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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Edmundo Paz Soldán

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To purchase Norte

Title: Norte
Author: Edmundo Paz Soldán
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 326 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Norte - US
Norte - US (Spanish)
Norte - UK
Norte - Canada
Norte - France
Norte - España
  • Spanish title: Norte
  • Translated and with Translator's Note by Valerie Miles

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Our Assessment:

B : decent storytelling, but doesn't really come together

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/11/2016 Lili Wright

  From the Reviews:
  • "This searing novel about three Latinos lost north of the border is not for the faint of heart. (...) Less interesting is the novel’s third strand, involving a graphic novelist trapped in an abusive affair (.....) With unflinching realism and steely grace, Norte reminds us why literature can do what journalism cannot: We inhabit the minds of people we’d prefer to forget." - Lili Wright, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Norte has three distinct strands, each focused on a different character and beginning at very different times. One central character is Martín -- a figure inspired by the long-institutionalized outsider artist Martín Ramírez -- whose story begins in 1931. Another, Jesús, is introduced as a teen, in northern Mexico in 1984; he is loosely based on the notorious 'Railroad Killer', Ángel Maturino Reséndiz. Finally, there is Michelle, a grad school drop-out trying to create a graphic novel, who is first seen in the fictional Texas town of Landslide in 2008 (and whose chapters are the only ones narrated in character's own voice, in the first person).
       Much of the novel advances their different storylines chronologically, at different speeds. Eventually, there is some overlap: Michelle is asked to contribute to a catalog for an exhibit of Martín's work, for example, and a friend of hers runs: "Tabloid, a university radio program [...] about sensational crimes and the 'pure pulp' of serial killers" and, after airing a show on Jesús, begins a correspondence with him. Overall, however, these are three very distinct (life-)tales, with the novel's chapters alternating inconsistently among them.
       Each of the main characters struggles with expression. The gifted artist Martín chooses to practically never speak, and makes almost no connections with others; when his family finds him he is unable to re-connect with them. His talent is recognized and fostered, but he is unfit to live outside the facilities in which he is institutionalized.
       Jesús tries to write -- from a message he leaves behind at some of his crime-scenes to notebooks and letters he fills, even though his writing-skills remain very rudimentary. But for the most part Paz Soldán teases more than he reveals about these:

The first notebooks told a bunch of lies, but after a while they got interesting.
       The one person Jesús feels a connection to is his sister, María Luisa -- to whom he is also unwholesomely attracted -- and when he is on the run he often calls her, but without being able to say anything, almost always hanging up quickly after hearing her voice.
       Michelle is glad to have gotten some distance from graduate school and literary studies, but struggles to write her graphic novel. A complex relationship with Fabián, who used to be her professor -- and who has many issues of his own to deal with -- complicates her life further, and only in the resolution of the relationship does she find the necessary inspiration to really get started with her own work.
       Amusingly, Michelle admits she hasn't been reading much ("Novels, I mean") -- which might be her problem ? -- and even suggests:
Honestly, I think the days for literature as we know it are numbered. It's the century of the graphic novel, the vooks, digital novels hooked up to Wikipedia and YouTube.
       So is Paz Soldán's essentially traditional novel a dying gasp ? He certainly doesn't seem entirely convinced of the possibilities of the form any longer, even as he goes through the motions, and one has to wonder whether his three-in-one narrative isn't a hedging of bets, the hope that heaping it on somehow makes it more.
       Each storyline works reasonably well on its own, with Jesús' by far the most graphic, and Paz Soldán does give a good sense of these three lives and fates. The longer arcs -- Jesús' and Martín's -- have more room to unfold, and so they feel more complete; Michelle's story is essentially limited to 2008-9. The addition of another major character in the form of policeman Rafael Fernandez, who follows Jesús' trail over the years, is a bit of a distraction, as he comes with his own baggage -- and shifts some of the focus from Jesús' own story to a more traditional one of hunter and prey (even as the prey is also a hunter).
       Although parts of Norte are set in Mexico, the core of the novel is to the north, across the border, with even Jesús, who travels back and forth the most, drawn again and again to the US. Even though Jesús and Martín each have success, of sorts, in the United States, it is hardly the promised land; tellingly, their successes tend to be of the very (differently) warped kind. The variety of different lives and experiences makes for interesting contrasts, from Martín spending long years at a time in one place (and whose brief escapes into the world at large are in essentially no way successful) to restless Jesús, who is on the move when he can be (though there are long stretches when he too is in one place, incarcerated). Each character -- and many of the secondary ones as well -- is unsettled, rarely finding any sense of peace, with even the exceptions -- Jesús' utterly resigned mother -- hardly having found satisfaction.
       These are interesting stories, but it's an odd mix, lives presented side by side but to too little effect. One wonders why Paz Soldán didn't simply give them each more space in a novel of their own.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 December 2016

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Norte: Reviews: Edmundo Paz Soldán: Other books by Edmundo Paz Soldán interest under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       José Edmundo Paz Soldán was born in Bolivia in 1967. He teaches at Cornell.

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