Familiar with the Cities of Asylum Project? Me neither, I’m ashamed to say, because it’s a 22 year-old international organization that gives sanctuary to writers who have been exiled or fled in fear “under threat of death, imprisonment or persecution in their native countries.” Today, its network numbers almost three dozen cities around the globe, four of which are in the United States — Pittsburgh; Ithaca, N.Y.; Las Vegas; and Santa Fe, N.M.
Horacio Castellanos Moya has been under the wing of the Project for a decade, first in Germany and since 2004 in Pittsburgh. Born in Honduras in 1957 but raised in El Salvador, Mr. Moya came to dangerous fame in 1997 with the publication of “Nausea,” a novel that described the reactions of a Salvadoran immigrant who returns after almost two decades in North America. One commentator called its tone “a provocative example of critical cynicism,” and indeed it must have been, for his accurate depiction of the growing political repression made him a marked man, and he had to split. But it was not the first time conditions in El Salvador had forced him to go.
“The first time I left was in 1979,” he told an interviewer last year. “The Salvadorian Civil War had not started yet. The war really started at the end of the 1980s. It was not something that happened from one month to the next one. There was a long process of radicalization and street fighting. Some people think the civil war started when Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed in March 1980, but other people think the civil war started in January 1981 when the guerillas launched their first major offensive.
“I left at a moment in which there was not that level of armed struggle in the city, but there was a lot of repression against the mass movement by the military regime. Social arrests were getting much more violent.”
After a year spent learning English in Canada, the writer went back “because I was homesick, and when I arrived it was terrible. After being out almost a year it was almost like coming to a different country. It’s like if you would go back to Baghdad right now. My homesickness was completely destroyed, and I wanted to leave again — it was too polarized and too violent.”
All of this build-up is necessary for a full appreciation of “The She-Devil in the Mirror,” which Mr. Moya wrote in 2000 but which took until this year to be translated into English. Why is the build-up necessary? Because, as with several of his earlier novels, the atmosphere that caused Horacio Castellanos Moya to flee for his life provides the backdrop to the action of this one. “The She-Devil in the Mirror” may appear to be a traditional murder mystery but in fact it is one that faithfully reflects the extreme polarization and violence Mr. Moya cited as his reason for seeking asylum. Don’t let the breezy, often funny and frequently irreverent tone fool you.
Here’s a one-graph paraphrase of the first page or two: Olga Maria is dead, my dear. Shot through the head by an intruder in her boutique in the Villa Espanolas Mall. Such a tragedy, so beautiful, intelligent and pure she was, a mother of two little angels, and not yet 30 years old. My dear, Olga Maria was my best friend so I must tell you all about it.
That direct approach, which never shifts from the voice and viewpoint of its solo narrator, is not just how this intriguing novel opens, it is how it is told all the way through to the very end. There are separations for chapters, but there are no paragraphs, no space breaks, no nothin’ as the voice of the indefatigable and highly opinionated and increasingly untrustworthy narrator rolls on and on.
In the beginning, the dead woman appears to have been a saint, so good and fine and lovely she was. Or so we are told. But suddenly, offhandedly, the narrator tells us of a recent affair the sainted Olga had with a handsome man, and then, just a few pages later, of her affair with a powerful man, and by the middle of the tale we know of at least three affairs. And that’s not the final tally.
As he has done in other novels, the author builds a case for his tale-teller being more than a little bit paranoid, a condition caused by the degeneracy of her society — friends, the church, the government, the military. How can one stay sane, Moya seems to be asking, when all around one there is madness and evil?
But Horacio Moya knows better than to deliver his message that bluntly, so he salts the mine with large doses of humor, sex and sarcasm. No one is spared, least of all the dead woman and her self-proclaimed best friend. Upper class Salvadoran society takes it on the chin, over and over and over again.
It’s probably a fair bet that the message of Mr. Moya’s subsequent novels will be equally dark, reflecting the qualities in his work and personality that show his high regard for and sense of kinship with Arthur Koestler, Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera and Juan Carlos Onetti. But it’s also a safe bet that he will never lose his saving grace, his wonderfully mordant sense of humor. How can you not enjoy reading a novelist so deft at juxtaposing two diametrically opposed images:
The narrator is telling her listener about a memory she had while following the hearse to the cemetary. “I’m going to join in behind Sergio and Cuca. Sergio’s car is such a pretty color, I love that lilac; I wanted one that color but BMW doesn’t make it, only Toyota, so I chose white because it goes with everything … I’ve had only BMW’s for about twelve years now, ever since papa gave me my first car when I turned eighteen and entered the university. I remember celebrating with Olga Maria, a day that started out beautiful and ended so ugly …
“We went to the Zona Rosa to have a few beers and hang out with some friends. You won’t believe it, but we’d just left Chili’s, and we were walking to the corner where I’d left my car and suddenly there was a shoot-out. All Hell broke loose. A bunch of terrorists suddenly appeared out of nowhere and started shooting some gringos sitting on the terrace of the Mediterraneo Restaurant. You can’t believe the panic. Everybody threw themselves on the ground and started shouting their heads off, because the shooting seemed to last forever. I tore my brand new blue jeans, right on the knee …”
The she-devil (in the mirror) is also in the details.
• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.