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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Dance with Snakes

Horacio Castellanos Moya

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To purchase Dance with Snakes

Title: Dance with Snakes
Author: Horacio Castellanos Moya
Genre: Novel
Written: 1996 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 156 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Dance with Snakes - US
Baile con serpientes - US
Dance with Snakes - UK
Dance with Snakes - Canada
Dance with Snakes - India
Le bal des vipères - France
  • Spanish title: Baile con serpientes
  • Translated by Lee Paula Springer

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Our Assessment:

B : rough and tumble -- but quite fun -- pulp thriller cum sociological-political allegory

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 14/12/2009 Natasha Wimmer
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2010 James Crossley

  From the Reviews:
  • "It's Castellanos Moya's only overtly fantastical novel, and a different kind of revenge fantasy. Instead of working the intellectual angle, it goes for the jugular. (...) The snakes are a living, writhing embodiment of the paranoia that Castellanos Moya so often channels. Nothing could be as terrifying and unpredictable (and faintly ridiculous) as a gaggle of poisonous snakes. (...) Precisely because they're so ludicrous and so terrible, they're the perfect stand-in for real-life violence that's too extreme to be credibly portrayed in fiction." - Natasha Wimmer, The Nation

  • "Shocking and bizarre the book certainly is, but what makes it most interesting is the way in which the violence, initially inspired by a vague personal sense of vengeance, begins to threaten the entire shakily-constructed social order." - James Crossley, Review of Contemporary Fiction

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The first (and last) of the four sections of Dance with Snakes are narrated in the first person, by unemployed sociology-graduate Eduardo Sosa. Unable to find a job with his useless degree, he spends most of his time in his sister's apartment in San Salvador, where he lives.
       Not much seems to happen in the neighborhood, but things are shaken up by the appearance of an ancient yellow Chevrolet that parks there. Its windows are boarded up with pieces of cardboard, and someone apparently lives in it, a ragged man who leaves every morning and returns to spend the night in the car. The police are called, but there's apparently no law against parking -- or living in one's car -- and Jacinto Bustillo (so his name) isn't chased away.
       Eduardo gets curious and joins Jacinto on his rounds; Jacinto isn't thrilled by the company, but eventually tells his story. He was an accountant whose life fell apart after he was fired, who felt: "trapped in a miserable home with a repulsive wife and an adolescent daughter who was just like her mother." Now he drinks, and collects and sells garbage (and stinks to high heaven).
       Things take a very sudden turn when Eduardo goes from trotting along with Jacinto and following his routine to suddenly supplanting him: that night, it's Eduardo who gets in the car and spends the night.
       Jacinto was not alone. Four snakes also live in the car with him, and when Eduardo meets them things take an even more surrealistic turn: he names them, and he can talk to them. And they, for example, explain that the woman whom Jacinto was having an affair with was killed by her husband, destroying Jacinto.
       Semi-inadvertently, Eduardo begins to go on a rampage with the snakes -- who are both aggressive and effective fighters. When he sees what they can do, Eduardo doesn't try to rein them in, but rather takes advantage of the situation, trying to get even on Jacinto's behalf, for example. As to the collateral damage -- well, what can you do ?
       Mayhem results. The second section of the novel shifts perspectives, as Deputy Commissioner Lito Handal is on the baffling but constantly growing case. In the third section, the story shifts to reporter Rita -- who knows how to get information from the police, what with her: "provocative miniskirts, her slender but shapely legs, and the silk blouses she wore without a bra so you could see her nipples" -- and her investigations, before finally returning to Eduardo in the concluding section, where he describes the end and outcome of the immense man- (and snake-)hunt.
       Dance with Snakes is, on one (main) level, an absurd pulp thriller. Things happen so fast, and the body-count rises so quickly, that no one has any idea what's going on:

     The Minister says it's still too early to make assumptions, but it wouldn't surprise him if certain suspicious groups were using an insane snake charmer for their own criminal ends.
       The violence (and carnage) is over-the-top -- and then there's the fact that snakes are pretty good conversationalists, too ..... Yet even if it's all near-cartoon fantasy, the writing artlessly simple, the plotting seeming practically random, the death toll absurd ... it's surprisingly effective. For one, Castellanos Moya offers some genuine shock value, coming up with a few unexpected twists. And the presentation, with the narrative switching from first to third person, and events seen from different perspectives, makes for an engaging read.
       There's also, of course, a bit more to this, as this Dance with Snakes is obviously (but, vitally, not too obviously) also allegorical. The fear that grips the community, the confusion about identity and motives -- and those scary-ass snakes, potent symbols of overwhelming but unknowable violence -- and all the overkill (both on the side of Eduardo and the snakes, and then in reaction to them) all reflect the El Salvadoran situation and society of the time.
       There's some really weird stuff here, too: Eduardo does eat one of the snakes (and serves some of it up to her buddies, too) -- and he gets way too intimate with them too. But most of the bizarreness works surprisingly well.
       Dance with Snakes is a reasonably good (if very peculiar) thriller, and an interesting take on late-twentieth century Latin America; it's also unlike almost everything else out there (including Castellanos Moya's other fiction). In it's own way -- and that is a very bizarre way -- it is very effective: no, it's not a truly 'good' book, but it is an engaging and surprisingly entertaining one.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 November 2009

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Dance with Snakes: Reviews: Horacio Castellanos Moya: Other books by Horacio Castellanos Moya under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Horacio Castellanos Moya was born in Honduras in 1957 and grew up in El Salvador. He now lives abroad.

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© 2009-2011 the complete review

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