The fascinating thing about Carmen Posadas’ 2006 novel, Child’s Play, which has just been translated into English, is its willful use of the conventions of its genre to tear that genre apart. On one level it is a compelling story of a mystery writer’s attempt to cope with some real mysteries in her own life. On another, it is a cunning analysis of the relationship between art and life, and the artist’s attempt to find some kind of meaning in what may well be a meaningless universe. While Posadas may not be the first to engage in this kind of meta-literary pursuit (after all this kind of thing goes back to Cervantes and Laurence Sterne — to say nothing about modern writers like Borges and Eco), her book is certainly among the most readable and entertaining.
Think of the work of M. C. Escher: the picture of one hand drawing another, the staircases going up and down in impossible combinations, the gallery of art that becomes a picture in itself. These are the pictorial equivalents of Posadas’ novel. She begins with what seems to be a rather cheesy thriller in which a psychoanalyst detective oddly named Carmen O’Inns (interestingly enough Posadas is Spanish for Inns) is setting out to work on a case involving what may or may not be the accidental death of a young boy. But after a few pages, the reader learns that this is merely the beginnings of a novel in progress, a novel being written by Luisa Davilla, a chic, middle aged writer of crime fiction. The story seems to be based on an incident recalled from the writer’s own childhood, and what is even more amazing it begins to mirror events that are taking place in the present.
Mirror is an apt term. Over and over again, Posadas uses the mirror as an image to describe the way people see the world. A mirror gives what seems to be an accurate reflection of the world, but the reality is quite other than what is seen. There is always distortion, and that distortion is a similar to the distortion endemic to individual points of view. Three people see the same event, and three people have different perceptions of what they have seen. This distortion is multiplied infinitely when you have facing mirrors: an image Posadas introduces in her second chapter. An eleven year old girl, Elba, Luisa’s daughter, can look in the smaller of two facing mirrors and see herself as a princess; it can make her look “almost pretty.” An unhappy child who thinks of herself as ugly, she sees in the mirror what she wishes to see. When the artist holds the mirror up to nature, then, is it not as much a distortion?
Posadas describes a world that is full of the kind of coincidences that seem significant but may well be meaningless. People from the past, related to the story Luisa is writing, appear in the present. Names are repeated. Her novelist protagonist wonders: are they like Borges’ symmetries, or are they like Shakespeare’s tale of sound and fury? Luisa looks for a way to make sense of the world where nothing seems to make sense and very little is what it seems to be, either because people can’t understand what they are seeing or perhaps because they don’t want to understand. In the end, the only way to understand the world is that offered by her pragmatic man of the moment, Enrique, who cites that great modern philosopher, Jose Iglesias: “In life everything is sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes you, sometimes me.”
It is an enigmatic world filled with enigmatic characters. It is often the least likely character who is most prescient. Luisa, especially, is consistently wrong in her judgments of people. She is so wrapped up in her own concerns that more often than not she is unable to see what is plainly obvious to other characters and to the reader as well. There is the feeling of superiority that comes from the sense that the reader has figured it all out before the solution is revealed, that the reader’s little gray cells are even better than Hercule’s. The trouble is that in Posadas’ world things are never quite that simple. There is always something you hadn’t quite counted on.
Interspersed in the story are a variety of amusing digressions, that may not always be all that digressive, on things like the aesthetics of sex after fifty, the influence of the past, murder as a fine art, point of view in life and fiction, and sexual freedom and intimacy. Combine this with the ironic reflections on the genre: the discussion of epiphany just before the writer has one (in a chapter entitled “Epiphany” no less); a discussion of the need of a murderer for an audience; the references to the other detectives who always seem to have all the answers, Poirot, Holmes, even Jessica Fletcher. What you get in the end is a rich combination of the thriller and the anti-thriller. Child’s Play is a book to be savored, a book to be read and read again with pleasure.