Horacio Castellanos Moya and the Political Novel at the Quarterly Conversation

Tirana MemoriaScott at the Quarterly Conversation has written an excellent article about Horacio Castellanos Moya and the new political novel. It is a good introduction to his work and is worth a read in part because it charts not only an interesting history of the development of the political novel, but of Latin American political novels. The nexus of his argument is here

As with Senselessness, the shape of She-Devil’s political conspiracy never becomes very distinct. Trapped within the narrator’s paranoid consciousness we can only guess at its actual dimensions, and any objective reality of an actual conspiracy is never confirmed. Part of this is simply the fragmented distribution of political power in a modern society—the fact that even a president can’t have full information on everything being done by a government. This fragmentation of power is something that Moya elegantly fuses with the development of his plot and his character as he marches his protagonists down each alley one at a time, closing certain threads of investigation even as new ones are introduced.

Yet the more significant part of this is due to the protagonist’s mind, which changes subtly but powerfully throughout both of these novels. What Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror are doing is bringing the unreliable first-person novel to a modern Latin American context. What for Ford Madox Ford was primarily a story of infidelity in inter-war England, and for Kobo Abe was about existentialist malaise in mid-century Japan, and for Walker Percy was about the alienation of the individual in a radically mediated society, and for Kazuo Ishiguro was a story of classism in contemporary England, becomes for Moya a story of the great political subconsciousness that seethes through life in 21st-century Latin America. Each of these writers shares an interest in portraying the space between objective reality and human subjectivity. Fundamentally, they are interested in what happens as the human mind attempts to piece together a reality, though it lacks the necessary information to do so. As the diversity of these writers’ output shows, the dramatization of this gap is a very malleable tool: an individual’s quest for objective truth can interrogate realities about the cultures that range from a bottom-rung operative in a Latin American state on the verge of failure to a wealthy, privileged gentleman in a European nation at the height of empire. What is most characteristic about these novels is that vital facts about the culture each is set in are bound up at the deepest levels with the narrators’ own gradual realization that there is no such a thing as an objective reality. The process of self-discovery is contingent on comprehending one’s cultural context.

I would also add that having read Tirana Memoria I know that he doesn’t always approach reality in such dark terms, even when he is writing about a coup. He is also willing to inject humor and play games with the perception of reality only in the most oblique terms. Tirana Memoria uses one of the most straightforward sounding narrators, who scarcely hints at the deep rejections of a verifiable truth. If the book is ever translated into English, perhaps we will have a more complete picture of his work.