It appears that Horacio Castellanos Moya ("HCM") is assuming, at least in this country, Roberto Bolano's position as the leading fictional portrayer of the chaos, confusion, and corruption of Latin America. I recently read "Senselessness", the first of HCM's novels to be translated into English, and it was quite powerful and memorable. It spurred me to read THE SHE-DEVIL IN THE MIRROR, which, along with yet another of his novels ("Dance with Snakes"), was released in English translation only a few weeks ago.
SHE-DEVIL does not have the visceral impact of "Senselessness", but it too is a memorable work and an accomplished one, especially from the standpoint of narrative technique. Written in 2000, it depicts life in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, after the civil war (which ended in 1992), as experienced and recounted by the first-person narrator Laura Rivera, a 30-year-old divorced woman of privilege and wealth (she has driven only BMWs since she was 18). At the beginning of the novel, Laura's best friend Olga Maria has just been murdered. As the novel progresses, Laura learns more and more about Olga Maria and various men (all friends of Laura's as well) with whom she interacted, and Laura's working hypothesis of why Olga Maria was murdered and who was responsible keeps changing, somewhat like a kaleidoscope, until it shatters. Laura's continuing attempt to understand the murder and integrate into her hypothesis new pieces of information makes for an interesting variant of the detective story genre. As the tale unfolds, however, it becomes increasingly obvious that Laura is an archetype of the unreliable narrator. Still, the story she tells, if uncertain in its details, is a crystal-clear portrayal of the pervasive atmosphere of corruption and shallowness among the upper class and political powers that be in El Salvador. (And, surely, one message of SHE-DEVIL is that given that pervasive atmosphere there is no possibility of ever unraveling the "truth" about what happened.)
As equally intriguing as the story itself is the way HCM tells it through Laura Rivera. The novel is comprised of nine chapters, each of which consists of what Laura says -- and ONLY what Laura says -- during extended conversations with a friend or confidante who is never named. (There are no paragraph breaks in any of the nine chapters; nonetheless, the novel is surprisingly easy to read.) The conversations take place over a six-week span in different places and circumstances -- for instance, at the wake, driving to the cemetery, in a restaurant, at the confidante's house, and by telephone. At times, Laura's commentary includes remarks addressed to someone other than her friend (her mother, a waiter, a police dispatcher), but the voice is always that of the incessantly chattering, nattering Laura, who, as the novel progresses, becomes increasingly paranoid and unhinged. (Question: To what extent is it the political and social circumstances of El Salvador that undermine Laura's mental stability?) Laura is vacuous, flighty, bitchy, obsessed with her body and sex, and thoroughly unlikable, yet one stays glued to her story.
Laura also has no sense of irony and she is not at all self-reflective. What then is the significance of the title? A good question for book clubs. In considering it, one might also reflect on the role of mirrors in "Senselessness", in the last chapter of which, the first-person narrator (who in extreme paranoia has fled a corrupt and brutal Central American country) looks in a mirror, concentrating "on each and every one of my features, on the expression on my face, which suddenly looked different to me, as if he who was there wasn't me, as if that face for an instant were somebody else's. * * * [N]obody likes to look at himself in the mirror and find somebody else." Does that have anything to do with Laura? If so, which is the she-devil -- Laura or her reflection?
I prefer "Senselessness" over SHE-DEVIL. But reading SHE-DEVIL persuades me that Horacio Castellanos Moya is indeed a major author.