Rosario Tijeras, by Jorge Franco, trans Gregory Rabassa

The deadly kiss of cocaine in Colombia
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The Independent Culture

Gabriel García Márquez was a benign but silent presence at a literary festival in Cartagena, Colombia, earlier this year, giving way to a younger generation that the Latin American godfathers of "El Boom" have tended to eclipse.

One of the fellow Colombians to whom "Gabo" wished to "pass the torch" was Jorge Franco, in his forties, whose anguished narco-realism is an age away from the butterflies of rural Macondo. Franco is part of a Latin American new wave dubbed the McOndo realists, in a nod to a magic-realist genre superseded by the urban ubiquity of McDonald's, Macintoshes and condos.

Rosario Tijeras, Franco's second novel, which was made into a Spanish-language film last year, is set in the 1980s Medellín of his youth. Narco-dollars encroached by stealth in the big buildings and luxury cars of the 1970s, until drug lord Pablo Escobar took open control of the city through terror and kidnappings.

In the novel this transformation is seen through the eyes of Antonio, a middle-class youth in hopeless love with the eponymous Rosario, a cinnamon-skinned girl-woman who earned her alias, Tijeras ("scissors"), by castrating the man who raped her at 13.

Rosario is the most literal of femmes fatales, a hit woman hired by the Cartel to "tuck in" cops or meddlesome politicians, but who is paid back in her own coin, "shot at point-blank range while she was being kissed". As Antonio paces the hospital where she lies, he retraces his unfulfilled passion.

His rivals included his aristocratic friend Emilio ("loaded down with ancestry and lineage"), and tough-guy drug lords encountered in flashy clubs that drew "the lower classes who were beginning to rise and those of us among the upper classes who were beginning to fall".

Like other mestizo youths from the hillside slums, Rosario gambles her life daily "in exchange for a few pesos to get a TV set, a showy refrigerator". Life "weighs on her with the weight of this country, her genes drag along a race of sons of plenty and sons of bitches who with the blade of a machete cleared the pathways of life... Today the machete is a shotgun."

The siren whose kiss is death might recall the stock women characters of Franco's literary forefathers. Yet this is an adolescent's narrative and fantasy, which affords glimpses of a damaged and vulnerable woman, not least in her binge-eating after each hit.

The pull of Antonio's amour fou - which destroys, "intimidates, diminishes, and drags you down" - reflects a wider bewilderment at how the "decent" middle class lost hold of a city and of their values.

When challenged in Cartagena for exposing the fetid underworld of his hometown, Franco said: "I tell the fragment of Medellín that hurts and touches me." Part Catcher in the Rye, part Godfather, Rosario Tijeras is a lament and a love song for a city where "hundreds of boys are found dead every day", but whose "tiny lights encrusted in the mountainside twinkle like stars".

That a lyrical tenderness insistently breaks through the taut prose suggests that Franco's Medellín, for all its pain and degradation, may not, in the best sense, be so very far from Macondo after all.