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Antonio Ortuño: El buscador de cabezas [The Head Hunter]

The rise of the extreme right is hardly a new topic, even if it seems more relevant nowadays (2017) than it did a few years ago when this book was written. The novel is set in an unnamed Latin American country, which could be Mexico but could also be another Latin America country, such as Argentina. Indeed, the main newspaper in this country is La Nación, which is the main newspaper in Argentina but not in Mexico. However, our hero works for El Futuro which, as far as I can determine, does not exist in any Latin American country. Moreover, at least in the latter part of the book, there are similarities with Pinochet’s Chile (or Trujillo’s Dominican Republic or Stroessner’s Paraguay…). In short, it is any Latin American country.

Our hero is Alex Faber. At the beginning of the book, we learn that things have gone very wrong for him. Indeed, he says that he has lost his war. He is currently living in exile and not liking it. He is nearly thirty years old. We learn very quickly that he has been associated with the extreme right and that is presumably the cause of his downfall. As a young teen, he joined a group called The Republicans. This is an extreme right-wing group, which likes a bit of thuggery. He seems to get involved in a few fights. Indeed, in the early part of the book, he mentions several fights, at least two of which he initiated. In all cases, he seems to end up on the losing end, with a black eye or a broken nose. Eventually, he quits the Republicans and goes to university to study journalism. He has no great interest in journalism but his father wanted him to study business and he did not want to.

After university he gets a job with El Futuro. Soon after this, the Republicans set fire to a cinema showing a film they did not like (Christ was an Extraterrestrial), killing seven people. The police got a membership list, which the editor of the El Futuro got a copy of. Alex’s name was on the bottom of list. He was not fired but moved away from political issues.

The novel starts with a story he has to deal with. Two deaf mutes walk into an art gallery and destroy a painting they do not approve of. We later learn that the painting showed the Virgin Mary giving her breast to an old man who looked somewhat like Karl Marx. A guard tries to stop them and they shoot him. They do not try to escape and are arrested. Thanks to the influence of the cardinal, who has mounted a campaign against blasphemous art, they are let out on bail. A few days later they are murdered. Subsequently, the artist and his entire family, including his household pets, are brutally murdered. Alex had previously interviewed him. Further acts of violence include an attack on an abortion clinic. The father of Alex’s ex-girlfriend, Alicia, a populist politician, finds a dog’s head in his garden with a warning note, telling him and his family to leave the country. Alicia is very worried and seeks Alex’s help. The one unifying feature of all these attacks, apart from the right-wing violence, is the use of the Celtic cross, either painted on walls or worn as jewellery by the perpetrators.

Alex has to speak to the various participants, accompanied by a photographer, Sony. Sony is married and has several kids but her left-wing husband is abusive. Alex has a soft spot for her, not least because his own life is going badly. He is attracted to his large-breasted blonde boss, has lost Alicia and has a casual sexual relationship with Rocio.

We follow the gradual rise of the extreme right. Guadalupe Garza has an organisation called Clean Hands, which is opposed to immorality (which, in her view, includes not only prostitution and abortion but homosexuality) and is pro-Christian and, therefore anti anything it considers blasphemous. She decides to stand for the presidency and starts doing well in the opinion polls. She is helped when Yunque, leader of the Green Party, is killed in a terrorist attack. Meanwhile, Sergio Teufel (Teufel is, of course, German for devil), one of Alex’s former colleagues in the Republicans wants Alex backs and bribes him to rejoin, as they need a good contact in the press and Alex is not averse to the money on offer. The paper suspects Alex of having rejoined the Republicans but tolerates it, as he is able to get stories others can not. Alex is a bit concerned when he sees a list of those to be eliminated, which includes his brother, Sony, Rocio and several others who work for the paper. When Garza does win, Alex is dragged into it even more.

What makes this novel interesting is seeing the rise of the right from the perspective of the right. We get a continual picture of violence and uncertainty. The left seems weak and unable to oppose the right’s rise. However, the country, wherever it is, is clearly in a state of continual chaos, with the chaos deliberately fuelled by the right and not only by the usual thugs but by the cardinal, amongst others.

Alex’s motives, however, are not entirely clear. The right clearly enjoys violence. Despite getting mixed up in it, Alex does not enjoy it and, when things turn violent, he generally ends up worse for wear. The party is very pro-Christian, which Alex does not seem to be. The party is opposed to contemporary art. Alex has many artist friends. The party is homophobic. Alex has several gay friends. Part of the reason may be opposition to his left-wing brother. However, though they do not see each other much, when they do, they seem to get on fairly well. Though he has friends of both sexes, Alex is something of a loner and part of his reason may to be fit in somewhere, which he clearly does not elsewhere. He is also, by his own admission, somewhat weak and is easily led by Sergio and others. When he does take the initiative – for example, starting an attack – it does not work out well.

I thought that this was an excellent novel, showing us the rise of the extreme right and how the extreme right functions, at least in this quasi-fictitious Latin American country. I am not sure that we can compare the right in Latin America to the right in the United States and Europe, though the rhetoric used by the people in this book is not entirely dissimilar to what we are hearing by the right in the United States and Europe. Indeed, alternative facts feature quite highly. Alex is clearly a highly conflicted young man who cannot find his way and clearly there are many Alexes in other parts of the world. Sadly, none of Antonio Ortuño’s work is available in English, as he is one of the more interesting contemporary Mexican writers.

Publishing history

First published by Joaquín Mortiz in 2006
No English translation
Published in French as Le chasseur de têtes by Éditions du Rocher, in 2008
Also published in Romanian