Zachary Gillan on a novel by Juan Cárdenas
The Devil of the Provinces (Coffee House Press, 2023) is a detective story without much of a detective, a horror story without much horror, magical realism without much magic, a romance without much romance. Genres flit around the edges of this fragmentary, surreal, and ultimately unclassifiable novel about a Colombian biologist who returns home and finds his native province caught in a struggle between capitalist transformation and conservative stasis. Wonderfully translated from Juan Cárdenas’s original Spanish by Lizzie Davis, it’s a searing indictment of capitalism and incisive questioning of development, in both urban and personal senses.
The biologist (outside of historical figures, no proper names are given in the text) is back in Colombia after years spent abroad for school and career, during which time his brother was mysteriously murdered. Now that he’s returned, from the first page of the book, economic precarity constricts his choices, forced to take a job teaching biology at a girls’ boarding school where ‘the pay was bad, so were the hours, but by then, he had no choice.’ The stage seems set for him to investigate the unsolved murder, but that actually barely comes up again for huge swathes of the book. As Davis points out in her fascinating Translator’s Note, where classic detective novels are guided by rationality, The Devil of the Provinces evinces instead the irrationality of the universe we live in, our post-truth era of fake news, conspiracy theories, and the unrelenting, unknowable force of capital. The biologist arrives home. He takes a job. He goes to a party. He’s offered another job. Students have been killed. Another gives birth to a baby covered in hair. A telenovela is being filmed. The biologist gets high and chats with his pot dealer, perhaps his only remaining friend. What’s linked? What’s random? What’s planned, and what’s orchestrated, which consequences are intended, and which are happenstance?
In both prose and structure, the novel is discursive and tumbling, propulsive lurch giving way to stoned meandering. The absolute chaotic joy in the language of the book is remarkable, particularly in Cárdenas’s artful similes and metaphors: ‘It was like the day had refused to start from the beginning: an attempt that erased with its elbow what it drew with its hand.’ Or, reflecting on his language after two decades in exile, ‘What kind of bowlegged animal is it?’ Like the biologist’s lexicon, creolised and varied, the novel’s scenes almost feel like non sequiturs and vignettes, little stories that may or may not feed into one another causally or thematically. As the dealer tells the biologist:
You don’t even know where to start when you’re telling a story, because there isn’t really a story, just misdirection […] They were just dead, and we never knew why, and now it’s better we don’t, what for, and what’s left is a pile of scraps, bits and bobs of stories, the worst story you ever heard, a mess of a story. It’s just a bunch of beginnings that add up to nothing.
Fortunately, the reader’s experience is more positive than the pot dealer’s. This polyphonic approach to genre, voice, and structure mirrors Cárdenas’s thematic interests in evolution and change, rhetoric and colonization, political economy and faith. The biologist is an unassuming, easy-going sort; a follower, not a leader (‘he let anyone pull him along if they pulled with enough conviction’); an everyman caught up in forces beyond his control or understanding, whether or not those forces have targeted him or just caught him in their wake (‘even as a skeptic, the biologist couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that the whole world was in on something, and he was the only person naive enough to pass through it and never figure out what’). But that’s life under capitalism, isn’t it? The book is full of repugnant conservative politicians, the mass media carrying water for them and converting data into propaganda and beyond, as ‘Persuasion wasn’t enough anymore, subjugation was the aim. The passage from education to spectacle, evangelization to fanaticism.’ The dead brother personifies this society of the false spectacle; doubly closeted, concealing both his sexuality and his artistic spirit, hiding behind suits and a presentation of business-minded normality such that their mother viewed the older biologist as a rough outline of the final draft of the (false) younger brother, ‘the apple of her eye, her pride and joy, her missing half.’ Her plans for the latter’s development are rendered moot by his murder, and the mother’s rant, heart-rending and poetic, is one of my favourite passages of recent memory:
But life is cruel, so cruel, she said over and over, it’s hard but unsteady too, and senseless, ruled by a geometry we’ll never understand but that we feel in our very flesh, and when you formulate a plan, when you commit to an idea, and you sketch and forge and sculpt, life will take care of distorting it all, as if demons were running the show, lovers of twists and turns and never straight lines, mercurial satyrs, not God, God forgive me, sometimes I think that God lies in death and not life, because death is eternal rest, the perpetual light of righteousness. Life, on the other hand, all that we call nature, that’s the devil’s work, the devil sides with beasts, with snakes and scorpions. The devil makes his nest in the eye of a bird, an egg’s speckled shell, creatures’ claws, a mess of feathers, river’s whirl.
In its nightmarish conflation of biology and the capitalist urge for endless growth, The Devil of the Provinces is reaping similar ground to Andrew F. Sullivan’s The Marigold, one of this year’s most noteworthy novels. Both are concerned with the haunting of capitalism, neoliberalism infecting the cityscape like a disease, but The Marigold is more clearly a horror novel, with its sentient mold and coven of evil developers. Devil is more generically diffuse, and is doubly displaced from the heart of the northern hemisphere’s imperial core, from Toronto to Colombia, and not even one of its major metropolitan centres, but the ‘dwarf city’ in a rural province in the south. The lines between city country are increasingly blurred as urban sprawl creeps outward, ‘public housing blocks now scattered all over the country, same as any monocrop.’ Monocropping, in fact, is the most concrete villain of the novel, the extrusion of capitalism warping the world around the dwarf city and the biologist: ‘The monocrop denies time, the monocrop cancels it out. For the monocrop, there is no history and no human, only eternity, absolute void. The monocrop is God’s will on Earth. An earth without earth. A blessed algorithm that sums everything to zero for the great glory of One.’
God’s will, an algorithm, conspiracies, drugs, education, the flow of capital: all construct the biologist’s reality. ‘The habit makes the nun’, he reminds himself in looking at his brother’s business attire. The biologist makes his own history, but he does not make it just as he pleases; he does not plan his own development. The Devil of the Provinces is a remarkable book for readers of any generic tendency; beautifully written, wonderfully translated, and deeply developed. ∎
Zachary Gillan (he/him) is a critic of weird fiction residing in Durham, North Carolina, USA. He’s an editor at Ancillary Review of Books, the book reviewer for Seize the Press, and has criticism in or forthcoming from Strange Horizons, Broken Antler, IZ Digital, and Nightmare Magazine, among others. More of his work can be found at https://doomsdayer.wordpress.com
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