“Being Umbrellas During Storms: Evelio Rosero’s Stranger to the Moon” by Matt Weir

 

The narrator of Stranger to the Moon tells their story from a crumbling, cavernous home. The windows and doors, except for the front entrance, have been boarded from the outside, and the interior is lit by torchlight. The house is crowded. There is not enough food for everyone, yet the cooks, dispersed among many kitchens, prepare lavish feasts for outside guests. Residents stampede for what little is allotted to them, and some perish in the crush. Their corpses disappear and become food themselves. No one talks of this.

Everyone who lives in the house is naked. They are the “naked ones.” Each naked has “two sexes,” which one can infer means that they have both male and female genitalia. They never wear clothes. Even if a naked one were to find clothes and put them on, it would be obvious, the narrator tells us, that they are not the same as the clothed ones. The clothed ones possess only a single sex and control the world outside the house. Every once in a while, in an effort to plead for more provisions, a naked one is forced by his compatriots to venture through the front door and into the clothed world. Outside, the naked one, pleading for mercy, is liable to be harrassed, assaulted, enslaved, and/or murdered. The narrator, who is themselves a naked one, remembers an old, wisened naked one, now dead, who smelled permanently of cat urine and feces because of these tortures. The narrator recollects, in horrific detail, what was done to the elder naked one by clothed men, women, and children alike. He was tied to an elderberry tree for days with a sign placed around his neck which read, “For Being Naked.” (Many of the naked ones gravitate toward one gender identity, we are told, hence the male pronouns for this naked one. The narrator does not choose. They are the only one, they say, who believes that having two sexes is superior to the single sex of the clothed ones.)

The only moments of reprieve, if they can be called that, are the parties the naked ones throw in their deteriorating mansion. Prominent local clothed ones attend. The clothed ones come and engage in the most lurid debauchery, and it is well known that the new generations of naked children in the home most often have clothed paternity. The parties are a diverting time for the naked ones. Perhaps they will catch the eye of some clothed one and ingratiate themselves by being amusing. They may gain the status of a favorita. They may even receive a name, such as “The Bald One,” “Adonis,” or, in the case of the oldest naked one, with his prodigious girth and beard, who awes the clothed ones with his capacity, in his old age, for onanism with his two sexes, “Jesús.” Of course, the naked ones could just as easily suffer harassment, assault, torture, murder, etc., in their own home.

How did this happen? Is the whole world like this? How long has this been going on? We never find out. Stranger to the Moon comprises eighty-seven pages of fraught speculation, rumors and inferences of this vast, gleefully violent machinery. That the capacity for violence exists and is used on the naked ones is the most stable truth found here. To escape this world of horror, confusion, and deprivation, our narrator prefers hiding out in a small wardrobe in the home. In the darkness, with the doors shut, they mostly sleep. But for passing the time when they are awake, they have fashioned, with their carefully sharpened fingernails, a small hole from which they can see the goings-on in the house. “I only leave through my window,” the narrator says. “The window is me, taking steps.”

Colombian writer Evelio Rosero’s narrators often make do with a limited view. His first two novellas portray children confined in homes. Born in Bogotá in 1958, Rosero has published over twenty novels, novellas, and books for children in Colombia since the 1980s, where he is regarded as a central literary figure of his generation. He found an international audience with The Armies, an exceptionally disorienting yet eerily ground-bound novel of war, from 2006. The protagonist of that book, an increasingly senile and unmoored retiree, muddles through an account of the hazy events of his wife’s kidnapping among battling guerrilla, paramilitary, and official government forces in his hometown. The tone of the novel lurches—from violence to erotic reverie, mundanity to anguish, confusion to defiance—and the suddenness of the narrative turns seems to contradict the straightforward, companionable prose style. It seems designed to frustrate the reader looking for a portrait of conditions in Colombia, even though Rosero conducted extensive interviews for the book and has said that all of the anecdotes therein are real. The Armies is inchoate, meandering, and yet those qualities are what makes it cohere. The two Rosero books that were subsequently translated into English—Good Offices (2011) and Feast of the Innocents (2016)—were slighter yet still intriguingly off-center. Both novels, rooted in some form of literary realism, lull the reader into accepting increasingly unsettling and quixotic events and imagery, whether a dead-of-night ice-cold “bath” for stray cats in Good Offices, or wanna-be assassins trying on a two-person donkey costume in church in the more comic and shaggy Feast. Stranger to the Moon, untethered from mimesis, offers Rosero’s hallucinatory imaginings without respite.

Like a César Aira story, Stranger to the Moon seems propelled by an improvisatory sense of language as performance. Rosero always risks the lyrical flourish, and because this book is a dystopian fable his flights of fancy are often maniacally grotesque. The translators, Victor Meadowcraft and Anne McLean, cast it all in anxious, urgent English. When the narrator leaves the wardrobe, for instance, they say, “I don’t come out, I emerge, I slide, I’m a long, rickety vapor; there’s mist in my armpits and my mouth is white, I’m a spatula of gelatin.” Rosero has an almost Burroughs-esque knack for galloping, paranoid runs. In one feverish scene the narrator recalls talk that the entire animal kingdom colludes with the clothed ones to attack naked ones attempting escape from the home, including falcons with “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.” Other rumored hench-creatures include laboratory-created hybrids like a cow-frog and a “furious fish-ape.” While wondering why a clothed partygoer offhandedly mentioned that naked ones would burst into flames if they ever put on clothes, the narrator convinces themselves that it could be true, and in their heightening paranoia they worry “that the garments of every visiting clothed one might contain a secret device, that, on being taken off their customary bodies, even for an instant, are activated to explode, to burn, and to kill, at the slightest hint of unknown skin.” The descriptions of torture go on and on.

Rosero wrote this novella between 1988 and 1990, upon returning to Bogotá following several years spent in Europe. Those years in Colombia, despite gains sometimes made by peace talks between the government and guerrilla groups, saw increasing violence and instability. Social inequity festered, and paramilitary forces, drug cartels, and guerrilla groups increased terror campaigns against their targets.

Stranger to the Moon might seem like a nightmarish rendering of a contemporary moment, and like other dystopias of stratification, such as H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, it invites a reader’s political imagination. The nakedness is even further exploding, loading every scene with psychosexual baggage. Biblical overtones of sin and innocence pervade the text. (Rosero has said he has “no edifying memories” of his education in Bogotá’s Catholic schools.) The sex and gender ambiguity opens up other avenues of inquiry, though Rosero’s explanation that in adolescence naked ones “decide whether to be more man than woman, or the reverse” feels hasty and unsatisfactory. But just as in The Armies, the story’s universalizing gestures are balanced by subtle shifts and turns that reinforce particularity. In an interview in BOMB, Rosero reflected on the novel’s genesis:

I came back to Colombia, and after less than a week in Bogotá I fell in love and went to live in Chía, in the Cerca de Piedra district, among cows and chickens. The little brick house seemed right out of a fairy tale, but also out of nightmares. I stayed there six years, and I wrote Señor que no conoce la luna [Stranger to the Moon], because before I lived in Chía I’d never really seen the moon, as simple as that, I didn’t get to know the moon in Paris or in Barcelona.

The intimacy of Rosero’s vision—the fact that he named the novel from a moment of personal insight—has a disquieting parallel in the world of the book: never in the text does the moon appear. If the narrator knows of the moon at all, they surely think of it as just another tool of the clothed ones to spy on naked ones at night. It’s a searchlight, or a giant eye like the one which opens on the English-language edition’s cover.

Novels of confinement, not to mention dystopia, tend to produce plots of escape, and Stranger is no different. Escape requires strategizing. The German writer, filmmaker, and theorist Alexander Kluge has drawn a useful distinction between “strategy from above” and “strategy from below.” The former is an army preparing and executing an air raid on a foreign city in a time of war. The latter is a woman diving for cover as those same bombs burst overhead. When the moment comes, strategy from above holds all of the power, and anything happening below is too little too late. Only luck and improvisation can save the woman now. To further protect herself, the woman caught in the air raid should have started strategizing years earlier. Far-sightedness, an almost humanly impossible task at times, Kluge marvels, one that stretches the limits of our consciousness, was her best weapon.

In Stranger, the narrator’s long-term commitment to solitude blooms into something like long-term planning. Cocooned in their hideaway they have nurtured a sense of pride and autonomy that other naked ones seem to lack. They may be unnamed, like all the others, but they say, “I know who I am.” Anger against the clothed ones (and the complicit naked ones) bursts from this self-knowledge, and late in the novella they commit an anonymous act of murder against a prominent clothed one attending a party. In the aftermath of this act, the first-ever documented murder of a clothed one by a naked one, within the house no less, the narrator falls under suspicion, and at the novel’s end they make a single, defiantly self-sacrificing choice. In doing so they are pleased.

In one sense, Rosero has hazarded a near-boilerplate YA plot: in a sketchily drawn alternate society, a member of an undifferentiated crowd finds meaning and purpose only through the act of individuating themselves. The claustrophobia of the naked narrator’s point-of-view, while propelling in its capacity for conjecture, paranoia, and complaint, does not allow for much else to emerge from the background. Other naked ones mostly provide background and fodder for set-pieces. There’s a late scene with a clothed one sympathetic to the narrator, but it merely serves the plot. It’s as if the psychological pressure of the narrator’s existence demands such insularity. This is a narrator who doesn’t know how old they are and, until the final pages, has refused to ever look in a mirror.

Yet Rosero, always expansive, hints at what our narrator does not, and cannot, know. The possibility of love between two naked ones is glimpsed in a parenthetical, and in one brief but arresting scene the narrator describes the cemetery in the back of their home. Headstones reading “I, Naked,” encircle the oldest tomb in the cemetery’s center. This tomb is the only grave with a unique epitaph. Most of the message cannot be made out, only “memories of letters” remain, but the narrator has been told that it reads, “(AN)D SH(E) DAR(ED) (TO) LI(V)E (NA)KED.” Disobedience is possible, though it’s a cruel truth that the only record of it lies in the graveyard. A counterrevolutionary force seems to have coalesced and quashed any sign of resistance. The novella, from this angle, is an account of a reactionary coalition’s long stay in power, one so protracted and deep that the oppressors are completely entangled with and dependent upon those they afflict.

The clothed ones need the naked ones, the narrator repeatedly reminds us. The naked ones work in elder care for the clothed ones and perform all sorts of tasks: “Licking them. Lulling them. Telling them yes, swearing that yes, yes, we are the women they are dreaming of. Rocking them. Fanning them. Lighting up their pipes, their hearts. Being umbrellas during storms. Forever pushing their wheelchairs.” The clothed doctors report that viewing the torture of a naked one cures afflictions in clothed ones and prolongs life. The naked ones wake in the morning to the sound of construction—the clothed ones are making sure the house doesn’t collapse. And the clothed ones are forever attending these parties, attempting to educate the naked ones, seducing them, bragging about the ability of the clothed to wage war. They do it all to demand a certain reaction—gratitude, fealty, fear. Many of the naked give it to them. The narrator, from the wardrobe, sees it all, this criss-crossing of paradoxical wants and needs. They look and, eventually, they even dare to act. ♦


Matt Weir is a writer living in New York.

2 Comments

  1. I would love to see a review of Vultures in the Living Room by Brazilian author Lula Falcão.
    I’d be happy to send you a copy.
    Best, Helena

  2. Spot on with this write-up, I honestly feel this website needs a lot more attention. I’ll probably be back again to see more, thanks for the information!

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