[Coffee House Press; 2023]
Tr. from the Spanish by Sarah Booker
Ecuadorian writer Mónica Ojeda has a track record of unsettling her readers. Known in hispanophone literary culture for her cultivation of the “Andean gothic” genre—stories that create dense, atmospheric fear from Andean myths and geography—Ojeda has recently accrued creepypastas cred among anglophone readers as well, as more of her work moves into English. Nefando, Mónica Ojeda’s second novel to be translated into English by Sarah Booker, comes on the heels of Booker’s 2022 translation of Mandíbula, as Jawbone.
Put nicely, Jawbone is a novel about the intersection of fear and desire. Put more explicitly, it’s about a group of adolescent girls who bite into doves, “chew” on one another’s clavicles, and take pictures of the aftermath, their bloody mouths and monstrous injuries testament to their faith in a being they call the “White God.” Ominously, Coffee House Press judged the teenage terror clique of Jawbone to be more “palatable” to anglophone audiences than the contents of Nefando. When translator Sarah Booker came to Coffee House with pitches for the translation of both novels of Ojeda’s, the press thought it best to have Jawbone precede Nefando, allowing the former to serve as amuse bouche to the latter’s more toothsome topics.
Having read Jawbone, I went into Nefando with a certain amount of trepidation. But like any addictive game, Nefando starts off easy. The premise is simple enough: one Barcelona flat, six roommates. All are young people, transitioning into adulthood in the big city. There’s Kiki, the sickly, tormented writer (“the Kafka stereotype, not the Hemmingway one”), Cuco, “yet another mediocre guy in a deranged society,” Iván, the rebel with deep pockets, and the Terán siblings: Irene, Cecilia, and Emilio. It is around these mysterious three that the novel spins—truly, no one can figure out what is going on with the siblings.
In Nefando, chapters correspond to characters, and each character has an associated narrative style and voice. Kiki is at once metaliterary and insistently corporeal. By the pallid light of a lava lamp, she composes Borgesian sentences (“She wanted to write as if zero were a starting point”) while swallowing long black hairs, shreds of her own skin, and chewed-off fingernails. Kiki is an emphatically embodied writer—and a goblin-like, female one at that. Her stomach, like her room, is filled with filthy, organic material, a grotesque reality that seems to delight Kiki, bringing to mind Ottessa Moshfegh’s gleefully bowel-movement obsessed narrator in Eileen, or Cristina Rivera Garza’s narration of the nausea, blood, vomit, and shit that accompany birth in El mal de la taiga, translated as Taiga Syndrome by Aviva Kana and Suzanne Jill Levine.
El Cuco, meanwhile, is a little less sepulchral and a lot more chatty. He befuddles his interlocutor (an anonymous interviewer-detective; cue the inevitable Bolaño references) with terms like tío and facha. “Sorry, facha?” the interviewer interrupts to ask. “Facha. Fascist,” Cuco impatiently responds, jumping into a tale of his ex-girlfriend’s eerie, facha family. “[T]here was something rotten there,” Cuco warns. Once, Cuco says, he asked his ex directly if her father had ever abused her. In reply, “she smiled like one of those terrifying plastic dolls and said: My father is the best father in the whole wide world.”
Iván also rails against this “Colgate smile” conformity. Iván is non-binary, and self-identifies as an Aztec god, torn between male and female dualities. They feel out of place in their Master’s program in literary creation, scornful of their professor’s Vichy water, Strellson Balham briefcase, and tucked-in shirt. “A man like that,” Iván venomously thinks to themself, “couldn’t understand that literature was vomit ejected by people like you, people full of duplicates and masks.” Iván’s chosen life of artistic “exhaustion and discomfort” is paid for by their parents, but no matter. The important thing is that Iván wants the literature professor to shake up old structures, break molds, and do things with words, rather than placidly accept the idea that writing is “just a pretty phrase.” “Who,” Iván thinks desperately, while sitting at the back of the classroom, “would disrupt the order of the chairs?”
Like Iván, Kiki craves a disruption of the norm. She’s composing what she calls a “pornovela,” a pornographic novel about three children. The purpose of said pornovela, she believes, is to project such immense cruelty that the reader is rattled to their bones, moved to criticize the world rather than passively accept it as is. Disturbance, for Kiki and for Iván, is a serious business, one that is corporeal and political—an earnest endeavor.
But disturbance, in Nefando, can also be a joke. Writing’s ability to actually effect change in the real world is always in question. At one point, El Cuco overhears a lesbian couple plotting to protest the block on websites like “GirlsWhoLikePorno” in public libraries. The women consider organizing a flash mob that would masturbate among the political philosophy shelves to “clearly express their objection to institutional censorship and to the misguided idea that pornography isn’t a form of knowledge or an instrument for the subversion of the heteronormative imaginary suppressing them.” El Cuco can’t help but smirk at this near-rote recitation of leftist feminist orthodoxy. He thinks of his dead father, a former member of ETA, a Basque separatist group, who was imprisoned for drug trafficking. His father, he imagines, would “know a lot more about subversion than those girls dreaming about masturbating against the spine of a book by Catharine MacKinnon.”
Sure, Cuco is patronizing when he describes the “girls” who believe that they can bring about change through public performance. He admires his father for having participated in a militant group known for large-scale deployments of political violence, but doesn’t extend that admiration to non-valant forms of resistance enacted by women in libraries. Cuco’s dismissal of the power of queer, artistic modes of disruption like performance or writing, then, can be read as another kind of ideological orthodoxy—a patriarchal, heteronormative one. But the question that he seems to pose—is literature really all that subversive?—is the central question of the novel.
I admit, I have been purposefully dancing around the novel’s main topics: sexual violence, child pornography, and the representation of both in literature. In Kiki, Cuco, and Iván’s chapters, the sexual abuse of children is something of a thought experiment—provocative, but abstract—and it is significant that the novel opens with their more removed perspectives on the topics. Kiki might write a pornovela, and Cuco might speculate that his ex-girlfriend was sexually abused by her father, but for these characters, sexual violence against children seems to happen at a distance, to other people. In the chapters corresponding to the Terán siblings, however, these topics become immediate, personal. When the Terán siblings’ voices begin to appear midway through the novel, they come, as Pink Floyd puts it, as a “short, sharp, shock.”
Through first person, present-tense narration that reads as testimony, Emilio recites visual memories from his childhood. “I see Cecilia’s bouncing breasts . . . I see Dad . . . I see Irene moan and drool on the carpet . . . I see the red light of the camera blinking.” But Emilio’s machine-gun listing of things seen sometimes stalls; he turns from a sober mode of witnessing to sweeping, poetic statements about the whole of history. From the immediate—“I see Dad jacking off to the videos”—Emilio jumps to the infinite—“I see everything that has been committed . . . I see tombs of laughter, plains of fears. Dust.” Such a sudden shift in scope is unexpected, a departure from Emilio’s overwhelmingly clinical, matter-of-fact recitation of his experiences. His witness report suddenly becomes harder to navigate—is Emilio supposed to be a victim, I wondered when first reading, or a poet?
Emilio, Irene, and Cecilia, in fact, never explicitly present themselves as victims, and do not tell their pasts within the typical trauma framework. Instead of following a clean formula (victim-perpetrator-call for justice-resolution), the siblings muddy up the whole equation by uploading footage of their childhood rapes onto a Deep Web computer game they title Nefando. Players of this game, they reason, cannot remain separate, pure, or untouched by the crimes, but must participate in them.
And the siblings seem to derive satisfaction from knowing that pornographic videos of them as children are out in the world. In one perplexing scene, the roommates are curled up in the living room of the Barcelona flat, watching a Swedish movie, when Irene casually tells Iván that her father raped them as children. “You don’t joke about that kind of thing,” Iván warns her, uncomfortable. But as Irene, unperturbed, continues flipping through the phone book to find the Telepizza number, her sister Cecilia confirms this confession. There are videos online to prove it, she says, and Irene then promptly pulls them up on her laptop for Iván to see. Emilio pauses the Swedish movie so that they all can watch. “I’ve seen a lot in my life,” Iván says, “but not three people ready to enthusiastically show footage of their own rapes.”
What is it that makes Iván—and I—so uncomfortable about the Terán siblings’ disclosure? Is it the discovery that the three were so horribly abused as children? Is it the videos he watches depicting their rapes? Or is it that the Terán’s do not recount their childhoods through the ready-made framework of tragedy, that they are the ones who challenge Iván—and us—to watch?
A part of me hates that the Terán’s don’t neatly separate right from wrong. Quite frankly, it makes praising the book more difficult. The entire novel becomes ethically questionable because there is no straightforward condemnation of child pornography—even from the very children who were forced into it. The Terán’s even seem to get pleasure from having the footage of their rapes on the Deep Web. But perhaps this is the point. Maybe “our obsession with narratives of despair,” as Elizabeth Hall points out in her review of Juana María Rodríguez’s Puta Life, a history of Latina sex workers, ends up obscuring more than it reveals about those who have experienced sexual violence. To be sure, the Terán’s are not sex workers—they were children at the time of their rapes, who could not consent to sex with an adult, with or without compensation—but, like the sex workers that Rodriguez discusses in her monograph, the siblings “rescript” their moments of trauma and abuse in unexpected ways. While Rodriguez argues that many of the sex workers featured in Puta Life channel their experiences through the “lens of power and revenge,” the Terán siblings repurpose the videos of their rapes through the Nefando game, in what Cuco calls “a work of redefined love.” When his skeptical interlocutor pushes him to elaborate, Cuco says that the Terán’s designed Nefando “so that the player’s experience was a poem.”
Ojeda’s work bubbles from this need to write the unspeakable—to write not just of horror, but of the moments of desire, pleasure, or love that might lie within it. “Me interesa palabrar las zonas en las que no hay palabras,” Ojeda has said—I’m interested in wording the zones where there are no words. The translator is, too. When, on a podcast, an interviewer confesses to Booker that he skimmed over Nefando’s more explicit parts, Booker is sympathetic, but indignant: “You got to skip over reading those challenging parts,” she says, “but the translator doesn’t really get to do that.”
Instead, Booker’s task was that of Ojeda’s, and Kiki’s: to find “the expressive word” for lo nefando. Booker’s translation occasionally even sharpens the prose of the Spanish version, making it more specific. “Los ojos que hablan” (the eyes that talk) becomes “talking eyes”; Cuco’s go-to filler phrase “no sé, no sé” becomes “I dunno, I dunno,” instead of “I don’t know, I don’t know,” further emphasizing his conversational, informal tone. One spectacularly lyrical sentence uttered by Emilio—“I look out the window: the yard gets dark, the pool moonshines, but that verb doesn’t exist”—is made even more crystalline when translated: In Ojeda’s Spanish, the sentence reads “la piscina se enluna, pero esa palabra no existe.”
[P]alabra (“word”) narrows to “verb” in Booker’s English translation. (Enlunarse and “to moonshine,” meanwhile, are verbs that I will be enthusiastically incorporating into my Spanish and English vocabularies). Booker has fine-tuned Ojeda’s words, making them all the more unsettling.
All together, what do these choices in language mean? In comparison to the social crimes of the real world—theft, pedophilia, pornography, organized crime, drug trafficking, assassinations—are words, as Cecilia says, “only shadows in the forest”? What type of disruption, or subversion, does a literary work like Nefando actually cause?
The feat of Nefando, for me, is not that Ojeda and Booker have definitively palabrado/“worded” the unspeakable. The Terán siblings, and their understandings of their pasts, remain opaque throughout the book, never known, understood, or captured. Maybe the accomplishment of the novel, then, is that it urges us to simply look at those shadows in the forest, to stare at them until our “eyes burn with tears,” without making sense of them at all.
Anna Learn is a PhD student at the University of Washington, where she studies Persian, South Asian, and Hispanic literature.
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