by Molly Collins (@mollyec)
People do weird things at art school. Believe me, I’ve been there. A girl in one of my classes collected preserved insect carcasses and dismembered bird wings to use in her projects, and the rest of us didn’t blink an eye—I even borrowed them once for my own work. It was weird and a little gross, but our squeamishness could be put aside for the sake of art. But how far does art go? How far can we take it? Where are the physical, the ethical, the moral limits?
Art is not the only discipline that grapples with these questions; we remember well Dr. Frankenstein pushing science to its moral limits, and Roque Larraquy explores how far art and science can go in Comemadre, translated from its original Spanish. Alongside an artist pushing his physical limitations while trampling on others’ moral rights, a team of doctors throws away the ethics board in search of enlightenment—they’re writing their findings down, though, so it’s science.
BEHIND THE PEN
Roque Larraquy has no social media presence and relies upon a stock biography that every reviewer and web article uses, so we’ll regurgitate it here: he is an Argentinian author, screenwriter, and professor of narrative and audiovisual design. He has written four books, and Comemadre was the second to be translated to English, which made the long list for the translated National Book Award in 2018.
Heather Cleary is a translator and writer who splits her time between New York and Mexico City. She has a long resume of translations, but Comemadre is her only National Book Award nominee, although she served on the jury for translated works two years later in 2020.
A NO-SPOILER SUMMARY
Larraquy bisects Comemadre into two novellas, written in opposite order of appearance. The first takes place at an Argentinian hospital in 1907, following a team of doctors as they develop an experiment to understand more about the afterlife and the universe as a whole. Competition is fierce on the team: several of the doctors compete for a nurse’s affections, and they each strive to offer the most value to the experiment. Almost beneath their notice, strange things are occurring on the hospital grounds—ants create perfect circles on the ground, things mysteriously catch fire. The doctors pay little heed to the strange goings-on, and remain steadfast with their goals.
In the second novella, an Argentinian artist writes to an American woman about her dissertation on his work. He is peeved to learn how much of the paper is dedicated to an old professional relationship, and writes to tell her more intimate details about his life—his beginnings as a child prodigy, and how his art grew from his teenage and young adult experiences. As he details more of his repugnant actions and decisions, the reader encounters questions about individuality, ego, entitlement, and humanity, and we eventually wrap around to see how the puzzle pieces fit with the first novella.
VOICES FROM WITHIN
As a half-week book, we held only one discussion about Comemadre following its conclusion, rather than HOWLS’ typical model of holding discussions at predetermined points in the book. A few readers dropped out prior to discussion, citing difficulties getting into the story. The ball got rolling on Monday when those who had finished the book initially expressed bewilderment. “I’m confused, but I think I love it,” said @Chris O’Halloran, seeming to speak for many other members.
Comemadre is a book that deserves and necessitates being picked apart—and pick it apart we did. We wondered about “what parts of ourselves constitute our selves,” as @The_Left_Reverend put it, and explored how that theme manifested in each novella. The conversation devolved, for a time, into a discussion about bidets and their merits, before wrapping around to debate the significance of bidets in the text.
The titular plant—a Larraquy invention—wound its way into the chat, and we discussed how its cancerous larvae reflected the book’s characters and their actions. In the end, we returned to the same themes as before: identity, how we establish identity, and how far our identity extends. Several HOWLers adored the book, but many professed that they weren’t able to connect to it and, as a result, enjoyed it less.
WELCOME TO THE BLURBS: HOWL SOCIETY MEMBERS’ REVIEWS IN THEIR OWN WORDS
- “This is the type of book that gets even better in retrospect when you sit and think about whatever the fuck you’ve just read. This book is unique and an intelligent, humorous, analysis of humanity and identity. It also explains gruesome details so casually that you almost forget how terrifying it is.”
- “The only thing I hate about this book is how hard it is to get the original Spanish edition in Canada! With poetry-like prose and characters that come to life on the page, Comemadre makes you cringe at each development. Instead of twists and turns, its plot is a sharp descent into the irredeemable that I was 100% there for!”
- “I would never have known about this book without HOWLS, and that would have been a shame. The two halves of the story are woven together masterfully—two halves of a brain working in perfect harmony. Argentina wins!”
- “This book is not quite what it seems at first, and benefits from analysis, discussion, and re-reading. Peppered with humor and horror in equal parts, Comemadre reads like the avant-garde art installation hinted at within its summary. The translation from Spanish is masterful and refreshing.”
At several points, HOWLers mentioned that our discussion enhanced their enjoyment of the book, and that is certainly true for myself as well. Comemadre benefits from being read and discussed in a group, where different people can offer their viewpoints and help make sense of underlying themes, but it contains a level of nuance that may be difficult to enjoy solo. The novel dips into weird and absurdist territory and is perhaps not the first choice for many horror fans. However, if you’re looking for a “detached, nightmareish feel,” as @Probable Hag says, and a story with many layers to peel away, this is the book for you.