7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
R. M. Peterson
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
The She-Devil in the Mirror (2009), set in El Salvador and the least political of the author's three novels available in English, is a murder mystery, told as a long monologue by Laura Rivera, a privileged, upperclass woman. Throughout, Laura confides to an unnamed friend, referred to as "my dear," quickly grabbing the reader's attention with her stunned reaction to the news that Olga Maria de Trabanino, her best friend since elementary school, has been murdered. Soon Laura is at Olga Maria's house. In what was apparently a robbery gone wrong, Olga Maria has been murdered in front of her young daughters, one of whom says the killer looked like RoboCop.
Taking charge, Laura helps pick out a black satin dress for Olga Maria to wear for the wake and funeral, then arranges for her hairdresser to do Olga Maria's hair. Later, at the wake, she asks her companion, "Don't you think she looks gorgeous, they did a good job on her, you can barely even see the hole in her head." Making herself indispensible, Laura tries to protect Olga Maria's children, gives advice to the police, provides information for the person she is addressing (including the reader) about Olga Maria's marriage, and suggests that Olga Maria may have been attracted to one of her husband's new employees. Throughout, Laura provides snide commentary about all the members of the social set to which she and Olga Maria belong. Laura herself is divorced from Alberto, a successful man whom she considers terminally boring.
Gradually, through Laura, the reader discovers just how many affairs Olga Maria has had, with Laura often providing cover for her so that Olga Maria can get away for trysts without endangering her marriage to Marito, a man to whom she is "totally devoted." Olga Maria has a short attention span and an almost complete lack of commitment, however, during these extracurricular activities, and her lovers are often devastated when she "says goodbye."
The novel consists of nine chapters, each of which is one long paragraph. Fortunately, the reader quickly forgets the gray pages of margin-to-margin type, with no indentations and no dialogue to break up the monotony of the type pattern, as Laura's point of view becomes more and more compelling. Her chatty and unreservedly gossipy commentary is full of revelations about the characters and provides insight into her own life, and her remarks on completely irrelevant subjects are often highly ironic in the contexts in which they are made, providing dark humor throughout the novel.
As Laura continues to comment on her best friend's murder and its aftermath, she blames the lack of progress in the investigation on the ineffective police, the tainted legal system, and the hypocritical clergy, among others, while also providing motives for half a dozen people in her social set to have committed the murder - involvement in a drug cartel, financial misappropriations, unexpected bankruptcy, thwarted love, and political rivalries, to name a few. Castellanos Moya's pacing is flawless as he suggests but does not always confirm the reader's conclusions about these characters as described by Laura. The finale is memorable, perfectly in keeping with tone and character. The details and subject matter are universal, rather than specific to El Salvador, and readers from around the world will be entertained and often amused by Castellanos Moya's foray into noir fiction.
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
Laura Rivera is superficial and spoiled. A self-absorbed chatterbox whose high-school graduation gift was a BMW -- her school quite conspicuously having been the American school, of course -- and who's never had a day of responsibility in her life.
Her very good friend Olga Maria is murdered just before the novel begins. On page one Laura is attending the wake, and in subsequent chapters, attends the funeral, the requiem service, and other related events following the murder, all the while chattering your ear off.
But what lovely, lilting, priceless chatter it is. Unlike Thomas Bernhard, whose unbroken streams of consciousness can sometimes weigh us down like leaden eyeglasses, requiring (quite worthwhile!) effort both to understand and to emotionally invest, Moya's text is airy, breezy, effortlessly propelling the narrative.
And what an unreliable narrator she is. Narcissistic, self-centered, divorced in her late 20s or early 30s, with nothing kind to say about her ex, very clearly in her own little world. But the story comes through her chatter nonetheless.
And what a story it is. Love affairs, politics, drugs, military abuses, capitalism versus communism versus religion versus everyone versus everything. There is corruption along every angle. Laura's anti-communist, anti-clerical father has had his lands confiscated in the past, giving this story's background an critical personal angle, but somehow the family appear to have remained wealthy.
Little by little, Laura reveals the details of her murdered friend's life, documenting one uncomfortable revelation after another. Chief Detective Handal is simultaneously her hope and her nemesis. She wants him to solve the case, but she is quite hostile to him from the very beginning -- surprisingly hostile, I'd say -- and continually insists he is an idiot who refuses to see the truth. Which, of course, she sees quite clearly.
At some point you realize that you've stopped focusing on the nattering narration, and started focusing on the murder mystery unfolding before you. You excitedly start assembling the facts, you eagerly start wondering who could have done what. You bewilderingly take note of scandal after scandal, in-fight after in-fight, while everything billows upward and blows up.
And then the narrative ends.
And then you ask yourself: What just happened??
And then you re-read the last chapter.
And then you get it.
This book should be required reading for all students of creative writing, and all fans of great literature. It's a small jewel of a book, fun to read, but deceptively profound.