Latin American Crime Fiction

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Introduction to Latin American Crime Fiction

International crime fiction has risen in popularity as the emphasis on plot over other literary techniques transcends cultural boundaries, thus making the texts unique in their own right as well as models for the development of other works. Latin American crime novels are certainly not the exception since the genre is flourishing and it differs from its continental counterparts in the sense that it is far more political, surrealist, and overall dark.

The following works center on these themes:  Hypermasculinity, Post-Traumatic Stress, Influence of Religion and Sexuality, Privileges of the Affluent/ Class Stratification, Drug Trafficking, and Violence Against and by Women.

Titles, Countries, and Genres We’ve Explored

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  • Alone in the Crowd |  Luiz Alfredo García-Roza | Brazil | Mystery and detective novel
  • Sultry Moon | Mempo Giardinelli | Argentina | Psychological thriller
  • A Crack in the Wall | Claudia Piñeiro | Argentina | Thriller and mystery  
  • The Sound of Things Falling | Juan Gabriel Vásquez | Colombia | Political thriller
  • Silver Bullets | Elmer Mendoza | Mexico | Mystery and detective novel
  • Havana Red | Leonardo Padura | Cuba | Mystery and detective novel

Alone in the Crowd: An Inspector Espinosa Mystery by Luiz Alfredo Garcia Roza a detective/mystery novel set in downtown Copacabana, Brazil in the mid-2000s, follows chief inspector Espinosa’s investigation of an old woman who fell in front of the bus… or was she pushed?  The case’s main suspect, bank clerk Hugo Breno, is a man of Espinosa’s past, and, in order to solve the case at hand, Espinosa must look back to a case that haunted his childhood:  the death of a young girl in his neighborhood.

Mempo Giardinelli’s Sultry Moon opens with Ramiro Bernandez’s return to his close Argentine community after attending school in France. Thirty-two-year-old Ramiro’s attention falls on his thirteen-year-old neighbor, Araceli, and he sexually assaults her in the middle of the night. His crime sets of a chain of other crimes, with Ramiro staging the murder of Araceli’s father as a suicide and his repeated raping of Araceli. Ramiro explains that the “sultry moon” is to blame for his behavior and he evades police who have little evidence against him, other than speculation. Although Ramiro believes that he has choked Araceli to death at the end of Sultry Moon, his escape is disrupted by the appearance of a young girl in his hotel room.

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez is about a young man named Antonio and his interactions with ex-drug dealer, Ricardo Laverde. Their lives become intertwined and woven together as they are both shot, leaving Antonio in a reeling state of post-traumatic stress while Ricardo is killed. Antonio goes on to meet Ricardo’s daughter and learns the story behind this man’s drug trafficking past.

A Crack in the Wall, by Claudia Pineiro, was translated from Spanish to English and it jumps from past to present. The book is a nutshell is narrated by a guy named Pablo who is an architect. He works for an architecture small firm with a group of coworkers. They encounter this guy named Nelson Jara comes into the office and he complains about a crack in the wall and Paulo  thought Jara wanted the firm to fix it but instead Jara want money. Pablo and his co workers are not going to give Jara money for his crack in his apartment. Jara becomes obsessive and he starts stalking the firm and that causes his death.   

Havana Red is the first novel of Leonardo Padura’s four-part series, which he refers to as the ‘Havana Quartet.’ This novel follows the protagonist, Lieutenant Mario Conde, who had been suspended after an altercation with one of his coworkers. He is nonetheless asked to rejoin the police department by his boss, Major Rangel, in order to investigate a case about the death of a transvestite. Conde will make use his love of writing and knowledge on religion in order to solve the murder mystery.

Silver Bullets by Elmer Mendoza is part of the Lefty Mendieta series, in this novel we follow Mendieta as he attempts to track down a killer who used silver bullets to kill an up and coming district attorney. What follows is a series of strange encounters in mansions and drug dens and the meeting of a large cast of characters ranging from a beautiful mob boss’ daughter to a flashy transitive.

Themes

Hypermasculinity

We noticed, within the grand majority of our novels, that hypermasculinity served as a societal norm and, in many cases, an unspoken yet accepted societal behavior.  The integration of machismo, or embedded societal pressure of strong pride in masculinity, is more developed in Latin America than in the majority of the rest of the world, leading to a system of unequal treatment toward women (115).  Hypermasculinity appeared as a major theme within Alone in the Crowd.  Throughout the entirety of the novel, women are only viewed as one-dimensional sexual objects, even to the protagonist.  The main character (who is seen as the “hero” of the story, as he fights crime, even takes a bullet while working) Detector Espinosa’s interactions with women are strictly for by necessity or for sex.  He has loose relationships with women (including Irene, whom he has been seeing casually for 10 years without labeling a relationship), but anytime a woman (even Irene) tries to become further involved.  After Espinosa passively mentions details about the case, Irene replies, “And you think he tossed the old lady under the bus? And you think that when he was eleven he threw that girl down the stairs?” Espinosa gives her a look that prevents conversation and asserts his dominance.   Irene then immediately submits to his dominant assertion, saying, “Sorry, honey, that was in bad taste.  Let’s not talk about the man anymore” (Garcia-Roza 132).  Further, after attempting to engage in sexual intercourse with his lover’s friend, Vania, Espinosa is rejected and feels extremely uncomfortable about his male identity.  Every interaction moving forward with Vania, Espinosa acts in a very rude and demeaning, even hostile manner (first acting accusatory and dismissive then eventually progressing into taunting her and making derogatory comments toward her).  Rejection from a woman results in Espinosa feeling immense insecurity and an immediate need to treat Vania in an demeaning way in order to make himself feeling stronger, more “manly.”

In Sultry Moon, the concept of hypermasculinity clouds how Ramiro understands himself and how he rationalizes his crimes. For Ramiro, his position and power as a man allows him the privileges and prerogative to act out his frightening motives, a priority not given to women. After assaulting Araceli, Ramiro muses that, “Only then did he realize that he hated women. ‘I’m a misogynistic,’ he laughed. ‘No, he wasn’t exactly that…Several female friends had accused him of being a male chauvinist…Everyday scatterbrained feminists, he had shot back. That they laughed. They knew nothing about life” (Giardinelli 44). In dismissing himself as a chauvinist, Ramiro distances himself from the reality; his disregard divulges that he knows his misogyny is problematic, but he does not appear to care. He sees even his female friends as “scatterbrained feminists,” arguing that he is superior to them, as a male. His belief that his female friends do not understand “life,” confines women as innocent and innocuous compared to his masculine might. His portrayal of women here speaks to the extensive entanglement that hypermasculinity plays within Sultry Moon. Ramiro, in Sultry Moon, maneuvers masculinity to achieve his power over the victims he manipulates and murders. The toxicity of hypermasculinity emerges throughout the novel as a force that has actual ramifications of irrational violence.

The hypermasculinity seen in Silver Bullets by Elmer Mendoza was less concerned with the machismo and more concerned with this idea of homophobia in a homosocial setting. That is to say the detectives and police of my novel were often afraid of being considered by others as gay and would use gay slurs as a way of projecting this fear onto other people. The use of the word “faggot” is not used a lot by other characters throughout the novel but when our protagonist is in the police station the word is used as an insult as a way of combating this fear of homosexuality. At one point in the novel, the detectives uses physical forces as a way of showing his dominance over another man, “He took the emissary by the lapels, lifted him off the ground, and threw him against the wall: Listen asshole, take me to your boss right this minute” (54). The sudden display of physical violence and intimidation plays into this idea of hypermasculinity. The use of these gay slurs and the sudden display of violence is part of the homosocial institution of the police force. In fact, these actions only strengthen these homosocial relationships because they act as a bonding mechanism for this police brotherhood. This brotherhood essentially values the bond of brother and homosocial relationships over the law and a way of reinforcing these is by having each member identify more with the men around them then the outside world.

Similarly  in Havana Red, there is less focus on machismo and more so on homophobia. Because Cuba is a fairly Catholic country, its people are against same-sex relationships as well as marriages. This being said, the protagonist, Lieutenant Mario Conde used homosexual slurs against one of the suspects, Alberto Marqués, after  he had interviewed the latter in the case of the murder of Alexis Arayán. After speaking with Marqués, Conde meets with his partner, Manuel Palacios and tells the him “A very peculiar fellow who’s f’ed up my whole day. He’s queerer than a Sunday afternoon…” (48). Although Conde was intrigued by the conversation he had with Marqués, he to reassert his sexuality, and in doing so, he had to critique Marqués in front of his partner.  

As we’ve seen in many other texts that we’ve read over the course of the semester, women have tended to lack a central presence (many of the female characters secondary characters) unless they are victims at the hands of male characters (for instance, Lucy in Disgrace or Sayra in Sin Nombre).  Likewise, in almost all of the books that we read, women served as secondary to male characters, mirroring the conditioned behavior within society in which men put themselves at a higher societal level than women.  This hypermasculinity reinforces the notion of the patriarchy within society, making it more difficult to dismantle.

Post-Traumatic Stress

Another intriguing theme that we found in a few of our books was post-traumatic stress.  As opposed to some of the other more socially embedded themes that served more as backdrops to the main plot/action of the story (such as hypermasculinity and crime), post-traumatic stress fueled the main plots of both Alone in the Crowd and The Sound of Things Falling.  The plot of Alone in the Crowd centers around how the death of a child in Detective Espinosa’s past influences a case in the modern day when the main suspect of the present crime is a vital member of the child’s death in the past.  Throughout the novel, Espinosa has several asides in which he tries to jog his suppressed memory of the death of a little girl in his neighborhood.

Throughout The Sound of Things Falling, the main character, Antonio is trapped in a state of post-traumatic stress after being shot, having also witnessed the death of his companion, Ricardo Laverde. The novel places a large emphasis on PTSD affecting not only the main character, but the nation of Colombia in general. It is seen in Antonio as he recounts the following thoughts: “I didn’t feel anything: I was distracted: the fear distracted me. I imagined the faces of the murderers, hidden behind the visors; the blast of the shots and the continuous whistle in my throbbing eardrums, the sudden apparition of blood” (Vásquez 55). Everywhere he goes, the stress and anxiety follows him. His wife begins to have frustrations when she says to him, “Antonio, Bogotá is not a war zone. There aren’t bullets floating around out there, the same thing’s not going to happen to all of us” (Vásquez 59). These two scenes illustrate what it is like for the main character as he deals with both physical and psychological effects of his trauma.

Overall, it can be seen that post-traumatic stress is a common theme in Latin American genre novels. According to multiple articles, it is apparent that, including PTSD, there are many health conditions in which more research is needed across the continent. PTSD is one of many imminent problems that threaten this part of the world, and thus should be focused on.  This connects to our Post Colonial Crime Fiction class in the respect that post-traumatic stress is an issue that is reflective of a post-colonial era– many citizens of Bogotá, for instance, are suffering from the trauma of living in a society that was once ruled by another country.

Influence of Religion and Sexuality

Religion is a major theme in Latin American crime fiction as it aides one in living one’s life. Therefore, most Latin Americans are devout followers of Catholicism and with their faith, come biases against issues pertaining to homosexuality and same-sex marriage. In the case of Havana Red, Lieutenant Mario Conde notices that the transvestite, Alexis Arayán was murdered on August 6th and this is on the day of the Catholic celebration of the Transfiguration. Conde mentions that according to the Bible, this was precisely the day in which “… Jesus was transformed before three of his disciples on Mount Tabor, and, from a cloud of light, God called on the apostles to listen to him forever” (23).  Conde is baffled by the mere coincidence that a transvestite could be murdered on the same day of this religious holiday. Thus, as the novel progresses, connections between religion and themes like that of sexuality begin to surface.

Convinced that this was no longer something that occurred by chance, Conde seeks to find out if Alexis owned a Bible. He sets out to the house where the young man was living at the time and encounters Alexis’ friend and roommate, Alberto Marqués. Per conversation with Marqués, Conde asks the man if Alexis had a Bible and the latter confirms that the young man did in fact have one. Conde notices that the passages with regard to the Transfiguration were ripped out, however on one of them said the following: “God the Father, why do you force him to suffer so much? (158). Conde hence gains clarity of the situation and concludes that “… Alexis didn’t dress as a transvestite because he liked to. He was either mad, or a mystic as you say, determined to represent an act of transfiguration with which he was aiming to…” (158). Marqués finishes Conde thought by saying that Alexis was aiming to be crucified as the young man was “… afraid of killing himself… Remember Alexis was a Catholic, and Catholicism condemns suicide, but his religion also condemned homosexuality” (159). In other words, Alexis wanted to be murdered under the name of God.

The novel concludes with the reader finding out that Alexis’ father, Faustino Arayán was the former’s murderer. According to Conde, Faustino most likely murdered his son because the young man “… did, said, demanded or reminded his father of something so terrible that Faustino decided to kill him” (206). Alexis seemed beside himself and was suicidal and in addition, blamed his father for his personal tragedy. The note scribbled in the Bible hence allows this idea to come full circle as after it was written, Alexis dressed as woman, met up with his father, the two had an argument, and the result was Faustino murdering him. In this vein, religion and its intersectionality with other themes is certainly something unique to Latin American texts.

In Silver Bullets there is a strange, almost Emersonian view of God by the killer. His obsession with a women is what causes him to murder her lover but his strange mental state and his disturbed nature changes how he views God and the divine. At one point in the novel he states, “My God has eyes and nothing escapes him, my God has ears and hears all, my God has skin and feels everything; he shall soon be here to set things straight in the empire shall pay: all the criminals will start collars, the corrupt judges the people whose of the price of coffee and tobacco all of them will pay” (57). This strange view on God is mixed with the murders own hatred of women and he combines his strange manifesto with his own desire to be with this women. Ultimately, however she takes her own life and this causes a further belief that his actions are being used for the glory of God. This belief that his actions are somehow justify reminded me of The White Tiger in the way that Balram believed he was correct for murdering his master despite the fact that is was unjustified. This type of rationalization is seen in both novels I was more disturbed by the display in Silver Bullets because of this strange way in which the murderer would speak.

In Sultry Moon, a corrupted sense of sexuality darkens the over the plotline. Ramiro’s considers his wild longing for underage Araceli to be acceptable because of her beauty. Ramiro thinks to himself that, “Araceli was uncontrollably insatiable, and so was he. Any evil thing was possible for them if they were together. The crime was to live like that, sultry like the moon that was bearing witness to their embrace” (Giardinelli 69). He sees his intense sexuality as a result of the “sultry moon” of Argentina. Instead of admitting his own role in his crimes, Ramiro looks to the “sultry moon” as his siren. The personification of the moon as a seductress permeates the novel with a sense that sexuality is ever-present in Ramiro’s existence and he can not escape it. As a dangerous and overwhelming force, sexuality in Sultry Moon is seen as an explanation, instead of an excuse, for crime, creating an unsettling portrayal of desire.

Privileges of the Affluent and Class Stratification

This is another theme that has been recurring throughout the semester and as we have seen, those on the top are bereft of punishment. For instance, in Havana Red, the murderer of Alexis Arayán was his father, Faustino Arayán. One would assume that the man would be sent to prison, however Conde is well aware that would not be the case for “He was Faustino Arayán and much to the Count’s disgust, they wouldn’t shut him inside a jail with murderers of every kind and type…” (209). In other words, Faustino would in fact receive jail time, but it would be in such a way that would he essentially be pampered and then freed after a few years.

In the book, A Crack in the Wall, Pablo the main character was not struggling at all. His class status was middle class and he was very good at his job. It was clear throughout the play he had a passion for architecture. “Pablo is drawing, with a skill that comes naturally to him as walking, talking, or breathing” (Pineiro 8). He was very focused on his craft almost to good. In the book, his co-workers were the same status as Pablo, middle class. So, when Pablo and his co-workers killed Jara, nobody would accept that crime coming from middle class people. The way they got rid of the body was so smooth and effortless. “How can Pablo deny what he knows, and what Marta knows and what Borla knows: that Nelson Jara is dead, buried a few feet beneath the heavy-wear tiles over which the three of them walk every day on their way into or out of the [architecture] office, under the concrete floor of the parking lot, exactly where they left him that night, three years ago” (Pineiro 12). They put the body in a mud-pit and they waited for the mud to dry on top. They put cement on top of his body and they built the architect office on top of his body. The police did not appear in the book because of their class status. It is obvious that Pablo and the co-workers were privileged because nobody of authority or power questioned about a crime that ended in death. In the book, A Crack in the Wall, it is too clear that privileges of the affluent and class stratification is a main theme throughout.

Drug Trafficking

As organized crime and drug trafficking, specifically in regard to drug rings such as Colombian cocaine trafficking, are extremely prevalent within Latin American society, drug trafficking was a common part of the background or foreground of many of the novels we read.  Although it is not the center of the novel, drug trafficking serves as a backdrop of the setting of Copacabana.  Espinosa has lived in Copacabana his entire life and has grown up immersed alongside gang violence, even noting that he could sleep through the shots fired in the slums of Copacabana at nighttime.  The indifference to gang violence with which Espinosa, as well as lifelong Copacabana resident Hugo Bruno, absently references the city reminds the reader of how embedded it is into their culture, like City of God or Sin Nombre.  However, the novel doesn’t focus on the crime itself; similarly to life in Brazil, gang violence does not prevent people from living their everyday lives.

Additionally, drug trafficking ties into the plot of The Sound of Things Falling. As Ricardo says in the novel, “They put it in plastic bags, put the bags on a plane, we provide the simplest thing, a twin-engine Cessna. I get in the plane, take it full of one thing, and bring it back with something else… no matter how bad it goes, from every trip we come back with sixty, seventy grand, sometimes more” (Vasquez 209). The character of Ricardo’s wealth is entirely produced by piloting drugs to the United States, as well as the Caribbean islands, from Colombia.  It is the way in which Laverde sustains a living, and for a long time, he is able to get away with it. Things come crashing down for him when he is finally caught.

Drug trafficking is a theme that has a large relevance to Post-Colonial Crime Fiction as a whole. Throughout the semester we talked about characters who commit crimes in order to make a living in their often times dysfunctional economies.  While drug trafficking may not be seen in all of the novels, it is evidently a part of the larger concept of “register of improvisations,” in which one engages in criminal activity to survive.

Violence Against and By Women

Although violence against women exists as an extension of the realism that Latin American crime fiction attempts to portray, some of the crime fiction chosen has shown an antithetical action: violence committed by women. At times, the violence we have read has appeared senseless and shocking and other times, it has been portrayed as fighting back against the men that dominate the lives of the women in our novels. Still, the contrast of violence against and by women demonstrates both the suppression and strength of women in our novels, expressing a deeper appreciation of the nuances of the women explored.

In Sultry Moon, Ramiro’s abuse of Araceli becomes reversed as Araceli actually presses Ramiro to be her lover and vows to protect him from the law, lying to police about their relationship. The shift in the relationship, with Araceli acting as the instigator of their relationship, represents an odd dynamic between the two and although Ramiro submits, he becomes troubled by how Araceli controls him. She forces him to follow her commands and she hurts him when he does not. Ramiro remarks that, “But in reality he was afraid. That young girl was completely unpredictable. It terrified him to realize whose hands he was in. How long would that alibi last, that alibi that she, herself, had given him that morning in order to get him out of jail?” (Giardinelli 96). Instead of Araceli acting afraid of him, she becomes the one in control, the one that could decide Ramiro’s fate. Araceli, in a way, absorbs the violence committed against her and manifests it by her own sort of violence against him. Rather than being one-dimensional, the violence against Araceli and the violence she herself performs complicate the notion of a woman’s victimhood in Sultry Moon.

In Silver Bullets we have an interesting changes from the usual dynamic of women being the victim of violence to women being the perpetrator. Different from books like Disgrace which have a women having violence being committed against them and the way in which the novel is shaped by the violence. In Silver Bullets a women in the novel is pushed to commit a murder because of her fragile mental state and it is this idea that separates this novel from other novels we have read in the class. As we see in the novel, “She paused to chamber a round, then continued down the hall . . . Training the pistol on him, she went up to the lamp but did not switch it on” (7). This sudden change of roles within the genre is really interesting but even with this apparent difference women in the novel still struggle to have any really agency. That is to say that most of them are defined by their relationships to men in the novel rather by any innate qualities they themselves may have possessed.

Following the novels from Africa and Asia that we have studied throughout the semester, the theme of violence against women in the Latin American crime fiction we analyzed echos a disdain and disrespect for women. Women are seen as objects and neglected casualties in our novels. However, violence by women demonstrates a different facet to the overused idea of women being worthless. The violence by women mimics the other violence shown in our novels and layers in the similarities between acts of violence executed by men and acts of violence executed by women.

Literary Themes

Notes on the Narrative Style of Latin American Crime Fiction

The hardest part of the novel though is the structure and how it is written. Rather than having quotation marks and paragraphs so you can determine who is speaking, the novel omits these and it reads more like a long story that is being told to you. In addition, the novel jumps around alot switching from characters to characters very similar to a film. It reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock’s approach to filmmaking, this idea of “meanwhile back at the ranch.” That is to say at the height of one character’s arc it switches back to someone else, never really allowing the reader to gain their bearings. Eventually the two arcs come together at the end of the novel but it is not until the near climax before the two become one. The third person structure also allows us insight into our protagonist head and the fear he has over his superiors and the United States.

Integration of Spanish Vocabulary

Another commonality that we noticed while reading our novels was the seamless integration of Spanish vocabulary.  Many of the books are translated from Spanish or Portuguese, but some words remain within Spanish inside of the texts.  Some of these words are words that do not have direct corresponding words in English, such as machismo.

In Sultry Moon, the names of cities within Argentina are included throughout the text. Although some could be translated into English words, like “Resistencia,” they are kept in Spanish. Others, like “La Liguria” and “El Chaco,” remain without any indication of where exactly they lie on a map or in relation to surrounding cities. Moreover, Spanish words are spread out in the narrative, like machismo are put in quotation marks. Another interesting aspect to the text is the inclusion of comments about other Spanish-speaking countries, like a discussion about Paraguayan accents.

Another example of Spanish vocabulary appearing within the English books was the inclusion of the Portuguese names of locations in Alone in the Crowd.  The narrator refers to locations in Espinosa’s world by their Brazilian names without giving context as to what they mean.  For instance, the narrator only refers to a particular set of beaches in Copacabana by their name, “Zona Sul.”  Furthermore, Espinosa typically walks down a street called “Rua Siqueira Campos” to get home; yet, the narrator never identifies it as a street, only by name.  By including these Portuguese names, Garcia-Roza brings the reader into Espinosa’s world.  The Portuguese language, similarly to drug and gang violence, serves as a backdrop for the novel.

References

Alter, Alexandra. “Fiction’s Global Crime Wave.” Wall Street Journal, 1 Jul. 2010. Accessed 11 Dec. 2016

Beauvoir, de, Jeannette. “The Armchair Detective: International Crime Fiction.” Criminal

Element, 19 May 2016. Accessed 11 Dec. 2016

Biron, Rebecca E. Murder and Masculinity: Violent Fictions of Twentieth Century Latin America. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2000. 151. Print.

Boudreaux, Richard. “Crime Soaring in Cuba as Fidel Castro’s Socialist Economy Is Caught in Free Fall: Latin America: Visiting detective novelists get the picture first hand as muggers prey on them in Havana.” Los Angeles Times, 9 Nov. 1991. Accessed 14 Nov. 2016

García-Roza, L A, and Benjamin Moser. Alone in the Crowd. New York: Henry Holt and Co, 2009. Print.

Giardinelli, Mempo, and Patricia J. Duncan. Sultry Moon. Pittsburgh, PA: Latin American Literary Review Press, 1998. Print.

Latour, José. “Politics in Latin American Crime Fiction.” Jose Latour Author, 21 Dec. 2009. Accessed 14 Nov. 2016

Mendoza, Elmer, and Mark Fried. Silver Bullets. 2015. Print.

Moloney, Anastasia. “POST Data.” POST Data. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2016

Nolan, T. “Behind the Blue Wall of Silence: Essay.” Men and Masculinities 12.2 (2009): 250-57. Web. 2 Dec. 2016.

Padura, Leonardo. Havana Red. London: Bitter Lemon Press, 2005. Print.

Piñeiro, Claudia, and Miranda France. A Crack in the Wall. London: Bitter Lemon Press, 2013. Print.

Rodriguez, Walter. “Mexico’s Catch-22: How the Necessary Extradition of Drug Cartel Leaders  Undermines Long-Term Criminal Justice Reforms.” Boston College International & Comparative Law Review (n.d.): 159-88. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

Schonfeld, Zach. “No More Magical Realism: Juan Gabriel Vásquez and the New Latin    American Lit.” The Atlantic, 23 Aug. 2013. Accessed 13 Nov. 2016.

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