Under This Terrible Sun
Translated by Megan McDowell
Frisch & Co. Electronic Books, Inc., 2013, pg 191
Carlos Busqued’s Under This Terrible Sun is a dark and at times disturbing book that in its tight and economical prose wastes little time in showing men at their worst. The cruelty is elusive at first. The novel opens with a description from a Discovery Channel show of the cannibalistic tendencies of squid. It is the first of many such descriptions of elusive giant squids. While they seem extraneous to the story, just so much TV background noise, they set the tone for the novel, as the mystery and the ruthless violence have their parallel within the novel.
It is a violence that Cetarti, an Argentine stoner, who has lost his job and spends his time watching the Discovery Channel and smoking marijuana is oblivious to. Even when he is told that his mother and brother had been murdered by her new husband, he is emotionless, the violence of it, just something that happened, nothing more. If the killing wasn’t enough, when he arrives in the small town to meet with the lawyer who is going to settle the estate, he finds that the streets are filled with excrement that has bubbled up from the sewers. He has entered into a place that could be hardly anymore disgusting. It sets the tone for meeting with the lawyer, Duarte, whose only interest is getting a little money out of the death benefits that are due him. While Cetarti and Durate settle business, Durate also spends his time transferring porn from video to digital, and the titles are quite hard core. Cetarti, though, as he does when faced with any new situation, doesn’t seem to care one way or another. He is disgusted by the very graphic scene and Durate delights in showing him, but ultimately getting the money from the estate is all he cares about. Once he gets that he can go back to smoking and watching the Discovery Channel.
Running parallel to Cetarti’s story is that of Durate and Danielito. The two men are scheming to do something and Danielito always seems to be taking care of someone behind a locked door. It is not clear at first who that person is or what they are doing, but as the novel goes on and a woman is kept in the room Durate and Danielito’s intentions become darker and darker, showing that the hardcore porn is only the beginning of Durate’s depravity. Danielito, much like Cetarti, is emotionless and follows Durate’s orders without question. It is never quite clear what the two men are doing, but it is both horrific and yet pedestrian, as if the normal state of men is that of passionless brutes who only follow biological instincts.
The two men and the one who you might think would have something good in him, Cetarti, is too numb to do anything. He has surrendered to marijuana and television. Even when he moves into his brother’s house and begins to clean it, getting rid of all of the junk he had collected as a hoarder, he does it less as catharsis, but as a mechanical event. The contrast couldn’t be stronger between that of a hoarder who sees in everything a rational and Cetarti who can live in the most spartan setting just watching the world go by. It is how Cetarti can join Durate and Danielito as they perform some sort of crime with the woman they’ve been keeping in the room. Cetarti is so uninterested in what is going on other than getting a little extra money he doesn’t even bother thinking about what is happening. He’s there, they’re all there, they do what they are going to do and that is it. Even the writing underscores this passionless view, avoiding any kind of descriptions of emotions or morality, just sticking to a description of the physical events.
It is an approach that when mixed with the nature documentaries is a nihilistic view of men as little more than the predators they are. While it is certainly not the first novel to tackle the subject, Busqued has no interest in explaining why this is. Explanations are not going to help soften the violence. It is an approach that can make for some tough passages, but in general keeps the horrible at a distance, always threatening, but never certain. After reading it, the reader should not be surprised if they want more, but since they are only observers, the whys, those often novelistic easy answers, are never going to come in the form of easy answers. The lack of answers is what makes the book work and Busqued has avoided some of the cliches that afflict crime fiction. Assuming one can get past the descriptions of some of the porn, you’ll see a darker side of Argentina than I have in the recent past.
FTC Notice: I want to thank the publisher for providing me with the book.