A Pretty Face, by Rafael Reig, trans Paul Hammond

Spain goes Anglo

The cast of characters includes a dead narrator, Maria Dolores (Lola), author of children's stories that include her afterlife companion, the one-eyed Benito; her Nobel prizewinning medic ex-husband Fernando, obsessed with fame and lies; her erstwhile father, Juan José, the psychiatrist responsible for devising K666, the drug to end all drugs (and Alzheimer's too); Carlos, a junkie who teaches Maria the meaning of death; and Charlie Clot, gumshoe extraordinaire, whose conclusions are even more extraordinary than his cases. The plotline mixes them all in a kaleidoscope of mutually incompatible loves and narratives, and the timeline starts with a murder and continues moving back and forth through life and afterlife.

This, briefly, is some of what A Pretty Face is about. The dystopian future arrives on the eve of the new millennium, when Lola is murdered, the US has annexed the Iberian peninsula and "Anglo" becomes the lingua franca. The streets are the Wild West of the new era, haunted by zombies – the drug-crazed of their own twilight world – and crime is survival, even if only in the twilight (oil supplies having become exhausted) of the half-living. On the other side of death, Lola's pretty face and plump body transforms into ghostly slenderness as she seduces her brainchild Benito. Yet she remains frustratingly obsessed with untying the knots that bind her to father and husband, and with tying another one, that between heart and mind.

Rafael Reig's own background in philosophy and - perhaps - his career as a lecturer inform both this and his previous Spanish bestseller, Blood on the Saddle. Here each chapter opens with a conundrum such as : "It was a flash of lightning, we all saw it. Carlos Viloria lived zigzag style; afterwards we stayed waiting, sure it'd be repeated, but blackness was all we saw". Intertwined with such speculations is a mood that captures much of what Madrid was about in earlier decades, when Almodóvar was not yet a name on a chain of cine-bars. La Movida hadn't got moving and the city is on the cusp of two coups: the abortive Spanish putsch of 1981, and the fictitious takeover by US forces in 1999. It emerges with the character of a sinister and dyspeptic uncle.

What the novel that packs so many punches lacks is a comprehensible translation. The text is littered with obscurantist expressions at once far too literal and too far from the sharply-honed original. Why "the transom of a bar", "the zinc of a bar" then "the bar of a bar"? Why "do doctorate studies" to become "a psychiatrist from vocation"? Where's the editor to rescue the mangled English, or is this really all the Anglo language can now manage?

Amanda Hopkinson is director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, Norwich

A Pretty Face is available from Serpent's Tail - £8.99 (181pp) (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897