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Book Review :: The Devil of Provinces by Juan Cárdenas

The Devil of Provinces by Juan Cárdenas book cover image

Guest Post by Colm McKenna

Lizzie Davis’ translation of Juan Cárdenas’ The Devil of the Provinces is a middle finger to literary categorization; mixing elements of both horror and thriller, Cárdenas’ novel plays with conventions of both classifications, while further blurring the lines between genre and literary fiction.

The story follows a failed biologist returning to his hometown. There are some deceptively lighthearted moments early on, mostly musings about the emotional repercussions attached to going back home. A clinical fatalism is always leaking under the surface though, pulling the masks off the comforts a small town and a quiet life seem to bring: “do nothing but wander from end to end, go up and come down, out and in, open and close the fridge door, sometimes lie in front of the TV. Pure actions… completely devoid of intention.”

Initially ambivalent about his return and temporary teaching gig, it becomes clear to the biologist that amongst the semblances of madness and chance, “destiny wins.” Though they are always lingering below the surface, the supernatural elements in the story rarely hang around for long; what good is it to question what is bound to happen, what has to happen?

As the story progresses, the biologist delves deeper into his newfound fatalism, reducing everything to biological determinism. Where once there were abstractions and meaningful communication, now there remain only predetermined motions controlled by evolutionary instincts: ‘Perhaps friendship… wasn’t between two people but two languages instead, a spontaneous symbiosis completely disconnected from the will of the speakers who claimed them.’

During a lecture on Darwinism, the biologist discusses the purposeless lack of variation in avocado pits; despite the extinction of any animal large enough to digest a fruit with a stone that size, avocados have stuck around without change, stubborn in the face of evolution. The biologist himself is like this; failing to adapt to new surroundings, but destined to linger longer.

The Devil of the Provinces by Juan Cárdenas, trans. Lizzie Davis. Coffee House Press, September 2023.

Reviewer bio: Colm McKenna is a second-hand bookseller based in Paris. He has published and self-published an array of short stories and articles, hoping to eventually release a collection of stories. He is mainly interested in the works of John Cowper Powys, Claude Houghton, and a range of Latin American writers.

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