Friday, February 12, 2010

Harvard Crimson Reviews Moya's Snakes

In 2003, New Directions, a publishing company historically known for its stake in experimental literature, printed the first English translation of the late Roberto Bolanõ’s work—the slim volume “By Night in Chile”—during a time when contemporary Latin American authors were struggling to gain a foothold in the American market. Circulating among critics well-versed in the literary tradition of Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez, the translation introduced readers to a then-unknown Latin America, one neither swathed in magic realism nor saturated with family saga, but instead, mired—violently, bitterly, and evocatively—in political repression. The novella would mark the bloody delivery of visceral realism into the American consciousness, which soon became infatuated with the macabre elements that rage so relentlessly through Bolanõ’s work and that of his contemporary and cohort, Salvadoran Horacio Castellanos Moya. This fascination, wrote Moya in a critical piece he penned for Argentine newspaper “La Nacion,” has evolved dangerously throughout the years: the portrayal of Bolanõ as a non-conformist, subversive heroin addict serves only to still a masturbatory urge to redefine Latin American literature and culture in an American English vernacular.

Moya’s own work, of which “Senselessness,” “The She-Devil in the Mirror,” and most recently, “Dance with Snakes” have been translated from Spanish, is evidence of the author’s acute comprehension of society’s penchant for forcing what is foreign into a controllable compartment. “Dance with Snakes,” originally published in 1996 and now translated by Lee Paula Springer, is a four-part frenzy, a detailed depiction of the chaotic hell one man and four murderous snakes engender. Superficially a fantastical page-turner, the novel is at its core an uncompromising interrogation of authority, a gruesome satire whose pivot turns on exposing the consequences that result from a manipulated identity.

Eduardo Sosa, the antihero of “Dance with Snakes,” is an unemployed and restless sociologist who becomes obsessed with a beat-up yellow Chevrolet that parks on the street across from his apartment. Sosa follows its owner—the wretched Jacinto Bustillo—for one day before he unceremoniously kills the man and discovers his secret: Bustillo owned a group of talking snakes, a tetramer of assassins Sosa takes to fondly calling his “ladies.” The snakes, who Sosa names Beti, Loli, Valentina, and Carmela, are the impetus for his transformation into Bustillo; terrified when he first realizes their presence, he quickly grasps: “If I could manage to keep myself under control... concentrate enough so they’d feel my vibrations and understand that I was the new Don Jacinto, I’d be saved.” They are also his accomplices, sustenance, and lovers as he goes on an impulsive rampage through the city, taking incidental revenge on those who wronged Bustillo and killing tens of other hapless individuals—who coincidentally are deeply involved in the politics of the city—along the way.

Moya makes a subtle gesture when he succeeds the narrator’s first-hand account with a more distanced, third-person exposé of the media and police’s scramble to curb the “snake invasion.” As Sosa relays the details of his crimes, his calm demeanor permeates his victims’ screams; “The din outside was tremendous. The ladies were in a kind of orgy, biting everything in sight... In just a few seconds the street had been destroyed. There were dozens of bodies lying twisted on the ground between the vendors’ stalls, as though there’d been a machine gun attack or an earthquake. I thought we shouldn’t call too much attention to ourselves. I opened the car door and yelled for them to come back. They came in excited and out of breath.” Sosa’s only exhibition of sincere sorrow comes when Valentina’s head is shot off during one confrontation. It is surprisingly easy to sympathize with the narrator; his offhand treatment of death renders the murders meaningless, and his intimate loneliness—as a man who relies on snakes for warmth—is more pitiful than disturbing. By comparison, the version of the crimes given by the media and the police seems like a bumbling, confused mess of tenuous hypotheses. Their powerlessness to keep up with Sosa is made more evident when the reader, already knowledgeable about the murders that have been committed, has to wade through the police department’s political conspiracy theories.

“Dance with Snakes” suggests the extent of Moya’s potential, but does not realize it fully. While “Senselessness,” published eight years later, was a horrific testimony of genocide, “Dance with Snakes” is an unsettling account of a narrator disillusioned with his own race. The novel gives a glimpse of the incredible emotional devastation that makes “Senselessness” such a disconcerting story of a man losing grip with his humanity, and it hints at Moya’s humor, with its fast-paced murder scheme that evokes the satirical comedy of Voltaire’s “Candide.” But more than a revelation of how developed Moya’s work would become, “Dance with Snakes” is a provocative take on what happens when a man on the fringes of society meets those entrenched in it.

For when the terror and destruction conclude, Sosa must reenter society—devastated and disoriented—alone once more. “I stumbled along, talking to myself, gesturing at the night, babbling. I called out to Loli. My love, my beautiful girl, come with me. I called out to Beti and Carmela, my princesses who had loved me so. Don’t leave me, my darlings, what will I do without you, where have you gone?” Yet despite the explosive display of power that sets Sosa fleeing from his snakes, Moya suggests that the man who has caused so much chaos will simply blend back into the world around him. Punished for being intractable, Sosa nevertheless manages to spite authority and replace a façade that fools those who tried to tame him. “Dance with Snakes” is a pointed critique of societal repression, whose value lies in its ability to infringe upon the prude sensitivities of human emotion and to make a renegade sympathetic, if not a hero.

—Staff writer Denise J. Xu can be reached at

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