Dance With Snakes by Horacio Castellanos Moya, book of a lifetime

Moya's novel reminded Daniel Handler how truly unboundaried fiction can be

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The Independent Culture

If you read enough, you get the feeling you've read everything. The first infant sparks of reading – the phonics rolling in the tongue, the illustrations filling in the blanks – become habit. The childhood thrill of reading by one's self becomes simply something you do before bed. And the literary epiphanies of adolescence, the startling and fervent ideologies of those brilliant, favourite books at 17 or 22, begin to fade into bookish normalcy. Sometime in adulthood, I began to get worried that my reading life would become mere variations on recognisable themes.

This is all just to say that I'm wrong all the time, and to praise Horacio Castellanos Moya's Dance With Snakes for kicking all this nonsense to pieces for me, just when I needed it kicked. It was a few years back, and I was troubled with a novel of my own. The book, We Are Pirates, had fallen prey to some weary and worried voices in my brain telling me that the book was too strange. I was also judging a literary contest, and the fiction I was reading was overwhelmingly quietly told tales about ordinary events. This describes many of my favorite books, but such an over-abundance of simple, realistic fiction had constricted my brain a bit. Many of the books were marvellous, but they were marvellous in familiar ways.

One afternoon a bookseller pressed Dance With Snakes into my hands. It's a book I hesitate to describe, for fear of ruining surprises and sounding like a lunatic. A dwarf dies. Snakes speak. There is violence, and it swings into the story the way it swings into life – startlingly, without thematic or narrative import but changing everything. It's a darkly funny book, but there are sudden and searing moments of heartbreak and genuine humanity, so the tone, like the story, keeps changing, much like real life but utterly unrealistic.

A friend of mine described the novel as a "magic realism police procedural," which isn't too far off the mark: just the sort of show I look for when channel-surfing and never seem to find. Dance With Snakes electrified me, and I finished We Are Pirates fiercely refreshed, convinced it was not too strange. As with Moya's work, my novel may not be to everyone's taste, but I am grateful that Dance With Snakes reminded me how truly unboundaried fiction can be.

Daniel Handler's latest novel, 'We Are Pirates', is published by Bloomsbury (£12.99)