La Fiesta Brava by José Emilio Pacheco, 1981

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by José Emilio Pacheco, 1981

"La Fiesta Brava," one of José Emilio Pacheco's best short stories, exemplifies his virtuosity in amalgamating not only form and content but also in using typography to accentuate his message. The author divides his story into three parts. The first is a newspaper announcement that offers a reward to anyone who can give information about the disappearance of one Andrés Quintana. The notification appears in the center of the page within a square, along with a photograph of the missing person. The second part comprises a short story printed in an obviously old font and entitled "La Fiesta Brava." Written in the second-person singular, the story constitutes the putative work of the missing Quintana. The last section, told by an omniscient narrator, partially clarifies the origin of the short story and the disappearance of Quintana. The conclusion, however, is open-ended and allows the reader a myriad of explanations and readings, and the story requires the reader's active involvement in determining the meaning of the events.

Quintana's short story relates the experiences of Captain Keller, a soldier in Vietnam who massacred an entire village in the name of democracy. Many years later, when the massacre is but a memory, Keller tours Mexico City and develops a morbid fascination for an image of Coatlicue, visiting the goddess every morning in a museum. Coatlicue, the mother of all of the gods in the Aztec pantheon, is known particularly as the mother of Huitzilopochtli, god of the sun and of war. One morning Keller accompanies a tour group to a bullfight where, ironically, he is horrified by the cruel treatment of the bull, concluding that such cruelty explains the country's poverty and underdevelopment. Keller is later approached by a man who claims to have prehistoric treasures never seen by other tourists and offers him a private tour late that night. Upon keeping the appointment, Keller is sacrificed to the Aztec gods, with his heart cut out of his body while he is still alive. The second-person singular, employed throughout, serves to dramatize the situation and engulf the reader, who thereby becomes part of what is occurring. Pacheco also establishes implicit parallels between the present U.S. "invasion" of Mexico and the Spanish colonial influence in language, religion, and other aspects of culture, each of which eventually replaced indigenous and autochthonous counterparts. The United States exerts a pervasive influence that is ubiquitous and obscurely insidious.

While pointed criticism of U.S. political and social influence in the world in general and in Mexico in particular appears in Quintana's narration, the critique becomes even more biting in the third section when the omniscient narrator assumes control and provides biographical information on Quintana. Following his father's wishes, Quintana had studied architecture for a year, but he preferred literature and philosophy. He involved himself in student movements opposing the corrupt establishment and contributed to the publication of the political magazine Trinchera, edited by his friend Ricardo Arbeláez. Soon after, however, Quintana left the university, married, and began to write fiction. He managed to publish a novel, but it failed with both the public and the critics. Thanks to his father's friends, he obtained a bureaucratic position in the government as a translator.

Quintana's wife is forced to work at a boutique, while he consoles himself by reflecting that he is writing after all, even if the memoranda and translations are not creative. One night in his humble apartment, while working on a translation and while being forced to overhear his neighbor's television programs in English, Quintana receives a telephone call from Arbeláez. The call comes after years without contact. His friend is embarking on a new project, a sort of amalgam of Esquire, Playboy, Penthouse, and The New Yorker for the Latin American public. Arbeláez deems it something impossible to publish in "Mexiquito," as he puts it, indicating little respect for the Mexican publishing industry in particular and Mexico and its culture in general. He explains that the magazine will be subsidized by U.S. funds, clearly revealing that his erstwhile youthful idealism has now been corrupted and replaced by service to the almighty dollar. He asks Quintana to write a story for the first number of the magazine, promising that he will be handsomely paid. The amount offered (6, 000 pesos) exceeds anything Quintana ever imagined receiving for a story, and, notwithstanding the fact that he has not written fiction in years, he spends the entire night composing a story that he takes to his friend the following day. The story in question is "La fiesta brava."

Upon arrival at his friend's office Quintana immediately notices the difference between Arbeláez's environment and his own in terms of space, light, wealth, and freedom. Quintana suffers shame because of his small, dark, humble, and confining apartment, the modest clothes he wears, and his crippled hand, the result of a childhood accident. Arbeláez takes the story, telling Quintana that he will consult the symbolically named editor in chief, Mr. Hardwick, formerly of Time magazine, concerning its acceptability for publication. Quintana observes that his friend's Spanish is peppered with English words, while the office has many magazines in English. In fact, the place is a microcosm of the United States in Mexico, suggesting a slow-motion second colonialization of the Aztec nation.

When Arbeláez returns, after an absence of more than two hours, Quintana hears that the criticism of the United States in his story is much too biting for Mr. Hardwick. A textual analysis and criticism of the story ensue. Mr. Hardwick and Arbeláez consider the capricious substitution of commas for all signs of punctuation distracting and gratuitous, believe the experimental use of the second-person singular, already tried successfully by Carlos Fuentes, to be passé, and deem the idea of the pre-Hispanic substratum buried but still alive, previously developed by Fuentes, not to be very original. Other precedents noted include a parallel with a story by Julio Cortázar entitled "La noche bocarriba," and, furthermore, they find traces of Ruben Darío's short story "Huitzilopóchtli." Mr. Hardwick also deems a myriad of symbols "antiyanqui" and typical of writers from Third World nations. Consequently, the story is rejected, and Quintana receives one-sixth of the amount promised as payment for his trouble.

As he leaves the building, the depressed Quintana observes his reflection in the glass doors, concludes that he has the face of an imbecile, and questions why he exposed himself to such humiliation. Exiting the subway shortly afterward, he notices graffiti written over a Raleigh advertisement condemning establishment "assassins" for a slaughter that took place in San Cosme and Tlatelolco, where many Mexicans died during demonstrations against government abuses and corruption. Noting a grammatical error in the inscription, Quintana mentally corrects it while observing a train leaving the station. Among its four passengers, he spies the unmistakable figure of an American wearing a green shirt and a Rolleiflex (a watch) and with a pipe between his lips—all characteristics attributed to Captain Keller, the character in his story "La fiesta brava." Quintana shouts, trying to warn Keller of his impending gruesome death, but his attempt is in vain, for the train has receded into the distance. As Quintana reaches the street above, wanting to breathe the clear outside air, he is captured by three men who have been stalking him.

Thus ends the story, and the reader must assume that somehow fiction and life have fused. Should the reader conclude that Quintana is the victim of the empire to the north for his daring denunciation of the postcolonialist and imperialist policies of the United States? Apparently the American Keller is assassinated by the wrathful gods of pre-Columbian Mexico, and Quintana is liquidated by a superpower out of control that allows no criticism. Both may be considered sacrificial victims, although the ceremonial nature of Keller's death is more evident. In both cases the victim's unawareness of either transgression or impending doom enhances the impact. The reader must connect the missing person announcement of the first part to Quintana to ascertain his disappearance; his fate, however, lacks the element of retribution present in Keller's execution.

Pacheco's story, like many of the tales of Fuentes, evokes the still vital Aztec cultural substrata through the bloodthirsty mythical figures who exact the price of cultural invasion and desecration. The shadowy pre-Columbian deities, their powers undiminished even though they have been eclipsed for five centuries, wreak vengeance on Keller, who dares to acquire their artifacts, and they will eventually avenge other crimes. Pacheco indicts U.S. imperialism and its postcolonial presence in Mexico, but he attacks with equal or greater bitterness those Mexicans who have betrayed their values and forgotten their culture, as represented by Arbeláez. Pacheco's use of a circular structure—the end necessarily connects to and explains the beginning and vice versa (à la Joyce's Finnegans Wake)—suggests that the Aztec deities will eventually devour Arbeláez.

—Genaro J. Pérez

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La Fiesta Brava by José Emilio Pacheco, 1981

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