DANCE WITH SNAKES
By Horacio Castellanos Moya
"What happened?" the head of DICA asked.
"The snakes," said Handal, barely stopping.
"What do you mean, the snakes?"
But he was in a rush. He had no time to explain.
Dance With Snakes is a short book in a hurry. Like
the assistant police commissioner Handal, it has no time to explain. Everyone we
meet seems to be in a rush. They say things like "Let's go!" and
"Do something! The snakes will be here any minute!" One of the main
characters is a newspaper reporter, a woman named Rita whose editor is breathing
deadlines down her neck. Rita spends a lot of her time running around chasing
leads while "feverishly, almost furiously" trying to write her story.
That story concerns the surreal adventures of Eduardo Sosa, another man in a
hurry, in his case one fueled by rum, cigarettes and cocaine. Along with his
serpentine concubines Sosa lays down a trail of murderous, high-speed
devastation while fleeing the police. There is violence a-plenty, but rendered
in such a way that if you blink you miss it. Moya is the anti-Peckinpah, rushing
through carnivalesque scenes of bloody chaos with a haste that paradoxically
diminishes their horror:
"Let's go settle the score with those people,"
Carmela [one of the snakes] said decisively. She didn't want to stop and discuss
it and the others were just as riled up.
I got on the stool, took the cardboard off the windshield and took off
toward the gas station. I stopped the car at the entrance of the parking lot. I
opened the car door and told them the fat guy was with that group over there. I
took another swig of rum and lit a cigarette. It was a Friday night and the fun
was about to begin. I'd never seen the ladies so furious. Carmela did a
somersault and coiled herself around the fat guy's neck so hard she nearly took
his head off. The other three bit him before turning on his friends. The terror
spread instantly. Some people were rushing into their cars; others were running
to hide in the supermarket. Many didn't even know what had caused the stampede.
I took out my pocketknife and cleaned the dirt out from under my fingernails. In
all the confusion, several cars collided trying to escape. A long-haired guy
who'd been bitten managed to climb into his brand-new car and tear out at full
speed, but lost control and smashed into the gas pumps. First there was a series
of small explosions. Then there was a roar so loud I was afraid the explosion
would fry the Chevrolet. The ladies scrambled inside, terrified by the fire. I
put the car in reverse and managed to get out of the chaos.
This sense of confusion and chaos, with people (and snakes)
running and rushing about at "full speed," infects all aspects of the
novel. Here, for example, are the police in hot pursuit . . . of something:
They left headquarters at top speed, tires screeching, the
siren blaring as loud as it could go, as if they were on their way to a place
where the yellow Chevrolet sat waiting for them. But they were only driving
around with no real destination.
One thinks of the sound and fury that signifies nothing. At
least explicitly. There is "no time to explain" Sosa's strange
metamorphosis into the drunk he unexpectedly kills for no reason, or the car he
adopts being full of supernatural snakes. One supposes the whole thing is a kind
of revenge fantasy of Sosa's. He is introduced to us as the quintessential
loser: overeducated (with a sociology degree) and unemployed, living in an
apartment with a married younger sister while being supported financially by an
older one. "I spent most of my time in the apartment, watching television and
reading the newspaper." From such auspicious material Sosa's fantasy
transformation into celebrity-killer Jacinto Bustillo ("Look at this! We're
on the front page!") makes a kind of sense. The exploding gas pumps,
body-piled crime scenes, and weird sex (yes, with the snakes) are the
over-the-top complement to Sosa's impotent, humiliating everyday existence. Is
he a non-entity? Very well then, his revenge will be that of an invisible man.
The rest of society - police, army, media, and government - will be powerless to
stop his pseudonymous rampage. He will have his cake and eat it too.
Sosa's fantasy is immature to be sure, but it doesn't lack for
energy. All that rushing around generates a lot of heat. And while it has less
of the cruelty of a book like Hubert Selby, Jr.'s The Room, a close
generic cousin, it is also less imaginatively restrained. For Moya violence is
swift, impersonal, and as universal as the apocalypse. High and low are gathered
together in a pressing of the grapes of wrath. Looking at groups of young people
hanging around on the street, even Handal has a Travis Bickle moment, wondering
"whether it wouldn't be a good thing to have a few Jacinto Bustillo's to
get rid of all that stupidity." Revenge, like a snake swallowing its tail,
Review first published online October 5, 2009. For another take on the genre
of revenge fantasy, see my review
of Garros's and Evdokimov's Headcrusher.