Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Our Lady of the Assassins by Fernando Vallejo

With Our Lady of the Assassins, Fernando Vallejo delivers a narrative of impressive freshness and breakneck pace. If his purpose is to depict Medellin, the heartbeat of Colombia’s daily carnage, a city where at least nobody ever dies of boredom, then the narrative-style is perfectly suited to this end. His sentence construction has a subjectivised lyrical quality interspersed with instances of the laconic, bullet-like prose which has traditionally characterized so much crime-fiction in the English-speaking world. For the most part, this combination makes the writing work quite well, paragraph by paragraph, on a rhythmic level. The first comparison that comes to mind is Louis-Ferdinand Celine.

Our narrator is Fernando, an abjectly cynical misanthropist, driven to social Darwinism and Malthusian eugenics by his disdain for the inhabitants of the barrios, who seemingly do nothing except reproduce and kill each other. Wandering through the perilous streets with Alexis, his lover and a teenage hitman to boot, they seek refuge in Medellin’s 150 churches, for their ears, which are tired of the interminable noise, and for their hearts, which are tired of hating. Fernando does not, however, go from one church to another because he is a religious man. He is, in fact, categorically irreligious. He frequents the churches because he is nostalgic for the social glue which a religion provides, for a social contract. We learn that, while the bodycount attributable to Alexis is only ten prior to his meeting Fernando, over the next seven months he kills something in the region of 250 people. This is how well he and Fernando understand each other. Whenever Fernando hates anyone, for even a second, Alexis kills as though directed by remote control. He reads Fernando’s reactions perfectly every time. This is borne out in the apparent triviality of the motives for many of the killings. Quite often, the spark is simply an anonymous instance of rudeness, or because the punk next door, or a taxi-driver, won’t turn their music down. In another instance, they come across two eight-year-olds fighting viciously in front of a crowd of cheering adults. Alexis empties his revolver by putting a bullet in both kids, plus four people from the crowd. In other words, he kills in order to maintain the standard of decorum. The social contract proscribes blood-letting, but in this instance, it is the social contract itself which is being avenged. Every social contract has its own internal logic, but so too does its antithesis. Both require consistency.

But there is a paradox at work here, as this is also a novel about the existential imperative of self-awareness, a kind of morality in itself. As Fernando tells us, “to kill someone, you need a revolver, and some bullets, and a whole lot of willpower.” Is his love for Alexis partly down to his seeing Alexis’ ability to kill as heroic? The paradox kicks in insofar as Fernando is desperately nostalgic for the well-ordered Colombia of his youth. If only for the most Machiavellian of reasons, the first priority of every State (that is, every political entity which asserts a moral monopoly on the use of violence) is to prevent blood-feuds, thus frustrating the expression of the revenge-impulse, which is in essence, the primordial human moral impulse. Human beings secrete revenge like bees secrete honey. The only exceptions are sociopaths.

Inevitably, one gets the feeling that this is not simply a story about Colombia, but a universal cautionary tale. Colombia is simply an extreme example of a world-wide phenomenon – the emergence of what Jurgen Habermas called “the post-conventional society.” That is not to say, of course, that the narrative is an attempt to construct a coherent moral position. More likely, it is an attempt to do precisely the opposite. It is the hate-filled ramblings of an irrelevant intellectual, a grammarian by profession, whose principal concerns, hilariously, are aesthetic: how dare they build their ugly little communas in the beautiful city of my childhood…seconds later Alexis offs another pleb in consideration for Fernando’s delicate aesthetic sensibilities. In spite of his prolificacy with a revolver, Alexis may be heroic, but the narrator, Fernando, is a villain. Worse still, he’s a self-indulgent villain. His hatred, while understandable, is still a kind of lifestyle tourism. Alexis kills on Fernando’s account, and pays the ultimate price. Fernando may be love with Alexis, or in awe of him, or both, but is he still guilty of classic middle-class voyeurism?

All in all, this is a very tasty and provocative read. Strongly recommended.

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