Saturday, March 24, 2018

Demetrio Aguilera Malta, Seven Serpents and Seven Moons (1970)

Demetrio Aguilera Malta (1909-1981) was an Ecuadorian author regarded--so I'm told--as hot stuff, but certainly not with any great amount of cultural cachet in English. This, regarded--again, so I'm told--as his masterpiece is long out-of-print in its English translation (by Gregory Rabassa, no less). What does it mean? Will the world ever know? Maybe! I'm actually kind of surprised that Dalkey hasn't scooped it up to keep it in print.

How to describe this...? Well, you know how it would be HELLA difficult to summarize One Hundred Years of Solitude? This also, albeit for perhaps somewhat different reasons. It takes place in the environs of a village, Santorontón. It's sort of a battle between good and evil. Sort of! Good is Father Candido, whose sidekick (if you will) is a carved wooden crucified Christ who comes to life (and, you know, is the actual Christ) to help him. Evil is Candelario Marescal, a towering mass murderer and rapist who transforms into a crocodile to aid and abet his crimes. He's the son of the devil ("Old Longtail" or "The One We Know"), allegedly, and he's haunted by a dead woman he's obsessed with who appears in his dreams. A subsidiary villain is Don Chalena, the boss of Santorontón who makes a pact with Old Longtail which, most notably, involves monopolizing the village's water supply. There are of course a good many other characters, good bad and ambiguous.

So that's a description of it, more or less. And really, there's no way to write such a thing without the book sounding FUCKING AWESOME. And...well, for the first half or so, it pretty much IS fucking awesome. Or so I feel. Cool concepts and some really indelible scenes. And if you think I am going to object to that, you are a FOOL.

In the end, the thing is, though, and I hate to say it: WOW is this book ever less than the sum of its parts. To an extent that you do not see every day, for serious. In the early going, Aguilera Malta introduces ALL this cool shit and it's like wow this is awesome where is it going? And then the answer is, seriously, FUCKING NOWHERE. There's no meaningful conclusion or resolution or anything to ANY of the character arks or plot strands. They just kinda stop. The whole water supply thing? Yeah, I know it's based on a real geopolitical issue! I'm smart! Not like everybody says! just fizzles out. It's there and then it's not. You think there's going to be SOME kind of climactic conflict between good'n'evil, but then there really truly is NOT. There's a bit of a hint--though calling it half-assed would be giving it too much credit--that there's going to be some kind of redemption story for Marescal, but then...again, it's just nothing.

IT DOES NOT BRING ME JOY TO SAY THIS. It really doesn't. But facts is facts. In the early going, I was debating whether it deserved four stars or five. I got further and reluctantly conceded that maybe three was more realistic, and from there it was a choice between three and two, with me ultimately conceding that the latter was a better fit. Dammit. My batting average in 2018 so far is not great. I seriously need to step up my game here.


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