By Ana Hein | @ana_hein_
I am a seeker of the outlandish, the grotesque, the unusual–in other words, the weird. I regularly watch horror/drama films with an abundance of yonic (aka vagina) symbolism. I adore post-modern, experimentalist theater. But I especially love weird literature. I’ve read books about women who think they’re turning into plants, people that stop time when they orgasm, and houses that are larger on the inside than the outside. And while Comemdare, originally written in Spanish in 2010 by Roque Larraquy and translated into English in 2018 by Heather Cleary, isn’t the weirdest thing I’ve ever read (that honor would probably have to go to Cleansed by Sarah Kane), it still manages to stand out amongst the weird as pretty damn weird.
The book is split into two distinct sections. The first follows Quintana, a doctor in Buenos Aires during the year of 1907, who, along with the rest of his colleagues, has just been tasked with executing a new experiment based off of a French study—that has no facts or scientific references—about what constitutes life and death. The experiment: testing to see if one truly does remain fully conscious for nine seconds after decapitation. And while the doctors search for willing “donors,” they are also trying to win over the heart of the singularly work-focused head nurse Menéndez through increasingly desperate tactics. The second section follows an unnamed modern artist in 2009 who stumbles across the findings of the experiments and uses them, to blur the lines between the self and art. Spoiler alert: some body parts get chopped off. At some point, flesh-eating plant bacteria gets involved. And frogs. There are frogs, too.
The two sections function far beyond simple cause and effect. They ask the same kinds of questions—What makes life worth living? How far are we willing to go to reach our goals; to achieve happiness; to reach “transcendence,” as the back of the book says?—but switch up the lenses through which these questions are analyzed. Quintana’s section focuses on the gathering of information through action—recording the last words of recently severed heads, asking Menéndez out in a variety of ways that always end in rejection, sabotaging the other men’s chances with her—and as such, it functions more as a straightforward linear narrative, while the artist’s section is much more internal, focusing more on the ego and how an individual is affected by and uses this knowledge.
Though the lenses these questions are examined through may change, the language in which they are asked does not. Part of what makes the book so weird, aside from the absurdity of the plot, is the way in which it is written, which is honestly like nothing I’ve ever read before. The writing style feels clipped, with lots of short, direct clauses that reveal exact, though small, pieces of information. But there are also passages in which this clipped sentence structure is compounded with beautiful language and unique metaphor that makes the novel feel lyrical at points, otherworldly even, such as in the following passage: “The applause builds, centrifugal, overflowing the circle of ice and surging up the stairs. In its center, Menéndez is condensed, made material; she adopts her decisive form. If one were to break a glass on her forehead, she would bleed.” Occasionally, this style creates moments of pure, morbid hilarity:
During the rescue, I want so badly to tell everyone that I could burst. But the story of how Sisman fell in love with Sylvia, maintained a secret relationship with her, promised to get her discharged, and then participated in her decapitation is just too juicy for summary. I decide to save it for afternoon tea.
This writing style creates a paradoxical sense of detachment and captivation in the reader which is only further heightened by the fact that almost all the characters are terrible, awful garbage people the reader wouldn’t mind seeing get decapitated instead. Most of the doctors are horribly xenophobic and misogynistic. One character is partially introduced by giving a lengthy monologue about how certain people are descended from an “inferior species” of ape. He argues that you can tell they are descended from said species because of the shape of their skull. And the artist is not much better than the doctors, being self-obsessed to the point that he wants to have sex with someone because he looks virtually identical to himself: “… I want to sleep with him, to see the expressions that pleasure puts on my face through his.” The reader is repulsed by the cast, but at the same time, can’t help wondering what appalling thing they are going to do next.
It all made for a singularly engrossing experience. I kept turning page after page to see if heads really would roll. And when they eventually did, I kept reading to see what they would say. I wanted to see the horrible, deprived things both Quintana and the artist did to achieve their goals—they may be monsters, but they are fascinating monsters. The novella reads very quickly, in part because it’s less than 150 pages long, but it doesn’t feel rushed or cut short in the slightest. It feels fully shaped and realized, and I loved every second of it.
If you have any interest in Spanish translated literature, medical dramas gone wrong, or just the plain weird, Comemadre is most definitely worth stomaching (and reading).