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, is self-erasing.

Review first published online October 5, 2009.

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