At last year’s Best Translated Book Award ceremony, there were three novels cited as the best of the best: eventual winner Attila Bartis’s Tranquility, Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness. All the judges agreed that Moya’s book was really tight and amazing. Perfectly crafted, gripping, harrowing, and on occasion, quite funny.
What was especially promising was the long list of his other titles just sitting there, waiting to be translated. If only they’re 75% as good as Senselessness . . .
This fall two of his earlier books finally made their way into English: Dance with Snakes (translated by Lee Paula Springer and published by Biblioasis), a fantastical, political novel involving a man who uses a bunch of snakes to go on a killing spree (we’ll review this separately in the near future), and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Neither of these books is as ambitious or as powerful as Senselessness, but both prove—in totally different ways—that Moya is one of the great talents working today.
The She-Devil in the Mirror consists of nine one-sided conversations featuring Laura Rivera (who does all the talking), BFF of the recently deceased Olga Maria, who was gunned down in her own living room. Most of the narrative revolves around Olga Maria—the ongoing investigation into her murder, all of her various love affairs, and Laura’s increasingly complex explanation of who the mastermind behind Olga Maria’s death might be. These speculations are mixed in with Laura’s self-obsessed musings, silly observations, and numerous complaints about the police investigation in an intriguing, run-together way reminiscent of a teenager on a late-night phone call:
[. . .] Olga Maria was always so discreet, so modest, so reserved, never had those fits of hysteria, she defended her home and was totally devoted to her husband and children, that’s why her death makes me so angry, my dear, what’s the point, so many bastards they don’t bother killing and a woman like that—a paragon, so hard-working, look how she started that boutique from scratch, all with her own hard work. Those two coming in now, they’re the two policemen who came to Dona Olga’s to harass us, the one with the dark jacket is the one who says his name is Deputy Chief Handal: riffraff, my dear, they’ve got no respect for other people’s pain, what’s wrong with these people, how dare they come to a decent person’s wake, their heads must be full of rot—imagine: they wanted me to reveal all of Olga Maria’s secrets, as if any of her friends or acquaintances would have planned her murder . . .
Laura’s speech flits from subject to subject like that for 190 pages, unaware of its various contradictions, such as following the statement that Olga Maria was “totally devoted to her husband and children” with heaps of sordid details about her many affairs. Although initially Laura’s character is a bit incredulous, she starts to hit a rhythm and takes shape as a less-and-less reliable narrator even as she starts to postulate very dangerous ideas about the identity of the mastermind behind Olga Maria’s murder.
And that’s the simple tension that makes this book function: our only source of information to unravel the murder plot is a narrator who is either a flibbertygibbet or a true mental case. But if she’s right, the implications behind Olga Maria’s murder transform it from a daily tragedy into something with more shadowy political motives.
Overall, this book reads beautifully (all props to Katherine Silver for her wonderful translation), and is quite captivating. Looks like Moya’s reputation will continue to grow for years to come.
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .
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Let’s not deceive ourselves, man is nothing very special. In fact, there are so many of us that our governments don’t know what to do with us at all. Six billion humans on the planet and only six or seven. . .
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .