Reflections in a Political ‘Mirror’

'The She-Devil in the Mirror' by Horacio Castellanos Moya (New Directions)

“The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality,” John F. Kennedy ’40 said of Robert Frost in a speech following the poet’s death, “becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.” Horacio Castellanos Moya emerges as another writer who recognizes the discrepancies between his ideal and the reality and uses his talents to critically assess the forces responsible for the latter. In “The She-Devil in the Mirror,” the second of his novels to be translated into English by Katherine Silver, Moya continues in the tone he cultivated in the first of his translated books, “Senselessness,” filtering his condemnation of post-Salvadoran Civil War politics through the paranoid consciousness of his schizophrenic narrator.

Moya’s novel is a critique of the hunger for power that seized the Salvadorian political landscape in the early 1990s. Moya’s use of a compromised narrator lends his representation of these powers a disturbing air, a feeling that the governing entities were so corrupt that only someone completely out of touch with normalcy could imagine the mere possibility of such wrongdoing. The novel leaves behind a sense of injustice that resonates well beyond the incidents of his characters and brings to light a story of crime outright that has long been overlooked.

“The She-Devil in the Mirror” opens with the narrator, Laura Rivera, lamenting the murder of her best friend, Olga María. The mystery behind Olga María’s murder quickly unfolds and becomes intertwined with the political demise of an aspiring anti-communist presidential candidate. Rivera’s paranoia driven, stream-of-consciousness attempt to resolve the murder of her dearest friend conjures labyrinths of political schemes, unmasking the real chaotic networks of power behind the evil that dominates her country.

The novel moves through the mystery by way of Rivera’s disjointed thoughts. At her friend’s wake, Rivera is strangely distracted, her paranoid fits seized briefly by flashes of the mundane and pathetic around her. “Those sons of bitches,” thinks Rivera, “those cowards, they should all be killed. Doesn’t her hair look great?” Her thoughts bound from the invisible killers to the way her friend has been made up by the funeral home. But as Rivera’s personal investigation into Olga María’s murder progresses, her thoughts gain a more narrow urgency. Rivera’s postulations span entire pages, as she weaves possible explanations for what has occurred, evoking the terror and despair of El Salvador in the wake of violence.

“I thought I knew her, but now I realize she had many personalities.” As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that it is Rivera who possesses multiple personalities. While investigating her friend’s murder, Rivera ends up stealing her friend’s life by sleeping with each of her former lovers. “As if remembering Olga María had injected us with renewed passion, something delicious, something I’ve never felt before.” Rivera’s increasingly sick obsession with her friend’s trysts coincides with the deepening psychological downturn that allows her to formulate political theories and presumed exposés of evil. The more Rivera’s psychological state deteriorates, the more elaborate her theories become; however, amidst the nonsense and rants that Rivera produces, it becomes horrifyingly apparent that her theories are actually truths, as if only an irrational mind could grasp the illogical nature of the what occurred in real-world San Salvador.

“In other cities,” posits Rivera, “you live on one side and the bad guys live on the other, and there’s miles in between, which is how it should be. But in this country, everything’s all squished together.” As the mystery surrounding Olga María’s murder grows more complex, this declaration becomes terrifyingly true. The people Rivera once thought to be Olga María’s friends and protectors are cast as potential murder suspects. Trusted political figures are grouped together with drug traffickers and terrorists, conspirators who found political interest in the cold-blooded murder of a young mother. In Rivera’s mind, the official murder investigation itself becomes a means of framing one figure or another, the city’s investigator being a criminal just as awful as the original murderers. Though at first Rivera’s conspiracy theories may seem unfounded, as the novel progresses the truth behind her ideas begins to emerge, and the reader’s thoughts regarding the other inhabitants of San Salvador begin to mirror hers.

Moya uses the cloud of suspicion that surrounds Olga María’s murder to illustrate the extent of the corruption in San Salvador as a microcosm of humanity at large and how even the perpetrators of heinous acts can gain impunity with enough power behind them. Rivera’s paranoia and frustration surrounding her friend’s murder only grow as she realizes there is no one above suspicion.

“The She-Devil in the Mirror” can sometimes become convoluted by Rivera’s disjointed thoughts and seemingly incoherent digressions, but this haziness eventually comes to highlight the distressing and straightforward condemnation that stems from Rivera’s never ceasing obsession. Each time she develops a new theory regarding Olga María’s death, a seemingly innocuous member of society is implicated and a new, authentic layer of wrongdoing is exposed.

Moya artfully uses Rivera’s mind to depict the chaotic and corrupt nature of the Salvadoran political landscape without the hampering effect of explication, allowing his work and powerful charge to resound not only San Salvador, but wherever political corruption may be.

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