Novelist From Another Planet: On Horacio Castellanos Moya
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.
The voice heard in The She-Devil in the Mirror is that of Laura Rivera, a vapid, canny Salvadoran society girl whose best friend has been murdered, shot in her own living room in front of her two daughters. Laura can't imagine who could have wanted to kill Olga María, but she does know a lot about her friend's life--particularly her ex-lovers, of whom it is soon revealed there were many. The killer has been dubbed RoboCop: he's big, he's tall, he has short hair and he walks like the movie character, according to one of Olga María's daughters. The question is who hired him, and Deputy Commissioner Handal (here rendered as Deputy Chief Handal) is on the job again, looking to find out.
The novel's real drama, however, revolves around Laura, as the title suggests. At first she comes across as gossipy and entertaining--superficial, yes ("Sergio's car is such a pretty color, I love that lilac; I wanted one that color but BMW doesn't make it"), and rude to the little people ("riffraff, my dear"), but goodhearted beneath it all. Only gradually does it become plain that her sense of what's normal is very different from the generally accepted sense, and when it does, the reader's recoil is almost physical. Corruption seeps from every pore of her perfect skin. She's so steeped in it that it's invisible, until certain unavoidable facts begin to surface.
The person Laura is most determined to defend from the persecution of Deputy Chief Handal is Gastón Berrenechea, nicknamed Yuca, a childhood friend and now "a VIP, you know, he owns a chain of superstores, and he's a deputy in the government and a high-ranking party official." Yuca was Olga María's lover, though things didn't go smoothly between them. Laura, playing the coy go-between ("I suggested he have a seat on the sofa next to me and tell me all about what had happened"), makes the unsettling discovery that Yuca has a problem with cocaine. But when gossip suggests that Yuca's involvement with drugs goes beyond personal use, Laura is wildly indignant.
Both Yuca and Laura play cameo roles in another novel, El arma en el hombre (The Human Weapon, 2001), yet to be translated, which is a kind of companion piece to The She-Devil in the Mirror. Besides providing some revelatory information about Yuca's drug connection, it tells the story of RoboCop, the killer for hire who shot Olga María. If Laura is the warped, glossy surface of Salvadoran society, RoboCop is the machinery beneath it. He learned his trade during the civil war, and when it ended he took work wherever he could get it. At first, he tries to maintain some semblance of loyalty to his army comrades, but he soon discovers that there are no sides anymore, just shifting alliances of old-money landowners, politicians and drug lords, among whom there is always someone willing to pay good money to have someone else killed.
El arma en el hombre, like The She-Devil in the Mirror, is a conspiracy theorist's delight, a kind of fairy tale of corruption (including lovely visions of poppy fields). Every murder is a sinkhole that leads down to some crime kingpin, and the network of connections is dizzyingly complex. And yet to invoke conspiracy theory suggests that crime is always some kind of puzzle complete with a solution, no matter how byzantine. What Castellanos Moya's novels really capture is a world in which answers are essential, but often surreal; in which a series of terrible crimes might lead to a drug lord but also to a crazy man in league with four lady snakes. His characters are people who have somehow internalized these circumstances and adapted to them, with disfiguring results, or who, like the protagonist of Senselessness, become nervous wrecks, every fiber of their being vibrating in apprehension of countless looming threats.
Castellanos Moya has turned anxiety into an art form and an act of rebellion, and redeemed paranoia as a positive indicator of rot. Despite his estrangement from his country and his merciless criticism of it, he has put El Salvador on the literary map, giving it an international existence independent from the front-page news. If the university in El asco is stripped of its literature department, Castellanos Moya has tried to restore it. And he has done so by patiently, repeatedly and inventively exposing the grotesqueness of attitudes and behavior that have become normalized in countries where brutality and corruption are daily fare. To read Dance With Snakes or The She-Devil in the Mirror is--in a small way--to understand how Castellanos Moya felt when he returned to El Salvador on the cusp of civil war: like an extraterrestrial in the country he called home.