on Dance With Snakes, a novel by Horacio Castellanos Moya, tr. by Paula Springer (Biblioasis)

English-speaking readers discovered Horacio Castellanos Moya last year when New Directions published Senselessness (2004), his seventh novel and the first to be translated. A disturbing story with a comical backbeat, the novel is narrated by a freelance writer who comes to an unnamed Central American country to edit the testimonies of Indians who had survived the army’s atrocities. “I must recognize that the political filters through, sometimes irrepressibly, in the fictions that I have written, and that this filtering stems from a more unequivocal fact and that is that politics has been a dominant presence in my life,” he wrote in an essay, “Notes About the Political in the Latin American Novel.” Nevertheless, Moya bristles justifiably when his novels are defined as political. Streaked with psychological oddity and cracked humor, his novels claim victory by dominating their political materials through sheer expressive virtuosity.

MoyaCover.jpgNow, Biblioasis has brought out Paula Springer’s taut translation of Dance With Snakes (Baile Con Serpientes, 1996), Moya’s second novel of four parts. Dance With Snakes is a plot-driven story with twists and misunderstandings among its characters. Eduardo Sosa, an unemployed young man with a useless sociology degree, narrates part one. He describes how he came to drive around town (perhaps La Libertad, El Salvador) in a yellow Chevrolet junk heap with four verbal female rattlesnakes: “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 Carmela had an air of mystery about her.” Assuming the identity of the car’s former owner, Sosa (now Don Jacinto, who had been driven to living in his car by the ruthlessness of others) drives around town evening the score, drinking rum and letting “the ladies” out at various places to massacre both innocent and guilty people en masse. As the bodies pile up, Sosa’s offhand tone creates the strange effect of placing the reader on his side, especially since he expresses no ill intent. Also, the snakes speak with such concern for him and are themselves so likable that the reader’s own expectations and values are shuffled.

Part two follows the hapless police as they MoyaColor.jpgattempt to track down the Chevrolet and anticipate Don Jacinto’s next moves. When a prominent banker and politician is killed by the snakes, the president himself calls a state of emergency. Are the murders politically motivated? Are they acts of vengeance by a jealous husband? Or retaliation by drug lords?

A romping, violent farce, Dance With Snakes reads as a cinematic tale of the relationship between haphazard terror devised by vague intention and the state. Taking testimony from Sosa’s sister (Eduardo had spoken daily with Don Jacinto in their neighborhood), the cops learn “her brother was umemployed with a history of behavioural problems.” But the psychological motives for the violence are never revealed. Sosa/Don Jacinto remains a perversely innocent character living in a surreal world while his pursuers behave according to mundane rules.

MoyaBWcloseup.jpgPart three follows a reporter named Rita who is attempting to scoop her competition by getting the inside story. Moya knew the newspaper business very well. In May, 1991, six months before the Salvadoran civil war ended, he returned from Mexico to found a magazine. Two years later he launched a newspaper, but soon it failed. Shortly thereafter, he began writing Dance With Snakes. He had covered the war as a journalist before events forced him to flee the country in 1979. When his novel El Asco was published, he received death threats and left Salvador again, first to Frankfurt and then to Pittsburgh where he now lives, two host cities in the International Cities of Refuge Network for exiled and persecuted writers.

MoyaFingers.jpgThe story Rita wants to create, despite her boss’ demand for a spectacular bulletin, is the one the reader of Dance With Snakes is sensing beneath the weird comedy: “Feverishly, almost furiously, she starts to formulate the story she’d like to write … An intimate story, the one she’d like to tell herself in order to understand how, in twenty-four hours, life can suddenly take on a whole new meaning, and what you once thought was solid and secure can be exposed as incredibly vulnerable.” When Sosa phones in to the newspaper, he tells Rita, “There’s no plan and there’s no conspiracy, the way they’re saying on the radio. Only chance and logic have allowed me to complete my mutation. But you wouldn’t understand.”

However, the reader may feel some affinity for this mutation and probe the narrow gap between self-containment and nihilism. Sosa returns as narrator in part four to close the circle of his adventure as Don Jacinto. Moya has cultivated a unique talent for giving senselessness a screwy depth – and the style and shape of his fictions, often compared to that of Roberto Bolaño, are truly his own. Only Moya could come up with a scene where Sosa and his ladies, spiked on cocaine and a surprising aphrodisiac, have terrific sex. Such is the dance with snakes.

[Published September 30, 2009. 160 pages, $17.95 softcover.]

Of related interest:
on Senselessness, a novel by Horacio Castellanos Moya (New Directions)