Tuesday, 10 September 2013

'Under this Terrible Sun' by Carlos Busqued (Review)

Today we're looking at an offering from another new translated fiction press, Frisch & Co., run entirely from Berlin.  How does that work, you ask.  Well, you see, it's all electronic - we're moving into a paperless era here ;)  Once again, I'm delving into Spanish-language fiction - we're off to Argentina...

Carlos Busqued's Under this Terrible Sun (translated by Megan McDowell, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is a short, laconic and occasionally disturbing book.  The story begins when Javier Cetarti, a man approaching middle age with little to show for it, gets a phone call from someone he's never met - unsurprisingly, the news the call brings is not great:
"Daniel Molina", retired petty officer of the air force and represented here by Mr. Duarte," had killed his lover and a son of hers at noon the previous day.  That is, Cetarti's mother and brother"
(Frisch & Co., 2013)
Cetarti manages to get his act together and drives all day to get to the provincial town of Lapachito, where he meets the aforementioned Duarte, has his mother and brother cremated and goes along with Duarte's ruse to scam some insurance money.

On his return to Córdoba, Cetarti decides to quit his apartment and move into his brother's old place, a ramshackle house full of rubbish - and an axolotl salamander.  As he settles into a life of smoking weed, eating pizza and watching the Discovery Channel, he slowly makes plans for heading off into the sunset.  Little does he know though that Duarte is not who he seems - and that their fleeting meeting in Lapachito is to have far-reaching consequences...

Under this Terrible Sun is a book which starts off incredibly slowly (despite the dramatic phone call), and after a few of the many, fairly brief, chapters, I was starting to wonder if anything was going to happen.  All of a sudden though, we get to see beneath the dull veneer, and it's fairly disturbing.  The fact of the matter is that the air-force veteran Duarte is a nasty piece of work.  Whatever you do, don't go down to the basement...
"Without untying him, he adjusted the boy until he was in a stable seated position"
This sentence appeared just as randomly and disturbingly in the book as it did in my post.  It comes out of nowhere, and the reader suddenly suspects that the book is about to take a new direction.

Let's be blunt - Under this Terible Sun soon becomes a dark twisted story about some sad, nasty people.  The initially affable Duarte is a criminal, sick and unforgiving, one with a penchant for model planes and vile pornography:
"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."
Let's just say that he's not a very nice man...  He is ably supported by Danielito, a big man addicted to junk food, marijuana and the Discovery Channel, one who is a side-kick to both Duarte and his own (rather strange) mother...

However, the central character of the novel, Cetarti, isn't much better.  He's listless and drifting, spending his days smoking joints and avoiding anything which might lead to action.  He's a man who really doesn't like to get involved - in anything:
"But getting out of the car, talking, making himself understood, paying etc., it all seemed like an unworkable task that broke down into an almost endless series of muscular contractions, small positional decisions, mental operations of word choice and response analysis that exhausted him in advance."
Danielito's father provides a connection with Cetarti, but the two men have more in common than their messy family ties.  They're both losers with little going for them apart from a messy apartment, a bag of weed and an interest in TV documentaries.  Sad men, with wasted lives.

A symbol for this sense of inertia is the pet Cetarti finds at his brother's house, an axolotl - a salamander which doesn't need to evolve or grow up.  It lives at the bottom of its tank, stagnant, unmoving.  It's a rather apt pet for the unevolved Cetarti...

Under this Terrible Sun is a short read, and interesting in parts, but it's not a book I loved.  For me, it never really got going, and I was rarely sure where it was going (or why).  Also, as alluded to above, it's another of those Latin American books with some very graphic scenes, which reminded me (in passing) of certain sections of Carlos Gamerro's The Islands.  If you didn't like those (and those who have read Gamerro's book will know exactly what I mean), you may not like this...

While the book wasn't really one for me, I'm definitely still interested in the publisher.  An all-electronic press, which is a fairly new concept, has the advantage of allowing Frisch & Co. to deal with other publishers and get books out quickly.  With contacts to various big European presses, they should be able to bring out a few exciting books.  I'll definitely be trying another one - hopefully, I'll enjoy the next one a little more ;)