Horacio Castellanos Moya
Tirana Memoria is the latest novel by the El Salvadoran novelest Horacio Castellanos Moya, who also published a translation of his novel Senselessness (Insensatez) in English this year. Tirana Memoria, although fictional, is about the 1944 overthrow of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez and takes place over a month and a half period when a failed coup led to reprisals which ultimately led to the general strike that forced the general to flee the country. Part diary, part convicts-on-the-lam narrative, it alternates between comedy and tension as the characters elude the army and the police and attempt to survive post coup repression.
The novel opens as Haydée, the wife of Pericles, relates in her diary that Pericles has been taken to prison again. Pericles is a newspaper editor known for writing essays opposing the government and imprisonment is nothing new. Haydée writes of going to the prison each day to have lunch with him and bring him daily necessities like cigarettes. She is an upper class woman and even though she doesn’t like going to the prison, she has become used to the daily task. However, she is not a political person and all she wants from her visits are to see her husband and find out when he will be released. She is so unpoliticized and accustomed to his imprisonment that when she thinks Percilies will be released she goes to the hairdresser so she will look nice for him. The sheltering has created a woman who, though dedicated, is not consciously aware of the dangers, almost as if the constant imprisonments are part of an annoying game. She has an almost naive sense of entitlement and only midway through the novel when her political consciousness has awakened does she begin to understand what has shaped her.
Nunca he participado en política por iniciativa propia, sino que siempre he acompañado a Pericles en sus decisiones, con la absoluta confianza de que él sabe lo que hace y por qué lo hace, y con la certeza de que mi deber es estar a su lado. Así fue cuando decidió convertirse en secretario particular del general luego de que éste diera el golpe de Estado que lo llevó al poder, o cuando dos años más tarde aceptó la embajada en Bruselas, o cuando decidió romper con el Gobierno y regresar al país, o cuando debimos salir hacia el exilio en México. Iré a la reunión donde doña Chayito con este mismo espíritu; en cuanto pueda hablar con Pericles le contaré sobre ello y seguiré sus dictados al respecto. Admiro a mujeres como Mariíta Loucel, que luchan en primera fila por sus ideales políticos, pero ella es de origen francés y tiene otra educación. Yo me debo a mi marido.
I have never participated in a political event by myself. Instead, I have always gone along with Pericles decision’s with the absolute confidence that he knows what he is doing and why, and with the certainty that my duty is to be at his side. It was this way when he decided to become the general’s general secretary after the coup that brought him to power, or when two years later he accepted the position of ambassador en Brussels, or when he decided to break with the government and return home, or when we had to leave for exile en Mexico. With this same spirit I will go to the meeting with Doña Chayito. As soon as I can talk to Pericles I will tell him about it and will suggest he give his respects. I admire the women like Mariíta Loucel that man the barricades for their political ideals, but she is French and was raised differently.
Not only does the entry describe who Haydée has been and what she believes her role is, it gives one a sense of who Perciles is. Their relationship, despite his politics, is quite traditional and she has spent most of her life raising her family and supporting him. In the entry, too, one can sense a timidness in the changes she is beginning to experience. By the end of the novel she will begin to use her privileged status to slip through cordons of soldiers who might otherwise stop someone not as well off, and deliver funds to the strikers. But when she writes this she still has more to learn.
While Haydée narrates the happenings in San Salvador, her son Clemen and nephew Jimmy try to flee the country. Clemen is a drunk and wastrel who in a rash moment exuberantly backs the coup while on the radio. He even goes so far to insult the general and now is a wanted man. Jimmy, on the other had, is a captain in the army and had led a soldiers against the government during the coup. Now they are both fleeing, hoping to escape to Honduras. At first they are hiding in the attic of a priest’s house. It is obvious from the beginning they do not get along and Clemen, so used to drinking and doing as he pleases, is unable to sit quietly in the attic and wait for darkness. They argue constantly and the fights form the comic relief of the novel. In the most comic section of the novel, they take a train dressed as priests and Jimmy who is always calm attempts to give confession to a soldier while Clemen holds his rifle. As they continue to flee North the arguments increase until they almost kill themselves in contest between the the spoiled kid from the city and the hardened soldier. If Haydée is just beginning to find something she did not know she had, Clemen is the opposite. He cannot even go one day without a drink and as you learn towards the end of the novel his inability to suffer for even just a moment will lead him to support what he opposed at first.
The contrast between the two narratives not only breaks up with multipul voices what could have turned in to monotonous diary entries, it highlights a divide between the more worldly and cynical Clemen and Jimmy, and Haydée who not only finds a new political voice, but can represent the voice of the country as it rebels against the general. Clemen and Jimmy are two poles of the same idea: a certainty in the way the country should be run, for Jimmy a the point of a gun, for Clemen as a playground for the wealthy. Although different, the certainty leads back to the same assumptions about power where some sort of strong man will make everything better; what ever better is. Haydée, on the other had, is change, but is an amorphous change, because she has no plan. How can she? She has never had the opportunity to work out her ideas. And in the same way, the country rises up against the General, some because he is a blasphemer, some because he is ruining the coffee trade, but there is no plan beyond the coup.
Castellanos Moya plays a bit of a trick on the reader because he ends the first part of the novel on the day the General flees the country. The reader is left with the euphoria of success and if not careful could assume that everything will work out for the country. But there are too many unanswered questions about the future and one only has to look at El Salvadoran history after the coup to realize euphoria never lasts long. The euphoria at the end of the section, becomes fleeting and like the history of so many failed governments, the ideas that motivated the rebels quickly dissipate and the old animosities return. When Haydée writes, God has heard our prayers, you have to wonder if he really has.
So far everything I have mentioned occurs in the first part which makes up the bulk of the book There is, however, a 30 page coda set in 1973. At first it seems a strange addition and, maybe, a bit lazy because Castellanos Moya reviews the the lives of the major characters in the intervening years. Yet despite the awkwardness of the device, there is one very important feature: Pericles speaks for himself. Until the the second part, Pericles is the image Haydée creates in her diary. It is a powerful image, yet an image that lacks real depth. Haydée describes her affection for him, but she doesn’t describe him: what he believes, why he does what he does. Yet he is ever present. All the reader can really know is he has gone to prison many times for his beliefs, which sounds admirable, but what are they? The last section confronts the reader with the true Pericles and asks what character did you create in absence of information? Is it like this man? Since reading, to some extent is projection, the second part does a raise an interesting questions.
Tirana Memoria while not covering new ground in the Latin American novel is a good addition, as Javier Fernández de Castro has mentioned, to the genre of the Latin American strongman. With its different voices and deemphasis on the strongman himself it expands the genre and centers it anxious uncertainties of the ruled. I hope the book makes it into English