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Alberto Fuguet: Mala onda (Bad Vibes)

Our hero is Matías Vicuña, seventeen years of age. He is, I suppose, a typical teenager from a well-off family, to be found in many parts of the world. His main interests seem to be, not surprisingly, sex-and-drugs-and-rock’n’roll. He likes, for example, Tangerine Dream and Pink Floyd, The Clash and Kiss, smoking weed and drinking alcohol, and girls. He wants to be cool. Unlike other Chileans of his generation and of earlier generations, he seems to be little interested in politics. The novel opens in September 1980 with Chilean constitutional referendum about to take place, about which he is supremely indifferent. However, the referendum forms a key background to the novel.

Matías has three sisters, one married, and none of the three can he stand. His father is one of those fathers who tries to appear younger than he really is and wants to be best of friends with his only son (primarily because he seems to have no other friends) but Matías does not welcome this. For example, his father is always flirting with women and listens to what he considers cool music (Olivia Newton-John, K C and the Sunshine Band), which Matías despises.

At the beginning of the book, he is on a school trip to Rio de Janeiro. He enjoys himself, not least because he meets Cassia and has a quick fling with her. He is not happy about returning to boring Santiago, saying there is more freedom to do what you want in Brazil. He will frequently harp back to his Brazil trip, comparing it favourably to the dull, grey Chile.

Back in Chile, Matías carries on with his life. He parties a lot. He is in love with Antonia but his feelings are not reciprocated. She was what I desired but I was never going to get to her because girls like Antonia don’t take to boys like me. Indeed, she accuses him of being self-centred, only interested in himself, his drugs, drawing attention to himself, of being number one and being trendy for its own sake. Despite his love for Antonia, he does have sex with other women.

There is one person he looks up to and that is his cousin Alejandro Paz, four years his senior. It is Paz who introduces him to Catcher in the Rye, and he very much identifies with Holden Caulfield. Indeed, Paz and Matías speak English to one another. Throughout the book, he will try to contact Paz to talk to him about his troubles but never manages to track him down. There is only one other book he takes to, during the book, The Great Gatsby, recommended by a (woman) teacher, who flirts with him. He quite likes Vargas Llosa but does not take to the Chilean José Donoso.

Matías suffers from depression, bored with his life, his family, his home town and unable to get the girl he wants. He misbehaves at school, saying, for example, in English class I feel like fucking shit, Miss (in English) and indifferent to the threat of being reported to his parents. He starts playing truant.

Things get worse when he openly insults his mother’s guests at home and then walks out, spending the night in a hotel. His father tracks him down and is going to take him to the local massage parlour, when they get caught up in a demonstration related to the referendum..

Apart from Antonia and Holden Caulfield, there is one thing that lifts him out of his apathy. He discovers by accident that his mother is Jewish. Not only had she not told him, she had not told his father or his sisters, either. When he confronts her with his discovery, she admits it but swears him to secrecy. Anti-Semitism is still prevalent in the Chile. He, however, is rather attracted by the idea and is eager to explore his Jewish heritage.

The teenage angst novel may not be common in Chile but it is certainly common elsewhere. From The Catcher in the Rye (referred to several times in this book) to The Virgin Suicides, from Trainspotting to Less Than Zero, they are plentiful, particularly in the United States. Fuguet was influenced by some of these writers.

Fuguet was part of the Chilean nueva narrativa writers, a term invented by journalists to describe writers who eschewed the earlier forms such as magic realism and were more realist and more influenced by US writers and by popular culture. He was also associated with the McOndo movement. Their writing was peopled by ordinary people, rather than men in ponchos and sombreros, gun-toting drug lords and sensual salsa-swinging señoritas. This book was a key work in both groups and had considerable success in Chile.

Nevertheless, though translated into English, it never really had a huge success in the English-speaking world, perhaps because it did not deal with men in ponchos and sombreros, gun-toting drug lords and sensual salsa-swinging señoritas.

Though living in Santiago under the dictatorship of Pinochet, Matías’s teenage angst is not exotic and can be found elsewhere, as I have indicated. He does not fit in, either with his parents and their values, with his sisters and, in some cases, not even with his friends, nor with the general political atmosphere but, even though he is Chilean, this does not make him terribly different from his counterparts elsewhere and it is this that has probably hindered the success of the book in the English-speaking world.

Publishing history

First published by Planeta in 1991
First English translation by St. Martin’s Press in 1997
Translated by Kristina Cordero