No trace of me will remain. For that reason, I've written all of this in code. My password isn't really Domingo. Also, I'll probably insert pieces of pure, hard reality into the story I'm going to tell you. Does that sound okay?
Let this be the beginning: we were seven. Lunes, Martes, Miercoles, Jueves, Viernes, Sabado, and Domingo. We met in 1996, in the Biology Department at Universidad de Chile. We weren't all taking the same classes, but we got acquainted in a creative writing workshop, which was offered as an elective. In a way, our friendship was based in literature. We were the only students in the department interested in what is beyond science. Juan Carlos Montes – you already know that I won't be using real names – is my father. Although that wasn't the only reason he chose us. We were among the best students in the whole School of Sciences. We got the best grades in molecular biology, neuroscience, and genetics. And all of us enjoyed writing stories. (p. 4, translated by Will Vanderhyden)Chilean writer Carlos Labbé's first novel to be translated into English, Navidad & Matanza, is one of those novels that defies an easy description. It is a journalist's account of his search for information about the disappearance of the two teenaged children of a wealthy local businessman. It is a narrative game in which the participants/writers are fed a paranoia-inducing drug called hadón (which almost mimics the sound of "hate on," a descriptor for the drug in the 2007 Spanish original being "el éxtasis del odio," or "the ecstasy of hate") while they are being secretly observed as they compose at their leisure a group tale in which the participants write, alter, and re-create elements of the others' stories when it is their turn to write.
For those accustomed to linear narratives, this labyrinthine approach to reading, where the reader is required to go far down into the rabbit hole and follow its twists and turns in order to make heads from tails, may be bewildering. Yet for those willing to put for the mental effort to follow just what Labbé is doing here, Navidad & Matanza will reward amply that effort. But effort must be made in order to wring this potential out from the text.
Labbé's chapter numbering system, going from 1 to 2 to 7 to 14 to 20 and up to 100, along with the abruptness of those chapter beginnings, gives the appearance that certain key information/chapters have been deleted. Certainly Domingo's (we'll use this name, although "he" may have others) chapters on the disappearances of the siblings Bruno and Alicia Vivar jar with those narrating the biologist/narrative game chapters. Yet there are certain elements in common with them: the playing with imagery and language to create new connotations; the divorcing of name and character to create "new" personages from seemingly recycled material; and the quest to find something beyond the reality that the narrator(s) seem to be experiencing.
This sort of narrative is not easily executed. If the characters are stilted or the narrative doesn't contain enough "hooks," then reader attention will be quickly lost and the entire text may be given up as a narrative failure. This fortunately is not the case with Navidad & Matanza. The two siblings and their mysterious, possibly nefarious chance companion, Boris Real (who may have other names in these sections), possess a thrilling plot quality to them because while their motivations (or even their reality) may be in question, there is a vitality to them that persists even as the language of their scenes shifts like sands with each passing chapter.
There are moments in which the situations do feel a bit drawn out for the sake of the "game," but outside of these momentary longueurs, the deeper games Labbé plays here in Navidad & Matanza work out brilliantly. By book's end, the perceived gaps are filled in, not so much by the writer but by the reader who chooses his or her own fashion of interpreting just what Domingo has presented us. It may not be what we expected when beginning the book, but by its end, it certainly is fitting for the tale (re)interpreted for us.