Our Lady Of The Assassins
Medellin, Colombia has to win the award for being a very persistent dystopia. It makes other dangerous places seem, well, almost peaceful. Here are some facts. Cold, but nevertheless scary:
There were 33% more murders in 2008 than 2007, with an increase from 654 to 871 violent deaths.This increased further by over 200% in 2009 to 2,899 violent deaths, or about 110 deaths per 100,000 people, 2.5 times the average homicide rate in Colombia and 20 times the average homicide rate in the United States for that same year. An average of 9 people were killed every day in 2009. There is a significant disparity in crime rates by neighborhoods, with virtually no homicides in El Poblado to areas with open gunfights in the outskirts. Generally, crime rates increase the further the neighborhood is from the center.
“Open gunfights in the outskirts.” Wait. We’re not talking about movies here. This isn't the wild west or the OK Corral. No. We’re talking about life in the city. In other words, we’re not talking about anything comprehendible. The outskirts are communas, slums. They began with squatters.They are dense. And overpopulated. And lack rudimentary services. And they are dangerous. And hopeless. They cover the sides of the hills that are the northern edge of the Andes.
Enter Fernando Vallejo and his frightening 1994 novella, La Virgen de los Sicarios (Our Lady of the Assassins). It's set in Medellin. Murders abound. Fifteen year-old hitmen kill for any or no reason. For pay or for free. People look away when the shooting starts, because being a witness to a murder is a recipe for being murdered on the spot. Cab drivers get shot for not turning down the radio. A man gets shot for cursing. The reasons for the murders seems disappear. They seem too vague. Or too trivial. A mother and her infant kids get shot because the kids are noisy. A 10-year old gets shot for arguing with a cop. Three policemen get shot. On and on.
What? The reader asks. Just like that? How can this be? Boom. You’re dead. Shot in the head. Blam. Shot in the stomach. Bang. Shot so the killer can look in your eyes. Boom. Are you kidding me? Pow. Where are the cops? Where indeed. The cops, the government, now President Uribe, all are totally corrupt. They’re busy shaking down the country and secondarily the people. In other words, they're elsewhere. And otherwise occupied. Meanwhile, teenagers covet new sneakers and mini-Uzis, so they can fire even more rounds, so they can indiscriminately kill even more people. The Angel of Death resides in Medellin, and its young people indiscriminately carry out the task of depopulating the city. There is, as in all such places, a contest between the murder rate and the birth rate. Here, though, the focus is on death.
Vallejo is brilliant. And funny. And horrified. The novella is brief. And to the point. Says Mario Vargas Llosa about it,
“Vallejo makes good use of this atrocious raw material about the adolescent contract killers in the pay of Colombian violence to construct fiction full of bite, color and confidence that at the same time is rooted in heartbreaking experience and cracking with humor, insolence and diatribes.”
Highly recommended for a brief and completely frightening immersion in American dystopia.