ROBERT POLITO: Noir is commonly thought of as an American genre, if it’s in fact a genre. The films “noir” was first used to describe back in the 1940s were American; I’m thinking of the initial French writings in 1946 about a few films like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Laura, Murder, My Sweet, and The Lost Weekend, which French critics were viewing for the first time, and the novels and stories that these and later films were based on also were American. But of course noir is obviously a French word, coined most likely in the model of Série Noire, the black-jacketed French crime novels. So this American genre with a French name was, right from the start, international. That internationalism is one of the assumptions of this evening’s panel.

Another assumption, I think, of this evening, is that almost no one ever really plans to write or film noir; it’s a term that’s usually applied retrospectively (and maybe only can be applied retrospectively). Over and over in interviews with the great noir directors, you hear them refuse or at least deflect the name, saying they never set out to direct something called “noir.” And the same is still true, I think, of most contemporary noir writers. The reason I say noir can only be applied retrospectively is that if you set out to write something called “noir,” you almost invariably end up with pastiche, parody, or nostalgia. I prefer critic James Naremore’s sense of noir as not so much a category of items with common properties, but a looser, more slippery network of relationships and associations that develop and change over time.

That said, I want to conclude by just glancing at some of the obvious achievements of American noir. The first is that historically and in the present, noir is one of the great sources of the American vernacular and the demotic. The film and sound editor Walter Murch told Michael Ondaatje in his great book The Conversations, “I spent a lot of time trying to discover those key sounds that bring universes with them.” To focus for a moment on James M. Cain: The sounds of Cain’s sentences, particularly his first-person fictions of the 1930s and ’40s, vividly shadow pure-product American characters. A concoction of carnality in California, highways, cars, fast food, and lunges at stardom, this Cain universe is instantly tangible, rooted in objects and work, fascinated by road signs, tabloids, radio, and insurance tables, yet tilting toward fable, even surrealism.

That leads, I think, to the second achievement of American noir: It’s always been a home for experimentation. Think of the self-consuming narratives of Jim Thompson’s novels, or the notion that the only American writer that Gertrude Stein wished to meet, during her triumphal American tour after the great success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, was Dashiell Hammett. Stein esteemed Hammett as a crucial American novelist; she invoked his writing as a counterpart to her own experiments in the stripping away of nineteenth-century psychology, character, even plot from twentieth-century fiction. The following year, she would observe in her book What Are Masterpieces?, “It is curious, but the detective story, which is, you might say, the only really modern novel form that has come into existence, gets rid of human nature by having the man dead to begin with, the hero dead to begin with, and so you have, so to speak, got rid of the event before the book beings.”

And last, noir is also a home often for radical politics and for novels of political and social history. As we say in the festival program, “From Hammett through Chester Himes, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and on to James Ellroy and Walter Mosley, crime novels inscribed a black-mirror twentieth-century America far more dishonest and bloody than the country of official chronicles.” In Europe, until recently, despite writers like Simenon, the push for secret history and covert historical reckoning tended to surface instead in espionage fiction. But much as once all politics famously were local, from now on, all crimes probably will be global. So there is at least one salutary effect of globalization—international crime, which leads us directly to tonight and to the search for other traditions, for other histories.

From Idiots by Jakob Arjouni (translated by Anthea Bell)

Ohio rose from his desk and, limping slightly, went down the hall, past four other rooms, and into the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea. The apartment seemed quieter and emptier every day. In fact it was full of furniture, some of which was inherited from his grandparents, and a collection of pop art posters. The expensively framed Warhols and Lichtensteins were all propped on the floor, leaning against bookshelves and walls. He had seen this effect in a documentary film about Picasso: pictures all over the house but none of them hanging. He had begun collecting the posters some time in the seventies. At that point Ohio had hoped for a while that with the new interest certain German publishers and newspapers were taking in American crime novels and light literature, he might finally join the ranks of those authors who were taken seriously. And because the people interested in this kind of literature were mostly young and modern, he began creating himself a new lifestyle, even though he was over fifty. Instead of listening to whatever was on the radio, drinking beer, and buying naïve paintings from Lake Constance, he suddenly began going in for French chansons, jazz, white wine, and pop art. He spent a whole summer going to readings by long-haired young authors, he visited exhibitions in damp cellars where bottled beer was drunk and New York bands played, and in the evenings he went to the Charlottenburg bars frequented by students and artists. He had a three-day affair with a girl student of American literature; it lasted until he gave her one of his novels. She read half of it, told Ohio his American Indians were racist clichés, and threw him out. Other acquaintanceships that he made that summer never lasted any longer than three days either. Sometimes a discussion in a bar about comparative structures of narrative in novels and movies would go on until eight in the morning, sometimes he spent the afternoon by the lake with a group of art students, all stoned out of their minds, who kept sending him to the kiosk every half hour to buy chocolate bars and pretzels, and once he was invited to a private porn movie show, which made him, apparently unlike everyone else, feel first embarrassed and then, also apparently unlike everyone else, horny—at least, after the show they all drank tea and discussed the difference between sex and eroticism. Ohio could do what he liked: be curious, interested, serious, ironic, get drunk, stay sober, boast, talk big, listen, chauffeur people through the Berlin night in his Cadillac, stand them drinks in bars, buy pictures from young painters, which his wife immediately stowed in the cellar, praise poems of which he understood nothing except that they mustn’t rhyme, watch films of young people sitting on sofas, looking out of windows, and breakfasting half naked, take note of more and more new music groups, whose disks he bought and listened to in the afternoon so that he could join the discussion of them in the evening—but all the same, at the end of that summer he was still the weird old guy in cowboy boots, jeans, and denim jacket who wrote some kind of Wild West nonsense.

He put the kettle on the stove, took a teabag out of its packet, hung it in the cup and waited for the water to boil. It wasn’t really quiet in the apartment either. Some kind of modern music echoed up from the floor below day in, day out, and there’d been renovations in progress on the floor above for the last three weeks. All the same: an empty, quiet apartment. Since his last mistress, Marita, moved away from Berlin, he had had exactly nine visits in four years. Four times, always at Christmas, his widowed sister came. She’d hated him ever since, in that hopeful summer in the seventies, he had described her husband, a police officer, as a Nazi and a petit bourgeois (he really did it only on account of the student of American literature, so that he could feel close to her once more; that was two weeks after she threw him out, and he hadn’t seen her again). Twice he had a visit from his son, who worked as a head of department for the Karstadt chain of stores, speculated on the stock exchange as a side line, and spent his visits sitting on the sofa following the share prices on television. Once his daughter came with her new boyfriend, about the fifth since her divorce; the boyfriend’s parents had emigrated from Turkey and he kept making jokes about the Turks, which first irritated and then infuriated Peter Ohio. And finally there were two visits from the Giselle Publishing concept manager, aged thirty-one, who wanted to persuade him to lend his name to a new series written by a young team. The central character was a kind of Greenpeace version of James Bond, who in the course of the first twelve episodes turned out to be the disowned and repudiated son of an Arabian royal house. Brought up as a child by a lonely old Christian lady, he had seen so many accidents at oil wells and pipelines in his native land that when he reached twenty he decided to save the earth. Meanwhile, he appreciated good champagne and would remain a bachelor for the time being, breaking hearts but never a promise to God.

“What utter tripe!” said Ohio. “Who reads that sort of stuff today?”

 “Oh, Peter!” The concept manager succeeded in giving him a smile that was both admiring and superior. “You may have changed, but the world hasn’t. People still want this kind of thing. Come on, do yourself a favor, you’ll get a quarter per cent, and what do you have to lose?”

My name, Ohio almost said, but he saw the trap just in time. “You probably won’t understand me, but all the same: I’ve been writing this stuff for forty years, and there’s no realistic prospect of the name Ohio being connected with anything but cowboy adventures, but it’s been my pseudonym for over forty years, and at least once I want to write a real book under it.”

JACOB ARJOUNI: Idiots is not a crime noir story; I mean it’s about a noir crime writer, a Western writer. My relation to crime writing, it’s funny that I say “crime writing” and not “noir” because “noir” for me is so French—I don’t know what this word means in New York. For me, I think there was never a big difference between noir novels and non-noir novels. Maybe at the beginning, when I was very young, it was a kind of alternative literature to the school literature. My first contact with literature, by chance or by accident, was a noir novel, when I was ten years old. Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest was a shock at this age—a good shock, a wonderful shock. I didn’t understand anything, but I felt there is something behind the mountains that I don’t see, but it must be wonderful, and one day I will understand it. And then I was going on and reading all this stuff, Hammett especially, who is still one of my most important writers, not because he writes crime stories, but because he is a wonderful modern writer. So then I continued to read Chandler and Himes, and later Charles Willeford was one of my favorites. When someone told Chandler, “There’s so much crap in crime novels,” he said, “Yeah, but in every kind of literature there’s a lot of crap,” and I think he was right.

But then I wrote other things; I wrote novels and short stories and even fairy tales. I think the only difference in literature in general, in storytelling, is that you have two kinds of suspense: One suspense is what happened and the other suspense is how it happened. The suspense of “what happens” happens more in crime fiction. I don’t know how many possibilities there are for “what happened,” but there are five billion possibilities for “how it happened.” And the suspense of “how it happened” is in good crime novels, as in all good novels. This is what I’m interested in as a reader and as a writer. For a lot of people, the suspense is “what happened.” I think the “what happened” suspense is a kind of adolescence. When you are between or not so sure with your sex, when you’re “figuring out a lot of things,” then the “what happens” suspense counts a lot. People who don’t make things clear are working with the “what happened.” Now I have the impression that my English is definitely a “what happened” suspense.

So anyway, in the end, I just want to say I think there’s wonderful literature in crime writing and there’s wonderful literature in non-crime writing, and the only difference is that the frame is different. But in the end, it’s always about people and relations between people and societies. And there are good books and bad books, like Chekhov said.
From Out by Natsuo Kirino (translated by Stephen Snyder)

She got to the parking lot earlier than usual. The thick, damp July darkness engulfed her as she stepped out of the car. Perhaps it was the heat and humidity, but the night seemed especially black and heavy. Feeling a bit short of breath, Masako Katori looked up at the starless night sky. Her skin, which had been cool and dry in the air-conditioned car, began to feel sticky. Mixed in with the exhaust fumes from the Shin-Oume Expressway, she could smell the faint odor of deep-fried food, the odor of the boxed-lunch factory where she was going to work.

“I want to go home.” The moment the smell hit her, the words came into her head. She didn’t know exactly what home it was she wanted to go to, certainly not the one she’d just left. But why didn’t she want to go back there? And where did she want to go? She felt lost.

From midnight until five-thirty without a break, she had to stand at the conveyor belt making boxed lunches. For a part-time job, the pay was good, but the work was backbreaking. More than once, when she was feeling unwell, she’d been stopped here in the parking lot by the thought of the hard shift ahead. But this was different, this feeling of aimlessness. As she always did at this moment, she lit a cigarette, but tonight she realized for the first time that she did it to cover the smell of the factory.

The boxed-lunch factory was in the middle of the Musashi-Murayama district, facing a road that was lined with the gray wall of a large automobile plant. Otherwise, the area was given over to dusty fields and a cluster of small auto repair shops. The land was flat and the sky stretched in every direction. The parking lot was a three-minute walk from Masako’s workplace, beyond another factory, now abandoned. It was no more than a bare lot that had been roughly graded. The parking spaces had once been marked off with strips of tape, but dust had long since made them almost invisible. The employees’ cars were parked at random angles across the lot. It was a place where no one would be likely to notice someone hiding in the grass or behind a car. The whole effect was somehow sinister, and Masako glanced around nervously as she locked the car.

She heard the sound of tires, and for an instant the overgrown summer grass that bordered the lot shone in the yellow headlights. A green Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet, top down, drove into the lot, and her plump co-worker, Kuniko Jonouchi, nodded from the driver’s seat….
 “Let’s go,” Masako said. Sometime after the New Year, she’d begun to hear talk of a strange man hanging around the road that led from the parking lot to the factory. And then several of the part-timers had reported being pulled into the shadows and assaulted before barely escaping; so the company had just issued a warning that the women should walk in groups. They set off through the summer darkness along the unpaved, ill-lit road. On the right was a ragged line of apartment blocks and farmhouses with large gardens—not particularly appealing but at least a sign of life in the area. On the left, beyond an overgrown ditch, was a lonely row of abandoned buildings: an older boxed-lunch factory, a derelict bowling alley. The women who had fallen victim to the attacker had told of being dragged in among these deserted buildings, and so Masako kept careful watch as she and Kuniko hurried along.

NATSUO KIRINO: I debuted as a novelist twelve years ago. Before I became a novelist, I studied screenwriting, wrote for magazines, and also wrote books aimed at young adults, including storylines for manga or graphic novels. Since then, I have published fourteen novels, three short-story collections, and a book of essays, which brings the grand total to eighteen books. I have one book out now that has been translated into English, and two books, Grotesque and What Remains, are being translated into English as we speak. It’s my hope that they will be available next year.

Upon hearing that I have written eighteen books in twelve years, some of you may think, “My, does she work hard.” But in fact, among Japanese novelists, this is not an excessive amount of work. Novelists in Japan write a whole lot. Once you are a published professional novelist, work requests become rampant. In Japan, there are a total of seventy thousand published items per year. Literature composes one-sixth of this total, which brings the number to twelve thousand; that includes magazines, paperback books, as well as children’s literature. But even so, there are few countries in the world that can say they publish a thousand literary books and magazines a month. I must point out that foreign books in translation are included in this number as well. Books in translation make up 15 percent of the total, though recently there are signs pointing to a decrease. I believe it’s still quite a significant percentage.

Since modern times, Japan has made an effort to bring many books originating in Western cultures to the forefront. Indeed, a good number of the World Voices participants’ works have been published in Japan, not to mention the fact that most books deemed as foreign classics and masterpieces have repeatedly been introduced over the years. I can confidently say that though the Japanese may not be good at communicating face-to-face, we excel at taking words under careful consideration and have a keen ability to comprehend and express them in graphic form, as in manga or animation. We have a large domestic market and therefore even more competition. This is why even the experimental attempts are highly coveted. It’s my hope that there will soon come a day when the Japanese novel will cross the language barrier to be read by many across the world, and that one day it will not just be Haruki Murakami who is read by fans of Japanese literature.

Out was published eight years ago in 1997. It depicts four housewives who work the midnight shift at the factory stuffing readymade lunch boxes sold at convenience stores. Each of the four women are suffering and have different repressing elements in their lives as they continue to work under the demanding conditions of the factory to make ends meet. One of the women, in a fit of fury, ends up killing her negligent husband and asks her co-workers for help in disposing of the body. The women come together to chop the body up into little pieces and dispose of it as common garbage. After the fact, instead of repenting, the women start a business disposing dead bodies, make a lot of money, and run headfirst into a life of crime. As you can see, the story is quite shocking, and when the book was first published, I received both praise and condemnation. Most of the criticism was from people who could not believe that the wife would kill the husband. Or there were those who were frightened that anybody would chop up a body into little pieces. Though it was nominated for a book award, it did not win on account of its antisocial views.

Since I did my research for Out during 1995 and ’96, it’s fair to say that the Japan depicted in the book is a Japan of a decade ago. Back then, Japan was a lot more prosperous. But on the flipside of the prosperity were the housewives who worked part-time jobs and the foreigners who worked the low-end jobs. Even around me, there were women whose husbands had white-collar jobs, yet still insisted that their wives work for their own spending money, additional household income, or to help pay for a child’s education. These women left in droves to work part-time at menial jobs. When I heard about how much these women made, I was shocked; not only were they making less than the student workers, but also they received no insurance, no social-security benefits. In addition, they had to work knowing that they could be laid off at a moment’s notice when profits slumped the least bit.

This type of circumstance was all too common in Japan. And this was how I came to write Out. Represented in the background of Out are elements of significant Japanese societal problems and issues of gender inequality, family problems, foreign workers, and the political constitution. A novelist takes the elements of life experienced unconsciously by those who live it and tells a very sad story out of it, though exaggerated if you write a novel that has impact. If there are people who felt liberated by my novel, then the novel served one of its purposes, and when those outside of Japan read it, they will see something they were not able to see before: the underbelly of prosperity. They will also see that when it comes to human sadness and hardship, ethnicity and gender make no difference. This is the power of the novel. I research, then write my novels according to what I am interested in at the moment. In other words, it’s my way of contemplating the time we live in.

One of my novels currently being translated, Grotesque, depicts the story of a woman who has a career at a large corporation by day, but who works as a streetwalker at night. It’s the story of how she ultimately meets with unnatural death. The main theme of the book is beauty and its ugly stepsister, and the story is finally a study of female sexuality. The other novel being translated, What Remains, is the story of a young girl who was kidnapped and grows up to become a novelist. The story travels back to address what actually happened and explores what kind of man the kidnapper was. It addresses the difficult theme of how words and the imagination bloom in a person who is robbed of her freedom.

As I depict shocking and disturbing crimes in many of my novels, I have been known as either a noir or crime-fiction writer. Since I also take up women’s issues in my novels, I have also been called a feminist novelist. I must say that I very much dislike being defined by the boundaries of a genre or, for that matter, being defined, period, because I only write about the truths I see using my own imagination. As I mentioned earlier, I take from people’s unconscious and think about the times we live in. I do not know where the novel will take me. When I am defined by a genre, I am defined from one particular angle. I worry that my work will not reach readers beyond those boundaries. That makes me extremely anxious. I write believing that the power of the imagination can change the world.

LUC SANTE: The legend of Georges Simenon expresses itself in statistics: four hundred books, ten thousand women, half a million pencils, some exalted quantity of pipes. The books have gone through staggering numbers of editions, have been translated into every possible language, made into some sixty movies and innumerable items for television. The Simenon legend is industrial, like one of those nineteenth-century literary factories, of which Balzac and Dumas come most readily to mind. Unlike Dumas, however, Simenon could never be accused of running an atelier in which underlings came up with plots and undertook the less glamorous portions of the labor. He may have relied upon typists and secretaries, some of them cleverly disguised as wives, but every word he wrote originated in the fevered recesses of his own mind.

The first thing I ever knew about Simenon was that he’d written an entire novel while enclosed in a glass booth in full view of the public. I heard this from my father, and for some reason I was persuaded that he himself had witnessed the stunt, which did not seem implausible since our town was only ten or fifteen miles from Simenon’s native city of Liège in southern Belgium. The feat never actually occurred, although a Parisian publicist nearly talked Simenon into pulling it off in the mid 1930s. My father was not the only person who believed it had really happened. By that point, Simenon was publishing three to twelve books a year, which must have seemed leisurely to him after the frantic pace of his first professional decade. In 1929, he had achieved his peak of annual production: forty books under an assortment of pseudonyms.

Perhaps because he wished to dispel the notion that he employed subcontractors, Simenon allowed his method to be known. On the other hand, maybe he told interviewers about it just because the method itself was so prodigious. On a large yellow envelope, he would, over the course of a week or two, write the names of his characters and whatever else he knew about their lives or backgrounds, their ages, where they’d gone to school, their parents’ professions. The envelope might additionally contain street maps of the novel’s setting, although it would never say a word about the book’s eventual plot. Once he was satisfied with these notes, he would enter the hermitage of his study and knock off the book at the rate of a chapter every morning, optimally in a week or ten days. After finishing, he would be drained, battered by violent psychological storms and concurrent physical symptoms. It was a bit as if he’d given birth. It should be noted though that he could write books this way even when he was ostensibly on vacation.

Not all his books were written so quickly, although the majority of them were. In this and many other countries, Simenon is best known for his detective novels featuring the agreeable and placable, slow-moving, intuitive, preternaturally observant Inspector Maigret. But among the novels he published under his own name, the Maigret books are outnumbered nearly two to one by the titles he called romans durs, hard novels—hard in the sense that they are uncomfortable. In nearly all these books, a character, generally someone who’s been leading a humdrum, predictable existence, is confronted by an unexpected occurrence, setting in motion a series of events that will test his limits, an experience he may not survive. These books feature a broad range of characters who are subjected to an apparently unlimited inventory of psychological torments. You imagine Simenon selecting a pedestrian seen in passing somewhere near one of his homes or on one of his many travels, speculating as to what that person’s internal and external life must be like, and then devising a suitable chamber of horrors in which to release his captive specimen. Because Simenon was so prolific and so various, it is difficult to render a concise account of his work and impossible to cite any one book as typical of him. His early, pseudonymous output is pretty crude; and several of the earliest Maigrets feature plot turns that would not seem out of place in a Philo Vance mystery. But even then, in the early 1930s, he was capable of writing emotionally demanding novels that drive the knife deep into the reader’s heart.

Simenon, the son of first-generation petit-bourgeois parents who took in lodgers to supplement the family income and whose idea of higher education was limited to secondary school with the Christian Brothers, entered his literary career with a distinctly working-class idea of the trade. It was a means of living by one’s wits, related to showbiz and not too far from simple hustling, and it required a constant output with no pretensions and no looking back. Somewhere along the line, though, he made a signal discovery: Much of what passes for literature merely consists of studies of people in their clothing—that is, people operating within the rigid confines of social codes. He, on the other hand, wanted to write about the naked human, who is forced by circumstances to confront life without the usual protections. Those same social codes made him an outsider and kept him one, even at the height of his fame. He had served his apprenticeship writing pulp fiction and had cemented his reputation with detective novels. Furthermore, he was Belgian. He also lacked a writing style detectable by the belletristic apparatus of the prewar era. Therefore, he was forever barred from being accepted as a man of letters by the people in Paris who decided such things. André Gide was his great admirer and sponsor. At first Simenon chafed at this restriction, the first symptom of his discontent being that he packed Inspector Maigret off to rural retirement in 1934. Although he bowed to popular demand and brought him back eight years later and spent the last quarter century of his career alternating metronomically between the Maigret and the hard novels, which he also called romans-romans, novel novels.

The latter are so numerous—there are 117 of them—that I confess to not having read even half, but they include many that should be better known. Dirty Snow is a supremely bleak evocation of the horrors of the Second World War and the chaos of its aftermath and an existential endgame that can be usefully compared with the works that Sartre and Camus were issuing at the same time. Almost immediately after the publication of Dirty Snow, he came out with Pedigree, an autobiographical novel of his youth before and during the First World War, a massive book three or four times the size of most of his others, which achieves an epic grandeur of thought and a beaverish accumulation of mundane details. It may be his masterpiece, or one of them, although it’s never been published in the United States. And those two books merely represent his output for the fourth quarter of the year 1948.
Simenon’s work, when you begin to delve into it, is unlike that of any other author except perhaps Balzac. It seems less like the labor of one person than the entire hitherto unsuspected national literature, not just in its size, but in the range of its approaches and preoccupations. He may be the most famous unknown writer of the twentieth century.

From Leonardo’s Bicycle by Paco Ignaio Taibo (translated by Martin Michael Roberts)

He deceived the concierge by telling her he was fifty-two on the day he turned fifty-three. A pickup truck with loudspeakers passed by below his apartment window, beginning the election campaign. He left the faucets open so that the water would run for some time while he was shaving himself, as if the year he had pilfered would go down the drain along with the dirty shaving foam. Throughout the morning he had listened to dire old and scratched records by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, pretending to work on a new novel. He ate canned tuna fish with mayonnaise, and some whole wheat bread that was slightly moldy.

It was only when, alone, he switched on the TV to see a ladies’ basketball game from the U.S. college league that José Daniel Fierro found the peace he had lost and felt he had discovered a worthwhile way to celebrate the ominous birthday that was bringing him closer to old age.

His liking for American lady basketball players was the result of a succession of accidents, all with marked soap-opera-like overtones, admissible in the case of people unlike him, those who always emerged unscathed from harsh reality. If he had not broken his ankle while walking down the steps in the National Film Theater one night after a film lecture . . . If he had not installed cable television in his apartment in order to keep his plaster cast company . . . If he had not spent three months struggling with the writing of a novel that, frankly, did not exist. If it were not for these twists of fate, he would never have discovered his latest sexual perversion. Because faithfully following women’s basketball games from the American college league—or the ladies, as the commentators preferred to call them—was not a sporting passion, much as José Daniel tried to fool his puritan subconscious, saying that if some liked boxing, horse racing, or sumo wrestling, then he . . .

It was sex pure and simple and, moreover, it was sporting sex, platonic, long-distance, and minority sex. In a country where there are so many majority sports obsessions, being in love with a lady American basketball player was a minority sporting passion, a tacky one really, without any allies to call on the phone to comment on the games, and that seemed to reduce everything to a masturbation substitute. . . .

“And you can see Jackie O’Brien’s D-cup when she reaches out to catch the rebound . . . And you can even see her pubic hairs when she makes that tremeeeeendous leap in the air.”
It was sex-at-a-distance. Three weeks previously, the commentators in Houston, who José Daniel admired at a distance, had picked the Texas Longhorns as their favorite team, and he had followed them intently from that moment on.

“And slipping as she loses her balance, we see twenty-year-old Ludmilla Washington landing with her ass against the basket uprights . . . And she likes it! Ladies and gentlemen, she likes it!”

Thanks to the discovery of the Texas Longhorns, José Daniel began to write down the times of all the games on TV and, faithful as could be, while buses went by on the street with their exhaust pipes open and the sweet-potato sellers’ carts whistled past, he would drag his broken leg over to the brown chair his ex-wife left behind, put a six pack of Tecate to one side, and begin to watch the American college girls.

“And just as Eloisa Waterfront throws the ball while she closes in on the enemy’s turf, she sets up a terrible wobbling in her crotch, with her vaginal fluids lubricating the fabulous pace that brings her up to the basket, alternately lifting her buns up, one-two, one-two, bringing her to the edge of orgasm, and making her give the ball away, while she concentrates on coming, ladies and gentlemen, but she takes no notice, she does not care . . . That’s how you get to heaven, baby. Thirty-six to twenty-nine, you stupid bitch.”

The Texas Longhorns were a marvel of extramural and (José Daniel added in his spoken journal) uterine fury. Passion, pure and simple. They fought for each ball as if their lives depended on it, they argued with referees as if they were permanently suffering from premenstrual tension, they celebrated each basket with howls of enthusiasm, made fun of their opponents, blew kisses to their acne-faced adolescent fans in the front rows, missed easy shots, and scored impossible ones.

He adored them.

But that day, his damned birthday, with fifty-three years weighing him down, he was about to see a sight that would change the next few months of his life and, to a certain extent, his whole life (as José Daniel would like to have said in a novel, writing like Victoria Holt). First, the phone rang. Then Karen Turner entered the fray, and the cameras gave the writer, who rose hobbling from his chair, a big close-up of her freckled face.

And then, as Jose Daniel Fierro hesitated between answering the phone and sitting down again, drawn by the electromagnetic pull of the new player’s face, the writer, condemned to the loneliness of his room by a broken foot, watched the girl smiling at him, and went completely crazy. As an old soap opera had once said: “He lost his powers of reason over an illusion.”

PACO IGNACIO TAIBO: Maybe that book explains why I’m writing what you can call mysterious or crime fiction or something like that. I started with that love relation between a writer with a broken leg and a female basketball player from the ladies—they called them the ladies, I liked that—the ladies. But then I decided, this is too easy, this old-man passion, sex—sex, which is, by the way, very common these days.

So I decided to put together another story in that same book, which is the story of why Leonardo da Vinci, in the fifteenth century, invented the bicycle. But nobody believed that, so I had to do research for months trying to show how he invented the bicycle. I started writing, writing, writing, and then I discovered what Freud said about Leonardo, so the Leonardo story about how he invented the bicycle went into the book. Then I decided that this is too easy—basketball, mystery writer, in love, Leonardo da Vinci’s bicycle… So I went to a story I had in my closet about the dark moments of Barcelona in 1920, at the end of the war. There was a huge street fight between the owners of the factories and their gunmen and the police against the anarchist unions. It was some kind of OK Corral version that lasted three years, and two thousand people were killed in the streets.

But I thought, that was too easy for a novel. So I picked up in the closet a beautiful story about the last American who abandoned the Saigon embassy in Vietnam, after the war. The last one—he wanted to take the last helicopter. So I started studying all of what I could find about Saigon in the 1970s and I discovered the last one was a guy who had a drug organization, very, very strong in Saigon, and he was afraid to lose it so that’s why he was the last one. So I said, “Well, let’s put these things together, then we really will have a novel.” But, but—I felt that was too easy.

So I decided to put together a huge story. And I remember that somebody told me—and I think it’s not true, but I like it—that he was in Rio de Janeiro once with a friend of his when one night they kidnapped his friend, and after two days of being disappeared, they put in the street the guy they kidnapped without a kidney. They had operated on him illegally and stolen his kidney and well, he was there without a kidney. So I said, “Well, I like this story—you know, stealing kidneys—I like it very much. Let’s put it in the novel. Why should we take out this beautiful story about stealing kidneys?”

I had all those things, but I think I needed extra ingredients for the novel. So I remembered that once in Mexico I arrived and they tried to sell me boots, but only for the left foot. This is a Mexican story, don’t worry. So I said, “You have to put this story in.” So we need two guys, one that doesn’t have a right leg so he can buy the left foot, and we need somebody else without the other leg, and I was involved in that kind of interesting metaphysical reflection about which leg, and how can you buy boots, et cetera. This has to go into the novel.

If you think this is complexity—no, this is Mexican realism. This is a game; this is Walt Disney for Mexicans. Mexican reality is more horrible—they take our kidneys every day, in a metaphorical sense of course, and they eat them, and they spit them in our face. I went into crime fiction because that’s the only way to do realism with this kind of material.

When I was very, very young lots of years ago, I thought that mystery was the back entrance into the real thing. The real thing was explaining a country and explaining myself—I didn’t know what I wanted to explain about myself, but I saw that the best way of explaining things is writing them. Writing is the only way to explain reality, to reorganize reality. It was not very clear what I wanted to explain about myself, but it was very clear what I wanted to explain about my country. I wanted to explain that crime is the basement of the building known as Mexico. And crime in every sense—crime in the sense of abuse of power, crime in the sense of corruption, crime in the sense of innocent people inside jails, crime in the sense of guilty people in the top of the social structure of the country—this is in all of the stories. So I said, “Mystery, crime fiction, is the way to do it.” You go through the back door, and then you get the story, and then you can tell everything, and then at the same time you can explain yourself and you can understand something because you don’t understand anything, which is also a Mexican tradition.

And in those days, I believed in the theory of the iceberg—you know, 90 percent under water, 10 percent outside—and I said, “Well, mystery is the way to talk about the 90 percent.” What’s happening? Why are things reconnected in this or this way? But I was wrong. I was extremely wrong—mystery is not the back door; mystery is the front door. Through mystery, you go into. That’s the way social literature comes into the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first.

Sometimes your writing is smarter than you. There are things that you cannot recognize in a rational way, but they are there. When I was young, my writing was smarter than me—much smarter than me. Now, I’m smarter than my writing, which is a nightmare. Mystery is a closed genre. I think after many years of writing mysteries, there’s a jail in mystery, a structural jail. There’s a structure of mystery—crime, investigation, resolution—that is very narrow. A writer will start repeating himself, doing the same book over and over with the blessing of his publishers, who love the same book if you write it three or four times. It can kill you.

So I start thinking that I need, as a writer, to keep breaking the structure of mystery and move to something that can be called, say, like “The Complete and Absolute Adventure Novel.” That sounds good, no? Yeah, you put names to things and then try to write them—that’s a good exercise. I’m crossing the structures of mystery, which I like very much, I’m crossing the structures of noir, and I’m crossing the structures of the social and political novel. But notice that I’m also crossing the structures of the French feuilleton, the serial novel of the nineteenth century by Victor Hugo and company, and I’m also trying to put in non-realism, which is the Mexican version of Kafka, which is Mexican realism, by the way. This is not a closed space; mystery is not a closed space. Good mystery stories are the front door.