If there is a truth in Horacio Castellanos Moya's novel Dance With Snakes, it is a dirty one: a truth about the grotesque possibilities and misunderstanding of humanity.
The book opens in confusion. A mysterious yellow car has been parked in front of a housing complex in San Salvador, El Salvador. Intrigued by the vehicle and its lone, dirty occupant, the unemployed and largely unemployable sociology graduate Eduardo Sosa begins talking to the man. After an incident between the man (Jacinto Bustillo) and the police, Sosa spends the day with him, eventually assuming his identity in the book's most traumatic passage.
From this point, the novel assumes its dreadful arc of misunderstanding and violence. The new Bustillo takes up residence in the old yellow Chevrolet, in which he finds four snakes. He is soon accepted by the snakes -- whom2 he names -- and unleashes terror on the city.
The violence begins with a simple lack of understanding between some mall security guards and the ever-drinking Bustillo/Sosa. It spirals out of control and blooslust is incited as the snakes reek havoc in the downtown market. After learning the truth behind the original Don Jacinto's downfall, the new Bustillo seeks vengeance on those responsible. Savagely beaten by one of Don Jacinto's destroyers and his associates, the new Bustillo, lying on the ground near a gas station recovering from his injuries, is peed on by a drunk youth. He retaliates.
Finally, while trying to find a place to lie low while the police search the city for him, the new Bustillo kills a rich family their security guards and maids in their home in an affluent neighbourhood.
By the end of the first chapter and its 50 pages, it is apparent that there is no particular reason the new Bustillo kills so many people.
Castellanos Moya is able to strip raw the chaotic effects of violence across a society by switching narrators throughout, using different characters in the second and third chapter. By the fourth, he returns to Bastillo/Sosa.
The second chapter is narrated by the deputy police commissioner responsible for stopping the outbreak of violence, which he must do while dealing with pressure from his superiors and the media, as well as with the unknown factors of his own staff and the crimes' unpredictable nature. It originally appears that the high-profile lady killed in the first attack just happened to wind up in the wrong place, but when her even higher-profile brother and his family are the victims of the final assault in the rich part of town, the serious question of whether this is a political crime is again raised.
A journalist narrates the penultimate chapter, which dutifully captures the political leadership and public's insecurity and penchant for reactionary behaviour. Neither the deputy commissioner nor the journalist are able to grasp the truth of the events.
Returning finally to the original narrator and his erotic relationship to the violence he has unleashed, Castellanos Moya skillfully captures the problems of perception that both make violence possible and exacerbate its effects.
Though graphic and possibly disgusting, Dance With Snakes strips bare with black humour the disconcerting capacities buried within humanity -- which all too often in the author's native South America have emerged to widespread misery. As an allegorical analysis of South American violence, this novel's incision cuts very close to the discouraging truth.