Horacio Castellanos Moya’s “She-Devil in the Mirror”

Reviewed by George Fragopoulos

Image of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s “She-Devil in the Mirror”

One would be hard pressed to name a contemporary author as successful as Salvadoran Horacio Castellanos Moya when it comes to exposing the most obscene and discomfiting aspects of human consciousness.  Born in 1957, and working primarily as a journalist before becoming a novelist, Moya’s novels urgently speak of troubling political realities that are often far from the minds of most North Americans (although, as he said in an interview with Mauro Javier Cardenas, he is always one to be “on guard” if one suggests he writes political novels).  Moya achieved a certain amount of infamy in his home country after the publication of his 1997 novel, Revulsion/Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, selections from which can be found in the Words Without Borders anthology The World Through the Eyes of Writers.  Soon after the publication of the work, Moya began receiving death threats, leading Roberto Bolaño to write that one of Moya’s central virtues is that he drives nationalists into a frenzy. 

Often echoing the stylistic signature of one of his most obvious precursors, Thomas Bernhard, Moya is a master of the harrowing, if often darkly comic, vitriolic diatribe; his claustrophobic voices exude and drip with despair, violence and abjection (at least the works that have appeared in English translation so far have fallen under this rubric).  Moya seems to have taken seriously Dostoevsky’s claim that consciousness is a sickness, but this does not mean that we should take him for a solipsist:  far from it, because for Moya there is no consciousness, no self, which is not symptomatic of the larger social and political realities that inform such aspects of the human experience.  

In such respects, one of Moya’s most recent novels to appear in English translation, The She-Devil in the Mirror, is an excellent companion piece to a previously translated work, Senselessness.  (Both novels elegantly translated by Katherine Silver.)  Much like that previous novel, also a rather terse and acerbic work, She-Devil takes place entirely in the mind of a single protagonist who is on the precipice of madness.  Whereas Senselessness is narrated by a lowly proofreader who slowly begins to realize that he is “not complete in the mind” as he edits a governmental report detailing atrocities committed against the indigenous population of an unnamed Latin American country, She-Devil’s narrator is Laura Rivera, a member of San Salvador’s social elite, a woman whose life is the stuff of a telenovela (a popular genre that Moya uses in sublime fashion to highlight the more ridiculous and soap-opera-ish aspects of his protagonist’s story).  Much like Moya’s proofreader, Laura also comes to realize, when it is far too late: “there’s something wrong with my head.”

Laura’s descent into madness (seemingly) begins with the violent murder of her best friend, Olga Maria, yet another well-connected, well-off member of her social circle.  As our unreliable narrator begins to—rather unwittingly—peel the layers from the onion that is the mystery of Olga’s murder, we learn more than we ever really wanted to know about Laura and her acquaintances, her family and her lovers.  It is a credit to Moya’s skill as a writer that he can make characters this vacuous, shallow, and unsympathetic worth following for nearly two hundred pages; but beyond that, the real protagonist of She-Devil in the Mirror is the country itself, an El Salvador left ravaged by Civil War, and the political climate that results thereafter.  As Nietzsche would have it: “Insanity in individuals is something rare, but in groups, parties, nations and epochs it is the rule.”  Laura’s madness is an extension of the political maelstrom, and madness, that is her country’s recent history.  But things are far more complicated, since Laura can be viewed as both victim and victimizer:  while clearly living a privileged existence in many respects, she is also a part of an incestuous elite that feasts on its own members in an insidious manner—it is no coincidence that Olga and Laura share many of the same lovers, or often find themselves betrayed by those closest to them. 

At the very beginning of the novel, Laura sees Olga Maria’s murder as inexplicable, a random and senseless act of violence that has no rational explanation.  But this absence of culpability is the novel’s true center.  We are never provided with an answer as to why Olga Maria was murdered.  Moya hints and drops clues in regard to larger political machinations beyond Laura’s understanding, but we readers are never made fully aware.  Like much contemporary, Postmodernist detective fiction, Moya is far more interested in representing the lack of an answer than in the successful solving of a crime.  Obfuscation and confusion reign supreme, an echo of the chaotic din that is Laura’s mind.  The rational approaches and investigations of a Dupin or a Holmes are nowhere to be found; all we have are Laura’s circumlocutions, her non-sequiturs and her increasingly peripatetic mind.  Laura’s frequent digressions—“Here comes my mother.  Wait a second.  She says the Brazilian telenovela is about to start … I love it.  In a totally different league than that Mexican garbage, only servants watch that” or, “Doesn’t her hair look great? It’s just like she used to wear it for parties, Mercedes herself came from the salon to do it”—are meant to hide the political and social realities that she and her upper-class ilk seek to ignore, but which nonetheless bubble to the surface.  The claustrophobic feel of the novel allows us only brief glimpses outside the privileged domain of Laura’s world, and those views, of course, are funneled through her unreliable vantage point.  An escape to the beach, for example, provides our narrator an opportunity to extol the virtues of class segregation: “The beach was lovely, empty, and it was low tide, that’s the good thing about going during the week: the lower classes can’t get there.” 

In Laura’s ramblings, Moya constructs a textual mirror for the ills of a particular time and place.  What makes She-Devil so compelling is this weaving of the banal and the evil, to echo the words of Hannah Arendt.  Evil, violence, horror are all in the details.  In a rather insightful essay in The Quarterly Conversation, Scott Esposito argues that Moya’s novels are so inundated by politics that they are, strangely, almost apolitical, what he calls “a part of the great political subconsciousness that seethes through life in 21st-century Latin America.”  I agree with this thesis; if Moya is writing political novels, which, in a sense, he is, they are in the manner of a work like The Stranger where Meursault’s senseless murder of an Arab can be read as allegory for the French colonization of Algeria.  One of the main arguments in Moya’s work is that there is no need to directly “represent” the political, for it is everywhere and everything.

She-Devil further suggests that this pervasive violence is directed against women in particular.  The novel reads as a subtle and brilliant critique of patriarchal violence.  Despite the repugnance we feel for the characters of Laura and Olga Maria, it is important to note that most of the violence in the novel is directed against woman.  Laura, and those around her, are so steeped in their own brutalization that the violence of her world is simply taken for granted.  Besides Olga’s gruesome murder, and Laura’s own psychological brutalization, there is also the story of Mirna Leiva, a former classmate of the two women, who was raped and tortured because of her leftist principles:

Yuca [a lover of Olga’s] was obsessed with hunting down communists, he was pretty messed up, and it wouldn’t have been unheard of for him to destroy Mirna’s life out of pure spite.  Because they did destroy her life, my dear.  Poor Mirna disappeared for three days; and it was only because her family pulled strings in high places that they sent her to the women’s prison.  But while she was disappeared with the National Guard, they raped her.

In Mirna’s story we see the frightening realities of a life shattered by war, an extension of what Roberto Bolaño called the “secret Vietnam” that was—and, in many cases, still is—Latin America. 

Moya is an important writer and his existence in English translation further expands our notions of what is vibrant and exciting in the world of Latin American letters.  The She-Devil in the Mirror should be considered an essential part of the Post-Post-Boom canon of Latin-American literature that has so far appeared in English translation.  (For a further sampling of such writers, see the recent issue of Zoetrope: All-Story edited by Daniel Alarcon and Diego Trelles Paz.)  This new “movement” is producing a literature that is boldly and marvelously reconsidering and rewriting the Latin-American literary canon, and it is particularly exciting for how marvelously different its writers are.  Moya is an essential writer of such a “movement,” for lack of a better term, although something tells me he would strenuously object to such a claim.  One only hopes that more of his work will be translated into English, and soon.