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June 25, 2013 / The Promiscuous Reader

On narcoliteratura, telenovelas and Coursera

raton de bibliotecaEvery now and then I notice, that quite organically, I begin to gravitate toward a specific subject or theme in my reading, viewing and listening habits.  For a month or so, I will read several books on a subject, watch television programs and listen to music on a single or several closely related subjects. As I’m reading, and I find something of interest, I’ll quickly google it, read a quick article to get some background, find a related author or historical figure, which leads me to another book to add to my TBR list and voilà the web grows.  My current thematic bender seems to be narco-history, literatura and telenovelas.

To this end, I recently finished En la boca del lobo by William Rempel (in English: At the Devil’s Table), which tells the biographical story of Jorge Salcedo, the former head of security for the Cali cartel and the man who turned DEA informant and brought the cartel down.  It was an interesting story, if a little heavy on trying to create the idea that Mr. Salcedo got unwittingly wrapped up in the cartel due to his patriotic desire to rid Colombia of Pablo Escobar.  As with any story involving the drug cartels, there are a number of fantastic nicknames, such as el Buitre, el Gordo and el Pecoso, assigned to and used by their members.  Should I ever unwittingly get wrapped up in a drug cartel, I’ve decided my nickname should be La Ratona (de biblioteca) which roughly translates to “Bookworm”.

Speaking of nicknames, I’m currently reading La Reina del Sur by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (English translation: The Queen of the South).  For me, this is a fun read because they’ve also made a telenovela based on the book, so I’ve been reading and watching my way through the story. In the past, I’ve tried to watch these narco-telenovelas (such as El Capo out of Colombia) but wasn’t able to maintain the same long-term interest as I have for more traditional telenovelas. Another book on my Kindle that has also been made into a telenovela is El Señor de los Cielos by Andrés López López. We’ll see if I find this one as captivating as La Reina del Sur.

All that being said, in one of my recent Google searches on the subject, I learned that using the term narcoliteratura can be considered reductionistic in consideration of regional literature from Mexico (more often than not), Colombia (on occasion) and other countries in which drug trafficking holds sway (it’s only a matter of time).  Several recent articles highlight this feeling of dissidence and point out that within what has been labeled by the media as narcoliteratura there are subgenres such as police procedural, biography, history as well as more literary novels, that are disregarded.  Juan Pablo Villalobos published an article on English PEN about the abuse of the term, an abuse he no doubts feels personally as his first novel, Fiesta en la madriguera, (English translation: Down the Rabbit Hole) which, while set in the world of narcotrafficking, is more appropriately described as “the chronicle of a delirious journey to grant a child’s wish.”  Additionally, an article published last March in El País, “Mas allá de la narcoliteratura,” highlights many of the recent novels published by Mexican authors that go beyond the oversimplified idea of narcoliteratura.  And so, I go on my own delirious journey down the rabbit hole of Google, forever adding on to my TBR list.

On a related note, I’ve been taking a class on Coursera titled, Latin American Culture.  It’s a very brief overview of the topic (6 weeks) but as it covers political, economical and social culture it necessarily touches on the influence of narcotrafficking on these three aspects of culture.  Since my area of emphasis for my BA was Latin American Studies, the video lectures and readings are an updated review of topics I studied many a moon ago.  What I find to be the most interesting aspect of participating in a Coursera class, is the thematic forum.  It is here that you can observe and participate in what is truly the benefit of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).  There are students from around the globe sharing perspectives, asking questions and learning about one anothers’ lives and countries while discussing complex issues.  We have had frank and open discussions about various aspects of culture that would otherwise be practically impossible to engage in on such a broad scale. It has been fascinating and I highly recommend the experience. Since they have courses on a wide variety of topics, there is sure to be something for everyone, narco-related or not.


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