Politics, Corruption and Sex in El Salvador

From the opening sentences of the first chapter, there’s something breathlessly paranoid about Horacio Castellanos Moya’s The She-Devil in the Mirror.

“How could such a tragedy have happened, my dear? I just spent the whole morning with Olga María at her boutique at the Villas Españolas Mall, she had to check on a special order. It’s unbelievable. I still can’t believe it; it’s like a nightmare. I don’t know why they’re taking so long to get her ready; it’s already five thirty, and they still haven’t brought her out. It’s that magistrate, he took his sweet time. He’s a disgrace. The poor thing, stretched out there on her living room floor, everybody and his brother coming and going through the house. How horrible. They let me know right away: Sergio, Olga María’s brother, called my house and said something terrible had happened, Olga María had been ‘mortally wounded’ during an attempted robbery.”

Maybe. Olga María is dead. But not exactly from an attempted robbery. Nor does it take long for the reader to understand that Laura Rivera, the woman who relentlessly tells the story–and supposedly is Olga Maria’s best friend. Nor is she exactly a reliable narrator or even friend to the deceased as she wants us to believe in this noir detective novel set in Castellanos Moya’s adopted country, El Salvador (he was born in Honduras). Fact is, Laura is petty, vindictive, excitable, often plain stupid and hilarious, totally without any self-knowledge, especially of the incriminating kind.

So Laura talks and talks, faster and faster (in Katherine Silver’s breathless translation), touching on politics and corruption in El Salvador—where Castellanos Moya is regarded is the foremost writer, though ironically he’s in political exile in the United States. Laura’s story, her monologue, her rant (more accurately) lays into just about everything: philandering husbands; the corruption of politicians, policemen, and priests; journalists, doctors, and finally—because she has no awareness of her multiple contradictions and cancellations of earlier statements—herself. Laura (her own worst enemy) does not relate Olga María’s story as much as her own, which is only to say that the two women are fictive twins or, to use the image of the title, mirror distortions of one another.

Slowly, we discover that Olga had a lover, justified immediately by Laura’s observation that there’s a simple explanation: “It must be awful to live with the same man [her husband] for almost ten years.” Worse, Olga María’s husband, Marito, is awfully boring. But one lover wasn’t enough, so then there was a second. And then a third, which Laura can still understand because of the ten-year marriage—plus the fact that Laura had the good sense to divorce her own husband, Alberto, after one year. If you’re attractive and rich—true of both women—why not have a series of lovers as long as your husband doesn’t know?

All of this rationalization works quite well for Laura until the discovery late in her attempted reconstruction of who actually killed her best friend that Olga María also had an affair with Alberto. Then Laura can’t deal with the truth (if that is what it is, since we can never be certain), and her giddy narrative jumps from commentary on extramarital affairs to paranoia that someone might also be planning to kill her. Everyone becomes suspicious. She’s being followed, and we begin to understand that those seemingly innocuous references to public officials (“that fat idiot we put in there as president”) may have some basis of truth to them.

Besides the veiled political commentary, in Laura Rivera, Castellanos Moya has created a truly delicious character, utterly transparent and lacking self-awareness no matter what the subject of her own blabbering may be. Thus, in her own words during the requiem for Olga María, “That’s what bothers me about going to Mass: you have to constantly be standing up, kneeling down, standing up, and my clothes end up getting all messed up and looking frightful.”

No way can she keep her mouth closed.

The She-Devil in the Mirror
Horacio Castellanos Moya
Trans. by Katherine Silver
New Directions, 191 pp., $14.95

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.


Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.