Toño the Infallible, a novel by the Colombian writer Evelio Rosero, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and Victor Meadowcroft, is a shockingly twisted character study of one man’s malice towards society. Rosero explores the depths of remorseless hatred and how it grows when there is no balancing opposition to stop it. Set in Bogotá, Colombia, a writer named Eri recounts his strained friendship with a cunning and sadistic man named Toño Ciruelo, whom Eri fears but also begrudgingly admires. With strong prose and symbolic imagery, most of the story takes place in Eri’s flashbacks of their encounters. And as the gap between past and present closes in, Toño only grows more horrifying.
Rosero’s voice is poetically charged, focusing on topics regarding social change, the abuse of power, and the very human curiosity to violence. He’s accumulated a following in Colombia for avidly criticizing the violence of men and political and social corruption, with the connotations behind Toño the Infallible being no exception.
At times, the novel is abstract and hallucinatory, riddled with biblical allegories and symbolism regarding the Garden of Eden, the Devil, and sin. There were many moments I recoiled in disgust because Rosero captures the cruelty of one man through such an intense lens. Toño the Infallible refuses to shy away from the highly insulting and cruel, so something to consider before reading it is whether you are comfortable being deeply uncomfortable. The content includes (and isn’t limited to): rape, murder, pedophilia, ableism, bigotry, incest, cults, and animal cruelty.
Violence against women is at the forefront of explicit content in Toño the Infallible. Throughout the novel, Toño equates women and his attraction to them with his drive to constantly violate and control them, making sex and women synonymous. What’s unsettling about this aspect is how we navigate these conversations today: where objectifying women has to be unlearned and sexual violence is just another category to browse in online pornography. Toño’s harmful, degrading rhetoric is only the beginning of his descent into violence. Rosero does not attempt to make Toño Ciruelo forgivable. What makes Toño the Infallible captivating is how there isn’t any justification for his actions in his upbringing, mental health, or social life. The statement is as refreshing as it is disturbing. It refuses to place blame on outside sources to help Toño escape responsibility. Toño is a horrible man by his own volition, hungry for control and without a thought for anyone else.
The novel portrays infuriating and disturbing scenarios where there are no adequate consequences for Toño’s actions. His existence defies laws and escapes justice for a lifetime. Rosero emboldens the sheer magnitude of Toño’s power by making him so untouchable that the idea of justice—by law or otherwise—feels far out of reach. His existence defies laws and slips through the cracks for a lifetime. There’s a subtext that speaks to political and social strength that does not work to protect the people, but monetary value and status. Considering a lot of Toño’s experiences wouldn’t have been possible if he didn’t have the means to spend on traveling, going to brothels, and promising desperate people fortunes to humiliate themselves for him, the man’s wealth is another factor in his success. It is a heavy read, and the desperation I felt came from everyone else’s powerlessness. There is no justice strong enough to hold him accountable, and who is willing to try in a fearful society run by and for so many Toño Ciruelos?
In light of being a helpless bystander to him, Eri is fascinated and awestruck by Toño and his atrocities. He goes as far to express it in his writing, which is to question the morality of consuming art and the artist at work. By indulging in the details of such a vile man’s life and his impact on those around him, are we, as readers, the same as Eri? Are we curious bystanders to violence that we would like to criticize? Critical judgment and media literacy says otherwise, as ignoring difficult topics such as violence and oppression does not get rid of it, but instead lets it fester and grow without repercussions. Still, there is a curious line between raising awareness and exploitation which lies in the intention and delivery of the artist. Toño exploits and degrades sufferers in all sorts of ways. He revels in their physical disabilities by showing how able-bodied and healthy he is, and uses their stories to fulfill his own sadistic narratives in performance art pieces. Toño’s art and platform as an artist is indicative of the type of person he is, and in a perverse way, its ridicule of his audience allows it to exist.
Deceptive, cunning, and vile, Rosero’s commentary on the nature of violence is layered and articulate. Rosero makes solid, unwavering statements about the power that violent men hold and what that means for everyone else. Embodying every sinister quality of man into one, Rosero’s narrative points to larger issues of abuse in power. Toño the Infallible is not for the faint of heart, but it is an incredible exploration of the evils that flourish when violence, money, and deceit get you power. The multiple references to Toño being the Devil himself imply that a holy force to balance his evil should exist as well. Without the counteraction of Good (what we can assume is justice), Evil prevails and wreaks havoc on the masses. In the never-ending chain of violence, the people being punished are those with the least amount of sociopolitical power.
Toño the Infallible
By Evelio Rosero
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and Victor Meadowcroft
New Directions Publishing
Published on September 6, 2022