Sunday, November 29, 2009

Novelist from Another Planet: The Nation reviews Dance With Snakes

Over at the Nation, Natasha Wimmer reviews our Moya title, Dance with Snakes, alongside New Directions excellent She-Devil in the Mirror. The entire review, which lays out both the political and literary background to both novels, is well worth a read, and can be found here. Below is the section which deals most directly with Snakes.

If El asco is a torrent of inspired vitriol, Dance With Snakes is an extra helping of venom. It's Castellanos Moya's only overtly fantastical novel, and a different kind of revenge fantasy. Instead of working the intellectual angle, it goes for the jugular. Eduardo Sosa is an unemployed graduate in sociology who develops a fascination with a yellow Chevrolet parked on his street. The windows of the car are covered with cardboard, and its inhabitant, a grimy individual called Jacinto Bustillo, emerges only at night. Shortly after befriending Bustillo, Sosa stabs him to death in an alleyway and takes possession of the Chevrolet. He feels strangely comfortable in Bustillo's smelly hideout, where he's surprised to discover four poisonous but friendly snakes in residence. Beti, Loli, Valentina and Carmela--ladies all--fill him in on Bustillo's story. Before Bustillo took to the streets, he was a prosperous accountant, but then he began an affair with his secretary and her husband had her killed.

Curious, Sosa sets out to visit Bustillo's former wife and his lover's husband, but he and the ladies get sidetracked by a visit to the mall. The snakes are thirsty for action, and guards and wealthy customers are slain left and right. A stop at the market in the city center is even more deadly: the ladies slither through the stalls, leaving behind dozens of bodies. Sosa knifes Bustillo's wife and then moves on to check out Raúl Pineda, the husband who had Bustillo's lover killed. After a temporary setback and another snake attack (plus a giant fireball) at a fancy Esso station, Sosa and his snakes massacre Pineda and a roomful of his friends, who turn out to be narcotics agents partying with bags of dope.

By this point, Deputy Commissioner Handal is on the case, and the novel turns into a police procedural. Handal is one of the many recurring characters in Moya's novels (he'll show up again in The She-Devil in the Mirror); another is Rita Mena, an ambitious reporter for the newspaper Ocho Columnas. In the fictional climate that Castellanos Moya conjures up, the idea that there are policemen and reporters who go about their business in a more or less efficient way is almost harder to believe than the possibility that four talking snakes and a rogue sociologist might terrorize a city. In fact, the snake attacks come to seem almost plausible--just another tabloid horror tale--that is, until the lurid, outrageous denouement, which begins with a dose of marijuana-inffused snake-flesh soup and ends with a graphic episode of man-snake love.

The snakes are a living, writhing embodiment of the paranoia that Castellanos Moya so often channels. Nothing could be as terrifying and unpredictable (and faintly ridiculous) as a gaggle of poisonous snakes. In the novel, all of San Salvador lives in fear of a new attack. Even Rita Mena, the tough reporter, is spooked by a false sighting of a yellow Chevrolet ("'The snakes!' she shouts. 'They're coming!'"). Precisely because they're so ludicrous and so terrible, they're the perfect stand-in for real-life violence that's too extreme to be credibly portrayed in fiction. And Sosa might easily stand for those Salvadorans who were seduced by the culture of violence during the war; who took on new wartime identities (everyone assumes it's Bustillo who's committing the crimes); and who resume their civilian lives in the end, with no repercussions.

Castellanos Moya's writing is plain and colloquial, even calculatedly artless. Often it achieves a pleasingly jittery, caffeinated rhythm, but the satisfaction of these novels is less in the prose than in their cleverness and the sharpness of their bite. And the no-frills language serves a purpose: it signals that nothing is hidden in the trappings of eloquence. Like Roberto Bolaño, who was a friend, Castellanos Moya is an anti-rhetorical writer, determined not to settle for smooth turns of phrase (though Bolaño's oblique lyricism otherwise has little to do with Castellanos Moya's bluntness). The plainness and the slang make his work tough going for translators, but both Katherine Silver and Lee Paula Springer acquit themselves admirably. Springer tackles the snake mayhem with relish and delicacy, and Silver (who also translated Senselessness) grapples valiantly with the chatty flow of The She-Devil in the Mirror, which is a monologue of the sort that makes translators tear their hair out.

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