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from the August 2019 issue

Sparse, Monochrome Scenes in Selva Almada’s Debut Create a Believable and Powerfully Visual World

Reviewed by Frances Riddle and Mariano Vespa

With The Wind That Lays Waste, Almada may have invented an entirely new literary genre, something that could be called Southern Cone Gothic.

Reverend Pearson and his teenage daughter, Leni, travel the forgotten towns of rural Argentina spreading the good word. When their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, they are towed to the closest mechanic shop, run by Gringo Brauer with the help of his assistant, Tapioca. The repair is expected to take some time, so the father and daughter seek shade from the sweltering heat among the landscape of mangled cars. Tapioca and Leni are both sixteen years old and although they never speak of it, both are marked by the loss of their mothers. Reverend Pearson and Gringo Brauer share a connection to the road. The preacher is in constant movement as he travels back roads saving souls; the mechanic stands in place, receiving the twisted remains of the road’s latest victims.  

Ever confident that the Lord has placed him exactly where he needs to be, Pearson is happy to wait patiently in this rustic setting after meeting Tapioca, “a pure soul” who seems to have been raised in ignorance of God’s transcendent powers. To Brauer’s annoyance, the Reverend begins to work his evangelical magic on quiet, sensitive Tapioca. 

This minimalist dramatic nucleus sets the stage for Selva Almada’s slim debut novel, The Wind That Lays Waste. First published in Argentina in 2012, it shot Almada to prominence after being highly praised by critics, most notably the influential Beatriz Sarlo, who called it “eccentric” and “original” for its ways of playing with the language. In the seven years since, Almada has established herself as a well-known name in contemporary Latin American writing.

The theme of family dysfunction is one that appears throughout Almada’s work and the two families portrayed here are no exception. Leni respects her father for his ability to move crowds of worshippers yet has little patience for him. She dreams of leaving their lonely nomadic life to go in search of her mother, whom the Reverend left behind at some rural outpost. Tapioca may or may not know that Gringo Brauer is likely his father. The boy met the mechanic for the first time at age eight, when his mother dropped him off at the shop and never returned. Like Leni, Tapioca yearns to reunite with his mother. Part of his attraction to the life offered by Reverend Pearson may lie in the promise of visiting the city where his mother went to find work all those years ago.

Flashbacks to Reverend Pearson’s past and fragments of his sermons serve to break up the linearity of the narrative. In one powerful scene, the pastor, moved by the Lord, pulls a woman to the front of the church, begins to bite at her dress, writhing like a snake, until he grabs between his teeth something black and slimy, reeking of the Devil, and spits it out. Chris Andrews’s translation perfectly recreates Almada’s clean prose, centered around action and materiality, her elegant descriptions, as well as her measured pace. When asked in a forthcoming interview about the process of translating this novel, Andrews mentioned the unique challenge posed by Reverend Pearson’s sermons, which “should sound both formulaic and persuasive, because Pearson is doing his shtick again, but he has genuine talent (when he’s in full flight even the cynical Leni feels her resistance melting away), so I hope that the rhetorical mechanisms are visible but animated by a perceptible fervor.”

As the story flows smoothly from past to present, in and out of each character’s head, a storm brews in the parched dusty field around the mechanic shop. The humans are oblivious, but the dog smells the ensuing storm:

The smell of the depths of the forest. Not its heart but something much deeper, the bowels, you might say. The smell of the earth’s dampness under the excrement of animals, the microcosm seething there beneath the dung: tiny seeds, minuscule insects and blue scorpions, the lords and masters of that little dark plot. 

This dramatic passage serves as a good example of Almada’s forceful descriptions, which often depict nature as somehow wiser, more perceptive than man. A torrential downpour forces the adults and teens into close quarters. The tension between Pearson and Brauer comes to a head. More than differences of faith, two conflicting worldviews are in dispute. The preacher’s life is one of constant performance. He is known far and wide for his ability to whip large groups into a state of frenzy. The mechanic, strong and stoic, almost a hermit, is grounded in the land and has no time for religion, focused instead on the practical concerns of his wrecked cars and his dogs. 

Leni is the only female character in the story (even the dog is male), a lone girl trapped in a man’s world. Selva Almada is an outspoken feminist, and she infuses her stories with a critical view of the patriarchy. In an interview about her work in El Espectacular, she states: “When a writer has a commitment to certain issues such as gender violence or feminism, in one way or another that’s going to find a way into their texts.” Leni has internalized conventional, submissive gender roles. She is eager to do domestic chores because she doesn’t get many chances on the road to practice what she sees as her womanly duties. Her largest act of rebellion is listening to the radio on her Walkman instead of the Christian tapes her father thinks she’s playing. When Gringo Brauer and Reverend Pearson both support Tapioca’s right as a young man to exercise his free will but immediately dismiss the choice Leni has made for herself, she accepts that the only valid decisions are those taken by men. 

With The Wind That Lays Waste, Almada may have invented an entirely new literary genre, something that could be called Southern Cone Gothic. The narration is tied to a landscape that is proudly Argentine but the story weaves in elements typical of the gothic writing of the southern United States, such as rural isolation, oppressive heat and invasive dust, decay, fire-and-brimstone religious fervor. Flannery O’Connor, master of the Southern Gothic, states in Mystery and Manners: “The novelist always has to create a world and a believable one. The virtues of art, like the virtues of faith, are such that they reach beyond the limitations of the intellect, beyond any mere theory that a writer may entertain.” Through sparse, monochrome scenes, Selva Almada creates a believable and powerfully visual world that transcends the page. 

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