The She-devil in the Mirror Paperback – Aug 25 2009
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He has put El Salvador on the literary map. — Natasha Wimmer (The Nation)
This book reads beautifully…and is quite captivating. Looks like Moya's reputation will continue to grow for years to come. — Chad Post (Three Percent)
The only writer of my generation who knows how to narrate the horror, the secret Vietnam that Latin America was for a long time. — Roberto Bolaño
Dark and comic, at turns violent and oddly erotic. — Nate Martin (Stopsmiling.com)
Like Kafka, Moya keeps an ironic eye trained on the way in which bureaucracies become corollaries of dictatorships….His leaps from absurdity to terror and back again are like something out of The Castle. — Tommy Wallach (The World (PRI))
[It] careen[s] with such giddy enthusiasm. — Don Sjoerdsma (Northwest Phoenix)
Humor amid the madness and evil. Don't let the breezy, often funny and frequently irreverent tone fool you. — John Greenya (Sunday Washington Times)
Castellanos Moya's narrator is delightfully paranoid and obsessed. — Joshua Marcus (Times Literary Supplement)
About the Author
Katherine Silver is an award-winning literary translator and the co-director of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre (BILTC).
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
Although Silvio Sirias' "Meet Me under the Ceiba Tree" and Horacio Castellanos Moya's "The She-Devil in the Mirror" are both novels about a woman being murdered and both take place in Central America, that is where their similarities end.
"Ceiba" is the story of a reporter investigating the murder of a lesbian woman, Adela, who would never hurt anyone. Everyone in the small Nicaraguan town seems convinced who committed the crime and they even put two people in jail for it. Although I was convinced these two people, the selfish mother of the victim's lover and the rich man she sold her daughter, Ixelia, to were evil, vile people, I was not convinced they physically committed the crime. The reporter talks to anyone who knows anything about Adela and her young lover, including the local priest who condemns their lifestyle and the judge who only wants justice for the victim and her family.
"She-Devil," on the other hand, is told from the point of view of the murdered victim's "so called" best friend. As the story goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent that the narrator is quite jealous of her friend's life. While Olga Maria had a great husband and two beautiful daughters plus two or three lovers on the side, Laura, the unreliable narrator, is divorced with no children and seems utterly unhappy with her lot in life. Olga Maria owns a boutique while Laura doesn't seem to have any job or even to have had one in the past. Laura seems to have tried to have affairs with the same lovers that her friend slept with, though she claims she was just trying to help out her friend when she visits these lovers. Laura finally loses it when she discovers her friend slept with her lazy, totally un-sexy ex-husband while they were still married. Although it seems she discovers this later, as the narrator is relating all this to a (imaginary?) friend, we see that she is losing her bearings and ends up institutionalized.
I had an on-line discussion with another reader who read into the story less than I did; he took everything at face value, so in the end, it is difficult to say what actually happened. I suspect that my female sensibilities bring a different perspective to the conclusion of the mystery.
Both stories are filled with illicit sex between lovers, friends and even the occasional paid rendezvous, but "Ceiba" takes place in the countryside in Nicaragua, whereas "She-Devil" takes place in San Salvador, the capital. The poor people, barely eeking out a living in their little town, for the most part, are much more accepting of difference than the rich of San Salvador.
Both authors show us how jealousy and can lead people to places that are worse than Hell and that money often is the root of all evil. Sirius really gets us into the mind of his protagonist, not a difficult task considering that he really was a reporter investigating this woman's death. He wrote the story as fiction so he could fill in details that were never discovered.
Castellanos Moya, on the other hand, gets into the mind of an upper class Salvadoran woman filled with jealousy, and longing for a life that gives her some fulfillment, and Castellanos does this very well.
I recommend both of these books to anyone interested in Central America, its people and history, and its diverse cultures.