by Carlos Castán
Translated by Michael McDevitt
by Sandy Rodriguez Barron
In Bad Light, a man sets out to find out who murdered his best friend. Set in Zaragoza, Spain, the novel begins with a question--who would want to kill a sweet, lonely guy like Jacobo? The police find no clues, no witnesses. Weeks go by and there are no suspects. So the structural façade of the novel is clearly a crime mystery, and even if you know that Castán is a literary writer, it would be reasonable to expect some of the standard devices of the genre: investigation, police procedure, forensic analysis, deductive reasoning, tense confrontations and at least one action-packed scene. But to Castán, the puzzle surrounding the murder of Jacobo is subordinate to the existential questions that his death poses. Castán’s intense literary style reflects his advanced studies in philosophy; his prose is dense with serious reflection, poetry, weaving his words with those of writers and thinkers such as Primo Levi, Marguerite Duras, Emil Cioran, and Paul Celan. Bad Light is chock-full of lines to be underlined about love, literature, art, loneliness, friendship, death, and old age, and it takes the form, for most part, of interior monologue. Castán seems to anticipate some discontent in this regard, because he defends his aesthetic choice right within the text of the novel: “I’ve always preferred an interior monologue over convoluted stories that unfold amid revolvers, bona fide clues and red herrings, enigmas and alibis.” So Bad Light admittedly doesn’t concern itself much with with the shell games of contemporaries such as Dennis Lehane or Stieg Larsson; it’s more about the thoughts and emotions that Jacobo’s murder evokes for the narrator.
The story of Jacobo’s tragic end is told by a man who is utterly destroyed by his recent divorce. “Still bearing the imprint of a wedding band”, the narrator moves to Zaragoza, where he meets Jacobo in a smoke-filled neighborhood bar. Jacobo is similarly untethered by the failure of his marriage, and the two men commiserate and bond over their mutual love of books, music, art, and travel. Jacobo is particularly fond of telling exaggerated tales of past sexual adventures. Hermetic and lonely, Jacobo begins to collect an arsenal of knives and weapons that he keeps near the entrance of his apartment, and lives in a worsening paranoid state over nameless, shadowy executors out to get him. So when Jacobo is found dead and riddled with knife wounds inside his apartment, it becomes obvious that Jacobo wasn’t so delusional after all. A few weeks later, the narrator uses his spare key to enter Jacobo’s apartment and rummages through his belongings in search of clues. Castán takes his time here, using the solitude of Jacobo’s empty apartment to contemplate the resonant meaning of objects, especially books. “Every library, no matter how personal, is arranged as if on display. It craves admiration, the simple recognition of a like-minded soul or a polar opposite. This is not altogether uncalculating, for it is, when all is said and one, a language. And as such it may be heartfelt or duplicitous.” Throughout the novel, the relationship between belongings and identity is deeply explored. One of the most unique contemplations is the narrator’s response to seeing himself—his happiness, his promise, his innocence--in childhood photographs: “The sight of that boy arouses in me a tenderness I find hard to sustain. I look at that boy and my heart goes out to him. Child, forgive me for all the harm I’ve inflicted on you, for what I have ended up making of your life. Forgive me for not having listened to you more. For not having spent more time with you. I have ruined the life of no other creature as I have yours.”
Hacking into Jacobo’s email yields a string of correspondence with a mysterious woman named Nadia, and here Castán shows his vast literary gifts by creating a love story about the absence of love, a lustful adventure twisted around a tragedy. Some of the novel’s best lines are about yearning and the agony of waiting, as in Jacobo’s emails to Nadia-- “There is a coin in midair, it’s been falling in slow motion for days now, and that’s what makes me tremble and implore who knows what gods not to let it fall on the side that condemns me to simply dreaming of you.” Nothing more can be said of Nadia’s role without giving too much away.
Each chapter is ultimately tied together by the abysmal loneliness of this man, this shadow, who has lost everything, a man disconnected and raw and completely lost. The miracle of Castán’s writing is his ability to bridge the gap between this deeply pessimistic soul and the reader, to make us empathize with his mistakes, even as he wades deeper into the dark waters of his own destruction. Up until a third of the way through the book, the reason behind his divorce is the single dramatic question, and it is perhaps the question most alluring to the female reader--the why, the how, and the desire to know more about this woman whose absence is so lethal. Castán brilliantly dodges our curiosity, and in lieu of answers, offers only shadowy glimpses, such as “a photograph of a woman in a picture frame that can barely stand upright.” Although Castán’s soliloquies are gorgeously poetic, excessive summary has its thorns, and it keeps us at a distance from the action and characters, which is the entire point Castán is trying to make. Some of us live in a dream state, while others are awake in the darkness, condemned to witness “the horror of the planets floating in the darkness of infinity and filling everything with a solitude too vast even for the universe to hold.”
A single line, hidden in plain sight, is the only predictor of the twist ending, which most will agree makes for a hasty retreat. The crime hook and rushed ending will seem gimmicky to his core audience, but without it some of us might have missed the opportunity to experience Castán’s strange and beautiful work. Perhaps it’s this line that best embodies the spirit of the novel and of the impulse behind storytelling itself: “I was also trying, clumsily, to get across that other idea of mine, as old as it is muddled, that every human life contains within it the story of its century.”