The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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SEPT 2023 Issue

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Silver Nitrate and Brenda Lozano’s Witches

Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Silver Nitrate
(Del Rey, 2023)

Brenda Lozano, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary
Witches: A Novel
(Catapult, 2023)

Although these two novels are very different in tone, focus, structure, and style, they share central themes of the societal structures that attempt to oppress and define women and the powerful magic women can access—though the magic present in each novel derives from very different sources. Lozano’s Witches was first published in Spanish—this is the first English version. In her translator’s note, Heather Cleary writes about the structure of dialogue in the novel: “Because the novel is written as two first-person accounts—one, the product of a recorded interview that has already gone through a process of translation (interpretation, really) into Spanish—the language needed to flow naturally and the intimacy of the conversation needed to come across.” Although, as is explained in the opening pages, Witches is “not biographical or historical fiction,” Feliciana, one of the two women whose disparate dialogues form the narrative, is based on the famed Mazatec curandera (healer/shaman) María Sabina Magdalena García (1894–85). Feliciana lives in the rural village of San Felipe and is a curandera in a culture where traditionally only men serve in this role. Feliciana is called to her work by her cousin Paloma despite the opposition by the men in their family. Paloma herself is Muxe—a third gender recognized by indigenous Zapotec people—and although she was born “Gaspar” and was a healer herself, she stops practicing once she embraces her new identity.

Because the novel is told in first-person by both Feliciana and Zoe, a thirty-something journalist from Mexico City, the other characters in the novel exist only as they interact with these two women. The novel opens with Feliciana recounting memories of Paloma and describing her murdered body—an image that appears again at the end of the novel. Bookended with this gender-based violence, there is also a recurrent theme of sexual violence: both Zoe and Feliciana’s sisters were assaulted and Feliciana endured her husband’s violence until his early death left her a widow. But rather than using these moments of gendered violence to serve as a traditional way to connect the characters and move the plot forward, they appear more as deeply formative moments in the lives of the narrators. And while Zoe states that she agreed to write about Paloma’s murder “because gender-based violence sends me into a rage,” she soon clarifies, “I’d like to say that Paloma’s murder led me to Feliciana—at least that’s how the interview began. But this isn’t the story of a crime.” Instead, it becomes a story of both women’s lives and their relationship to what Feliciana calls “the Language”—a deep spiritual connection to the world and to the healing power each woman holds within herself.

This is not a novel that moves forward comfortably meeting readers’ expectations, but is instead a series of alternating chapters with dialogue that is at times frustratingly repetitious and circular—if you’re familiar with reading oral history transcripts you’ll recognize the structure of the chapters written in Feliciana’s voice. While reading these sections I became somewhat sidetracked considering the power dynamic generally present between interview subject and the person asking the questions and the novel’s refusal to acknowledge this power structure. I wondered if Zoe was the one shaping the overall narrative particularly as Feliciana tells us that she doesn’t speak Spanish (“the government’s tongue”) nor does she read or write. Where Feliciana has power is in her knowledge and reputation as a healer—a reputation built over years of practice and successful healings. But while Zoe begins the novel with an assumption of journalistic power, as she reveals her own story this power structure shifts—it’s that she has more need of Feliciana than simply as the subject of a newspaper story. Both women highlight formative moments in their lives—for Feliciana, those moments that led to her current role as successful and respected curandera and for Zoe, the struggles she endured to build a career as a journalist. In the sections focused on Feliciana, the opposition she faced in following a traditionally male role is made apparent and her loudest champion is Paloma—her beloved cousin who continually encourages her to become a healer. In Zoe’s narrative, the moments of pushing back despite misogyny are a bit clunkier: a drum teacher who claims women can’t play rock music and a newspaper editor who thinks women shouldn’t be journalists. There is connective tissue between the two characters in their surviving and thriving despite gender bias, but although the women are ostensibly speaking to each other throughout the novel, it’s easy to forget this despite Feliciana’s occasional use of “you”—meaning Zoe—as she speaks. And while the novel can be seen as an exercise in character building through dialogue that borders on brilliance, it’s hard not to be frustrated at the lack of conclusion: Zoe tells us early in her narrative that her experience with Feliciana has been life-changing for her but there is a rushed feel to the few pages focused on Zoe’s ritual(s) with Feliciana, the connection between the two women failing to fully materialize. Perhaps the clearest connection between these two disparate women can be seen in a quote from Zoe’s mom: “All women…are born with a bit of bruja in them, for protection.” and it is through accessing that “bit of bruja” that both women are empowered.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is perhaps best-known for her brilliant 2020 novel Mexican Gothic. It’s a book I had to read with the lights on—t’s that good at evoking dread. Her latest novel Silver Nitrate is equally good but explores a theme that appears in Signal to Noise (2015), shifting that novel’s focus on hidden messages in vinyl records to a reel of silver nitrate film—a defunct and dangerous format that was discontinued in the 1950s. Split into three sections, “Opening Title Sequence,” “Feature Film,” and “Fade to Black,” the novel focuses on two life-long friends Montserrat and Tristán, now in their late thirties and eking out an existence at the edges of the film industry. Montserrat is a talented film audio engineer who struggles against the rampant misogyny and nepotism that has consigned her to working as a freelancer for a low-budget audio house—work that is rapidly disappearing. Tristán Abascal (born Tristán Said Abaid) a once successful soap opera star is surviving doing voice work, haunted by the ghost of a long-ago actress girlfriend Karina. The two were in a soap together but a terrible car accident killed her and damaged Tristán’s looks. Karina’s father is powerful and ensured that Tristán was blacklisted. Where Tristán is still handsome, Montserrat has always been “small and plain” with a limp—and she’s had to learn to fight back. The two friends often watch B-movies and while “it was the sight of the monster, the Other, that terrified Tristan and the idea of becoming the hero that seduced him. Montserrat saw herself in the faces of monsters and did not wince.”

When the story opens, it’s 1993, both characters are struggling, Montserrat’s sister has cancer, and Tristán is trying to find a new apartment in the aftermath of a bad break up. He moves into an old building and discovers he’s received mail for a neighbor, the once great filmmaker Abel Urueta—a particular favorite of Montserrat's and whose name is a nod to Chano Urueta and Abel Salazar. The various nods, tributes, and references are detailed in the author’s notes at the end of the novel but I’ve found that tracking down these references is part of the fun of reading one of Moreno-Garcia’s novels. Of course, the novel is much more than a loving tribute to Mexican film and the horror/occult genre, it’s a critique of misogyny and racism and a study in female empowerment while also being a love story. In concise prose, we learn that “Montserrat had three loves. One was horror movies. The other was her car. The third was Tristán.” Sadly, Tristán’s love for Montserrat is platonic. He’s generally selfish and self-obsessed, depending on Montserrat’s friendship when he’s down and/or between love affairs. But when he’s invited to Abel Urueta’s for dinner, he of course invites Montserrat. The three begin a discussion that becomes focused on finishing Urueta’s abandoned film “Behind the Yellow Wall.” Urueta is convinced that finishing the final scene of the film will lift a curse and change his luck. As Tristan says, “It’s stupid, but it’s also a bit of hope, and hope is hard to come by.” The script was written by the long-dead Wilhelm Ewers, a Nazi occultist, murdered during a mugging. Urueta reveals that he has hidden the third reel of the film in his freezer—much to Montserrat’s horror as silver nitrate film is highly flammable. The three complete the crucial scene in the film—one that Ewers believed would create a powerful spell using his words and power of the film format (silver, it seems, has occult properties). But although their collective luck initially seems to have changed, Montserrat soon realizes that something is terribly wrong.

Tristán begins seeing his dead ex-girlfriend materialize as a vividly gory presence and Montserrrat senses a dark presence that may or not be Ewers trying to materialize. Characters from Abel’s past appear—including two powerful women who separately demand the film reel and whose presence signals layers of conspiracy that can only end badly for our heroes. Alma Montero is an ageless silent film actress who funded Ewers’s work until he ditched her for the much younger Clarimonde Bauer who leads a cult of wealthy elite who believe in Ewers’s power (and his brand of racism). As the pace increases and the body count rises, a combination of references to historical occultism mixes with the fiction to build a convincingly powerful tale. I thoroughly enjoyed the skillful blending of real-life baddies (Aleister Crowley, Anton LaVey, various occult-obsessed Nazis), obviously well-researched film world language and techniques, and Moreno-Garcia’s ability to create an atmosphere of rising dread. When Montserrat trespasses in Bauer’s earth-quake damaged publishing offices, she senses an evil presence: “Montserrat could see the doorway now, and the feeling that someone was coming behind her only intensified as she reached the last few steps. But ahead of her, the lobby was onyx dark. A vault….gripped her hand. Taut fingers encased her own.” —eek! And of course, the image of Montserrat with all of her rough edges confronting the horrific racism of Ewers philosophy—a Nazism rooted in mythologies of blood purity—is both powerful metaphor and very real struggle of a woman who learns that, as Zoe’s mom says in Witches “All women…are born with a bit of bruja in them, for protection.” When Montserrat finally accesses her own inner bruja, she shakes Ewers, his racist followers, and their world to the literal foundations. As always, Moreno-Garcia uses all the many tools of the genre, expanding on them and creating a powerful narrative of love, individual strength, and the very real magic between two people who choose to stand up to evil. All the while making it very hard to resist the call Montserrat hears over and over again, “Follow me into the night.”


Yvonne C. Garrett

Yvonne C. Garrett holds an MLIS, an MFA-Fiction, two MAs (NYU), and a Ph.D. with a dissertation focused on women in Punk.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues