Argentinian writer Selva Almada’s The Wind That Lays Waste is published by Charco Press, a small publisher set up by Carolina Orloff and Samuel McDowell to champion Latin American literature in the English-speaking world. Orloff’s a translator which is perhaps why Chris Andrews’ name appears on the book’s cover, just as it should. I wish more publishers would do this. Almada’s novella is the tale of an encounter between a charismatic evangelist and the mechanic who spends much of a long hot day mending the preacher’s car.
Reverend Pearson and his daughter are on their way to see Pastor Zack, busy converting indigenous people deep in the Argentinean forest. Pearson has spent a decade touring the country, putting the fear of God into as many people as he can, dragging the reluctant Leni around with him and living out of his car. Leni still remembers kneeling on the backseat watching her distraught mother as her father drove them away. At sixteen she’s both admiring of her father’s skills and disapproving of what he does. When their car breaks down in the harsh heat of the day, a kind stranger tows them to Gringo Brauer’s. Gringo sets to work with his assistant, Tapioca, the unacknowledged son left with him when Tapioca was six. Gringo and Pearson are each other’s antithesis: one a passionate believer in God and himself as God’s instrument; the other an atheist, dismissive of religion. As the day wears on, Pearson spots an opportunity resulting in a confrontation which reaches its climax as the skies crack open and the storm breaks.
Perhaps it’s because both novels end in a deluge or maybe it’s their shared economy of style, striking use of language and fable like quality, either way The Wind That Lays Waste reminded me a little of Luis Carrasco’s El Hacho, one of last’s year’s favourites. Almada unfolds her story in short chapters written in plain yet evocative often poetic prose, anchoring it in the parched Argentinean outback.
Although he had barely used his muscles, lying still all day, the blood that went coursing through his body had made the pit so hot not even the fleas could stand it anymore
Her characters are sharply observed: Tapioca’s naivete is convincingly drawn while Pearson is full of righteousness, oblivious to the misery he’s caused his daughter by separating her from her mother and forcing his beliefs on her.
His mission on earth was to wash dirty souls, to make them sparkling clean again, and fill them with the word of God
It’s an impressive piece of fiction, thought-provoking and absorbing. Almada’s is the latest in a long string of novellas I’ve read which demonstrate the power of the form. Much left unsaid for the reader to infer, and all the better for it.