Translated by Alfred MacAdam
Paperback, 208 pages
Publisher: Restless Books (May 2016)
Languages: English, Spanish
Selected by Barbara Epler
“Buckle your seatbelts: you’re heading for Freaky Town! With a voice like no other, Jodorowsky, the ‘psychomagical guru’, carries us off to backwater Chile with this supremely weird, supernatural love-and-horror story. Our heroine Albina literally turns men into dogs. She can’t help being an amnesiac, albino love goddess, and luckily she’s protected by Crabby, her leathery best friend. This is a dark road trip to the far side for these two women.” —Barbara Epler
Like all Chileans, Crabby spoke in a singsong way, her voice vibrating in her nose. She laughed at everything, even celebrity deaths, and made cruel jokes. She drank red wine until she collapsed in snores, only to wake up barefoot because someone had stolen her shoes. She ate empanadas and sea-urchin tongues in green sauce seasoned with fresh, extra-hot chilli. Whenever the cops beat a “political agitator” to death, she turned a blind eye, pretending not to notice. Actually she wasn’t Chilean but Lithuanian.
She landed in Valparaíso1 when she was two, pulled along by her mother, a fat redhead who spoke only Yiddish, and her father, a tall (almost seven foot), skinny fellow as light on his feet as a bird. His profession was the most pedestrian imaginable: callus remover. Using prayer, he made the calluses on people’s feet fall off. Since his name was Abraham and his wife’s name was Sarah, he dreamed – for too many years – of having a son he could name Isaac, which in Hebrew means, “he laughs”. After anguished efforts, ten months of gestation, anaemia, forceps, a caesarean, a strangling umbilical cord, Sarah finally gave birth to a daughter. Abraham stubbornly insisted on naming her Isaac, but very early in life, even before she began to walk, the girl would burst into an angry fit of wailing the instant she heard that persistent “Isaac”. Only a teaspoon of honey would calm her down.
Intelligent, she could read by the age of four. She rejected the Ladino translation of the Torah, so her first book was Paul Féval’s The Hunchback2. She so adored the character Henri de Lagardère that she began to walk hunched over, her legs spread, the tips of her shoes pointing in opposite directions, and her arms bent at right angles. No one bothered to correct her posture. The only thing they did manage to do was nickname her “Crabby”. She tossed out “Isaac”, which would have destined her to suffering the world’s laughter, and instead identified with her nickname, accepting the idea of being an aggressive crab separated from others by a hard shell.
By the time she was 11, she’d broken a dozen classmates’ noses, so no school would accept her. Between his murderous chanting away of calluses and his davening in the synagogue, Abraham had no time to worry over his daughter’s education. Crabby’s school was the street. She learned a series of professions, among others: reselling cheap watches for three times their original price under the pretext that they were stolen; painting the hooves of the horses used by funeral parlours black; washing and combing the dogs of high-class prostitutes; and manufacturing “smuggled whisky” out of tea, raw sugar, and drugstore alcohol. When she was 13, she lost her father and menstruated for the first time. She mounted his unvarnished wood coffin as if it were a horse and rode along, staining it red. Sarah, seconded by her instantaneous new husband, kicked her out of the house.
Crabby, her face transformed into a bitter mask, set out on a tour of Chile, a country as long, thin, and foreign as her father. She ended up in the north, in Iquique, a bone-dry port, where the workers in the nitrate and copper mines would come down from the mountains to spend their weekly salary without noticing the rotten dog stench that poured out of the fishmeal plants and infected the streets. Crabby began to work as a maid in the Spanish Club, an “Arabian-style” building designed by an architect whose only knowledge of Islam came from the illustrations in the expurgated 19th-century French translation of One Thousand and One Nights. Since her hunchback gait upset the members’ stomachs, the management dispatched her to the lavatories. After a year, she began to sprout a beard.
 Valparaíso is a port city on Chile’s coast, known as a “wonderful mess” due to its array of colourful homes.
 The Hunchback is a French historical adventure novel by Paul Féval published in 1858. It is loosely based on real events with real historical characters in the two periods of 1699 and 1717. It is considered to be part of the “swashbuckler” genre.