Comemadre feels like a troll, and we can’t figure out if Larraquy is an actual proponent of the prurient and the shocking, of the crass and irreverent, in modern art, or if he’s cleverer than all of us and having a damn good time with parody. Either way, Larraquy took exhibitionist art and made it literary.
Where is the tipping point that turns life into unlife? What does that infinitesimally small tick on the clock feel like, sound like, taste like? And can we replicate it for the living?
Argentinian author Roque Larraquy’s novel is a century’s quest for understanding the in-between. Larraquy sweeps religion aside, turns a deaf ear to the philosophers and rejects blasé methods of questioning. Instead he approaches the metaphysical realm from a purely physical standpoint, dabbling first in guillotines and then moving on to live installation art. Through the length of his novel, the body is central to his question: what is the moment of death like?
Comemadre is provocative, Larraquy’s writing coy, and the whole of the book is an uncomfortable ride, tasteless and brazen but always with a magnetism that gets the upper hand. It’s a novel ripe for the current age when the body is tied up with identity politics and with law and order.
To situate the novel in the modern world: a public penis is indecency. Or sexual assault. Or humiliation; unless we attach a ticket price to it and place it in a museum. Then it’s art. Or, in a women’s restroom, it’s tolerance.
Maybe this is why Larraquy’s strange little book sets us reeling. Its uninhibited use of the body outside of ethics feels cold and sociopathic. It attracts and repels, but its attraction has the slightest edge. What a flirt this Comemadre is.
Split into two incongruous books, Comemadre enjoys a split-level humor. Its first part takes place in 1907 at a Buenos Aires sanatorium for cancer patients. Its director, Mr. Allomby, pursues fame for the institution and cons the terminally ill into a guillotine scheme made for deciphering the link between life and death. The experiment is based on the idea that a man can still think and even speak for nine seconds after decapitation.
What will it say? And do we, after all, say “it,” or is “it” still in truth the man or the woman to whom it erstwhile was still firmly attached? Do the nine seconds after decapitation when the brain can still think belong to life or to death or to the nebulous in-between?
Under no circumstances is the donor to be informed of the decapitation itself, or that the donation will occur pre-mortem.
A negligence born of religio-scientific zeal gets replicated a century later as an insouciance toward basic human ethics: Sebastian on a bicycle, an installation piece. Larvae of the comemadre plant devour his leg from the inside out as he pedals and pedals and pedals, a piece that gestures at progress while it sacrifices little by little that very part of the soul that chases after this progress and puts the plans in motion: the human conscience is at stake, just as it was one hundred years prior when a ring of guillotines sliced through the necks of those patients who made their pre-mortem donations in the name of transcendence and science.
This second part, in its own way, recreates that experiment of the guillotines, attempting still to uncover the truths and lies of the hereafter and of the human mind under exceptional circumstances, this time through art. Foremost is a baby born with two heads, but also present are the necessary surgery for recreating a man’s face in triplicate, the artist’s own severed finger and various other tarsals taken from a morgue.
Comemadre is a novel structured like Roberto Bolaño’s five-part 2666, containing both that novel’s alleyway loves and splintered prose, but without that novel’s indiscriminate violence or its wide-ranging style. Like Bolaño’s novel, Comemadre pursues the grotesque and presents a hyperbolic depravity. Also like Bolaño’s novel, its two parts are tied together through abstruse means, Memory’s phantom, so that we are forever questioning whether what we’re reading is taking place in the objective world or, through the grainy distillery of memory and heritage, are mere projections inside the minds of Comemadre’s characters.
What’s left is a cult of images. Comemadre is pure exhibition. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Comemadre · Roque Larraquy · 2010
Heather Cleary translation · Coffee House Press, 2018 · 129 pages, paperback