Friday, 24 July 2009

our lady of the assassins [fernando vallejo]

The narrator is a gay grammarian, living in Medellin. He hooks up with a young contract killer, called Alexis, whose contracts have dried up following the killing of the head honcho, Pablo Escobar himself. Killing is such an integral part of Alexis' life that he happily executes anyone who gets on his, or his lover's, nerves. Taxi drivers who talk back, whistling strangers, cops in the wrong place at the wrong time. And there's so much killing going on in Medellin that no-one seems to notice. The only thing that can put an end to Alexis and the narrator's killing spree is the arrival of Alexis' bullet, which is never likely to be too far away.

Vallejo's insouciant narrator is morally compromised, aware of the fact and not in the least bothered by it. His jaunty tone suggests that in a country where corruption is the norm, a few murders here and there count for nothing. Life is cheap in Medellin, and given that, Alexis' amorality is perfectly acceptable. To my mind there was something a little too pat about all this; perhaps I was missing some of Vallejo's irony. It's interesting to note that Vallejo was apparently writing in exile. Because his slight book doesn't feel like a letter from the front line; there's no anguish, just a kind of sculptural pleasure taken in the chaotic mess that Medellin has made of itself. There's something coldly impersonal about the grammarian's narrative, which may be part of the point, but didn't seem to help explain why his young lovers had evolved into such adorable killing machines; or what their families or even they themselves felt about the ruthless world they inhabited.

It's also perhaps worth noting that 1994 is a long time ago in Colombian history. No doubt the drugs and the gangsters are still out there, influencing the city's shape. However, as a footnote, it seems worth mentioning the taxi driver who drove C and I to Almagro earlier this month. He was Colombian, and had been living in Madrid for a few years. He was from Cali, a city which is Medellin's equal in narco-notoriety. We asked him what it was like, and I suggested it must be a dangerous place to live. But, as we drove through the dry flat plain of La Mancha, he told us that it was always Spring in his city, with a never ending parade of flowers. He and his wife had saved up enough to build a house for themselves there. As to whether it was dangerous or not, he suggested it was no more dangerous than any other city. The vision I'd had of a city patrolled by teenage soldiers of the drugs lords, touting machine guns in the back of their four by four jeeps, a vision not so very different to Vallejo's portrayal of Medellin, crumbled. Our driver even told us which barrio to go to if we want to see some theatre. Apparently it's called San Antonio.

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