Once again, he felt that he was an arrow burning with the flame of Christ. And the bow that is drawn to shoot that arrow as far as possible, straight to the spot where the flame will ignite a raging fire. And the wind that spreads the fire that will lay waste to the world with the love of Jesus.
The Wind That Lays Waste, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, is Selva Almada’s first work to appear in English despite her success in Argentinian and more broadly Latin American literary scene for more than a decade, starting with a poetry collection published back in 2003. Here she is finally, thanks to Charco Press in the UK and Greywolf Press in the US, and it won’t be the last time the English-speaking world hears from her: her 2014 non-fiction book Chicos muertas, which revolves around Argentinian femicides in the 1980s, will appear in translation next year.
As the author has been proclaimed as one of the most influential feminist intellectuals of the region, The Wind That Lays Waste may come as a surprise in the way it seems not to take sides with this or that, and belongs more to the tradition of novels where each character is presented ambiguously in third person. In fact, the only one who is preaching here is literally a charismatic evangelical preacher called Pearson, whose car breaks down in the middle of rural Argentina. Together with his teenage daughter Leni, he discovers the workshop of a mechanic called Brauer (an atheist much to Pearson’s headache) and his assistant boy Tapioca, who, it turns out, is much more open to faith than his mentor. The dynamic relationship between these four characters during one day is what the novel presents on the surface, with occasional analepses to each character’s history.
It is a slow-paced story yet a quick read, seemingly simple. It puzzled me upon finishing, not sure what I was supposed to take away with me. In retrospect, I realize it is a rather intricately built novel: a subtle murmur (characters get to know each other) before the culmination in a bang (characters in conflict). A storm ensues. While Lear famously raged against the elements of nature 400 years ago, Pearson and Brauer rage against one another; it is always a curious setup when the natural world is brought to mirror the feelings and fallacies of humans. As Almada’s novel demonstrates, the tradition is still well alive. If nothing more, it gives the novel an increasingly drama-like atmosphere. I could easily visualize this adapted onstage. In this respect, the novel actually reminds me of another recent Charco publication, The German Room by Carla Maliandi, who in fact is a theatre director in Argentina as well as a writer.
It then occurs to me that The Wind That Lays Waste is a rather impressive study of characters: Almada puts different kinds of people into a tiny space and sees what happens, without judgment. Although, below the surface, I can sense a critique of the potential danger that charismatic male leaders pose to women. In one of the most striking and unpredicted paragraphs of the novel, we witness one of Pearson’s sermons:
He reaches out at random and grasps the wrist of a woman who is crying and shaking like a leaf. Although the woman feels that her limbs are not responding, the Reverend takes hold of her and sweeps her up like a leaf in the wind. He places her at the front of the stage. The woman is sixty years old; her stomach is bulging as if she were pregnant. The Reverend kneels in front of her. He rests his face against her belly. Now, for the first time, he stops speaking. His mouth opens. The woman can feel the open mouth, the Reverend’s teeth biting the fabric of her dress. The Reverend writhes. The little bones of his spine move like a snake under his shirt. The woman can’t stop crying. Her tears are mixed with snot and drool. She opens her arms; her flesh sags. The woman cries out and all the others cry with her. The Reverend stands up and turns toward the congregation. His face is red and sweaty, and there is something caught between his teeth. It is slimy and black. He spits it out: a scrap of fabric that reeks of the Devil.
With such vivid passages as the above (as well as the quote that I started the review with), I am prone to rate The Wind That Lays Waste nothing but favorably: dynamic, subtly crafted, and ambiguous is a recipe that tends to work for me.
Oh, and as I am typing this review, the rain starts to fall outside and I can hear the low rumble of thunder.