A few weeks ago I finished reading Las Muertas by Jorge Ibargüengoitia and was blown away. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I struggled quite a bit with the vocabulary in this book even though it was recommended to me as a novel in Spanish that would be reasonably accessible for an intermediate Spanish speaker. However, even with such an obstructed reading flow I have to say that I really enjoyed this book. Ibargüengoitia’s style is very straightforward — he uses short sentences without much flowery language or imagery but he writes about absurd situations with a deadpan tone that I found very engaging. Maybe you can imagine a funny Ernest Hemingway south of the border.
The novel follows the story of two sisters (las Baladro) who operate a brothel in semi-rural Mexico in the 1960s. The story is sordid and sad and tragic as it follows the Baladro sisters through a series of mishaps that endanger their business and the lives of their employees. While the sisters are reasonably sympathetic characters in the beginning of the story, throughout the novel Ibargüengoitia provides more and more glimpses of the sisters’ callousness and greed so that by the end of the novel they appear fully despicable.
Structurally, the novel is told in a series of flashbacks starting with the attempted murder of an ex-lover by one of the sisters. This initial attempted murder is, interestingly enough, the most sympathetic portrayal of the sisters because it’s a crime born of passion. This initial act is contrasted with the acts of dispassionate cruelty that are portrayed in the novel. Interestingly, we as readers (or, at least, I as reader) are much more willing to tolerate violence and mayhem when it is born of passion than when it is born of avarice or banality. We are able to identify with the emotions that are driving the characters which humanizes them to us even if we wouldn’t necessarily condone the actions themselves. However, as the novel progresses and we observe the dispassionate cruelty of the sisters we are repelled precisely because of the lack of passion which motivates their actions. A murder born of passion feels much more acceptable than a murder born of greed. This is obviously reflected in our judicial system — we treat crimes of passion and “temporary insanity” with more leniency than we do “premeditated” murder even though from a utilitarian perspective one might reason that the crimes are equally morally wrong.
Beyond the philosophical and ethical underpinnings, I just really enjoyed the way Ibargüengoitia portrayed life in rural Mexico during this period. The characters (especially those treated in B and C subplots that only pop up briefly) are delightfully funny and Ibargüengoitia’s use of Mexicanisms and down-home colloquialisms bring the period to life. So far Las Muertas is probably my favorite book that I’ve read in Spanish so far, though I’m looking forward to tackling Pedro Páramo starting this week.