‘Nefando,’ by Mónica Ojeda

Lillian Burnes Heath

Mónica Ojeda’s latest novel speaks in many different tongues, including Catalan slang and plain nonsense, and both its triumphs and challenges come from that. Translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker, Nefando (Coffee House Press; $17.95) details the creation of a darkly twisted video game, the titular Nefando, by three siblings with satellite help from their trio of roommates in Barcelona: Kiki is the writer, her friend Iván is a master’s student with violent gender dysmorphia, and El Cuco Martinez, the most popular and chatty roomie, is a video game designer moonlighting as Robin Hood. Then there are the Teráns—Irene, Cecilia, and Eduardo—who were horrifically sexually abused by their father back in Ecuador.

The video game connected to all of them involves abusing a young girl in, ostensibly, a sex dungeon. Investigating whether such a sick game is the psychological result of minds tortured by paternal abuse is not the most noteworthy path of inquiry in Ojeda’s novel. Laudably, for a book dedicated to the worst sort of interpersonal violence, the most impressive aspect of Ojeda’s writing is her juggling of the six differentiated voices and internal monologues. We get the feel for the characters through their artistic production, historical anecdotes, and, most illuminatingly, their interviews with an unidentified investigator. Their shared confidences reveal, time and time again, the alienation within the apartment. The roommates all insist that they were not that close; they really did not spend much time together at all. Yet they are all involved and complicit in a singular fact: the existence of Nefando. But how could what they all describe as acquaintances, of ships passing in the night, spawn a phenomenon as popular and resonant as Nefando?

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The protagonists’s confounding atomization is literal and stylistic; every voice varies greatly. To touch on style, of course, means discussing Booker’s translation. Each roommate, as Booker explains in her translator’s note, thinks and speaks in markedly different Spanish dialects. (For example, she has left different cultural verbal markers, like the Mexican slang “güey,” for dude, and the Spaniard’s tío/tía personal address.) Regardless, the different voices are not equally engaging. Kiki’s is the strongest and most beautiful voice, by a longshot, which is apt for the novelist of the apartment. El Cuco’s chapters and interview dialogue, however, are the most bland and impersonal. (Is it a coincidence that the character that falls the flattest is also the only non-Latin American?). This can impede the movement of the story, as El Cuco, being the most tech-savvy among them, is also the most in the know.

That aside, the heart of the novel lies with the characters’s idiosyncracies and the reader’s parsing of the roommates’s relationships. This is, again, a fairly astounding feat, to hold our interest in this way in a narrative whose subjects include child molestation, incest, and scatological events. These horrors become peripheral; questions of identity trump the violence.

Although some questions of separation and connection remain unclear, the tangled organism of the apartment is an interesting knot to undo. In the end, in the wake of the Terán siblings’ suffering, we return to this question: how did these people, who didn’t even really like each other, work as a team? Perhaps it’s because we all feel the tentacles of evil; suffering flattens all of our individuality. Pain and scarring are spread throughout our universal spirit like roots, familial genetics, or the matrix of the internet. Your pain is my pain.

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