The all-too-human protagonists of Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya, such as the spoiled rich girl at the center of his latest novel in translation, The She-Devil in the Mirror, can’t help but absorb the inhuman culture of violence around them.
The She-Devil in the Mirror by Horacio Castellanos Moya. Translated by Katherine Silver. New Directions, 191 pages, $14.95
Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya. Translated by Katherine Silver. New Directions, 161 pages. $14.95.
Reviewed by Tommy Wallach
In the past year, New Directions has published two novels by acclaimed Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya. While “Senselessness” was originally published (in Spanish) in 2004 and released in the States in 2008, “The She-Devil in the Mirror” was originally published back in 2000 and released here just this month. In the interim (2000-2004), the prolific Moya published two other novels and a collection of short stories.
Yet it is no surprise that New Directions chose to publish these two novels one after the other. Aside from featuring similar structures and storylines, the two books reinforce each other, and ought to be read together. In fact, New Directions has even made a slight improvement; releasing the two books in reverse order actually improves the thematic continuity between them.
“Senselessness,” presented as a monologue in the style of Thomas Bernhard (a debt that Moya acknowledged in what is probably his most celebrated novel, “Revulsion/Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador”), tells the story of a man invited by the Catholic Church to edit an 1100 page report documenting atrocities committed by the military against the indigenous people of an unspecified South American country. Many of these quotations (which Moya found while carrying out a similar task for a human rights organization), laments such as “Because for me the sorrow is not to bury him myself…” and “The houses they were sad because no people were inside them …” come to haunt the protagonist of Senselessness, their stark gravity contrasting with his own crass and shallow preoccupations.
Afraid that the same military that carried out the atrocities documented in the account will punish him for editing it, he eventually leaves town. It’s a paranoia that proves to be well-founded. After he leaves town, the bishop responsible for commissioning the account is himself killed. “Everybody’s fucked,” the protagonist is told at the end of the novel. “Be grateful you left.”
Like Kafka, Moya keeps an ironic eye trained on the way in which bureaucracies become corollaries of dictatorships, and his leaps from absurdity to terror and back again are like something out of “The Castle,” or at least “Brazil”. In this way, “Senselessness” ultimately feels like nothing so much as a political novel. In interviews, Moya has claimed to detest that label, yet there is no question that politics permeate his books, whether they appear concretely, in the form of issues specific to San Salvador and Latin America, or through metaphor. “The She-Devil in the Mirror” rarely addresses politics directly, but it might as well do. Call it the curse of the Latin American novelist: nothing can be apolitical.
The novel begins with the murder of Olga María, the best friend of rich-girl protagonist Laura Riviera. While the killer is eventually found—an ex-military man whose inability to adjust to civilian life and subsequent decision to become a hired killer is the subject of another Moya novel—the mystery concerns who hired him. Was it the prominent politician Olga had dated in high school? Was it one of her many spurned lovers, particularly Laura’s ex-husband Alberto, who is about to go down in a banking scandal? Or could it have been Laura herself, jealous of her friend’s beauty and unable to cope with her ex-husband’s infidelity?
If all of this sounds a bit like a Mexican telenovela, that may be because it’s presented in a relentless monologue filtered through the fractured mind of Laura, who is herself a big fan of telenovelas. Unlike the protagonist of “Senselessness,” Laura is unfailingly entertaining—a potent mixture of cattiness (“Look at that one with the miniskirt: she looks like a cellulite saleswoman”), brattiness (“I’ve had only BMWs for about twelve years now, ever since papa gave me my first car”), and beneath it all, a poignant loneliness (“I told him I was envious of the intensity of his love for Olga María, nobody was in love with me that way. Why did I say that dear?”).
The eventual reveal, that Laura is not just a world class gossip, but a deeply disturbed and possibly criminal schizophrenic, is neither unexpected nor unsatisfying. In truth, this is the conclusion that was coming since the first line of “Senselessness,” “I am not complete in the mind…”. Laura’s breakdown is another, more insidious manifestation of the psychological effects of a culture of violence. For this reason, “She-Devil” functions far better as the second book in this de facto “series.”
“Senselessness” ends with the protagonist, having abandoned his post as editor of the account, sitting in a bar and staring at himself in the mirror:
“…I remained once again facing my own face in the mirror, convinced that nothing bad would happen and that if I just stared hard enough at my eyes I would discover something or at least conjure up the possibility of finding somebody instead of myself, and as a result of certain associations and the fear of discovering myself to be different in the mirror, there settled into my mind the sentence that said, They were people just like us we were afraid of, which I repeated without taking my eyes off myself…”
He has internalized the horror of the account he reads so deeply that he imagines himself as one of the military officers from the report, the one who grabbed a woman’s baby and smashed its head open in front of her. But there is humanity at the root of a psychosis inspired by the inability to shut out the suffering of others. The protagonist of “Senselessness” looks inwards, recognizing his complicity in the senseless violence he seems around him. Laura, on the other hand, can only look outwards, blaming and judging everyone but herself, perpetuating the same violence she rails against. Unable to see herself for who she is, senseless to the senselessness, she is the true devil in the mirror.