From argot to Austen: a wetback odyssey

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The Gringo Champion by Aura Xilonen, translated by Andrea Rosenberg.

Some novelists expect their readers to learn a new language. Clockwork Orange is challenging, and so, more recently, is Trainspotting.   The Gringo Champion is equally demanding. ‘Yes, they’ve left me stratospherically muddled: my headlights are burned out, racooned, straticated like a panda. Black and blue. Turkeyfied. Back in my hometown they say I’ve got peeperitis – like the green-eyed monster. I can barely see where my peepers are reaching out their claws to touch things. My ears are asymmetrically buzzing, endecibelled by my ass-whuppative encounter with the addos.’

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Aura Xilonen. Photo:Milenío

The novel is skilfully translated from Spanish by Andrea Rosenburg. The words that she and, young Mexican author, Aura Xilonen, pour out of the mouth of the narrator, Liborio, are an energetic torrent! Reading it is exhausting but addictive. The words are versions of actual words, and, in reading them the brain is engaged in an interpretative workout.

Liborio’s language comes from a series of foul-mouthed ‘carers’ and ‘employers’ although they give him scant food and no wages.  41vzwXE+YcL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgWhilst slaving in a bookstore he teaches himself to read, starting with The Golden Age of Spanish Poetry. By the time the action begins he has read ‘Virgil and Dante, Catullus and Bécquer, Boccaccio and Balzac, Homer and Tolstoy, Cervantes and Dickens, Austen and Borges, Pylorus and Aesop. His idiolect ranges from high culture to the lowest but lacks the normal register that most of us use to communicate.

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It’s a crazy read. The language is wild, there are no chapters and the narrative is fragmented. Sometimes, in italics, there are flashbacks to Liborio’s childhood in Mexico and his swim across the Rio Grande into the US. In the ‘present’ Liborio lives a perilous existence threatened by street gangs, immigration cops, imminent starvation and worms.

In a way it’s exactly the sort of novel that I do not like. I particularly hate reading about violence. In the early pages, Liborio, 17, gets beaten up at least once a day. If he’s not being physically assaulted he’s being chased or cursed.   It’s horrible. ‘They raise their crushing clubs and give me a few tastes, one after another, on my back, shoulders, and braincase. One precise blow on the back of the scullery knocks me out.’

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Rocky IV: The Action Figure Review.

But then it segues into another type of tale that I would not choose: the unlikely and soppily sentimental sort of Rocky Balboa rags-to-riches boxing story.  I hate boxing too. This is because it requires people to hit other people in the head, sending the brain in its fluid slapping into the inside of the skull. Result? Serious lesions. ‘The scruff leaps at me in a rage – I can smell his tense, jumbled musculature, scented with incendiary, malodorous, murderous perspirations – but before he can tear me to shreds, I see him coming at me and just like that, palindromed, I leap to one side and bring my fist down on his right temple.’

To top all this organised, and disorganised, violence there is romance. Boy meets girl, things go wrong, can they be overcome? ‘Without saying anything, just like that, out of the blue, I plant a kiss on her sleepy lips. Like that, swift, adolescent. Taking her face in my hands.’

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The Gringo Champion is probably aimed at the young adult market although I am not sure how many teenagers have the necessary vocabulary. Their parents, furthermore, might not like them to have access to so many swearwords; the language is extremely coarse, as well as poetic. In spite of these caveats it is a charming book, centred on a charismatic, if unreliable, narrator.

Further reading

Works cited

Xilonen, A. The Gringo Champion. trans. Andrea Rosenberg. New York: Europa. 2017. Print.

A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend section in the Irish Examiner on 29 July 2017.