Horacio Castellanos Moya - Dance With Snakes
In 2008, New Directions publishing brought out a slim novel by a little known (to readers in English, at any rate) El Salvadoran novelist by the name of Horacio Castellanos Moya. The book was Senselessness, and its author was prominent enough in the Spanish literary world that he had been both exiled from his native country, and lauded by Roberto Bolaño, himself a famous Spanish novelist exploding in popularity in the USA and elsewhere. Senselessness was brutal, funny, heretical, cathartic and bristling with humour, a sharp poke in the eye to those who would use cant as argument, or the weight of pompous authority as the only answer.
Dance With Snakes, an equally slim novel written eight years prior to Senselessness, but published in English in 2009 by Biblioasis in Canada for its Biblioasis International Translation Series, offers both a further unnerving glimpse into this controversial author's mind, and a sense of where he has come from as an author, what territory he has uncovered as a writer. Dance With Snakes shares the comedy and violence of Senselessness, but it has a wholly original aspect of its own, a dark and disturbing side that outright rejects the possibility that the outsider in society can ever truly be understood by the common man.
“None of the tenants could say exactly when the yellow Chevrolet had first parked in front of the building,” Moya opens his novel with a derelict vehicle parked outside a reasonably prosperous middle-class neighbourhood. The car is boarded up, and smells foul. At times, a disheveled man with a limp emerges, only to return at night with bags of junk and smelling of alcohol. Eduardo Sosa, an out of work sociology graduate whose only career prospects is either a sociologist, which nobody wants, or a politician, which Sosa could never be, curiously regards this man, and befriends him one day by following him along on his route. The man, Jacinto Bustillo, spends his days foraging for junk, most of which he sells for liquor – the sexual favours of other homeless men, it seems, he receives for free. Sosa watches Jacinto kill a gruesome dwarf, then slits the man's throat and takes possession of his car. Inside there are snakes, four of them: “The plump one with the cunning eyes would be Beti; the slender one who moved timidly, almost delicately, would be Loli; Valentina exuded sexuality with her iridescent skin; and little Carmela had an air of mystery about her.” Soon Sosa is off on a killing spree, using – or rather, collaborating with – the snakes to murder Jacinto's family, random strangers, and prominent politicians.
Through all this, Sosa explains nothing, justifies nothing. We learn little of him beyond that he is out of work and perhaps more idle than necessary – though midway through the novel, his sister tells a frantic police offer that “her brother was unemployed with a history of behavioural problems,” the depths of which we do not learn. Instead, Sosa acts almost as the deceased Jacinto's vengeful id, killing those who wronged the homeless man, and caring not at all for any collateral damage. The strongest hint we have that there might be something more to this than simple killing is during Sosa's conversations with Rita Mena, an ambitious reporter for ocho columnas. He tells her, “I'm not crazy, and I'm not a criminal. I'm just someone who through tremendous effort and sheer will became what I am today: Jacinto Bustillo, the man with the snakes.”
After a good sized portion of this novel has passed, and the body count has piled up significantly, the narrative shifts away from Sosa. Moya drops the cool, collected, rational but distant narration and replaces the first-person perspective of Sosa with the third-person perspective of Deputy Commissioner Lito Handal as he attempts to capture an increasingly bewildering murderer. Handal's chapter is full of emotion and confusion, a whirlwind caught up in Sosa's calm destruction. Moya takes us slightly back in time to give us another perspective on the initial killings, then shifts perspective again – and tense, this time, giving us a present-tense recount of events – through the lens of Rita Mena. These shifts in perspective allow the reader to more accurately capture the disintegration of cultural norms within the city of San Salvador, showing us how easy it can be for a single determined individual to undermine the foundations of civility and predictability. Sosa's antics are such that he becomes essentially an invincible cipher, an unkillable problem who, even if killed, would have disrupted the city so much as to place it on virtually permanent tenterhooks.
The final section of the novel returns to Sosa, and here we experience the novel's climax. It is here that Moya pushes the boundaries of good taste, already stretched to breaking, and shatters what an ordinary reader expects from their novels. Moya takes the concept of a man transforming himself through “tremendous effort and sheer will” into the man with the snakes to its end point, then, abruptly and without closure, forces the novel to an end.
It is indicative of the sad state of foreign translations that such an intriguing and – terrible word, but here it is justified – original writer had published eleven works before being translated into English, but both New Directions Publishing and Biblioasis should be commended on their courage. Moya is not an easy author, and his novels eschew – at least both that have been published in English – both easy answers, and indeed often an answer at all. Obsession, darkness, the fringe of the fringe of society: these are Moya's stomping grounds. Eduard Sosa is sympathetic while being almost totally alien, he is an enigma both to the reader, the other characters, and himself, but his answer, it seems, is this: there is no answer. Lee Paula Springer's translation handles admirably the shift in tense and perspective, while retaining an overall feel of the novel that remains coherent throughout the most bizarre of happenings.
Dance With Snakes is harrowing and violent, a deliberate and relentless effort to shock the reader. And, you will be shocked. There is something in here for everyone, to the extent that all boundaries are crossed and morals broken into insignificant pieces. Yet it is the ease with which Moya shows this happening that is the novel's greatest strength. We live in societies where we operate under the tacit assumption that most everyone will behave in a mostly orderly, ordinary, and regular manner. When a person shifts too far outside what we expect they are ostracised – witness the antics of teenagers as they jostle for attention and express their identities in an increasingly outrageous manner – and everyone knows someone who “isn't quite right”. Moya turns this concept into a novel, creating a mostly ordinary fellow who forces himself to become extraordinary simply to see what it is like, and succeeds so tremendously because people simply do not and cannot accept that which is so wholly different to their concept of normality.
||Horacio Castellanos Moya
||Dance With Snakes
(Original Title: Baile con serpientes)
||Lee Paula Springer
1996 (El Salvador)
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