Ignacio Padilla: 'Latin American writers grew iguanas to make them look like dinosaurs'

There's a new, cool Mexican wave breaking, in fiction and in film. Ignacio Padilla - novelist and diplomat - is riding it in London. Boyd Tonkin meets a writer with the whole world in his sights

Saturday 20 July 2002 00:00 BST

Imagine that a fresh government wins an election in Britain, after far too many years of a stale, sleaze-ridden regime. To mark a break with the past, the new brooms appoint the brightest of the country's younger writers to key diplomatic posts. Their task will be to spread the buzz about a creative and dynamic nation, no longer throttled by hierarchy and tradition. So: Zadie Smith goes to Washington, Philip Hensher to Berlin, Will Self to Moscow ...

Improbable? That, more or less, is what happened in Mexico. In July 2000, Vicente Fox won the presidency with a mandate to end 71 years of political sclerosis under the Institutional Revolutionary Party. A buddy of George W Bush, his neighbour over the Tex-Mex border, Fox hastened reforms at home while – on the cultural front – Cool Mexico took its global bows. Lately, Mexican style has ceased to mean either crumbling colonial baroque, or Indian ethnic chic. The urban rhythms of films such as Amores Perros or Y Tu Mamá También thrill audiences with a zing that owes more to Tarantino than Tabasco.

Meanwhile, a clutch of talented authors packed for Paris, Dublin, Brussels, Prague – and London. Now, Ignacio Padilla – both a rising star of Mexican literature and the diplomat in charge of cultural affairs at the Mexican Embassy – confesses to mixed feelings about this audacious "experiment". "There's a lot of work to do as cultural attaché," he sighs, "and that doesn't give the writer – if he does his diplomatic work the way he should – the freedom to write."

This year, much of his time has gone towards organising a Mexican cultural festival to accompany the landmark exhibition of Aztec art that will open at the Royal Academy in November. While the RA covers the pre-Columbian classics, Padilla plans a contrasting programme of young artists, filmmakers, writers and musicians. His modern Mexico will look "cosmopolitan, urban, contemporary – and as unfolkloric as possible. I will leave that to the tourism board. I'm proud of that element, but it's not exactly what I think I should do."

Mexico has a history of sending its literary icons abroad: both Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes served as ambassadors. But, these days, administration means that no one enjoys a comfy sinecure. "When I accepted this opportunity, I assumed that I wouldn't write." he says. However, "I forgot that I had a psychological need to write, even if I don't publish." The demands of a nine-month-old baby have not exactly freed up his evenings and weekends, either.

Affable, fast-talking, formidably fluent, Padilla still seems to have energy to burn. He speaks seven languages (even including Dutch): a boon to Mexican diplomacy, but one which has roots in a voracious reader's passion to devour and savour masterpieces. "If you read Conrad in Spanish, even if it's a good translation, you'll miss a lot."

Padilla's third novel, Shadow Without a Name, has just become the first of his playful and provocative fictions to appear in English (translated by Peter Bush and Anne McLean; Scribner, £10). Winner of Spain's Premio Primavera award in 2000 (out of 461 entries), it embodies the new Mexican literary wave; both in storytelling virtuosity, and its refusal to stick to home turf. Padilla, who studied in Edinburgh, claims to have written more about Scotland than Mexico.

Unfolding between 1916 and 1960 in central Europe (with a foggy detour to London), the novel's linked episodes deploy a conjuror's hatful of ruses and enigmas. Together, they all explore the breakdown of identity – "this feeling of not knowing who you are, or why a nation is a nation" – among the lost peoples of a war-ravaged continent. Shockingly, for such a gleefully tricksy book, we come to realise that this ingenious fictional chessboard full of gambits, feints, exchanges and sacrifices is leading up to a final puzzle. Was the mousy, chess-loving German bureaucrat captured in Buenos Aires in 1960, and hanged in Tel Aviv in 1962, the real Adolf Eichmann?

I wonder whether it's wise for authors to play narrative games with real genocide. "Writing about the Holocaust, and about the war, should trouble anyone," replies Padilla. "It's very delicate to be playful with this kind of subject." He argues, however, that his labyrinth of disguises has its origin in the Eichmann trial itself. "Usually, it's the Nazi criminals who deny they're the one, and the witnesses who accuse them. In the case of Eichmann, the first thing he said was: 'Ich bin Adolf Eichmann.' It was the witnesses who weren't sure that it was him. So that reflected the crisis of identity in the 20th century, which I wanted to show."

Like his hero, Borges, Padilla fabricates a sinister Europe thronged with spies and impostors. These strangers on a train hurtle through a murky landscape of deceit. His novel features a superbly Mephistophelean evil-doer who takes his surname, Goliadkin, from Dostoyevksy's The Double. It also draws on the ironic yarns spun by the great generation of Mitteleuropa writers – Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Joseph Roth – who pronounced the last literary rites over the senile Austro-Hungarian empire. And, in its slyly comic cloak-and-dagger ploys, it reminded me strongly of GK Chesterton.

Padilla, who adores the old Edwardian trickster, is chuffed: "This is the first time that someone has asked me spontaneously about the influence of Chesterton." Yet behind Chesterton's literary deceptions lay a rock-solid Catholic faith. Behind Padilla's lies a sort of rock-solid Catholic doubt; what he calls "my permanent religious crisis". "Shadow Without a Name is a novel about my questioning, not only as a Catholic but also a son: it's a novel of parents and sons."

As a writer, Padilla made his name as a co-founder, in 1996, of the "Crack" group. This gang of Mexican firebrands aimed to recover the grandeur and ambition of their literary grandparents – patriarchs such as García Márquez, Vargas Llosa and Fuentes – and to distance themselves from feeble, folksy imitators. He attended high school in Mexico City with his co-conspirator in Crack, Jorge Volpi (now cultural attaché in Paris). Even then, the young pretenders sensed that their newly urban continent required voices to reach out beyond the approved peasant idioms: "We wrote about cows, and we had never seen a cow."

The notion of the Crack generation ("strictly speaking, a group of novels by Mexican writers born between 1964 and 1968") mixes serious polemic with the air of a prank among friends. "It was a game. It was a joke," Padilla recalls. "As with many jokes in literature, it had an important element of truth." Saluting the "polyphonic, complex novels" of the Márquez era, the Crack chums aimed to re-learn "lessons given to us by the great masters of the Boom".

What they spurned was the whimsical "banana" fiction of the intervening years: levitating opera houses, flying señoritas, talkative toucans, secret love-potions and grandma's old recipes, rustled up with one eye on the airport bookstall and the other on Hollywood. Naturally, the Crack squad detest the vacuous label of "magic realism".

Should we bury this toxic cliché? "That would be a very healthy thing to do," purrs Padilla. "Magic realism should be buried because it should never have existed. Although it helped – it helped our fiction to become known worldwide. But it's a very dangerous concept, and a very patronising concept ... Novels that would be realistic in Latin America are considered magical by someone else. Suddenly, Latin Americans started to make this magic. They grew their iguanas to make them look like dinosaurs."

You're just as likely to find an igloo as an iguana in the fiction of Ignacio Padilla. He still insists he won't refuse to write about his native soil, "when I feel I have something to say about Mexico. And I will always be Mexican. But that doesn't restrict me from writing about any other place I find interesting." Defiantly, this globe-trotter and polyglot claims the world as his oyster. And oysters, as every gourmet knows, slip down even better with a touch of Tabasco. E

Ignacio Padilla: Biography

Born in 1968, Ignacio Padilla grew up in Mexico City, where he studied for a degree in mass media. After an MA in English in Edinburgh, he researched a doctorate on Cervantes in Salamanca, Spain. Later, he taught Spanish literature at the Universidad de Puebla in Mexico City, also writing for literary magazines. His debut novel, La catedral de los ahogados, won Mexico's Juan Rulfo prize for a new author. It was followed by the short stories of Subterráneos and the novel Si volviesen sus majestades; he also wrote children's fiction. In 1996, Padilla and a group of colleagues (Jorge Volpi, Eloy Urroz, Miguel Angel Palou, Ricardo Chávez) launched the manifesto of the "Crack" group, which aims to renew Mexican fiction. His third novel, Amphitryon, won the 2000 Premio Primavera in Spain. Scribner has just published it in English as Shadow without a Name. In 2000, Padilla was appointed as Mexico's cultural attaché in London, where he lives with his wife and two children.

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