trope of
transformation. In the postwar years Hans Reiter, who was 25 in 1945, suddenly ceases
to exist. Benno von Archimboldi is born. The scenery in which the new name takes
over is both contingent and cunning in the way it is set up, not by Reiter, but by the
shadowy narrator Bolao. One day, while trying to survive in Cologne, a city half
in ruins, working at night as a doorman at a bar that had a clientele of American and
English soldiers, and writing in a notebook during daytime, Reiter intends to buy a used
typewriter from an old man, who says he was once a writer but gave it up (784). Asked
for his name, Reiter spontaneously responds Benno von Archimboldi. The old man

A few years later Reiter admits to a girlfriend that it was him who killed Sammer (7756), and was
afterwards interrogated in the camp but got away since nothing could be proven.
206 Narcoepics

realizes that this is a lie, and he takes a closer look at the young poet. Archimboldis
eyes were blue, tired, strained, reddened. These eyes looked nevertheless young and
in a certain sense pure, although the old man had long stopped believing in purity.
This country, he said to Reiter, who that afternoon, perhaps, became Archimboldi,
has tried to topple any number of countries into the abyss in the name of purity
and will.. . . Thanks to purity and will weve all, every one of us, hear me you,
become cowards and thugs, which in the end are one and the same. Now we sob
and moan and say we didnt know! We had no idea! It was the Nazis! We never
would have done such a thing! We know how to whimper.. . . Therell be plenty of
time for us to embark on a long holiday of forgetting. Do you understand me? I
understand, said Archimboldi (784).
The older man addresses the irrelevance of a principle that maintains the intrinsic
goodness of human beings; one can certainly believe in this goodness, but it means
nothing, an allusion to the feebleness of Kantian ethics (785). Sentimentally speaking,
he says, even killers can be good, and there is a German situation that shows how
perpetrators, misguided citizens, and even victims unite in tears while listening to a
Beethoven symphony. Our culture tends inexorably toward sentimentality. But when
the performance is over and I am alone, the killer will open the window of my room
and come tiptoeing in like a nurse and slit my throat, bleed me dry (785). At this
juncture, it seems that Hans Reiters giving up his German name and adopting, with
a slight modification, that of the Italian Renaissance painter Arcimboldo shows both
cultural nihilism and an intellectual intuition. Fear is at stake as wellthe American and
German police could decide to renew the investigation into Sammers death (see 801).
But a deeper driving force is present in Reiter, and it is linked to the desire to assume
his amphibian not-self more conscientiously, together with the sobering experience
that marks his emergence from the war. His decision is rigorously anti-sentimental,
driven, at the same time, by an attitude that was born when he met the ghost of
Boris Ansky, who came to occupy the space of an alter ego, with insistence on the
quotation marks. As we now know, Reiter was the one who strangled Sammer in the
prisoner-of-war camp, and it has also been revealed that Reiter, during the war, was
almost killed many times but did not kill anyone himself (777). There is an implicit
rejection of purity in the gesture of taking on the Italian name, one that comes from
Anskys notebooks, a Jewish connection, so to speak. The often invoked, but always
displaced model of detective fiction would warrant a name change in the interest
of escaping the consequences of Reiters killing Sammer, the mass murderer of the
Jews, but this might not have beenas the matter is left inconclusiveReiters actual
motive. However, Reiter has learned to hate the Nazis, and he has learnedfrom an
old woman, a fortune tellerto not assume the role of the scapegoat, to not make the
classic English whodunit mistake (ibid.).
Writing his first novel, Ldicke, took Archimboldi 20 days but finding a publisher
in postwar Germany was almost impossible. The only house from which he received
an encouraging answer regarding the manuscript that he had mailed off to several
places, was directed by a man who had escaped the concentration camp by going
From Pharmakon to Femicide 207

into exile. Mr Jacob Bubis, the great editor (800), had published books of the German
Left until 1933, when the Nazi government closed down his business (792). He was able
to reopen it in 1946 and to become a symbol of independent, democratic, high-quality
publishing (801). Bubis says that, after returning from exile, he acquired the habit of
personally meeting the authors he was going to publish, and it thus happens that Benno
von Archimboldi was invited to Hamburg. While Bolao continues to accompany
Archimboldi in third-person narration, a one-page section is suddenly intercalated in
which Mr Bubis talks about himself in first person. While in London during the war,
compelled to watch the Luftwaffes bombing raids, Bubis tells a nonexistent listeneran
associative anticipation of his talk with Archimboldithat before 1933 he had published
many promising young German writers. Later, in the solitude of exile, I set out to pass
the time by calculating how many of the first-time writers I published had become
members of the Nazi party, how many had joined the SS, how many had written for
rabidly anti-Semitic newspapers, how many had made a career in the Nazi bureaucracy.
The result almost drove me to suicide (802).
When the young Archimboldi meets Mr Bubis, the publisher is 74, and has a
profound sadness in his eyes since the times of Dblin, Musil, and Kafka, not to
mention Thomas Mann were gone, but several new writers, beginning to emerge
from the bottomless quarry of German literature (808), were not so bad. Whats
your real name? is the first question that Mr Bubis asks Archimboldi. Thats my
name, is Benno von Archimboldis answer (808). Not much of a lettered irony can be
found in the entire novel, although there are now and again flashes of dark satire, but
the ensuing dialogue is marked by the benevolent mixture of irony and wisdom, on
Bubiss side, and of irritated stubbornness, on Archimboldis part. Do you think the
exile has made me stupid? Bubis replies. He adds that, to begin with, to be called
Benno is suspicious. Archimboldi does not get the point. Bubis: Why, because of
Benito Mussolini, man! Wheres your head? (809) Archimboldi boldly replies that
they called him Benno after Benito Jurez, the Mexican liberal president and national
hero of the nineteenth century. Bubis ironically contained amazment is growing, and
he wonders where the young man, this tall, skinny, blue-eyed German, has gotten all
this from, but replies, I thought you were going to tell me it was in honor of Saint
Benedict (ibid.). Archimboldi, baffled and uncomfortable, just clings to his name,
waiting for an opportunity to make his way out of the room. (Thats what Im called.
Bubis: No one is called that.) Bubis, of course, is aware of the grotesque realism of
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the sixteenth century Italian painter. Now, what is still left for
him to clarify is the word von. Is its function to prove that there is some element
of Germanness left in the young mans name? This is the moment when Archimboldi
is about to flee, assuming that his chances as a credible newcomer have vanished in
the air; and it becomes plain that he is implacable, not wanting to reveal the Jewish
connection of his name to the famous Jewish publisher. He does not seek favors. Mr
Jacob Bubis, an outstanding intellectual, is curious and experienced enough to not
let him go, but introducing the writer-to-be to his young wife, who is supposed to
have a fine intuition. And, indeed, this scene turns out to be the beginning of a long
professional relationship in the course of which Archimboldi, who will not see Bubis
208 Narcoepics

again, feels himself supported by the famous publisher, even in the most precarious
moments of his errant future life.

The Part about the CrimesAnother Almanac of the Dead

. . . literary criticism, as keen as ever, neither extrapolated nor made the connection
nor noticing a thing.
Roberto Bolao
To claim that, say, Auschwitz is beyond tragedy is to say that unless we react to
its horror with our familiar responses of pity, outrage, compassion, and the like,
we risk being collusive with its inhumanityyet that at a different level these
common-or-garden responses are shown up by the event as really quite irrelevant,
so that only a humanity which had passed beyond humanity, and in doing so had
become more rather than less human, would be on answerable terms with it.
Terry Eagleton
On June, 18, 1999, the newspaper La Reforma of the Mexican capital registered
an atrocious testimony. An informant declared that behind the major criminal
scenario in contemporary Mexican historythe serial femicides in Ciudad Jurez,
Chihuahuathere was the figure of the police assassin.
Sergio Gonzlez Rodrguez
When discussing The Part About Archimboldi before the section that is dedicated
to Santa Teresa, we did not trace Bolaos compositional scheme. In 2666, The Part
About the Crimes (hereafter The Crimes) precedes the life story of the German
writer. By placing the historical Archimboldi at the end, Bolao may have insinuated a
distancing gesture, a move not away, perhaps, from present-time hemispheric scenarios
into remoter zones of history, but from the immediacy of violence in todays global
wastelands to constitutive moments of a violent twentieth century made accesible
through the experiences of an untoward, nomadic intellectual. This is an intellectual
whose habits as not-self are, from a certain angle, tremendously timely, bearing an
unusual ethical fascination. Bolao may have wanted to let this timelinessa proactive
and, for some vital reason, partly concealed stance, performed from hopelessness
resonate back into the present from a twentieth-century odyssey. The final Archimboldi
story can be read in different ways. First, it can be taken independently from the other
four parts of the novel. Secondly, it marks the counterpoint in relationship to The Part
About the Critics. That is, it contrasts the sublime myth of the German writer, invented
by the Critics, with the real trajectory of the erratic Hans Reiter. At the same time, it
serves as a fissured screen, through which the exhaustion of (literary) critical discourse
meets the epistemic vitality of the negative subjectthe contemporary not-self
turned into an amphibian. There is a third possible approach: both parts, the one
about the Crimes and the one about Archimboldi, can be mirrored upon the other,
and the hinge between them leads us to conclude with that constellation of violence, in
whose center we find the scapegoatthe pharmakos. The title of the present chapter,
From Pharmakon to Femicide 209

From Pharmakon to Femicide, is built on the hypothesis of a literary yet conceptual

imagination that leads from pharmakon to pharmakos. This is a figuration that moves
our attention to layers of violence that seem both half-buried like the destroyed
female bodies, and boundless, like an epidemic force. To show how the scapegoat is
first constructed and then annihilated, how that terrible burden is imposed upon
certain individuals, and groups and, above all, upon a large, gendered collective, is what
marks the novels secret center. This is what The Crimes can help us uncover, and the
subsequent Part About Archimboldi can now, as well, be understood backwardly. In
short, the novel has no end, but rather a final part that forms a constellation with the
previous onesa now of cognizability64.
Acts of violence, their unspeakable outbursts, defaced bodies and lacerated lives,
todays geographies of fear, as devastating as they may be, are not self-evident, even in
their most compelling expressions. The violent real has an unreality effect. Beneath
this paradox lurks the most difficult aspect of violenceits disguised core. The visible
part, increasingly taken care of by corporativized media is not necessarily what helps
to gain experience and insight. How can we manage to step back without losing sight of
what is most striking? How is it possible, at the same time, to disengage from the lure
of the kind of representations that suggest that the Ciudad Jurez murders cannot find
adequate treatment in language? How can we access the forces of the underground
that uncanny web of relationships and mechanismsfrom which the crimes have
been occurring by the many hundreds during the past two decades? What is the
contribution of 2666 to disentangling those obscure networks? The Crimes extends,
in the English version, across almost 300 pages, by virtue of third-person recounting
of what sound like bits of police reports, forensic filings, and press coverages regarding
the circumstances under which the remains of murdered and disfigured young women
have been found, since January 1993, in various sites in Santa Teresa. The narration
is tuned down in order to elude the signs of a narrators subjectivity, and there is
an impression that the events tell themselves. A seemingly endless chain of killings,
consisting of variations within a similar pattern, continuing from one month to the
next with almost none resolved by the identification of the actual murderers, is told as
a succession of accounts like the following:
. . . in May, a dead woman was found in a dump between Colonia Las Flores and
the General Seplveda industrial park. In the complex stood the buildings of four
maquiladoras where household appliances were assembled. [. . .] In the dump where
the dead woman was found, the trash of the slum dwellers piled up along with the
waste of the maquiladoras. The call informing the authorities of the discovery of
the dead woman came from the manager of one of the plants, Multizone-West, a
subsidiary of a multinational that manufactured TVs. [. . .] The dead woman spent
that night in a refrigerated compartment in the Santa Teresa hospital and the next
day one of the medical examiners assistants performed the autopsy. She had been
strangled. She had been raped. Vaginally and anally, noted the medical examiners
assistant. And she was five months pregnant (3589).

See Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 463.
210 Narcoepics

Set among such pro-documentary statements, we meet almost 40 actors on the

scene of Santa Teresas life, peculiar personnel whom we will address later, scattered
across the narrative like wandering signifiers. None of these characters actually
becomes the bearer of empathy, or of an encompassing vision, or will lead us to a
reflective distance. The relationship between the reports about the corpses is iterative,
in that there seems to be no visible (hypotactical) progression toward uncovering
perpetrators or motives, nor is an enhanced reflexivity at hand, which touches
upon the heart of the matter. The sensation of a spiral-like, murderous machination
arises, viscerally ingrained in the destiny of the city and its surroundings. This is not
to say that reflexivity is absent, but it is alusive, indirect, and linked to a mode of
disenchanted narration. This gesture concerns the subject matter itself, the crimes and
their inconceivable presence. It must be observed that in contrast with other critics
thoughts about Bolaos alleged fatalism, the character of his disenchanted, laconic
telling of bits and pieces of a picture that apparently lacks sense, accompanied by the
confusion of genresliterary fiction/police reports/press coverageis not a giving
up of the search for truth. It is a sober way of approximating actions and meanings
that have moved beyond modern societys explanatory system. The Crimes gives
testimony that reality outplays literatures capacity to (re)create experience in
a unique form. Reality appears, confoundingly, under the sign of the unbearably
normal. When Bolao wrote the novel, the killings in Ciudad Jurez had been
happening for an entire decade, impressing a recognizable pattern about the marks of
bestiality and the disposal of the victims bodies onto media-created public knowledge,
without encountering either public forces or institutions that would be able, or
willing, to stop the nightmare, let alone take the perpetrators to court for legal and
public consequences. Under the signs of that terrible normalcy, inconceivable from
the perspective of optimistic political modernity and its investment in the principal
right of citizenship, the unreality effect of violence flourished. For Bolao, taking
the full measure of this situation meant avoiding any attempt to fix the drama in
narrative terms. Somewhat similar to Benjamins highlighting of a concept of history
based on the tradition of the oppressed, Bolao seeks to bring about a sensorium
of emergency, questioning the self-fulfilling drive of the current amazement that the
things we are experiencing are still possible in the twentieth century.65 Therefore,
the fictive world of Santa Teresa emerges from paratactical insistence and iteration,
leading readers to come across, again and again, in one- to three-page sections,
another murdered woman, strangled in most cases, raped vaginally and anally, her
body covered by dozens of stab wounds, with shattered bones, at times with one breast
cut off and the nipple of the other torn off.
If we speak of Roberto Bolaos (syn)aesthetic minimalism, that is especially
powerful in The Part of the Crimes we might associate the more recent video- and
installation works of the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles. Thematizing a chilling
presence of the Jurez femicides in the daily living spaces of the border, Margolles art is
minimalist in its formal surfaces. It finds its space beyond conciliatory symbolization

Walter Benjamin. On the Concept of History, 392.
From Pharmakon to Femicide 211

(as well as a tired habitus of political art) as it addresses violent death by combining
forensic evidence with materials, and images of desert space, and other urban
exterritorialities. What, in Bolao, appears as paratactical narrativization in order to
counter the atrocious, ongoing disposal / disposability (Wright) of female bodies
is translated into figurations of space and objects by Margolles. Regarding Margolles
installations, Cuauhtmoc Medina holds that at issue is not a documentary principle
but the application of aesthetic heterodoxy and ethical exploration, taken to their
limits.66 A similar remark would hold for Bolaos approach to the feminicidios.
In the novel, there is a chronology that is not a chronology. We read at the
beginning of The Crimes that the killings of women began to be counted in January
1993. But its likely there had been other deaths before. The name of the first victim
was Esperanza Gmez Saldaa and she was 13. Maybe for the sake of convenience,
maybe she was the first to be killed in 1993, she heads the list (353). Once we discover
that Bolao draws on Sergio Gonzlez Rodrguez Huesos en el desierto (2002), a
book based on articles and reports that the Mexican journalist had published in the
newspaper Reforma, the date of the beginning becomes pertinent. It relates to the
serial killings in Ciudad Jurez, as they came to be categorized, from the moment that
the Federal District Prosecutors Office (Procuradura General de Justicia del Distrito
Federal) started to meet with its local counterpart, the Prosecutors Office of the State
of Chihuahua, generating an official chronology of the crimes.67 This happened under
the pressure of a local organization called Grupos de Mujeres Contra la Violencia,
and against the unwillingness of the local judicial, police, and other state authorities to
deepen and professionalize the investigation.68 According to Gonzlez Rodrguez, in
mid-1997, when there had been 87 registered femicides since 1993 showing the signs
of a systematic mysogenist vendetta,69 the resistance of responsable state institutions,
including corporate journalism, as well as President Ernesto Zedillo himself, to face the
issue continued.70 It is not a coincidence that the novelistic part The Crimes begins
in January 1993 and comes to an end, without concluding, in December 1997: the
last case of 1997 was fairly similar to the second to last, except that the bag containing
the body wasnt found on the western edge of the city but on the eastern edge . . . Both
this case and the previous case were closed after three days of generally halfhearted
investigations (2666, 6323). The years 19937 have cast a hitherto unknown shadow
of savagery over the lifes of women in Ciudad Jurez and across the border region.
If reality outplays fiction, Bolao makes perceive the invisible alliance between
fear, common desires for relief, and actual blindness. What can literary fiction, guided
by a bet on sobriety and a rejection of psychological scenarios, achieve in that light?
According to a common assumption that seems to hold for both historical discourse
and literary representation, it is not enough for historical matter that it deserves a

Cuauhtmoc Medina (ed.), Teresa Margolles. What Else Could We Talk About?, 2009.
See Sergio Gonzlz Rodrguez. Huesos en el desierto, 556, 623
Ibid., 61, 63.
See Marcos Fernndez and Jean-Christophe Rampal. La ciudad de las muertas, 15 ff.
See Sergio Gonzlez Rodrguez, 63.
See Hayden Whites seminal study, The Content of the Form, 5.
212 Narcoepics

certain sensible handling of evidence. Authentic events must also be narrated as if

they possessed a structure, an order of meaning.71 The very distinction between real
and imaginary events that is basic to modern discussions of both history and fiction
presupposes a notion of reality in which the true is identified with the real only insofar
as it can be shown to possess the character of narrativity.72 Narrativity, according to
the logic laid out by Hayden White, becomes a trope for deeper understanding on
the basis of its structural symbolisma sort of unique, hermeneutic instance. Bolaos
construction of The Crimes, in turn, is averse to this equation, challenging the notion
of realitys narrative plausibility and thus, closure. What is so disconcerting about
this part is its narrative strategy that organizes the res gestae as if they were telling
themselves. Stylistically speaking, and alluding to Auerbachs relevant studies, this
places Bolaos narrative near the genre of medieval annals, which does not display a
properly narrative structure, that is, annals do not tell a story. Unlike chronicles, they
follow the chronological order of the original ocurrence of real events consisting, in
fact, only of a list of events ordered in chronological sequence.73 There are just loose
ends, paratactically linked, without any major clue or plot which, to a modern reader,
seems either frustrating or nave. In Bolao, the paratactical mode works like this: The
first dead woman of May was never identified . . ., etc. (359); The last dead woman
to be discovered in June 1993 was Margarita Lpez Santos.. . . (374); In September
another dead woman was found . . . (389); In the same month, two weeks after the
discovery of the dead woman in the Buenavista subdivision, another body turned up . . .
(390); The next dead woman appeared in October, at the dump in the Arsenio Farrell
industrial park . . . (391); In October, too, the body of another woman was found in
the desert . . . (391); In the middle of November, Andrea Pacheco Martnez, thirteen,
was kidnapped . . . (392); On December 20, the last violent death of a woman was
recorded for the year 1993 (392); The first dead woman of 1994 was found by some
truck drivers on a road off the Nogales highway, in the middle of the desert (399);
The next dead woman was Leticia Contreras Zamudio (400); The next victim was
Penlope Mndez Becerra (402); The next dead woman was Lucy Anne Sander.. . .
(406); The next dead woman was found near the Hermosillo Highway . . . (411); Two
weeks later, in May 1994, Mnica Durn Reyes was kidnapped on her way out of the
Diego Rivera School . . . (412). Bolao has chosen to not use the authentic names of the
victims, trying to eschew the possibility of voyerism. The narration makes notarial
evidence its coordinates, however, to decipher the web of underlying mechanisms is a
call that weighs heavily on the novels readers.
These statements, just the beginnings of which we have cited, combine forensic
details with information about where the dumped corpses were found, as well as
some routine measures taken by the police; they are interposed with other sections
in which storytelling is not absent but helps to weave a map of indicators, none of
which, however, permits a conclusive vision. Regarding the central matter of female
human beings who are kidnapped, violated, and disposed of, paratactical drama74 is

Ibid., 6.
Ibid., 5.
On the concept see Herlinghaus. Parataxes Unbound. In Violence Without Guilt, 57 ff.
From Pharmakon to Femicide 213

the main principle that organizes the inner structure of The Crimes. Bolaos refusal
to connect the authentic material hypotactically owes to the politicization of the
question of truth, which could hardly be more frightening than in the case of Ciudad
Jurez. It is the plausible scripts, plotting the guilt of certain persons and seeking to
divert public opinion, that are put in doubt. The search for truth and the types of
investigation and punishment that have been carried out by the Chihuahuan state
apparatus and some of its mighty allies, have turned out to include well-staged theatre
coups, such as the accusation of Abdul Latif Sharif Sharif75, an Egyptian chemist and
US citizen in order to create narratable versions with intelligible tragic contours. As
has been explored in a growing number of first-rate studies, the juridical apparatus
in Chihuahua, fueled by the maneuvers of extremely influential, well-connected
regional and (trans)national actors, including US-based Mexican entrepreneurs, has
continued playing its role as manufacturer of stories, so that an undeclared state of
emergency could be covered up.76 While struck by the paratactical naivit of Bolaos
text, we have to look for the reflexive moment that is built into the tension between
parataxis as a style, evocative of certain medieval texts, and parataxis as a concept
consciously directed against hypotactical closure. In other words, there is no point
in attributing constraints that characterized medieval annal, for example, the lack of
insight into the causes or connections between recorded events, to the novel 2666.
Nevertheless, a strange affinity existsin both cases the paratactical mode applies to
the concatenation of events that are extreme, events that threaten human groups with
violent death, war, devastation, and the like.
This affinity is telling, and it can also be misleading if no attention is paid to how
ambiguity is articulated aesthetically. War, the annihilation of communities, hunger,
floods, and other catastrophes were mythically charged in many cases of historical
imagination, perceived as signs of destiny, provoked by the wrath of the gods. After
an unmeasurable catastrophe had struck, how could the affected groups and persons
confront the situation in a rational and proactive way? Fear, psychic exhaustion, and
long-lasting epidemic affects were likely to have saturated (intoxicated) the social
climate to the point that it would have been imperative to break the negative fascination
of evil. Thus, the loss of life or its destruction can produce, among the surviving, a
demand for narrative closure, and it is here that mythical imagination can play its part.77
Brute violence, when it silences resistance, has a tendency to enter a delirium of being
god-like, spreading the poison of its own myth. It is here that Bolaos writing risks
forcing the ambiguity. Paratactical narration, on the one hand, could signal the spread
of a mythical force of violence, from which there is no escape, nor can this violence
be explained; it just demands open-ended endurance. At the same time, by instigating

See Sergio Gonzlez Rodrguez, Huesos en el desierto, 1326; Diana Washington Valdez, Cosecha de
mujeres: safari en el desierto mexicano, 145156.
See Marcos Fernndez and Jean-Christophe Rampal. La cudad, 87116; Diana Washington. Cosecha
de mujeres, 11741, 14375.
This has continuously created difficulties for local, and international activist groups that reject the
politics of appeasement and keep scrutinizing the drama beyond the official versions imposed to
close the tragedy. See Julia Estela Monrrez Fragoso. Vctimas de crmenes sexuales ms all de
las estadsticas, 5055.
214 Narcoepics

mindfulness through the almost mimetic reiteration of events that are condensed
in the reports, paratactical narration can also turn the unbreakable cycle of violence
onto itself. From here, and remembering that the dialectics of intoxication has been a
major trope throughout our study, the paratactical drama that Bolao uses to structure
The Part of the Crimes comes close to that image of humiliating sobriety, by which
ecstasy is reflectivly contrasted. Given this ambivalence we can think of The Crimes
as an almanachcombining the ancient meaning of the word with global reflexivity
and taking up and into the twenty-first century the critical spirit of Leslie Marmon
Silkos Almanac of the Dead (1991). Bolao, having experienced General Pinochets
geopolitical dictatorship in Chile, and its sequels, as well as its aftermath, is skeptical
that there could be an enlightened humanity that wins the game or passes from chaos
to order. This might explain his interest in, and occasional obsession for configurations
that help articulate violence poetically, which is a matter of countering the powers
of the oppressive real. In his literary vision of Ciudad Jurez drama, paratactical
narration becomes such a device. Parataxis, unceasingly and almost rhythmically
opposes evidence of the murders to narrative, and aesthetic techniques of closure
and redemption. It becomes most uncomfortable. This poetic violence is a way to
reject both enlightenment and relief. Here we speak of enlightenment as rationalized
culture that proclaims its superiority to barbarism in life and in politics. At issue is,
instead, the novelists sensitivity helping to unravel that which keeps eluding both the
law and proven logics of explanation.
The Crimes, rather than entering into the familiar catalogue of testimonial
narratives, displays testimonial insistence of its own kind. Santa Teresa becomes
the novelistic space into which Ciudad Jurez has metamorphosed, presenting a
quasi-documentary account of every murdered woman from 1993 to 1997. At first
glance, Bolaos attention to the forensic details might seem morbid. However, his
mimetic gesture of forcing into memory, as the narration moves from month to
month, the reports of the disfigured corpses, together with the ages, social backgrounds
and (modified) names of the women is a methodical procedure that presents an
aesthetic, anti-cathartic source of energy set against the background of the general
failure of the state and the mass media to take due responsibility during those years.
Such detailed, chronological listings, in relation to which the novelist has only changed
the names of the victims are not provided in Gonzlez Rodrguez book, which, driven
by a more enlightened purpose, focuses on accounts and information drawn from
various perspectives and condensed into eighteen narrative units containig analytical
approaches, as well. Huesos en el desierto belongs among a new, postoptimistic
spectrum of novel-length works of a narrativizing, analytic journalism whose famous
precursor was Carlos Monsivis. It seems that in the documentation to which Roberto
Bolao had direct or indirect access, there were the materials assembled in 1998 by
the Vice-Prosecutors Office of the Estado Zona Norte.78 The work of activists such as

Informe de homicidios en perjuicio de mujeres en Ciudad Jurez, Chihuahua, 19931998,
Subprocuradora de Justicia del Estado Zona Norte; febrero de 1998 (reference in Julia Estela
Monrrez Fragoso. Vctimas . . . , 56, note 12).
See ibid., 53, 56. See also Vctor Ronquillo. Las Muertas, 48f.
From Pharmakon to Femicide 215

Esther Chvez Cano, a feminist analyst and social worker of the Grupo 8 de Marzo
who dedicated herself, together with scholars from the Universidad Autnoma de
Ciudad Jurez, to systematically documenting the femicides,79 has been of crucial
importance. Marcela Valdes tells us that Bolao had already traveled to northern
Mexico during the 1970s, but he never visited Ciudad Jurez, and his knowledge was
limited to what he could find in newspapers and on the Internet.80 There is no doubt,
however, that given the novelists connections among Mexican artists and journalists,
his research on Ciudad Jurez was meticulous.
While in most of the cases of femicides registered from 1993 to 1997 police
investigation was said to lack sufficient evidence, or was not carried out correctly,
readers perceive that there is an underground sphere. The novels narrative embraces
three areas in which violence against young women is a daily reality, with a tendency
to suggest massive proportions. What are the constant threats that hover over womens
bodies and lives? The perhaps most pervasive realm can be labeled family affairs; it
is associated with the custom that makes the punishment of misbehaving wives and
girlfriends a matter of masculinity that is widely tolerated. Sincein the cases presented
in the novelpunishment is directly exercised on the female body, the husband or
boyfriend seizes his customary privilege to become a biopolitical aggressor, a private
sovereign. If this leads to the killing of the woman, the man faces legal prosecution, but
the slope is slippery, and it often suffices, in Santa Teresa, that the perpetrator leaves
town or crosses the border, for a case to be closed. Then there is a second terrain, one in
which mysogenist excesses acquire forms of outright monstrosity. Savage violence has
become established in the unwritten codes that sustain the functioning of drug-trade
networks, as well as other blood-thirsty fields of informal, cross-border business, such
as organ traffic and the manufacturing of snuff-movies.81 Thirdly, a symptomatic
trait, regularly mentioned in the accounts of the defaced corpses, usually in the cases in
which the victims identity could be determined, points to the role that maquiladoras
play in the game of femicides throughout the Jurez region. The Crimes insinuates
that tying together these loose ends will not necessarily help readers conclude their
search for truth. However, there is no way for the search to avoid traversing these
territories, either. Let me begin discussing the above-mentioned, symptomatic realms
by paying attention to the maquiladora phenomenon along the border.
When Bolao wrote The Crimes, it is evident that the reality that drew him in as
a novelist was related to machinations of violence that had vampirized life in Ciudad
Jurez, spreading like bizarre spiderwebs. The design of the Santa Teresan novelistic
section is set to undermine the model of the master plan, applied, for example, in
the course of the official verdict imposed on the alleged serial killer Abdel Latif
Sharif Sharif, which served as an instrument by which Chihuahuas judicial apparatus
attempted to reestablish order.82 As we already laid out, the figure of Archimboldis
nephew, Klaus Reiter, appears as the literary version of the authentic Sharif Sharif.

Marcela Valdes. Roberto Bolao, 13.
See Roberto Bolao. 2666, 5405.
See Sergio Gonzlez Rodrguez. Huesos . . . , 182 f., 160 f.
See in Marcela Valdes.
216 Narcoepics

Roberto Bolao used to remark, toward the end of his life, that Ciudad Jurez appeared
to him as the perfect secularization of evil.83 He meant, as The Crimes suggests, that
the powers of destruction remain in hiding, while guilt has become ubiquitous and
omnipresent. The maquiladora issue becomes revelatory in that regard, for it uses the
mask of economic objectivity and social demand for work. People in Jurez had to learn,
after 1993, that many of the victims were women who had been working in one of the
global assembly plants. Paragraphs like the following show how the incommensurable
is taken to extremes through the nondramatic representation of fact. Attention to
the maquiladoras is crucial in 2666, equivalent to an alert to the ghostly side of the
economy and to certain unwritten rules rampant on the global playground.

The last dead woman to be discovered in June 1993 was Margarita Lpez Santos.
[. . .] Margarita Lopez worked at K&T, a maquiladora in the El Progreso industrial
park near the Nogales highway . . . The day of her disappearance she was working
the third shift at the maquiladora, from nine at night to five in the morning.
According to her fellow workers, she had come in on time, as always, because
Margarita was more dependable and responsible than most, which meant that her
disappearance could be fixed around the time of the shift change and her walk
home. But no one saw anything then, in part because it was dark at five or five-
thirty in the morning, and there wasnt enough public lighting. Most of the houses
in the northern part of Colonia Guadalupe Victoria had no electricity. The roads
out of the industrial park, except the one leading to the Nogales highway, also
lacked adequate lighting, paving and drainage systems: almost all the waste from
the park ended up in Colonia Las Rositas, where it formed a lake of mud that
bleached white with the sun. So Margarita Lpez left work at five-thirty. That much
was established. And then she set out along the dark streets of the industrial park.. . .
somewhere along the way something happened or something went permanently
wrong . . . Forty days later some children found her body near a shack in Colonia
Maytorena (3745).

Images emerge, captured like by a wandering camera, in which the desolate earth,
the dumping of industrial waste next to the survival zones of poor communities (the
colonias) and the appearance of remnants of the mutilated women are fused into one
and the same still life. With the paratactical intensity that we have described above,
Santa Teresas environment is painted as wastelands that could, as well, resemble the
aftermath of a planetary catastrophe. Is there a link between the killings, the dumpings
of the corpses in grisly refuse areas, and the maquiladoras? Regarding the murders,
in particular, their invisible relationship with the global factories seems to possess
a programmatic spin, since the environs of the factories appear as general dumping
grounds for the defaced bodiesit does not matter in which of the many plants the
victim had been working. The next dead woman appeared in October, at the dump in
the Arsenio Farrell industrial park. Her name was Marta Navales Gmez. [. . .] The odd
thing about the case was that Marta Navales Gmez worked at the Aiwo, a Japanese
maquiladora located in the El Progreso industrial park, but her body was found in the
Arsenio Farrell industrial park.. . . (391)
From Pharmakon to Femicide 217

Before discussing possible connections between female, low-wage employment,

kidnapping, and murder, and the proliferation of global waste, let me first draw
on the contextual situation. Maquiladoras are manufacturing facilities dependent
on the movement of global capitalexport-processing assembling plants that testify
to the drastic forms of exploitation on which the international division of labor has
depended, especially after the implementation of NAFTA. The story of Ciudad Jurez
begins long before NAFTA. The city, located across the Ro Grande/Bravo from El Paso
(Texas), was the official birthplace, in 1965, of Mexican maquilas (the short term for
maquiladoras).84 Since then, Jurez has become an international leader in low-cost,
high-quality, labor-intensive manufacturing processes. Its adjacency to the United
States and the constant inflow of migrants from the Mexican interior contributed to
this citys popularity among corporate executives seeking to cut factory costs while
maintaining quality standards and easy access to the US market.85 This describes one
of those regional, third-world cities that was coopted into the rise of neoliberalism,
turning into a paradigmatic locus of the Global South. However, functional terminology
tends to hide that the global economy, by singling out the South as the most timely
orbit for deregulation, systematically counts on the sacrifice of human life. This is not
to say that the economy is directly responsible for the massive femicides, but it has a
stake in making young women disposable resources in the cheap labor market, and
probably instigates other forms of aggression that, in one way or another, ensue from
the production of the disposable body.
Melissa W. Wright discusses the forces that, under the guise of market freedom, exert
violent pressure on human lives by both discursive and structural means. It has become
commonplace throughout the world that global corporations must rely on third-world
factories in order to remain competitive. Much know how has been invested in making
specific discursive assumptions into general knowledge so that they can circulate
in a self-evident way, being repeated by government officials, media commentators,
company spokes-persons, and competing professionals alike. One of these discursive
constructions is the myth of the disposable third world woman (Wright, 2006, 1), a
sort of post-contemporary lore regarding young, unskilled yet dexterous women from
the South, who can be made to generate widespread prosperity through their own
destruction. Wright suggests the allusive figure of the Dialectics of Still Life, pointing
to the double logic of physical disposability (the womens status as a living form of
industrial waste; ibid., 2) and the high value that is extracted from her temporary,
low-skilled, and extremely energy-consuming work. The lives of the maquila workers
appear stilled by the discord of value pitted against waste (72). This metaphor of the
still life is thought of in the terms of a feminist-Marxian political economy, and it is
discussed in relationship to the mechanism of turnover: the fast coming and going
of female workers into and out of jobs, due to the quick dissipation of their value. The
bodies of female workers in the Jurez maquiladora industry are monitored according
to bio-economic criteria, including the surveillance of their menstrual cycles (and

See Lester Langley. MexAmerica, 35 f.
Melissa W. Wright. Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism, 72.
218 Narcoepics

pregnancy tests, 85), bodily postures, dexterity, ability to concentrate, docility, with
the result that, in the case of Mexican women, the turnover logic assumes a natural
connection between a fleeting work ethic and the eventual stiffening of her nimble
fingers, together with the loss of focus of her sharp eyes (78). Since most female
workers are not susceptible to receiving training and skills, their corporate deaths
(their leaving one maquiladora after one or two years, and ente