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08 October 2011

Narrators who confound.

One of my favorite lines from one of my favorite books with an unreliable narrator is this:  “This is the saddest story I’ve ever heard.”  Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier may be one of the greatest novels ever written, and I cannot argue with Jane Smiley’s opinion that it is one of the most stylistically perfect novels in any language.  The experience of reading it is tremendous, and it ranks high among other works with such narrators, like Lolita.  Sadly, I haven’t come across many books as good at deploying the use of the unreliable narrator...until now.

Horacio Castellanos Moya’s The She-Devil in the Mirror is, on the surface, a murder mystery, and underneath a fierce examination of society in collapse.  Olga Maria has been gunned down in front of her children, and the whole aftermath is narrated for us through incessant dialog by a shallow young socialite.  As the wake progresses, all the right people show up, and Laura Rivera talks about her best friend, we see just what sort of narrator we have:  “Come on, come with me, let’s see how she looks.  Look at those gorgeous flower arrangements:  Marito’s advertising agency sent them over.  I told you that’s her best dress – don’t you think she looks gorgeous, they did a good job on her, you can barely even see the hole in her head.  Life is a catastrophe.  How could this have happened to her?  You went to her last birthday party, remember...those cowards (who shot her) should be killed!  Doesn’t her hair look great?”  And so on.  While she prattles on, trying to solve the mystery of her friend’s death, we learn that Olga Maria was something of a tramp, and that our narrator is no better.  One minute “vulgar is as vulgar does, and it disgusts me” and “all those poor people, theives and whores,” to a page later, “when we finished, lying in the hammock, my pussy red and swollen from so much in and out, I asked him if he’d done it like that with Olga Maria?”  And underneath it all, beyond the grasp of our vacuous tour guide, is the corruption and history of violence of San Salvador, which we catch in glimpses.  As the novel progresses, Laura slowly goes mad, and justice becomes more and more opaque.  Her narration becomes more fevered, more disgusted with the filth around her.  But she has yet to look in the mirror.  

This is a great, terrifying book.  I suspected I would find the social scene of the novel foreign, but it was frighteningly familiar.  Perhaps the she devil in the mirror isn’t Laura’s society, but ours.

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