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Rosa Beltrán: Efectos secundarios [Secondary Effects]

Can literature save the world? In my view, almost certainly not but Rosa Beltrán has an interesting take on the issue in this novel. Our hero/heroine has the job of introducing authors and their latest work at book launches open to the public. Hero/heroine? No, this is not a Mexican transgender novel. At the beginning of the book, the (unnamed) narrator is clearly male, as the masculine adjective is used in Spanish. However, when we meet the narrator’s mother, the mother uses the feminine adjective and, from there on, it is clear that she is female. All is explained later in the book.

She (I will use the feminine as it is clear that she really is female) does not particularly enjoy the work as the books/authors she has to introduce are so awful. They are romance novels, light (she uses the English word) reading and, in particular, self-help books. (We are later given some of the titles: Happiness is Contagious, Forget To Be Better, The Seven Steps To Complete Happiness.) She does not like these books but hopes to use her contacts with the publishers to hustle some good books. This never seems to work as they are always out of stock or the books are published by a subsidiary, who will not make them available.

One of the key themes of this book is introduced early on. It is the usual Q&A session. The introduction has finished and the audience are coming to get the free snacks and poor quality wine. There is to be a Q&A but, before it starts, a woman in the audience raises her voice. She says that the next day, in the same room, there will be a meeting involving the President of Colombia, those involved in drug trafficking and the guerrillas. She announces that seven members of her family, including her parents, brother and uncle, have been kidnapped and she asks if the author has had a family member kidnapped. She carries on, saying that she is Colombian, and wants to know what the author would do. When he nervously suggest dialogue, the woman is furious and is supported by others. She even puts the question to our heroine but I did not have any opinion. I was only there to introduce the book.

However, she very much does have an opinion. The brutal drug trafficking in Mexico, coupled with the associated violence, is key to this book. She mentions in considerable and graphic detail, throughout the book, the disappearances, the brutal murders (we are not spared the descriptions of some of the particularly nasty ways in which the often entirely innocent victims are treated) and the statistics: more women killed in the drug war (which, she says, is not called a war but is very much a war) than in the 1910 Revolution, seventy-two bodies found in one day, whole towns given over to the drug war, driving normal people out. She specifically mentions deaths in Ciudad Juarez, which is, of course, the basis for Roberto Bolaño‘s 2666.

By this time, she has changed the tone somewhat, by pointing out how many women are innocent victims, not just of the drug war but of male brutality. Indeed, once the heroine acknowledges her sex, this book becomes decidedly feminist. The reason she gives for having assumed a masculine identity at the beginning of the book is because of the difficulties of being a woman in contemporary Mexico. As she says, being a woman is awful but there is an escape: reading.

Our heroine is an inveterate reader and not just of the books she has to read, the self-help and similar books. These books she despises. She particularly despises them when she receives several, all of which are called the best-read book in the world. How can this be? One theory is that they all merge together. She also points out that reading these books, she no longer needed to read absurdist writers like Ionesco, Macedonio Fernández or Lewis Carroll as reading these best-read books in the world was like reading Ionesco, Macedonio Fernández or Lewis Carroll.

However, her escape is to read quality literature, particularly the classics. Not only does she read the classics, she soon realises that the best escape is to submerge herself in the personality of both the author and his (as we shall see it is mainly his) work. She becomes Kafka, dealing with the many people coming to the Arbeiter-Unfall-Versicherungs-Anstalt insurance office in Prague, where he works, as well as, for example, swimming for relaxation. But she also becomes Josef K or Gregor Samsa. During the course of the book, she will take on many roles, from Oscar Wilde to Gogol, from Cervantes to James Joyce and many more and this is both the authors and their best-known characters.

However, this idea develops, particularly as she is facing and thinking about the drug war in Mexico. She criticises the rubbish books she has to read and present and even associates them with the drug war and the corrupt politicians. All are part and parcel of the same issue. Her escape is to vicariously live good authors and their work. I read, I know the human soul, she says.

She gives a lot of thought to literature, saying, for example, that there is no such thing as an original work, as everything has already been said and written. (Nietsche and Lao Tzu would burst out laughing at the idea that a book is an original entity, she says.). She also quotes Nabokov and Mallarmé who say that a reader identifying with a character is a poor reader. She disagrees.

However, she has initially kept these ideas to herself but, one day, at a book presentation, she breaks out and talks about other things. She talks about foreign writers who came to Mexico, such as Malcolm Lowry, D H Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. But then she gets on to the issue of women and takes on the role of one key literary character who has been both sexes: Virginia Woolf‘s Orlando. As Orlando, she states that in the history of literature, there are only four women. When I say literature, I mean English literature and I hope that this is understood without the need for any further explanation. While she does not elaborate on the four women (Jane Austen? The Brontës? George Eliot?), she uses this to point out how women have been done down in literary history and, from there, about the violence towards women in Mexico. She also mentions those women authors who have suffered, such as Virginia Woolf and her suicide, Natalia Ginzburg and her fleeing from the Fascists, Irène Némirovsky and her death in Auschwitz and others. To her surprise, the presentation is a success.

Our heroine lives with her mother in a two-room flat. Her father is dead. They do not get on well. Her mother does not conform to the literary stereotype of the mother and feels that her daughter is not going anywhere with her life. Indeed, she asks her daughter whether she likes men and then, when our heroine lists all the reasons why she does not like men (bullying, controlling, above all, they take time away from reading), her mother naturally assumes she has a boyfriend and is happy, particularly when she sees a name written down on a napkin by her daughter: Orlando.

Surprisingly this is quite a short book but is very complex. Despite the fact that, as she says, there is no such thing as an original work, this clearly is. It is obviously not the first novel to deal with the violence in Mexico caused by the drug war nor the first book to deal with the sufferings of women in a the modern man’s world. Nor is it the first novel where the hero(-ine) identifies with literary characters (Don Quixote may claim this). Beltrán’s skill is marrying these themes as well as that of bad literature versus good literature, not to mention the perennial theme of mother-daughter relationships, and to produce a first-class work which is, in my view highly original. Sadly, it has not been translated into any other language.

Publishing history

First published by Mondadori in 2011
No English translation