Have you ever started a book thinking that the title and the blurbs disclosed too much? That though it still promises to be well written and interesting, you wish the ending hadn’t been alluded to? That’s how I felt when I started The She-Devil in the Mirror (La Diabola [sic: Diabla??] en el Espejo, 2000; tr. from the Spanish by Katherine Silver, 2009). It’s a murder mystery monologue by a “fabulously unreliable” narrator, the “she-devil.” I was very wrong to think that I knew how this book would play out. As I’ve found in many of New Directions’ publications, the subject is never quite so easy to pin down.
As I said above, this is a murder mystery delivered as a kind of dramatic monologue, like, for example, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Though I liked The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I think She-Devil used the device to much greater effect. In other words, I thought The Reluctant Fundamentalist had a great story and great bits about identity and emotion, but the monologue felt forced and more like a gimmick in the end, though I do understand why it was used; She-Devil, on the other hand, never felt gimmicky. And in the end, the device effects quite an illuminating surprise. Here’s how it begins:
How could such a tragedy have happened, my dear? I just spent the whole morning with Olga María at her boutique at the the Villa Españolas Mall, she had to check on a special order. I still can’t believe it; it’s like a nightmare.
Our narrator, that “fantastically unreliable” narrator, is Laura Rivera, a thirty year old woman and apparently the best friend of the murdered Olga María — at least, that is what she says, and we have no reason to doubt her, really. Something I didn’t expect from this Latin American novel is that Laura is upper class: “I’ve had only BMWs for about twelve years now, ever since papa gave me my first car when I turned eighteen and entered the university.” Most of the Latin American books I’ve read lately have dealt largely with the commoner, and they’ve been largely political because of that perspective. This one has a different feel because of the different perspective, though the political elements are present. This is post-civil war San Salvador, and it’s effects have drifted out into the populous, even those who are in many ways oblivious, like Laura.
Laura is in a state of shock as the book begins; after all, she has just found her that her best friend has just been murdered. However, due to the gossipy feel of her monologue, we get the feeling that the shock is just as much the effect of her having been with her best friend only hours before. It’s the proximity to death, in other words. The indignity she shows feels feigned. However, in Laura’s defense, she is genuinely shocked about the manner of the death. Olga María was killed in cold blood, in her own living room, in front of her young children. There is no apparent motive:
That’s when little Olga told me about the murderer and how all he wanteed was to kill Olga María: she told him to take the car, whatever he wanted, just don’t hurt them, especially not the girls; but he didn’t want anything, he just wanted to kill her, like someone had sent him, like he’d been given explicit insructions. Something smells rotten, because Olga María couldn’t have any enemies.
The bulk of the book is Laura’s attempts to rationalize the murder, to try to find something in the little she knows about Olga María’s past that could explain the death. She comes up with some pretty good theories, as outlandish as they may at first seem. The outlandishness is part of the point. But, Laura says, “I’m not paranoid.”
There is so much to admire in this book. Castellanos Moya’s narrator is wonderfully rendered. We can feel just how out of touch she is as she talks about the past or even the murder but then gets hung up on what someone is wearing. She’s a fan of the melodramatic Brazilian telenovelas, and we’re not sure how much of what she’s saying is based on ideas and emotions shes learned from these pastimes. But it’s not just this aspect of Laura’s personality that is well done. I thought this next paragraph was particularly enlightening:
After I hung up, after all the excitement of having solved the case, I got paralyzed. It was like I saw a blinding light. I felt this terrible dread, as if my discovery, that I’d solved the case, could cost me my life. I didn’t want to keep thinking. So, instead, I called Doña Olga.
Here’s Laura – maybe paranoid, maybe not; maybe correct about her theory, maybe not — avoiding her own ideas by calling Olga María’s mother. This is a great mystery novel, but more than that, it is a great look at how the paranoia permeating post-conflict societies,even those purporting to be democratic, can influence even those who are, for the most part, untouched and out-of-touch. I had no idea going in just how powerful this book would be.