cover image The Devil of the Provinces

The Devil of the Provinces

Juan Cárdenas, trans. from the Spanish by Lizzie Davis. Coffee House, $16.95 trade paper (172p) ISBN 978-1-56689-678-8

Cárdenas (Ornamental) spins a dizzying and beguiling yarn of a middle-aged man’s return to his Colombian hometown after 15 years abroad. It’s a crime story, but one without clear answers or culprits. Instead, the unnamed protagonist, a biologist-cum-teacher at a Catholic girls’ school, considers his options and examines the mysteries of his past. During the narrator’s absence, his brother was abducted and killed. The press speculated about his killer’s identity and motive, but no explanation made sense to the biologist, who goes on living with the knowledge that his mother wished it were him who died instead. At the school where he works, he helps a student give birth to a baby with hair covering its face and horns on the back of its head. He waffles over whether to take a biochemistry job for a palm grower, then decides to quit the teaching gig but delays giving his notice, and has an elliptical dialogue with a devil-like man who calls himself the “knight of formaldehyde.” Cárdenas describes the sweltering heat in beautifully strange terms (the sun “poured down on him like boiling lemonade”), adding to the sense of small-town oppression, where self-deprecating jokes are “a kind of determinist doctrine.” South American fiction fans will love this. (May)