Happy September! We decided to start the Halloween celebrations a little early this year by choosing a novel that deftly walks the line between horror and humor. Comemadre, written by Argentine author Roque Larraquy and translated by Heather Cleary, is divided into two narratives that take place 100 years apart. The first follows a group of doctors conducting grotesque medical experiments in the name of science, and the second tells the story of an artist who undergoes physical transformations in service of his work.
Let’s start with a brief overview of the book. But first, if you’re not already a member of our Babbel Book Club Facebook group, it’s never too late to join!
Comemadre is probably unlike any book you’ve ever read before. It’s equal parts creepy and funny, peppered with moments of intense logic and others of extreme absurdity. And that’s certainly no accident. The novel examines the lengths to which humans will go to make personal and societal progress, and in doing so blurs the lines between the rational and the bizarre.
The format itself is part of what makes this book so unusual. It starts in 1907 at a sanitorium outside of Buenos Aires, where a team of doctors are duping cancer patients into participating in medical experiments to help them learn about what happens when we die. The second part is set in 2009 Buenos Aires. A contemporary artist who was a child prodigy truly throws himself into his art, mutilating and physically transforming himself in the process. How do these two distinct narratives, separated by a century, connect to one another? Answering that question is part of the fun.
Roque Larraquy is an Argentine writer and professor. Comemadre was his debut novel and the only one that’s been translated into English. Larraquy has also worked as a screenwriter for a TV miniseries airing in Argentina. But perhaps more interesting than his writing background is the fact that he’s a professor of narrative and audiovisual design. His understanding and appreciation of visual media are apparent throughout the novel.
Heather Cleary is an esteemed translator, who’s worked on a number of award-winning and nominated books. Cleary is one of the founding editors of the bilingual Buenos Aires Review. She holds an MA in Comparative Literature from New York University and a Ph.D. in Latin American and Iberian Cultures from Columbia University. Currently, she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
If you keep up with the Babbel Book Club, you’ll notice that we’ve selected a book translated from Spanish for the second month in a row. However, these works are worlds apart in genre, topic and style. We thought this would be a nice juxtaposition, showcasing the wide range of material books in translation can cover.
Spanish is the second most-spoken language in the United States and the world, and it’s also the second most-translated language in publishing for U.S. readers (after French). This makes Spanish a natural choice when looking for books in translation to read.
Here are some discussion questions to start thinking about as you read Comemadre. We’ll be posting a few of these in the Facebook group, so members can chat about them further!
- Comemadre has elements of both horror and macabre humor. What is a book or movie you’ve enjoyed that falls into the horror or dark comedy genres?
- One of the main focuses of the book is on crossing ethical, and sometimes rational, lines in the pursuit of progress. Can you think of a time you or a colleague had to make a tough ethical decision with larger implications? What factors should be weighed when making such a decision?
- Larraquy references a group of ants on a wall throughout the novel. Sometimes they form a perfect circle, other times they remain shapeless. What do you think is the significance of this visual detail, and what role does the concept of order and disorder play in the book?
- The experiments in the first part of Comemadre are an attempt to learn what humans experience when they cross the threshold from life to death. If you had the chance, would you want to learn what happens when we die? Do you believe in the concept of the afterlife?
- The second part of the book explores the intersection of science and art, focusing heavily on the human body. Do you consider the human body (or a collection of detached body parts) to be a work of art? Why or why not?
- What are your thoughts on the book’s format? Did you find the two narratives flowed together well, or was the time jump jarring? Were you surprised by how the stories connected?
- How do you think Roque Larraquy’s experience as a professor of audiovisual design influenced this book?
Stay tuned for the rest of the month to join discussions about the book and the Spanish language. Want to learn more about Babbel Book Club? Click here.