Sunday, December 03, 2017

Perceiving the emptiness and slow lightness of its body

The unevolved axolotl is an apt pet for Javier Cetarti, although he comes to care for it quite by accident and later abandons it without a thought.
He imagined it at that moment, settled at the back of the fish tank, in the darkness of the shuttered house, wondering in its crude way at what moment a blurry shadow would come to scatter food over the surface of the water, and perceiving the emptiness and slow lightness of its body, emptier and lighter with each passing day.
Under This Terrible Sun, by Carlos Busqued, is oppressively bleak and disturbing. It's mostly the story of Cetarti who travels to a small town to settle the affairs of his mother and brother, who allegedly were murdered by the mother's boyfriend Molina before he turned the gun on himself.

The town is literally a cesspit, the water table having risen, the cesspits overflowing, shit and piss seeping up through the ground. The trees have died (so the sun is punishing), the place stinks, but people have gotten used to it. There are giant poisonous flying cockroaches.

The cop Duarte was a longtime friend of Molina; they were in the airforce together and, it's hinted, later collaborated on other business dealings. These days Danielito, Molina's son, helps out Duarte in his ventures.

In addition to simple insurance scams, Duarte has some kidnapping racket going on. He's also a connoisseur of extreme pornography, although it's not clear if he may be involved with porn in a deeper, more criminal way.
There's some pornography you don't watch to jerk off, you watch it more out of curiosity about how far the human species will go. [...] This is what I was telling you is interesting, to see the limits of what a person is capable of doing or letting others do to them.
Under This Terrible Sun is well written. The text is clear; the novel's ambiguity — and its creepiness — arises from not being privy to the whole picture. The characterization, the minimalist plotting, the sense of dread (both existential and visceral), and the pacing are excellent. If you have the stomach for it.

One of Duarte's videos is graphically described, and had it gone on for longer or were there more, I might've had to put the book aside. As it is, that scene certainly pervaded the mood of the entire book, to great effect.

Warning: there are also some vile descriptions of insects and brutality against dogs.

Everyone smokes a lot of weed. Duarte watches a lot of military history and builds model airplanes. Cetarti and Danielito appear to be cut from the same cloth (even though their characters don't interact till late in the book) in their penchant for Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.

There are recurring references to cephalopods, on TV and in magazine articles, which may be somewhat allegorical of Cetarti's situation as a whole.

Squid have cannibalistic tendencies: the squid that fishermen pull in often is often not the one that swallowed the lure, but a larger one eating the originally hooked squid.

Cetarti reads some details about the giant squid — three hearts and two brains — but he doesn't find what he's looking for. The monsters have never been captured alive. They live in an environment that is hostile to life. One only ever glimpses a small part of the horror at a time, never seen in its entirety.

This is the third book from Argentina I've read this year (the others being the subversive Savage Theories, by Pola Oloixarac, and the insidiously unsettling Fever Dream, by Samanta Schweblin). I've decided that Argentina must be a very strange (possibly depraved) place.

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