Home > Reviews > Waiting For a Ghost: On Juan Cárdenas’s The Devil of the Provinces
Published: Fri May 24 2024
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Accidente por Perros Curiosos / Accident Caused by Curious Dogs (detail), 2010–11, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Online 2024 On Fiction Crime Translating
Waiting For a Ghost: On Juan Cárdenas’s The Devil of the Provinces

The Devil of the Provinces by Juan Cárdenas, translated by Lizzie Davis. 155 pages. Coffee House Press, 2023. $17.95.

Early in Juan Cárdenas’s novel The Devil of the Provinces, a student asks the book’s protagonist, known only as “the biologist,” if God endows every living being with its own special purpose. “Not necessarily,” he replies, “there are also many cases when evolution would seem to entirely contradict reason and, therefore, design.” Take the avocado: its fruit evolved to be eaten by gomphotheres, prehistoric mammals related to modern-day elephants whose digestive tract could pass its pit. Gomphotheres went extinct around two million years ago, leaving the avocado with no animal able to swallow its fruit whole—yet the plant has conserved its obsolete evolutionary trait. “They think their evolutionary strategy works just fine,” the biologist says, “when the truth is, everything’s changed, they’re just completely oblivious to it.” The avocado, he concludes, spends its life waiting for a ghost.

The biologist, back in Colombia after fifteen years abroad, takes a temp job as a teacher in the unnamed provincial city of his childhood. He finds the “dwarf city,” as he calls it, much changed: bigger and shinier, with inhabitants seized by a new faith in capitalism’s notions of progress and in the divine will behind events. The latter belief stems not from the dusty Catholicism that informs much of the country’s culture but from a new Christian sect, led by the mysterious Knight of Faith. The more time the biologist spends in the dwarf city, the more he spies hints of a dark conspiracy undergirding the city’s supposed advances—it involves land, local businesses and government, and the sect, and may explain the murder of his brother. He resists trying to uncover the conspiracy and instead focuses on adapting to a place where his degrees and professional experience seem evolved for another era. He is the avocado, unaware a new species has evolved that can swallow him whole.

The novel, translated by Lizzie Davis, asks who is behind the patterns that order our lives and environment. Is it God? Nature? Or are the responsible powers human rather than celestial, manipulating us into serving a design we cannot discern from our position within it?

Juan Cárdenas was born in Popayán, a city bearing more than a passing resemblance to the novel’s dwarf city, in a region known to many from major metropolitan areas as “Colombia profunda” (“Deep Colombia”): territories disproportionately impacted by the armed conflict and largely reduced to a no-man’s land in the public imaginary. When the particularly intense wave of violence that battered communities in the late 1990s and 2000s abated, many of these places saw a sudden uptick in investment, especially from companies eager to profit from pro-business government policies. For the biologist’s mother, the dwarf city’s progress “was evident in the mathematical fact of two big malls rather than one. . . . Two, she said, her fingers like antennae, and they’re building another one off the north exit.” It’s neoliberal progress marching toward a bright new age of economic reason, leaving behind, it claims, a dark past of armed barbarity.

If The Devil of the Provinces is a crime novel, as the book’s U.S. and Spanish publishers claim, it is noir steeped in the gothic tradition. With its uneasy relationship to both the slave economy upon which the city was founded and the wealth accrued through the armed conflict (the latter implied), the dwarf city resembles the societies that inspired British and U.S. Southern gothic literatures. Set in castles or plantation mansions, novels in the British and Southern traditions reveal the unresolved contradictions cracking the foundations of the reigning social orders, with characters both haunted by and nostalgic for the dark past of feudalism or slavery. In Colombia, the hacienda takes the place of the castle as the psychic location of this social strife, and it is there that Cárdenas’s biologist is audience to a film crew’s debates over how to strike the right balance in their telenovela, part of a genre they call “plantation drama.” The biologist then receives a job offer to work for the company responsible for the oil palm monoculture that is transforming the countryside.

More than borrowing the British or U.S. gothic traditions, however, The Devil of the Provinces adopts the grammar of Colombia’s own tropical gothic. Gótico tropical is a genre that arguably reached its peak in the early 1980s with the films of Cali auteurs Carlos Mayolo and Luis Ospina. In these films (which Cárdenas’s fictional film crew explicitly references), the violence that sustains deeply unequal socioeconomic realities is portrayed through the tropes of B-movie horror: vampires and cannibals and broken taboos. Mayolo and Ospina, as Marc Berdet notes in his work on the genre,1 sought to push back against the “misery porn” of the 1960s and ’70s—documentaries by filmmakers from the Global North that trained the pitying gaze of their cameras on war and poverty in the Global South, especially Latin America. These films tacitly reinforced the cultural and political superiority of the filmmakers’ nations, while ignoring the role the directors’ own countries played in creating and perpetuating the unequal international division of labor that has impoverished much of the world.

Like Mayolo’s and Ospina’s, Cárdenas’s fictions engage the armed conflict unconventionally. Instead of writing about the war as a confrontation between armed groups and the civilians caught in the crossfire, he addresses it as a conflict between wealth and labor, the socioeconomic hierarchy that contains them, and the ideologies that keep the structure glued together. Through it all, the specter of renewed violence looms. It is the ghost that the politicians and the Knight of Faith invoke, and this fear keeps everyone in line.

Everyone, that is, except the biologist. As he finds himself pulled into one uncanny experience after another—from an unexpected reunion with an ex-girlfriend to the midwifing of a student’s monstrous baby—he resists settling into the slot the dwarf city seems to extend. Instead, gradually lured into the mystery, he tries to collect data and uncover the evidence needed to solve a multi-tentacled crime. The dwarf city, though, offers only glimpses of its overarching design—quick peeks into rooms whose thresholds he cannot cross.

The novel’s architecture is similarly uncanny. Cárdenas has constructed an intricate Escher-like structure, each ascent a descent and we the readers always both coming and going, never arriving. Each immersion feels like peering into a naturalist’s curio cabinet, with Cárdenas pushing us to work alongside the biologist to discover the unifying trait that will make sense of it all. We open the doors to a dozen different stories, only to be led off to the next, carrying impressions that cohere only within the logic of the conspiracy.

Translator Lizzie Davis deftly recreates Cárdenas’s intricate design for Anglophone readers. As in her previous translation of Cárdenas’s Ornamental, she tunes her language to the rhythm of the author’s Spanish and honors the novel’s symbolic system in all its nuance. While her translation is by and large strongly sensitive to the cultural contexts she’s traveling between, the English misses an important beat in its renderings of marica and maricón. Exact one-to-one correlations between abstract concepts are rare in translation, since concepts reflect and embody culture; however, maricón is roughly equivalent to faggot, in that the differentiated cultural use of both is approximately homologous. At first blush, one might think marica is similarly resonant with “fag,” and in some contexts it is. While both Spanish terms are derogatory and rooted in homophobia, maricón, like faggot, is a slur with the potential for violence coiled within it, while marica, like fag, is a blunter instrument, used socially among friends and reclaimed by some Colombian LGBTQIA+ communities. In many Colombian contexts, however, marica is significantly softer than the English fag; in those moments, the more culturally appropriate translation would be queer.

Cárdenas uses maricón only once, at an emotionally fraught moment when the pain, anger, and jealousy the biologist feels in relation to his deceased gay brother brings him to lash out with the term that would most hurt his brother if he could hear. In the English, however, faggot is often used to render marica also. The repeated use of faggot makes the Anglophone version of the biologist appear more aggressive and violent than he should be and primes the reader to expect his homophobia to detonate—an expectation that’s never fulfilled. The apparent potential violence of his homophobia is also contradicted each time the biologist crosses paths with other gay characters. This is, in the end, a small misstep in the translation—but because of the charge that the slur carries, it has an outsized impact on our reading in English, distracting from the biologist’s serious work of uncovering the designer behind the conspiracy.

Just before we might tire of peeking through another door in the biologist’s curio cabinet, the novel reaches its shocking, pitch-perfect climax, where everything is resolved—and at the same time nothing is. In the biologist’s lecture about the avocado, he concedes that the plant “wins” the game of evolution because it has survived; its prehistoric adaptation lives on, though it doesn’t serve its original purpose. In the end, The Devil of the Provinces asks what happens when, though evolved for the principles of a bygone system, we let ourselves adapt to an economic environment like the dwarf city’s. Do we win? Or do we just live on, pawns in a game only its architects can win? In true noir style, Cárdenas suggests that the darker possibility prevails.


Thanks to Dr. Tierra James and Camilo Esquivia Zapata for providing insight into the contemporary cultural uses of marica*,* maricón*,* faggot*, and* fag in queer and non-queer communities in the U.S. and Colombia.

  1. Marc Berdet, “Gótico tropical y surrealismo. La novela negra de Caliwood” (trans. María Ordóñez Cruickshank), in Acta Poética, vol. 37, no. 2, July–Dec. 2016. ↩︎

Cowardly Provincial Assholes
Online 2020 On Fiction Politics Translating
In Discussion: AGNI 96 Reviews AGNI 96
Online 2023 On Poetry On Fiction On Nonfiction
In Discussion: AGNI 95 Reviews AGNI 95
Online 2022 On Poetry On Fiction On Nonfiction

Gillian Esquivia-Cohen’s fiction and narrative nonfiction have appeared in New England Review and Guernica; her translations, in The Arkansas International and Latin American Literature Today. A dual citizen of the U.S. and Colombia, she received her MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts and lives between Bogotá and Alabama. (updated 5/2024)

Back to top