The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada
Selva Almada’s debut novel The Wind That Lays Waste is set up as a carefully orchestrated morality play: when a reverend’s car breaks down, he and his daughter are forced to spend a day with a salt-of-the-earth mechanic and his young assistant. As a storm approaches, believers clash with non-believers; questions of fate and faith are introduced into the mechanic’s utilitarian world, which quietly upend his simple existence. Translated by Chris Andrews (the man behind a score of English-language releases from Cesar Aira and Roberto Bolaño), The Wind That Lays Waste secures Almada as an important but whispered new voice in Argentinian literature.
Almada’s story is refreshingly simple: she provides some background to each character pairing, all while quietly positioning them in delicate counterpoint. Some readers may find this short novel to be shallow and under-developed, but Almada is more interested in investigating the broad philosophical clash between the two parties than in creating fleshed-out, fully-realized characters. Each has a troubled past, and each, at present, has a particular stance across the rift between faith and faithlessness.
The mechanic, known as Gringo Brauer, is a working man and disinterested in looking beyond his daily existence. When a prostitute brings a young boy to his garage declaring him to be their son, he accepts his fate and takes on the confused young boy as an “assistant.” The boy, nicknamed “Tapioca,” is a bit more of a dreamer and is curious about life outside the garage.
The Reverend Pearson is a relentless proselytizer, traveling throughout Argentina to convert people to fold. He felt “that he was an arrow burning with the flame of Christ. And the bow that is drawn to shoot that arrow as far as possible, straight to the spot where the flame will ignite a raging fire. And the wind that spreads the fire will lay waste to the world with the love of Jesus.”
His daughter, Leni, respects him but is tired of the aggression that lurks beneath his beliefs. A young teenager, she talks openly about Satan, in part to tease her father but also to question the bonds of her own faith. They both vividly remember the time they left her mother, and while her memories are disjointed they linger with powerful trauma. She feels a “black thing…inside her at night” and yearns for the day her father might “tear [it] out… once and for all.”
Brauer, a non-believer, bristles in defense as the day goes on. “Religion, in his view, was just a way of ignoring responsibilities.” By the end of the day, the storm hits and the four characters clash in both fists and faith. Almada is careful not to make one party out to be objectively “correct,” although Brauer’s down-to-earth temperament does feel a little more rooted than Pearson’s idealistic devotion that (supposedly) has the power to “lay waste” to the world.
While Almada’s novella is a contemplative one, it is thin enough to be blown over by those readers unable to connect with her retelling of an age-old conflict; the story, essentially, is about the temptation between good and evil. Despite the ease with which her prose could be overlooked, Almada remains a confident, thoughtful writer. The Wind That Lays Waste is taut and efficient and philosophically expansive.