Under This Terrible Sun
Author: Carlos Busqued (translated by Megan McDowell )
Originally Published: 2008
Length: 140 pages
Published by: Frisch & Co.
Why I read it: Review request
Where I got it: Publisher
Quick thoughts: A dark, disturbing book that wasn’t necessarily enjoyable, but one which won my applause nonetheless.
At first glance, Under This Terrible Sun is a book that shouldn’t work. The two intertwining stories which make up the novel are at such ends with each other that it seems like mixing oil and water. Cetarti is a socially stunted underachiever whose only goal in life seems to be watching television documentaries with a stash of marijuana close at hand. On the other end of Argentina (both literally and metaphorically), Duarte is an ex-military officer with some psychopathic tendencies. What brings them together is the murder/suicide of Certarti’s estranged mother and her partner, who happens to be Duarte’s old Air Force buddy. Perhaps “brings together” isn’t quite the term I’m looking for. It’s really more like trying to shoehorn Fast Times at Ridgemont High and American Psycho into the same breathing space. What’s most incredible is that Busqued actually manages to pull it off.
To say I enjoyed the novel, however, might be a bit of a misnomer. Under This Terrible Sun was one of those rarities where I fully appreciated and admired the writing without experiencing any real sense of pleasure or delight. To be frankly honest, this is not a comfortable book. In fact, there are moments of such utter depravity that I fear they may be forever burned into my memory. In some ways, I’m quite at a loss in trying to think of any redeeming qualities in the novel. Then again, sometimes we need a book that forces us to look into the abyss.
The prose, on the other hand, is like nothing I’ve read before. There is a latent primal energy that courses just beneath the surface, but never actually breaks through. It almost feels at times as though the subtext is more important than the story. The incessant mention of giant squid, which seems oddly puzzling at first, begins to take on a special significance in terms of something lurking beneath the surface. There is also a more predatory and sinister motif, a connection between the hunter and the hunted in some abyssal sense, but the thematic connection is always just teasingly out of sight and out of reach. What is clear, however, is that the bestial menagerie that collects throughout the book — squid, elephants, mad dogs, boas, beetles and even axolotls — develops some sort of animal kingdom or law of the jungle ideology that obliquely informs the larger story.
It’s a harrowing journey, but there was something intangible at play which made reading Under This Terrible Sun seem worthwhile in the end. It was an impressive and gutsy choice by Frisch & Co. to add this novel to their nascent series of literature in translation, and one that has earned my respect.
Cetarti spends his days in a cloud of pot smoke, watching nature documentaries on television. A call from a stranger, informing him that his mother and brother have been murdered, finally tears him from his lethargy: he must identify the bodies.
After making sure he has enough pot for the trip, he sets out to the remote Argentinian village of Lapachito, an ominous place, where the houses are sinking deeper and deeper into the mud and a lurid, horrific sun is driving everyone crazy. When Duarte, a former military man turned dedicated criminal, ropes Cetarti into a scheme to cash in on his mother’s life insurance, events quickly spiral out of control…
A riveting, thrilling, and shocking read, Under This Terrible Sun paints the portrait of a civilizational in terminal decline, where the border between reality and nightmare has become increasingly blurred.