Monstrilio by Gerardo Sámano Córdova

Monstrilio
Monstrilio
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In Monstrilio (2023) by Gerardo Sámano Córdova, a family experiences the death of a loved one. Yet the novel isn’t so much about a literal, biological death, as it is about the many symbolic ones that occur when we enter into language. Córdova shows us a fantastical case of linguistic violence to make the point that words–and the cultural norms they enforce–alienate us from our own potential. He also suggests that our unformed capacities and desires might escape the taxonomic blade of language if we abandon certain vocabularies and stretch the boundaries of others. Monstrilio isn’t horror, though it appears in that category on Goodreads, Amazon, and elsewhere.  Still, I’m happy that I was tricked by the marketing. A coming-of-age story and family drama with elements of magical realism, it’s an unusual novel–by turns funny and sad–with a hopeful ending. I highly recommend it.

When their 11-year-old son, Santiago, dies, Magos and Joseph deal with the loss in different ways. Remaining in Firgesan, his secluded ancestral home in upstate New York, Joseph weeps, loses weight, and takes to his bed; Magos, on the other hand, removes a chunk of her son’s lung, places it in a mason jar, and returns to Mexico City, where she stays with her mother and enjoys the unconditional love of her friend Lena. Inspired by a story from her mother’s housekeeper, Magos begins feeding the lung with chicken broth in the hope that it will grow into a second iteration of her son. To her astonishment and delight, it quickly becomes a larger and more complex creature, which is given a new name at each phase of its development–first Lung, then Monstrilio, and later M. But what is this creature’s relationship to Santiago and can it be expected to meet parental expectations? Told from the perspectives of Magos, Joseph, Lena, and M himself, Monstrilio tells the story of how a family deals with loss and accommodates the arrival of something new.

In the above paragraph, I struggled mightily with word choices because almost all synonyms for the verb “to grow” (take, for example, “to develop,” “to evolve, etc.) imply an intrinsic teleology, an endpoint to which the growth inexorably moves. But Monstrilio doesn’t have a known developmental goal; instead, he seems to be a creature of radical biological freedom. We take it for granted that a kitten will become a cat and a puppy a dog, but we can’t assume what maturity will look like for Monstrilio because he (it? they?) is completely unique and strangely fluid, connecting the ends of a spectrum that links marine and terrestrial life. Furred like an animal but capable of speech, he sports shark teeth in a body that is half jelly-like substance and half human skeletal system. Nonetheless, he is comfortable in his form, happily exercising new capacities while luxuriating in pleasant sensations. But not for long. 

His pleasure quickly turns to pain as Magos and others interpret his body, imposing the vocabulary of “hands” and “feet,” “fingers” and “toes,” onto a sentient field that resists definition. Whatever doesn’t fit the schema is amputated, concealed or denied. In representing Monstrilio’s interpellation as a “human”, a “boy,” and a “son,” Cordova dramatizes the violence that occurs when unshaped potential collides with the sharp categories of language. This is a monstrous representation of a process that everyone goes through: We all enter the symbolic order of language, and who would want it any other way? Yet, while I don’t want to return to a pre-linguistic infantile state of undifferentiated sensation–sounds like hell to me–there must be a way to grow up without being symbolically (or in the case of Monstrilio literally) maimed. 

Offering an experimental remedy for this linguistic disfigurement, Córdova doesn’t forsake all language–an effort that would be impossible in a novel–but instead avoids certain classes of it–particularly the ever-proliferating vocabulary of sexual identity. What struck me most about this novel is that, though most of the characters are gay, they are never labeled as such. Lena is involved exclusively with women; while Joseph, after his divorce from Magos, begins dating and eventually marries Peter. M has a sexual relationship with Thomas and a string of one night stands with men he meets online. Magos isn’t attracted to Lena in Mexico, but they become a couple in New York; either her inclinations have changed or it is an asexual partnership. Rather than interrogating their desires for meaning–reading them as signs of gayness or bisexuality–they simply act on them. And their actions are not converted into a binding sexual identity that must be continually reconstituted and maintained into the future. This kind of freedom is attractive. Still, it’s important to remember that language is a two-sided sword, creating the very limitations that allow us to speak. Gay people must fight for their right to exist, and they can’t do that without descriptive terms. Still, Córdova’s characters allow us to imagine a space in which the repeated assertion of sexual identity isn’t imperative.  

If Córdova removes the language of sexual identity, he also attempts to loosen the grip of other categories that govern human experience. Take nationality, for example. Once upon a time, I went to the UK without a return ticket. Staying with a friend for a few months, I planned to book a return flight closer to my date of departure. The customs agent saw me as a potential drain on the British system and detained me for several hours, while he contacted my bank and university. My point is that you can’t stay indefinitely in other countries. To qualify for dual citizenship, you must meet strict conditions, and getting a green card is like finding a golden ticket pass to Charlie’s Chocolate Factory. Yet Magos and Joseph move between New York, Mexico, and later Germany without any difficulty. True, they are both from rich families and their wealth paves the way, but the novel is intimating, if just for fun, towards a world in which you could…live where you want. The simplicity of this idea becomes clear as M seeks to enter the United States from Germany. When the customs agent asks for the purpose of his visit, he says, “I live here now.” When asked, “What were you doing in Germany,” he responds, “I lived there before.” Of course, this is all fantasy: you could never answer in this fashion and get through. But the point of the fantasy, I think, is to show the obviousness and childlike innocence of M’s logic. Can’t we all be citizens of the world? 

Gesturing toward an existence without national categories, Córdova also tugs the iron chain that links our jobs with the necessities of life. When Lena suggests that being a performance artist isn’t lucrative, Magos is offended because, for her, work is a means of expressing the self and has nothing to do with anything so pedestrian as paying the bills. This is a joke at Magos’ expense–she is, as Lena’s narrative reminds us, a spoiled rich girl with no grasp of the material conditions behind her comforts. In this way, she is incredibly naive. Still, with or without money, Magos gives the impression that, like Monstrilio’s once pluripotent body, she could become anything. Magos operates from a psychological script that I’ve never read, and her interior space is as foreign to me as the moon. It’s her character’s lack of a “type”–her unpredictability–that allows her to approach the professions in such an artless way. Wouldn’t it be amazing if our choice of work were freely made, directed by interest and a sense of affinity rather than coerced by external factors like looming poverty? 

Monstrilio deals with literature’s two biggest themes–death and freedom–in an original way. Like the being for which it is named, the novel is creative and wild, unburdened by familiar tropes and cliches. I can’t speak for your comfort zone, but it knocked me out of mine. If you are looking for a similar sense of surprise and disorientation, give it a try.  


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