Barrelhouse Reviews: Comemadre, by Roque Larraquy (trans. Heather Cleary)

Review by Jacob Moore

Early on in Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel, the unnamed narrator, unprompted and with little relevance to the surrounding narration, provides his thoughts on death: “I believe we lose immortality because we have not conquered our opposition to death; we keep insisting on the primary, rudimentary idea: that the whole body should be kept alive. We should seek to preserve only the part that has to do with consciousness.” This is a characterizing moment for our narrator, a fanciful notion of the meaning of death coming from an escaped criminal. It is also a faux-profundity, parenthetically tossed-off in the hopes of distracting the reader from the narrator’s true nature, dazzling them instead with his intelligence, a technique he continues to employ throughout the book. Roque Larraquy’s Comemadre concerns characters that we might see as extensions of this line of thought, perhaps at a time when our narrator is free from fears of his imminent capture and can expand upon them more leisurely. As a result, it spins old unreliable narrator techniques into a freshly comic and grotesque examination of the various ways that we try to justify the unjustifiable. 

Comemadre consists of two sections, both set in Buenos Aires a century apart. The first half takes place in a Buenos Aires sanatorium in 1907, in which doctors embark on an experiment to find out what a human consciousness experiences in the nine-second interim between the severing of the head and death. They construct an elaborate guillotine for this purpose and lure cancer patients into their facility by advertising the discovery of a miracle serum. After some weeks of treatment, they tell the patients that the treatment is failing and suggest that they donate their bodies to science so that their deaths might have meaning.  

The second section is framed as an unnamed artist’s letter in response to a graduate student’s dissertation on his work. He recounts his childhood and artistic career, culminating in a meeting with Lucio, a man who is his exact double and who becomes his creative partner. The two collaborate on a number of performances that investigate the various ways a human body can be deformed or mutilated, as a result of which the narrator cuts off one of his own fingers.

All of these actions are carried out for lofty, philosophical purposes. The doctors of the first part want to resolve the question of death, which is “pure conjecture… not an experience,” to “cast a flare into the great beyond to see what it illuminates in its flight.” Their experiment calls into question where the whole human is located in the body, reducing the subjects’ physical form to a head. The artist’s interests are similar; he severs his finger as a rejection of the belief he once held that “each of my fingers represented a quantifiable part of me.” His earliest major work is an exhibition focused around a pair of conjoined twins, one body with two heads and two discrete but connected consciousnesses; later, he and Lucio create an exhibition themed around the theft of the hands of Argentinian President Juan Perón, the idea of his hands as a totem of his total personhood, that involves actual hands taken from corpses. The two later decide to undergo cosmetic surgery to resolve the few differences in their appearances. Their work investigates the boundaries between people, suggesting that the idea of two people as two discrete entities is not as rigid as we might think. Both groups look to break borders previously thought to be immutably separate—life and death, self and other. Basically, they hope to transcend. 

Comemadre, however, is a profane book, if profanity is taken to be the opposite of transcendence. At every turn, the investigation and analysis of transcendence is shown to be craven and shallow, motivated by a drive for profit, notoriety, and nationalism. When it comes time to convince the patients to sacrifice their heads, they are persuaded not by science but by nationalistic pride—“Most of them allow themselves to be convinced because they intuit that Argentina is tackling a scientific challenge of global proportions; in their patriotic fervor, they sign over their bodies.” The scientific goals of the experiment are ancillary to the pride that comes with being the first country to accomplish this research.  The two artists’ endeavor is similarly shown to be hollow when they admit to the reader that “the instillation has no theoretical foundation whatsoever”—it exists not for its own right, but to bolster the reputation of its creators, at the expense of those stolen hands. 

Nothing more plainly lays out Comemadre’s view of the exercises of its narrators than its titular plant. Translating to “mother-eater,” it is Larraquy’s one concession to the outright speculative in a book that often motions toward science-fiction. In “[a] botanical digression,” we are told of “a plant with acircular leaves whose sap produces… microscopic animal larvae. These larvae devour the plant, leaving only tiny particles behind.” It seems to slot nicely into the characters’ thematic concerns—a body that holds its own death in a discrete physical compartment; a self whose selfhood is transferred onto that which destroys it. It embodies the messy, paradoxical questions of consciousness, selfhood, and mortality that the two narrators seek to resolve. 

However, the trick of Comemadre is that, in a reversal of the usual process of literary analysis, the reader has to look past the abstract, philosophical surface of a thing to see the immediate physical reality of it—a reality of violence and destruction. Its narrators may distract us with technical and intellectual details that foreground their ideas of their actions and glance over the decapitated heads of lied-to cancer patients, the rotting leg of a participant in their performance, but, ultimately, we’re still left with a book about people who hurt, maim, and kill others for their own gain. The doctors use the plant to dispose of the bodies of their experimental subjects; the artist uses it to dissolve the leg of an ex-lover as part of a performance. Toward the end, we see a minor character sell comemadre to the Argentine mafia for use in the disposal of bodies. In this image, Larraquy makes perhaps his most damning point: from science to art to organized crime, the plant’s purpose has not changed.

Jacob Moore is currently in his third year of the MFA program for fiction at Texas State University, where he also teaches. His fiction has appeared in New South and his writing about music and culture in Flavorwire and Noisey. He enjoys '90s post-hardcore and hasn't seen a movie about anything other than the mafia or Spider-Man in months.