El complot de los Románticos, Carmen Boullosa’s sixteenth novel, won the Café Gijón prize in 2008. Carmen is recognized in Mexico as one of the country’s greatest living authors (“Mexico’s greatest woman writer,” according to Roberto Bolaño) and was one of ten authors selected by Conaculta to represent Mexico at last year’s London Book Fair. In their announcement, the 2008 Café Gijón prize judges acknowledged “the ambitiousness of the work, its brilliant use of literary culture, as well as its breaking with traditional narrative structure.”
The novel begins in New York with The Parnassus—a congress of dead writers who meet to award a prize for the greatest unpublished work of a writer. In Part One we travel to Mexico with Dante Alighieri, a trendy young American poetess, and our narrator (a Mexican writer) to investigate its potential as a host city for future gatherings of The Parnassus. Part Two is set in Mexico, where the motley crew of protagonists visits, among other places, the film set of Zorro III, starring Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. But Mexico is not fated to host the Parnassus, and the triumvirate travels to Madrid (Part Three), where they organize the first—and the last, thanks in part to the conspiracy of the Romantics referenced in the title—gathering of The Parnassus to be held there.
In Christopher Domínguez Michael’s Critical Dictionary of Mexican Literature (1955-2010), translated by Lisa Dillman (Dalkey Archive, 2012), he writes, “El complot de los Románticos concentrates all of Boullosa’s talent; it’s the book where her two natures most harmoniously coalesce …. A funny novel with prose that flows like that of her best poems without risking their pathos, El complot de los Románticos is entertaining, musical, lively, richly vernacular without being crass, learned, witty, and surprising …. This all revolves around combining Cervantes’s Journey to Parnassus and the Divine Comedy (and a bit of Michael Ende) with another ‘descent’ into the Mexican inferno. With that comically gargantuan task, Boullosa creates her own sensational Dante, one who travels to Mexico on the back of a rat and doesn’t understand Britney Spears or anything else about the contemporary world, but allows himself to be led along by Boullosa’s eternal, savage woman … a middle-aged Mexican novelist who acts as his guide.”
The Trip Begins
The Florentine was standing next to me, dressed in new clothes from head to toe, his face half-obscured by a blue baseball cap that said “I Love Britney” in gold letters. He was barefoot, the slogan “Don’t Fuck With Me” in thick orange letters across his chest. How old was he? That’s when I finally realized how young he was. Skinny, with his elegant demeanor, he really did look like he was made of metal, finely wrought ….
“Dantecito, why don’t you choose another T-shirt, one that says something else?”
“What does this one say?”
“Let’s not copulate,” or “Don’t mess with me.”
“I am in perfect agreement, with both sentiments! Let’s go!”
“And what about your lid?”
“What’s a lid?”
“Lid. Cap. Hat.” None of these words rang a bell. “That thing you’re wearing on your head.”
“What about it?”
“It says I Love Britney. Do you know who Britney is?”
“Your Beatrice won’t like her. Neither will you.”
“You mean Britney is a woman?”
“Sort of. In one song she says she’s not a girl or a woman. She’s a nymphet who’s past her prime, but a nymphet nonetheless.”
“Is she a human, some heavenly or infernal being, or a god of the ancients? Tell me more, because I don’t understand. She (he pointed to the poetess) told me that these words don’t mean anything, they’re simply decorative.”
I took him to the video section at Borders. Britney was on two screens, not because she was on top of the charts, but because of her most recent scandal.
“The girl whose name is on your hat.”
“Her? What is this we’re looking at?”
How was I to know? I asked the salesman:
“Which video is this?”
“Boys? Stronger? Which do you like better?”
The damn sales kid was answering my question with a question, expecting an answer for something I knew next to nothing about. He was clearly enjoying my confusion. He had a bar-code scanner in one hand. He held it in front of his chest and launched into a dissertation on the life and sorrows of Britney Spears, shifting his weight back and forth from one foot to the other. He talked about her as if she were a goddess or a saint, with admiration that wasn’t entirely justified by her deeds and sorrows.
Dante was glued to the spot. The video, a mere frivolity to me, a series of half-baked clichés, was shocking for him. First, and I should have realized this from the start, the simple existence of the monitor and the video had left him stunned (that was what he had meant by his question), because he had never seen images on a screen. The rat had told him about it, but he’d never laid eyes on such a thing. If you can call it a thing. When I turned back to him at the end of the sales kid’s dissertation and it dawned on me what the bard was experiencing, I didn’t even try to explain. I let him watch. He furrowed his brow, he compressed his lips, he raised and lowered his hands. Once he had overcome his astonish- ment, he began to focus on the content, because he said, “Chairs! They’re chairs! What is she doing? Who’s singing? What’s happening? Why is she standing on the chair? Is she bumping into it on purpose? What is she doing?” He spouted questions, interjections, and exclamations, without giving me a chance to get a word in edgeways.
“That’s a car, Dante.”
“She’s driving it. She’s on a highway. It’s night, you see the streetlamps? And now it’s raining.”
“And why did she get under the chair? What’s in her hand? A sword? A rod?
What do you call what she’s doing?”
It’s a good thing I had asked what the title of the video was, it explained a lot.
“It’s a video called Stronger.”
“Strong! Strong! What kind of strength is this? What is the importance of that chair? Those movements? That hair? What is she saying?”
“She’s not saying anything and it doesn’t mean anything, either. It’s a pastiche of a famous scene featuring Liza Minelli, copying moves that were choreographed decades ago for the stage and later for a movie, etcetera.”
“Famous?” Pause. “Movie? Minelli? Did you say video? What’s a video?”
“Yes, Dante, extremely famous.” I had only enough patience to answer one of his questions.
“Where is she walking? Why is the light changing? I don’t understand a thing. Io capishconiente, capishconiente!”
The screens switched to another song, the one I had mentioned to Dante: I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman. “Look, it’s the one I told you about, the lyrics of the song are ‘I’m not a girl, not yet a woman.’”
The shots of the Grand Canyon impressed him less than the movement of the camera, the close-ups and long shots from helicopters, and the speed with which they changed. “What’s that? What’s that?” He wasn’t asking, he was exclaiming.
Up till this point the two screens had been showing the same video. Suddenly, on the screen on the left, Mariah Carey appeared, dyed-blond tresses and a long red dress, descending a staircase. In the next image she was wearing a white dress. Same scene. Illuminated staircase.
“Another one!” Dante said, looking at her, not knowing whom to watch. “Another one! There’s another?”
“Many. Hundreds. Thousands.”
On her screen, Britney sang “I’m a Slave for You,” and Dante didn’t make a peep. He wore an expression of horror mixed with fascination. Next came the 2001 Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas, the stage floating in a fountain next to the Eiffel Tower and a Roman temple, Britney wearing a microphone around her head, a young dancer at her side, a hat covering half her face. Dante, paralyzed.
“That’s the real Britney, not what you seen on MTV nowadays,” said the sales kid behind us. Who knows what else he said, because I couldn’t engage in conversation or pay him any further attention. I didn’t want to lose Dante. Not because he was about to leave, but because now he looked truly crazed. Then the sales kid, clearly a Spears fan, showed us a video which “had a little of everything.” Dante’s jaw dropped.
“A demon! She’s a demon!”
Her face in close-up. Pretty. Then hideous. Funny. Humorless. Hideous again. Far away, up close, dressed this way or that. A man dances. Sinuous, frenetic, hard, malleable, still, Britney dances. A parody of a caricature, a heroine, a victim, a killer, the whole Spears shtick.
Dante was still exclaiming, “A demon! A real demon!” I couldn’t have agreed more. Dressed as a bride with a short veil and white boots, her kiss with Madonna, her tight, wet T-shirt, her unintentional vulgarity, her cave-girl costume, the scene with the chair again in fast-forward. And Dante frozen there, watching Britney.
The poetess approached us with a pair of tennis shoes in her right hand and—I don’t mean to be repetitive, just to describe her accurately—her blackberry in her left.
She grabbed him by the arm and literally tore him away from the screen, sitting him on the bench where I was reading until he interrupted me to put his shoes on. He managed, with difficulty—the tongues got stuck, the laces got tangled—the gringa was busy with her blackberry again. The Florentine got his feet into the shoes and looked at the laces, not knowing what to do: “So incredibly complicated!” I crouched down and tied his laces without a word. Once his shoes were on he stood and took a few steps, trying them out.
I watched him carefully. He seemed more alive, more physical, with each step. Had he stopped thinking about Britney? Had he thought about her at all? What had he made of the screens? Were they like dreams to him? How does somebody who has never encountered a screen experience one for the first time? But I wasn’t going to ask him these things. To get through to him I asked, “Are they comfortable? How do they feel?”
“I don’t know.”
His answer was valid for all my questions, the ones I had asked and the ones I didn’t. I don’t know. At least we had that in common.
Dante: “Let’s go.”
We descended the escalators, the gringa following us with some kind of radar, or else she would have lost us because she never took her eyes off the Berry-thing. We picked up our trail again, surrounded by masses of fatties. We found the back door that looked like the one we had entered. We passed through it. I thought to myself, “Goodbye toothbrush that I forgot to buy”; I had remembered too late. The sun shone with a shocking brightness, reflected over and over again in the mirrors, windshields, and metal trim of all the cars.
The three rats were waiting for us, sitting on some planters, chatting away quite happily. I gave them the rolls and they wolfed them down. They flatly refused the water.
“They must have rabies,” I thought to myself. I felt like a simpleton, ready to laugh at anything. I felt unsettled, like a leaf that’s about to fall from a tree. But that image didn’t really work there, in the parking lot of that mall, all asphalt, cement, cars, not a speck of shade anywhere now that the landscaped area was behind us. It didn’t occur to me that if the sun is shining brightly, the cars become ovens. What a lack of common sense. Although, of course, in this country everyone has air-conditioning. They don’t trust the wind, how easy it is to leave trees where they are, park in their shade, and roll down the windows when you’re driving. But no, simple doesn’t work here. On the other hand, stupidity does; I thought of the videos I hadn’t seen before, all stupid, if you can call Britney stupid. Her homage to stupidity surpassed all idiocy.
We mounted our rats. In one leap we were on the banks of a river, and the moment we touched the earth something happened. I don’t know how to describe it exactly. There was a cracking sound, one that we both felt and heard. We had crossed a frontier that wasn’t only physical. To get to the point: traveling alongside Dante, who was from the other side, time was not (at least not all time) inflexible. The cracking sound was accompanied by a peculiar feeling. I wasn’t sure what to think. My senses heightened, and a little nervous, I read a strange sign up ahead: Mississippi River.
Me: “Where are we?”
Another leap, but a shorter one, because we didn’t lose sight of the landscape, the river on one side, a small, pretty city on the other.
The gringa: “We’re in Dubuque.”
Slowly, slowly, the rats cut their speed, we were crossing water, as if we were boats, we came alongside an enormous floating casino, “a floating city,” Dante called it, and my rat, “it’s not so great”; we entered the port, climbed up onto a pier, walked along the river among regular people, stopping in front of a building that made a huge impression on Dante; past the graveyard, where we saw the Mesquakie burying Dubuque himself with tribal honors—songs, smoke, feathers, drums—and continued on to the town square, where Potosa, the daughter of Peosta, the chief of the Pesquakie, was getting married to the selfsame Dubuque, “But I thought he was dead?” I said; we passed the façade of the courthouse, the cathedral, and in one leap we had left the town behind. The sign Mississippi River appeared again, we continued bearing south, past Prairie du Chien—it sounds much better in French than in English—and another huge leap, during which my rat yelled:
“This here is the real Mississippi, bitches! It’s where this country ended, for many years, before they got carried away and seized the territory of the French and the Spanish and the Mexicans with their greedy little hands!”
In Gogorrón, where our three authors—Dante, the Gringa Poet, and myself— have stopped off on a whim, Zorro III is being filmed. The mediocre writer (whom I had invited to narrate our crossing the border) thought that touring the set would be the perfect way to introduce Dante to Mexico (I had my reservations but speak now or forever hold your peace, as they say, and I didn’t speak up when our narrator took us there because you can’t say peep when you’re a character in someone else’s novel). So there we were, on the set which was a reproduction of a town in the Wild West—as your average citizen might have conceived it: little houses painted in bright colors, flowerpots, lace curtains in the pane-less windows, tile rooftops in perfect condition; streets paved with cobblestones, thoroughbreds saddled cow-boy-style; covered wagons that looked fit for riding through the Elysian Fields; a cantina with swinging doors, painted hot pink; a well with bucket and chain, and a short, red brick wall; women dressed in embroidered blouses, shawls, and long skirts of light fabric tied at the waist; men in checked shirts, vests, long waistcoats, handkerchiefs in their pockets, black hats on their heads, suede pants with pistols stuffed into their waistbands, fancy boots; or, in the case of the Mexican pseudo- peasants, white cotton clothes, loose-fitting pants and shirts, their straw hats with high cones like the Indians in nativity scenes; everyone milling about in the street teeming with children, women, men, fruit and candy vendors, a village band with a violin, three brass instruments, and a splendid chanteuse with a plunging neckline and plenty to look at. In the cantina, gorgeous, bare-legged women danced the cancan and a fat, bearded man dressed in impeccable white pretended to play the piano; from the stairs to the (nonexistent) second floor, bar girls surveyed the floor, where pensive men playing dominos at the tables lost their temper periodi- cally, getting into fights. A cloud of people hovered around this two-ring set: grips, cameramen, sound technicians, lighting assistants, stuntmen, hair-stylists, makeup artists, extras waiting for their cues, producers and their assistants (or P.A.s—that’s what they called them, or “kids”—who were in charge of moving stuff around the set, looking after the extras, coordinating the techs, that kind of stuff ) with walkie-talkies on their hips. A few steps away, the offices of the set, an ant-hill of people making phone calls, eyes glued to screens showing numbers and lists, and, beyond that, the tech area, where the cameras and other equipment was kept. I had to get us away from the set and over to the hotel where the interview would take place, the bazillion star Quinta Real hotel in Zacatecas. There was nary a rat in sight, so much for getting there by rat-pack. I left Dante, his eyes dancing with the cancan girls and the chanteuse from the village band (he seemed a little short-sighted), and the Poetess two meters away from Antonio Banderas who was on Take Five of a scene where he came out on a balcony and walked across a plank from one side of the idyllic street to the other (he didn’t want to use a stuntman for that), while I surveyed things, trying to come up with a strategy. It wasn’t difficult to figure out who would get us there. I set my sights on one of the P.A.s and sent an email offering him a “job”: I needed someone to put me in touch with the aforementioned trio, the same trio who had been added to the list of extras for a scene on Monday, to invite them to a special event in Zacatecas, a private meeting of writers, the local chapter of The Parnassus. In my email I explained that I wouldn’t take him away from a single day of work, he could leave Saturday after the morning scenes had been shot, and be back on Sunday evening, ready for call early on Monday morning. The kid, a resourceful one, looked into the flights and discovered it was impossible to make the trip in the short time we had, so he got a businessman from San Luis, the one who finances the Real de Catorce arts festival (“The Desert Festival”), a Señor Cerillo or Serillo (who happened to be a close family friend), to lend his private jet to fly our friends to and from Zacatecas—in return for numerous favors his father had done him and because the “writers of The Parnassus” impressed him so much—where we would spend one night, just enough to complete our “Interlude in Zacatecas.”
The P.A. spoke with the aforementioned threesome, but since he thought the Parnassus stuff wouldn’t fly, he said, “Wouldn’t you prefer to go eat at a great place nearby on Sunday? That’s where Antonio Banderas, Ms. Griffith and their daughter Stella go, sometimes Ms. Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas too, with any luck we might see them.”
“Who are Banderas and Zeta, Griffith and Douglas?” the Florentine asked.
“The stars of the movie, and their husband and wife, who are also stars of many other movies.”
“Ah! Let’s go!”
And since when the captain’s at the helm, the sailor is not (especially if what the captain orders is what the sailor wants with all his heart), the two women went along for the ride, just as excited about the actors and actresses as the private jet and seeing pretty Zacatecas. (To be clear: We went along for the ride, because I was one of the two women.)
“And,” thought the P.A., “I’ll give them the weekly stash of peyote.” Because every week, come Saturday midnight, the production crew got high on peyote with the local actors, an enthusiastic and adventurous group, of whom there were quite a few, despite the fact they were in the minority. (When you eat peyote it either goes well or goes badly. If it goes well, there’s not much to say, but you want to tell everyone about it. If it goes badly, you have to battle three furious giants who pursue peyote-eaters without pity, intent on consuming them. They pursue individuals but they pursue groups as well; they’re collective hallucinations. Although the peyote was free, the price was not inconsiderable if you had the bad luck to encounter an ogre.)
No sooner had the Saturday morning shooting finished than the P.A. led the aforementioned trio to his Ram Charger (his mother’s), parked thoughtfully right at the entrance gate to the fake open air village where most of the filming was taking place. Dante took the shotgun seat, and the two women got in behind him. The kid started the truck and they were off like a shot, as fast as the dusty road allowed. They passed Villa de los Reyes in a single heartbeat, in another they were on the highway to San Luis, straight ahead, all the way, towards the airport where the jet belonging to Cerillo, or Serillo, awaited them.
To reach the airport they had to travel twenty kilometers further to the north and double back the way they had come. But I’m certain that despite the detour and the day they were going to lose in Zacatecas, I saved them time. On set they had been spellbound by the cameras, the actresses, the whole scene. Dante was mesmerized by the cancan girls, their enormous breasts, and the train-robbing scene; the Mexican writer was preoccupied with the version of Zorro they were making because she had gotten her hands on a script and in vetting it had found countless errors (which she’d have to keep to herself because they didn’t matter a fig to anyone but her); the Gringa was awestruck by Antonio Banderas, whom she had seen only from below, in the previous scene, and the idea of seeing him face to face had her on tenterhooks. Who knows how long they would have remained mesmerized on set if I hadn’t gotten them out of there.
We were on the final stretch, doubling back, when the P.A. picked up the walkie-talkie, and I heard his pitched voice saying, “start getting the food ready, we’re already at kilometer 13 on the highway, we’ll be there soon.”
“Perfect. We’ll wait for you at the airport in Zacatecas.”
Meanwhile, in the comfortable black Ram Charger, everything was going smooth as silk, Dante, the Gringa, and me, all pleased as punch with our little excursion—the promise of a night of hospitality, a great meal—“gourmet” as the kid had said—and since the P.A. had come clean about the meeting of the local chapter of The Parnassus, Dante was intrigued about what the poets of such a “remote, beautiful” place would be like. But. There was an unexpected passenger in the far back seat. As I already mentioned, the P.A. had parked in front of the entrance to the fake village. When the car braked abruptly at a gas station the stowaway passenger woke up: it was Zeta-Jones, who had left the set for a rest, to take a catnap, the kind you take before lunch, to restore herself with a few moments of golden slumber, which was so good for her skin. It had been so simple to open the truck’s door and lie down in the back seat for a moment.
She dreamed she was in the kitchen with an aunt whom her mother detested but to whom she was inexplicably drawn. The aunt said: “Nothing you ever do will have any significance, that’s why you have to choose to laugh when you can,” and she put a glass in a mortar and began to grind it while she repeated the same phrase over and over, then she sprinkled the glass over the food, and that’s when the car stopped and Zeta-Jones woke up and found herself in a moving automobile and thought that we had kidnapped her—she and Antonio Banderas were petrified in Mexico, afraid that on every corner, behind every cactus or palm tree, a bandit was waiting to kidnap them and take all their money (we shouldn’t be surprised that Zorro and his costar were frightened of other real life Zorros and their costars)—and she jumped up like a scared cat.
“Let me go! I have children!” she shouted in English. “Zeta-Jones!” the Gringa exclaimed.
“Look who’s here!” said Dante.
“Now I am totally fu …” said the P.A.
Since I’m putting words in the mouths of everyone there, I should probably clarify that I, I mean the I that was there, didn’t say anything.
The P.A. blanched but, turning so the star could see who was at the wheel, said in a composed voice, “What’s up, Catherine? I didn’t know you were back there. Should we go to that hotel you like in Zacatecas?”
“Oh, it’s you! What happened? What are we doing here?”
“I don’t know what we are doing here, this is my mother’s truck.”
“What day is it today?”
“I don’t have a call time?”
“C’mon, let’s go eat.”
“Okay. If I don’t have a call time, sure. Monday they’re doing the press photos. I need to avoid stress, it ruins my skin. I should take it easy, and if I can sleep, that’s even better.”
She lay back down.
The P.A. picked up the walkie-talkie again. Mine rang:
“Zeta-Jones is with us in the Ram Charger. She was sleeping in the back seat.”
“What? You can’t bring her with you. Drop her back off here.”
“What do you mean, you idiot. This is Catherine Zeta-Jones we’re talking about! I can’t talk to you, I’m hanging up. Find out if the Presidential Suite is free. She’s coming with us. I’m not going at all if we have to come back.”
He made another call from his walkie-talkie while he filled the tank with gas; he had to let everyone know what was going on otherwise, when they figured out that the star wasn’t in her trailer, everyone would freak out. But his phone started ringing nonstop and all hell broke loose anyway. He received orders: Zeta-Jones’ bodyguards were on the way to meet us and we had to stay put.
Zeta-Jones took the phone and asked to speak with the producer. She said something like, “I’m leaving, dude, I’ll be back tomorrow. End of story.” And she hung up. Three minutes later, the walkie-talkie rang. The chief of security issued a new order and told the kid to get going as soon as possible, to head to Zacatecas immediately. They were none too pleased that we were hanging out at a gas station on the highway, and were even more unhappy about the idea of us parking at the airport next to the private jets, a “high risk” zone. The producer and some bodyguards would meet up with us in Zacatecas.