Mala hierba

AUTHOR: José Luis Muñoz
PUBLISHER: Ediciones del Serbal
GENRE: Fiction
READER’S NAME: James Lyons
DATE: April 17, 2017

A small rural middle American town is the scene of the most diabolical of events. The arrival of an Afro-American stranger, who is a fugitive and an ex-combatant from the Vietnam War, puts in relief what, until now, the inhabitants of Arkaham would prefer to have kept hidden, their own human abyss.

José Luis Muñoz reveals the distinctive personalities of his characters throughout the novel with great mastery, giving free reign to the dark side of human nature in which some of the common elements are envy, antipathy, bitterness, loneliness, dissatisfaction and a conservative view of religion. Most of these characters are tormented souls who parade through Mala Hierba [Weed] as if passing through scenes from Dante’s Inferno. 

The narration of the events is very clear to the reader. Its dialogues are not only vigorous but also credible. They manage to reflect pain, bitterness, revenge, innocence, hopelessness and dissatisfaction while offering the reader insights into the characters. Margaret reproaches her husband for having sex with a minor five years earlier by asking, “Have you already forgotten what happened in that motel?”. All of these literary devices contribute to creating a rhythm in the novel which is attractive to the reader, who cannot avoid becoming hooked as he/she avidly awaits the next turn of events. 

The writer navigates the complexities of this part of the American society in a completely natural way. He does not allow himself to be guided by stereotypes. It is unusual and refreshing to find a foreign writer who faithfully represents a country as diverse and complex as the United States without falling back on stereotypes. It will be interesting for an American reader to see how a writer from another country, who has ample knowledge of the United States, represents it. In the same way, although it is written in Spanish, the reader feels connected to the narration of the events, characters, landscape and the way in which Muñoz presents situations, like for example the story of the Duel in the Rain, one of the chapters of Mala Hierba or the deep imprint that the Vietnam War left on American Society. It is clear that the Spanish language is not a limiting factor for the author to represent what he wishes to convey. Although I am not familiar with other works by this author, specifically those which were set in the United States, I am sure that his prior knowledge and experience with this country has been very helpful in his elaboration of Mala Hierba.

This novel, like typical noir fiction, brings together enough elements to create suspense and tension in the reader. Mala Hierba brings to life the sensations felt while reading other novels, albeit from different genres, such as The Green Mile, from Stephen King. On the other hand, Muñoz’ treatment of Sussy, a girl who is diseased socially, an innocent victim of circumstances drowning within a society that is incapable of helping her or even helping itself, paints a picture of beauty, innocence and an uncertain future for a generation of youth that if not rescued in time will be lost in oblivion. At the same time, he presents an existing society that continually creates this type of person but does not take responsibility for its unhealthy creation.

Facts such as Sussy’s demise, the shoot-out between the sheriff, his assistant and Shoemaker, are not necessarily foreseeable. Nevertheless, in anticipating the main characters’ demise, it becomes clear that once they are at the edge of the cliff, they will not be able to turn back. The related story of the death of Mrs. Moods at that hand of her husband, blends quite well the elements of loneliness, guilt, a twisted concept of right and wrong, a sick society and the fear of death experienced by some of the other characters later in the novel. For example, we have the guilt that Pastor Berghoffer carries with him for killing Sussy. Also, the sexual relationship between Sussy and her lovers are not so different than the seeming harmony and conjugal commitment between sheriff Davis and his wife Margaret. Likewise, the conversations between Charlie and his daughter or between pastor Berghoffer and his wife Aline, as well as those between Walter Davis and Margaret, are laced with evidence of pathology.

The novel ends with the same hopelessness or pessimism towards life as shown by the characters during its development. Although Pastor Berghoffer is at death’s door and sherrif Davis faces a life of loneliness, they will not try to change the trajectory of their lives. Even for those who leave town, a change of geography does not guarantee that they can repair their broken lives. A cursed town or weed, is the best possible description of Arkaham.

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