Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dance with Snakes

Horacio Castellanos Moya's Senselessness brought him to the attention of the English reading world last year. Senselessness was easily the best novel I read last year, and this year two more novels are available in English, namely, The She Devil in the Mirror and Dance with Snakes. Moya has tried to re frame the context of the political novel and has spoken of the need to revisit the current trend of misreading Bolano, to whom he is usually compared. In fact, he has spoken about and written about the so-called Bolano myth, with the current adulation for the latter narrated as another example of US cultural imperialism in Latin America.

Dance with Snakes reads like a taut thriller and demands that it be read in one sitting. It is a mix of the tragic, the comic, the macabre and the most farcical of situations. Moya once said in a fit of hyperbole that El Salvador did not exist; the events in this short novel take place over the course of three days in the El Salvadorean capital. The war has ended and an unemployed sociologist gets interested in the occupant of a beat-up Chevrolet parked across his sister's apartment where he lives. The sociologist, Eduardo Sosa, who only watches TV and smokes cigarettes, feels piqued by the car. He tries to befriend the occupant, a middle-aged dishevelled looking man, who initially resistant, takes him along his nocturnal travels. He reveals some details of his past life and after a night of drunken revelry, quite suddenly, Sosa slits his throat. Sosa then decides to occupy the dead man's car and assume the dead man's identity.

It turns out that Sosa is not the only occupant but has to share it with four poisonous snakes, who initially wary, accept him as their friend and master. He decides to name them: "The plump one with the cunning eyes would be Beti; the slender one who moved timidly, almost delicately, would be Loli; Valentina exuded sexuality with her iridescent skin; and Carmela had an air of mystery about her." Sosa thus becomes Don Bustillo, the previous occupant, now dead. Sosa then decides to move away from his neighbourhood and launches at first accidentally and later on a series of macabre, highly bizarre and random attacks on his fellow citizens that claims the lives of scores of people, lead to dread, fear and even the fear of an impending revolution in the city. The snakes seem to relish this, attacking their victims with ferocious impunity and deriving pleasure from this blood bath.

Without intent, one of the victims is a presidential candidate, another his niece, another the police commissioner's niece; this leads the government to believe that the president himself is at risk, which leads to them hastily evacuating the president, declaring a state of emergency, with the media involved in a frenzied state of speculations about these senseless crimes. The second and third parts of the novel focus on the police hunt for Bustillo ( the police think he is alive) and the newspaper frenzy for a write-up, with the police and the media trying to outmaneuver each other. The fourth part focuses again on the first person narrative of Sosa. He prepares for the final encounter with the authorities in a scrap yard, where, naked, he makes a concoction of marijuana, cocaine, one of his dead snakes, and after he and his ladies, as he calls them are high, he dances with them in what can be only be described as a macabre piece of writing. He has sex with his snakes and dances to the tune of Dear Prudence,Walking on the moon and ending with Riders on the storm.

Sosa, before this highly energized scene, calls the main newspaper journalist and tells her that, "There’s no plan and there’s no conspiracy, the way they’re saying on the radio. Only chance and logic have allowed me to complete my mutation. But you wouldn’t understand.” At the same time, the journalist is trying to, "Feverishly, almost furiously, to formulate the story she’d like to write … An intimate story, the one she’d like to tell herself in order to understand how, in twenty-four hours, life can suddenly take on a whole new meaning, and what you once thought was solid and secure can be exposed as incredibly vulnerable." The novel ends with the police firebombing the scrap yard, with Sosa escaping to his former existence but the snakes perishing in the scrap yard blaze.

The style of this novel is racy, taut, without any intention of any lyricism. It is unlike that of Senselessness; the novel conveys the anarchic intensity, the senseless ferocity of these random attacks with a prose that borders on the sparse, the anarchic itself. The prose is sometimes slangy and a matter of factness that conveys the mind state of Sosa himself. In fact, when he spaeks to the newspaper office in a few sentences, he tells us that this is the first time he has been able to convey himself clearly. The snakes, his dialogues with them, the intensely farcical sex scenes seem over the top. And yet, nothing can convey more the sense of paralyzing helplessness that pervades of and during violence, in that the most violated and the most depraved resume their senseless existences again.

People can say that this novel reflects urban paranoia, the marginalized and their relationships with each other and the other; personally I feel that while that may be true, it is the very act of the political that is called in question here. It is easy to blame everything on a so-called paranoia but it is important to understand the constant re framing and reshuffling of social orders once anarchic forces or mutations seem to jeopardize this artificial construct of order. Last year, on this blog, while reflecting on Senselessness, I wistfully questioned the act of reading after knowledge imparted from Senselessness. Dance With Snakes made me uneasy throughout and finishing it was an act of relief. That is the highest praise I have for this novel. It is my intention to read The She Devil in the Mirror and like last year, it is quite clear that one of the two will end up as the best novels of the year. That I read 2666 this year and think I will not include it in the same breath speaks of the pulverizing intensity and the mesmerizing menace of Moya's urban nightmarish, almost messianic vision of the tip of the iceberg of our lives.

1 comment:

Savoring the Narrative Arts said...

You'll love _She-Devil_ too. Thanks for this great writeup on Moya. As you said, he's an incredibly interesting and exciting writer, and I'm so anxious for more of his work to be translated. These first three are knockouts.