Horacio Castellanos Moya is a Salvadorian novelist who has had a number of his novels translated into English (with Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador due out next month) and published by New Directions in the US; only one has so far made to the UK, The She-Devil in the Mirror, which was released in 2010 by Alma Books in the same translation by Katherine Silver which had appeared across the Atlantic the year before. It’s impossible to say whether this is typical of Moya’s work as he has made it clear (here) he feels a writer’s style should change according to his subject:
“I think the one who most influenced my idea of literature was Elias Canetti, with his conception of the writer as a “custodian of metamorphoses,” the writer as someone who has to be able to metamorphose himself into the people of his time, no matter how weak, miserable or dark they are. And so it is that, in my case, every novel has its own stylistic requirements born out of the characters and the situations in which they find themselves.”
The She-Devil in the Mirror certainly has a particular style, both in terms of its structure and voice. In some ways a murder mystery, it is presented as a series of monologues from the victim, Olga Maria’s, friend, Laura Riveria. Laura is not ‘investigating’ the crime; she is inquisitive in a gossipy way, her breathless narration a series of confidences liberally interspersed with opinion.
Laura is there from the moment she hears of Olga’s death – literally there, as she rushes to the scene:
“But there was her body, stretched out on the living-room rug next to the sofa in a pool of blood, covered in a white sheet. I knelt down and lifted the edge of the sheet: the hole in her head was small, but all the brains had poured out the back. Oh, my dear, I felt horrible – I even felt like vomiting.”
Laura’s murder, originally classed as a robbery gone wrong, soon seems more suspicious, particularly when we discover “they didn’t steal anything, they didn’t even try to.” Laura, however, part of the country’s wealthy elite, is reluctant to help with the police investigation:
“I’m not just some nobody, they couldn’t mess with me, they’d better be very careful and show more respect or they’d soon find out who they were dealing with.”
When asked about Olga (any enemies? any extra-marital relationships?) she explodes: “how could he suspect such an honest, honourable woman, someone so devoted to her family and her work, what a scandalous insinuation.” Unwilling to talk to the police, Laura soon reveals to the reader that Olga was not, in fact, averse to an extra-marital relationship, first with a colleague of her husband’s, Julio Iglesias, and then with a photographer, Jose Carlos:
“There it was again, that gleam in her eyes I was telling you about, that same gleam I saw when we were at the American School, that she got whenever she’d start to get interested in a class-mate, the same gleam I saw with that Julio Iglesias.”
It’s her affair with an old friend, Yuca, now an important politician, that is the most likely to have placed her in danger, however.
The She-Devil in the Mirror works surprisingly well as a mystery, despite its narrator showing more interest in ensuring she has the latest gossip than in searching for the truth, upset when the police discover something she thinks only she knows or (worse) she doesn’t. Her indiscretions, though, are as revealing as any investigation, made all the more amusing by her self-absorbed, faux-emotional style. Both Laura and Olga’s unpleasantness are slowly uncovered, Laura happily sleeping with Olga’s ex-lovers while hypocritically mourning her to be sure of knowing what’s going on:
“A moment later we were at it again, hard and fast, there in the hammock, but more intensely, as if remembering Olga Maria had injected us with renewed passion, something delicious, something I’ve never felt before.”
Rather than being an unreliable narrator, Laura is a too reliable narrator, over-sharing whenever she can.
As the title suggests, there is a vanity to her, accompanied with an inability to see herself as she is, that reflects the society around her. This world of illusions is mirrored in the collapse of the fraudulent financial scheme her husband has been selling. The She-Devil in the Mirror is a brilliant example of how flexible the crime genre can be, working here as both a first-person character assassination and a political satire, while still containing the tension of a thriller.