The Stray Bullet: William S. Burroughs in Mexico

In 1995 a scholar named Jorge Garcia-Robles wrote a long essay about William S. Burroughs’ time in Mexico, partly based upon interviews conducted with Burroughs and people that knew him during his time there. The essay was well-received and won the Malcolm Lowry literary essay award, and Garcia-Robles became the leading expert on the Beat Generation and their ties to Mexico.

Unfortunately this reviewer doesn’t speak Spanish and had to wait a rather long time for the book to be translated. Eighteen years seems surprising for such a highly regarded text to be translated into English. Having waited so long to read this book, and having had it sent all the way from the University of Minnesota (where it was published by the university press) to Cambodia (where your humble reviewer resides) just compounded my excitement.

From the moment I opened the packaging, however, I was disappointed. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – and you shouldn’t – but in this case the cover is just plain ugly. The repetition of one image across the front seems lazy, the text is hard to pick out, the spine colour doesn’t match either the colours on the front or the back, and the back cover makes it look like a children’s book.

The Stray Bullet cover

But, as I said, one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Once you open the book, you can see some thought has gone into the layout, and it is mostly visually pleasing, although I would suggest that the text size and line spacing again make this appear like a children’s book – albeit an attractive one.

But I will stop criticizing the design now. That’s neither the fault of Garcia-Robles nor the book’s translator, Daniel C. Schechter, and, after all, some of Burroughs’ own books had ugly editions and that didn’t detract from their quality.

My ultimate assessment of this book – which I have put off now for too many paragraphs – is that it’s more or less unreadable. As I mentioned previously, I do not speak Spanish cannot pass judgment on Garcia-Robles, who by all accounts is a wonderful scholar and an invaluable contributor to Beat studies. So I have to say that the fault lies at the feet of Schechter, the book’s translator. The man appears to have had a tough task set out for him. The original Spanish – I’m told – was a playful, lively, and inventive narrative that fused the culture of Mexico with the research that the author had done. This has simply not come across in the English edition. My guess, as someone who does have experience in translation, is that Schechter has been too literal and too exact, and the result is very awkward and irritatingly inconsistent text. It feels at times as though the publishers simply fed the original text into Google Translate and barely spent an hour tidying up the resulting gibberish. After only a few pages, I found myself dreading the next paragraph as it had become such a chore to read.

In some ways, too, it appears that different writers have written different paragraphs or even chapters, as the chopping and changing of Schechter’s narrative continues to jar the reader. It becomes particularly convoluted when we move into chapter two and Burroughs’ arrival in Mexico. Once again I will give Garcia-Robles the benefit of the doubt and assume that his text read well in Spanish, but in English it’s nothing short of embarrassing:

Mexico City, mid-twentieth century. Maaamboooo… ah uh! Caberets everywhere, brothels on every corner, a vibrant nightlife. Big on the scene was Perez Prado, the pint-sized Cuban inventor of the mambo, with a face like a seal’s and a Luciferesque beard, deported for playing the national anthem in mambo style. Never mind: nothing could stop the fiesta. Cha cha cha… ah uh! It was madness. Aaron Copeland visits the Salon Mexico and is enchanted by the dance hall; the muses descend and he composes one of his greatest symphonic works. Miguel Aleman allowed everything. Hell, we could go all night, the clubs never closed: Ciro’s. Catacumbas. Las Veladoras. La Rata Muerta, Waikiki. Leda. Lola. Tato’s. The culture of the blowout – anything goes. The Mexican Revolution had played itself out, and everyone was fed up with packing pistols and taking up arms. Civilization, senores, civilization! And partying hard. Enough already with the revolutionary ideals, banditry dressed up as a noble cause. Mexico wants peace, progress, cosmopolitanism… ah uh! More madness. Girls girls girls.Tongolele wiggles her hemispheric hips. Ninon Sevilla, the Cuban firecracker, she of the enormous mouth and huge ass, the perennial bad girl of the movies. Su Muy Key, Kalantan, Mapy Cortez, M.A. Pons… glamour gals, happy Afro females, sweat-glistening models, caressable lubricated specimens of the torrid tricolor night. Aaaahhhh uh!

Here Garcia-Robles is attempting to describe Mexico City around the time of Burroughs’ arrival by conveying through prose the vibrancy of the culture and the sentiment of the people. In English, however, the result is a confusing mess of words. It goes on for another few pages, in some ways becoming worse and worse as repetition of phrases are used increasingly out of context (“aaaahhhh uh!” soon becomes as common a means of ending a sentence as a period).

Alas, while Garcia-Robles appears to have consulted some useful sources and provided a solid run-through of Burroughs’ time in Mexico, the book’s focus is too much on capturing the atmosphere rather than actually getting information across to the reader. Granted, the details of Burroughs’ own escapades already can be found in Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw and his thoughts on Mexico are pretty much stated in his collected letters, but there should be room to elaborate. Instead, the bulk of the book is given over to sidenotes and diversions. The author appears more interested in transporting the reader back in time and into a very specific place than to give a detailed account of this important period in Burroughs’ life. That’s not to say that there aren’t great nuggets of information hidden away, but this reviewer feels that Garcia-Robles’ book offers little more than existing biographies.

However, despite the many negatives in this review, and the use of the word “unreadable”, the book is not entirely without its merits. Certain sections, where the text is simple and to the point, are interesting and enjoyable to read, and add some background information to the story of Burroughs’ time there. For example, there is a short chapter on Lola la Chata that is engrossing and more or less devoid of the bizarre quirks throughout the rest of the book. The problem here, though, is that most of it isn’t directly related to Burroughs or his time in Mexico. It’s a footnote that overshadows the actual narrative. The section even ends with the acknowledgment that Burroughs never met la Chata but that he was interested in her, and ends with the dubious assertion:

No doubt, Lola, from the heavens, would smile contentedly upon learning of Burroughs’ interest in her.

There is also a lot of information on Burroughs’ charismatic lawyer, Bernabe Jurado, and even a short essay by Burroughs himself about Jurado.

Also of interest are hard-to-find photos, mostly relating to the death of Joan Vollmer. These might disturb some readers as two of them feature Vollmer’s body after she was shot in the head.

Altogether the English translation of The Stray Bullet should be a wonderful contribution to Beat studies, but instead it falls flat on its face. Any valuable information is obscured by crude writing and digressions. I am assured by friends that the Spanish version is indeed worthy of the praise it has garnered since its publication, but I stand by my unusually harsh judgment of Schechter’s translation. This book is virtually unreadable.

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom magazine and the author of The Dog Farm. He travels a lot, and is currently working as a professor in China. His latest book is called Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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3 Comments

    • I think I read parts of it during research for an old essay I wrote.

      I’m really looking forward to Barry Miles’ new bio. I’ve read bits and pieces and it looks remarkably well-written and researched.

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      • Yes, ‘Unforgettable Characters’ is a new edition put out by Inkblot Publications who have a long history and association with Burroughs and particularly Brion Gysin. They have just got back into the publishing game (see link) with their new schedule http://aftermathbooks.com/inkblotpublications/
        Yes, the Miles bio should be very good as it will use a lot of the research that James G had already done for the project.

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