"Nobody asks questions, and it goes on."
Schaffner Press, 2023
originally published in 2003 as El Criadero
translated by Andrea G. Labinger
As I am never shy about saying, I love fiction in translation and so when something new comes along, I take notice. This book, The Sanctuary by Argentinian author Gustavo Eduardo Abrevaya, is the latest to have caught my attention. I bought it for October reading based on the blurb that promises a mix of "crime thriller, detective story and horror novel," but what I actually got with this novel was completely unexpected.
Álvaro and his partner Alicia are driving though the desert when their car breaks down, leaving them stranded. Álvaro takes the opportunity to pick up his ever-present camera and describe their situation cinematically via his gaze through the lens, à la John Ford or Peckinpah. As he notes, "it looks like the end of the world, but it's just a road where twenty percent of cars have some kind of breakdown," with no gas stations and no other road traffic anywhere. Álvaro's not too worried -- his keen sense of hearing asssures him that eventually whoever was driving whatever it was that he'd heard in the distance would soon be along to offer a helping hand. He's right -- help soon arrives, and their rescuer offers to call the mechanic in the nearby village of Los Huemules, aka Las Casas, named for the deer that used to roam there. The problem is that they most likely won't be on their way to their destination until the next day, but, as the man tells them, there's a hotel where they can stay. Eventually they arrive in Las Casas on foot and head to the Seagull, a "hot-sheet hotel" where the clerk warns them to be sure to be in before dark, but doesn't really offer an explanation as to why. Despite their day, Álvaro and Alicia have a fun night together, all caught on video, of course, but when he wakes up the next day, Alicia is not there. Nor is she at the bar where breakfast is served, but the waiter does tell Álvaro that she had been there just an hour before, and had left with the town mechanic to see about the car. Figuring she's likely back at the room by then, he goes back, and that's when he notices that she'd gone without her bag, and that the previously-closed window was now open. Hitting the streets once again in search of Alicia, he hears different accounts of sightings and several assurances that "nobody gets lost in Las Casas," but she is nowhere to be found, and he is told repeatedly to contact the authorities. No luck there -- the lazy, corpulent mayor, the corrupt police chief and the head priest of the town who follows a bizarre, medieval dogma all tell him he should just go home, and the small handful of people who might be helpful have their hands tied because of fear of what those same authorities might do to them if they break their silence. As the back cover blurb notes, Álvaro's quest to find Alicia becomes "increasingly desperate," and while following what few clues he has, he stumbles onto one dark secret after another that these people would much rather remain hidden. Aside from the question of what happened to Alicia, he also wonders just what the hell is going on in this town.
I really, REALLY wish I could say more, but I just can't.
Abrevaya skillfully blends tropes from crime fiction and horror in this story, and the sinister atmosphere grows incrementally throughout the novel, as does the tension surrounding both the case of the missing Alicia and the revelation of this town's secrets. The opening scene and the subsequent benighting of this couple in a small town in the middle of nowheresville seemed all too familiar, reminding me of the plot of any number of horror movies or books featuring the same elements, but it didn't take too long to realize that The Sanctuary moved well beyond the standard setup into different territory altogether -- straight into the realm of allegory. After a while, because of the clues offered by the author and the way in which this book was written, I couldn't help but connect Álvaro's search for the missing Alicia to that of a relative of one of Argentina's disappeared during the period of the military dictatorship (1976-1983), on a quest to get answers and only getting stonewalled or threatened. That period left an indelible mark and lingering trauma on the minds of those who survived it and continued to do so to those who came after, and that reality, as mentioned in a recent Guardian article, translates quite well to horror writing. The way in which the author structured this novel is also actually quite ingenious. In line with the epigraph from the Requiem Mass that opens the book, his chapter headings continue with parts of the liturgical structure of the Mass. Going back to that epigraph, it reads as follows:
"Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favila
iudicandus homo reus,"
which according to this blog, translates to something along the lines of
"Tearful that day,
on which will rise from ashes
the guilty man for judgment."
I won't say why, but the minute I finished this novel, I mentally saluted the author's highly appropriate choice.
The Sanctuary is not for the faint of heart, it is absolutely gutwrenching at times, and it can be pretty out there as well. However, it is intelligent horror fiction written with a clear vision and clear purpose, it is more than relevant to our own times, and it is a novel that continues to stick in my mind and under my skin. I started this book one night at bedtime and absolutely could not put it down for one minute until I had finished every page.
Very, VERY highly and seriously recommended.