[New Directions Press; 2021]
Translated from the Spanish by Victor Meadowcroft and Anne McLean
In the funhouse mirror that is Evelio Rosero’s Stranger to the Moon (published in 1992 as Señor que no conoce luna), characters belong to one of two classes: the “clothed ones” and the “naked ones”. The clothed ones force the naked ones to live in an overcrowded house of unlikely, if not impossible, dimensions. There they hold regular parties intended to torture and police their prisoners, as well as subjecting any naked one who leaves to further torture. Naked as they are, the inhabitants of the house cannot conceal their “double sex” (that is, each person has both male and female genitals) which, in the book, serves as the pretext for their oppression. They live out their lives in pursuit of mere subsistence, competing to become “favorites” among the clothed partygoers who reward feats of degradation with scraps of meat — calling to mind Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.
By describing this state of things, the unnamed narrator, a naked one distinguished only by a habit of living inside a wardrobe, poses a threat to its illusory timelessness. With the narration being in first-person, the narrator’s gender pronouns do not come up until 24 pages in, when a party of clothed ones refers to him as a “dead man walking” and forces him to look into a mirror for the first time: “I barely glimpsed something, or someone who, from his place, had no desire to see me either.” For reasons that go unexplained, and despite a seeming reluctance, the narrator doesn’t question this attribution and treats his gender as a given until the final pages. (Even though the word “gender” makes no appearance in the book, as a concept it does still come into play. The narrator’s passing description of fellow naked ones as “more man than woman, or more woman than man” indicates a certain fluidity, but to what extent gender is influenced by sense of self, coercion, or the tension between these factors, remains unresolved.) In the interim, he refuses meat and sharpens his fingernails, awaiting his turn to leave the house.
It might be sleight-of-hand, but Stranger to the Moon gives the impression of being improvised at speed. Rosero takes the absurd kernel of a character living in a wardrobe and imagines a surrounding world to explain it, sketching boundaries with the rigorous inner logic of a dream. Counterintuitive as it might seem, in Rosero’s hands the novella — that ungainly form sandwiched between the short story and the novel, lacking in both the genre-expectations and commercial viability of either — proves, in this case, to be the ideal world-building vehicle. Sly manipulation of tense allows 87 pages to do the work of a book three times in length, yet efficiency is no end in itself. Tense and theme enmesh.
If it could be said that the subconscious does its thing in any tense, Stranger to the Moon offers compelling evidence for the indefinite present, which holds sway from the moment the narrator says on page 1: “it’s usually me who lives in the wardrobe.” In the world that emerges, actions which reach completion are rare. In the book, every event is ongoing or repeats itself, as though the verbs are allergic to the perfective aspect; chronology caves to eternal return and every object already functions as a symbol, taking its place in an allegory with no obvious single referent. As opposed to discrete events, the indefinite present is a tense for describing tendencies, habits, customs: an uncinematic tense, inimical to scene. Through it, the narrator describes what amounts to a metaphysical inscape, as though writing an ekphrasis on some lost De Chirico painting. In this narrative which resists narration, tension mounts in expectation of some development — or in other words, the restoration of linear progress, which novels have taught readers to demand — so that whenever the narrator breaks the mold, the urgency of the past tense, no longer the default, is recharged.
While withholding standard narrative progression frees up space, rather than fill it, Rosero keeps the page count low and the structure open so that Stranger to the Moon reads as an affront to the doctrine of specificity. Rosero writes with the awareness that a reader’s imagination will supply, often involuntarily, whatever specificity the story suggestively avoids. The title itself speaks to this polyvalence. To all indications, the story takes place in no specific, identifiable location, let alone the Moon. Its function may be purely symbolic, or to elicit a science fiction mood without the need for aliens or advanced technology. The “stranger” may be the narrator, who practically cultivates alienation, or the reader, who must get accustomed to the laws of this world. Genre is similarly mutable: at times it resembles “soft” science fiction, at others dystopia or prose poetry. At best we may say surrealism. The book is littered with such frothy descriptions as “I don’t come out, I emerge, I slide, I’m a long rickety, vapor,” or “My hair is a suit… I wet it, comb it, muss it up, loathe it, I convert it into a mound of thunderbolts, or into a single ball of flame,” that mirror the unpindownable subconscious. Although, when it does come into play, specificity is contradictory or impossible, mobilized against realism — as seen in a surreal catalog of the animals recruited by the clothed to aid in repressing the naked:
“Fish accomplices, with white eyes, eternally illuminated and sweeping over the beaches, like searchlights. Killer falcons, whose first target is the left side eye of the naked one pointed out to them; these falcons carry some incredible passengers around their necks, like collars: little blue snakes, elegant but deadly, that enter the ruptured eye at dizzying speed and shred the naked one’s brain.”
Rosero’s analysis of power as an alloy of fear and desire draws lucidity from Stranger to the Moon’s psychic setting. Torture and starvation are the most obvious tools at the disposal of the clothed ones, and of course, they force the naked ones to labor, “lighting up their pipes, their hearts. Being umbrellas during storms.” Then there are naked cooks who double as enforcers, receiving certain privileges in return, including access to food and weapons in the form of kitchen knives — privileges they jealously guard. But the root of clothed hegemony lies with their gaze their ability to see the “double sex” of any naked one at a glance, while their own body, their own determined sex, remains hidden behind fabric. Clothing not only sets them apart, it protects their privacy, marking their own bodies as private property while reinforcing a view of naked bodies as there for the taking. Extending this principle to surveillance, the clothed ones use the house parties not only to victimize, but keep tabs on their victims through their mastery of nature (which is as close as the book gets to science fiction): “There are rocks and crystals, located strategically and in possession of a scrutinizing gaze: anything suspected of being a naked one passing before them is carved perfectly into their bodies…” But, despite their power, the clothed ones do not have a monopoly on looking. With a tiny hole bored in its door, the narrator’s wardrobe facilitates his voyeurism. His occupation of a space intended for storing clothes associates him with the trappings of power even as he strains against it, as though he wears a wooden suit. It’s a stationary suit, however, like a house within the house that imprisons his kind, cutting him off from potential solidarity. Still, the wardrobe provides the narrator a vantage of relative objectivity where he can perceive unperceived. At a remove from participation, he can see, describe patterns, mark time. He has the power, however slight, to decide on his moment to intervene. His dubious lover-savior, a veiled woman who registers a light in his eye, hits the nail on the head when she names him a “wandering gaze.” As the narrator says, “I’ve seen several clothed ones naked.”
The other secret weapon in the clothed ones’ arsenal is their withholding of history. Posing as benefactors, clothed ones indoctrinate the naked underclass, presenting the status quo as an eternal state of nature: “They help us finally . . . to understand that if we are where and how we are, it’s because this is how we’re supposed to be.” With an inculcated sense of ahistorical time, expressed even at the level of tense, the naked ones cannot conceive of a past, let alone a future, in which they are not oppressed. Lacking names, the naked ones remain an undifferentiated mass until someone humiliates themselves enough to earn favor, at which point the clothed ones assign them a nickname, conferring dubious celebrity. In the cemetery behind the house, tombstones are marked simply “I, NAKED,” except for one, standing apart at its center. The narrator deciphers its eroded inscription, filling in the absent letters: “(AN)D SH(E) DAR(ED) (TO) LI(V)E (NA)KED.” This allows him to speculate that she was the originary naked one who self-engendered their kind. Keeping time’s arrow for themselves, the clothed ones aim to calcify the naked’s perception of time as cyclical, making evolution, let alone revolution, inconceivable.
To recount the event which incites him to doomed revolt, the narrator dives into the novella’s only extended use of past tense, rupturing the interminable with the historical mode. This is the only section recognizable as a novelistic scene, as well as the first instance of a named antagonist — Teodosio Monteverde, a “law official” clothed only in a red tie (as Freudian an image as one can imagine), his clothing reduced to a symbol of power. In an equally Freudian move, the narrator decapitates him with his sharpened fingernails, saved temporarily from a clothed reprisal by the veiled woman who named him. She implies that the clothed ones have been watching him — the “marvelous exception” — all along, perhaps even grooming him for rebellion as a “matter of study,” giving rise to the discomfiting notion that, as readers, we are allied with the clothed ones, surveilling the narrator from inside his mind. In this way, Rosero throws the historical mode into doubt, along with the awakening to consciousness it would seem to represent.
As the narrator contemplates expulsion from the house and inevitable torture, the tense shifts into the perfective present, even dipping into future to conjure a vatic mode: “I’ll become an invisible naked one, a breath of air. I know they’ve begun to speak of me in the past tense.” The narrator’s first voluntary look into a mirror incites this last-second tonal transfiguration, allowing him to see, in the sense of both literal sight and realization, the naked ones’ -“double sexed” self-sufficiency, their potential to reproduce and live autonomously. This taking ownership of cyclical time coincides with a reconceptualization of gender: “I am always indissoluble, she and he, me.” It’s worth noting that, while Stranger to the Moon largely takes for granted an essentialist biological framework that conflates sex with gender, the characterization of naked ones as “more man than woman, or more woman than man” indicates that they flummox the clothed ones’ rigid either/or binary. By extension, they threaten to unmask the clothed/naked binary as contingent, as subject to historical change, and so endanger the basis of class society in the book. Given the narrator’s gender assignment on page 24, it’s clear that, at times, the naked ones have their freedom to decide which pole to gravitate towards stripped from them, and yet the potential for that freedom remains. While the narrator assumes “man” and “woman” as essential categories, furtherance of the book’s own logic hints at a version of its world in which masculinity and femininity, untethered from sex, could become, somewhat, like articles of clothing (or genres) to be worn, stripped off, or mixed and matched at will.
The narrator’s momentary freedom ends in self-martyrdom as the revolution devours its children, the dual beings “converted into two streams, each the delicate assassination of the other.” Whether this amounts to an act of self-indulgence or -liberation, surrender to fear or to desire for reintegration, a canceling-out or a spark that will catch depends on the reader and what they bring to the story. But one thing is certain, Rosero goads the reader — with double the urgency of 1992 — to consider what tenses we’re thinking, dreaming, imagining in, as we hurtle at the precipice, towards a future not by any means assured.
William Repass lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His poetry has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Word For / Word, Denver Quarterly, Hotel Amerika, Threadcount, and elsewhere. His critical writing can be found at Colorado Review, and Slant.