Senselessness (Insenasatez) by Horacio Castellanos Moya – A Review

Insenasatez (Senselessness )
Horacio Castellanos Moya
Tusquets, pg 155, 2004

Horacio Castellanos Moya has a sense of humor that even in a darkly troubled book like Insenasatez makes his vision of cruelty and corruption more than a litany of horrors. With Insenasatez you see him in full Bernhard, with the obvious nods with the winding clause heavy sentences that go for page, but there is also the dyspepsia that marks the work of Bernhard, a disgust with modern world is. Here, too, the humor tempers Bernhard’s relentless disgust and makes it less cold and analytical, locating it in a form of madness, not a bureaucratic corporatist state. Castellanos Moya’s vision of hell is no less terrifying and the threat is more real than ontological. What makes Insenasatez a balancing act between a sarcastic humor as the narrator tries to prepare the 1000 page report on atrocities in an unnamed Central American country and the depiction of madness, are the continuous quotes from the victims of the violence. At times such as when the narrator fixates on the smelly feet of a one night stand, a reader could be forgiven for wondering if the book was a comedy. Yet there is always a threat growing off page, lives destroyed, villages decimated in the cruelest and capricious authoritarian methods.

hay momentos en que tengo ese miedo y hasta me pongo a gritar
there are times I have this fear and I have to scream

The constant refrain of these voices allows the narrator to at once be the chronicler of the war and to be its victim. I’ve mentioned the humor several times, but that humor is also the unwinding of the narrator’s sanity. He doesn’t describe in great detail what has happened to the victims, that is only mentioned in glancing and is understood. No, it’s the narrator’s slide into irresponsibility and paranoia. Everyone around him slowly becomes suspect, including his friend Eric who gets him the job, but never appears, just remains a name. It is the space between the actual world of the report and his action that gives Castellanos Moya space to play with the ways the extreme violence plays out. As the narrator slides deeper and deeper in to his madness he becomes more and more paranoid, finding himself going to greater and greater extremes to avoid threats. At one point he spends his time hiding on the roof of a building while he avoids the boyfriend of someone. The man is an army officer from another country, a member of a international observation team. For the narrator, though, just to see a soldier is a threat. Ultimately, the narrator descends into a madness that is uncontrollable.  Castellanos Moya is careful enough to leave open the possibility that he is unreliable, but the ultimate fate of the report makes it hard not to believe the narrator is yet another damaged voice from a dirty war. Insenasatez is a brilliant book that explores a difficult era that has not yet come to an end.

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Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Newest Book Reviewed at El Pais

Horacio Castellanos Moya has a new novel, El sueño del retorno. El Pais has a brief review:

Algún trasunto autobiográfico hay en su más reciente novela, El sueño del retorno. Como el autor, Erasmo Aragón se exilió en México y trabajó en una agencia de prensa controlada por la guerrilla salvadoreña, pero, si el autor duró poco tiempo en ella, Erasmo, en 1991, todavía trabaja ahí. El primer recuerdo de la infancia de ambos es el mismo, una bomba que estalló en el frente de la casa de sus respectivas abuelas, y ambos regresan a El Salvador pocos meses antes del fin de la guerra civil en 1992. Pero hasta ahí parece llegar la similitud. Erasmo Aragón es un personaje de la picaresca más que de la épica, un tipo voluble que ahoga su desazón con vodka y tónica en la noche y cócteles estrambóticos a media mañana para sacarse la resaca, asediado por el miedo a volver a su patria antes del fin del conflicto y por el deterioro irreversible de su relación matrimonial.

Horacio Castellanos Moya – An Interview and a Review of Tyrant Memory

The magazine Revista N has a brief interview with Horacio Castellanos Moya about what inspires his writing and how in some ways he is asking a similar question that Vargas Llosa asked about Peru: when did El Salvador become fucked? The article goes on to wonder how that has influenced his newest novel and how it might try to de-fuck El Salvador.

Parafraseando a Vargas Llosa, ¿cuándo cree que “se jodió” El Salvador? ¿Hay algún otro territorio posible para sus novelas? El Salvador siempre estuvo jodido. En estas últimas dos décadas, ha hecho esfuerzos por “des-joderse”, pero la situación sigue siendo muy precaria. Ciertamente El Salvador ha sido el núcleo territorial de mis novelas, aunque se expandan hacia el centro de México, por el norte, y hacia Costa Rica, hacia el sur. Ocurren en lo que algunos antropólogos llaman Mesoamérica. No sé si saldré de ese territorio. Hasta ahora me he movido a mis anchas ahí.

¿Por qué en “La sirvienta y el luchador” la tragedia aparece tan encarnada entre el bien y el mal? La novela sucede en un momento de extrema polarización social y política. A las condiciones extremas de afuera, corresponden estados extremos internos, emociones y pensamientos extremos dentro del ser humano. Pero los personajes tienen sus gradaciones.

For the English speakers, the NY Times has a good review of Tyrant Memory, his newest book to appear in English.Having read it in Spanish when it first came out, I can concur with the review.

In his latest book to be translated into English, “Tyrant Memory,” Castellanos Moya strikes a different note. Written in three parts, it is based on real events: the 1944 military coup against El Salvador’s Nazi-­loving dictator general, Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, which failed to oust him but was followed by a general strike that did. The book begins with the diary of a housewife, Haydée, whose husband, Pericles, is in prison for criticizing the government. Its plainspoken chattiness alternates with the more farcical and outlandish narrative of what happens to her eldest son, Clemen, and his cousin Jimmy as they seek to flee the country (both played a role in the coup). A brief coda, set decades later, is contemplative, even melancholic in spirit. While all parts are not equal — it is Haydée’s story we are most eager to hear — “Tyrant Memory” remains Castellanos Moya’s most ambitious novel to date.

If most of Castellanos Moya’s novels register a kind of ideological exhaustion, “Tyrant Memory” traces the slide toward disenchantment. Clemen, a capricious, womanizing newscaster, is a classic Castellanos Moya antihero — slightly ridiculous, self-­obsessed, propelled by romantic notions — but it is the naïve and warmhearted Haydée who sets the tone. Castellanos Moya’s sharp urban ironies give way to the rhythms of life in a provincial Latin American capital. It is a town as García Márquez might have imagined it were he to visit coups and counter-­coups instead of endless rains and butterfly swarms upon its citizens.

Violence and Horacio Castellanos Moya – A Review of His Book from Letras Libres

Letras Libres has a good review of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s newest book La sirvienta y el luchador ( The Servant and the Fighter). It is a continuation of the Salvadorean saga that he has been constructing over the last decade, and charts the troubles that have marked generations of the country. This is the fourth book in the volume takes place during the war in the 80s and unlike the last book, which was just published in English as Tyrant Memory, it dwells on the violence, following torturers and revolutionaries. Like the other books it follows members of the same families, make these books a generational saga also. The reviewer puts the book with in that growing trend of writers who are trying to deal with the violence that has devastated some countries, and which given the rise of narco violence has seemed to make the promise of peace after the low intensity wars of the 80s a distant reality.

Hemos construido una sociedad horrible. El Salvador se describe con tres v: violenta, vil y vacía. Sí, muy vacía. Vacía y vil. Pero, sobre todo, violenta. El asesinato como forma de resolver las diferencias se ha arraigado desde hace décadas en la cultura salvadoreña mediante un continuado y cada vez más sofisticado ejercicio. La Mara Salvatrucha, nacida en Los Ángeles, que castiga los barrios más pobres de las ciudades del país, y que se ha ramificado como epidemia por buena parte de Centroamérica y México, es hija directa de los torturadores de finales del siglo pasado. Y también de la guerra de liberación. Tres generaciones van ya dándose un festín con los cadáveres esparcidos por doquier como calabazas reventadas en una noche de brujas.
Ahora la violencia campea desnuda de ideologías. Las escenas que se viven a diario, escandalosamente magnificadas por los periódicos y la televisión, parecen venir de la imaginación de un psicópata. Este asunto rebasa la posibilidad de cualquier localismo. Aunque se esfuerce por mantenerse a la vanguardia, El Salvador es solo uno de los peores. La violencia se llena los carrillos y sopla por toda Latinoamérica, y no solo produce cadáveres y mutilaciones, sino que también hace palidecer las ficciones de los escritores, incluidos los más bizarros.
En nuestros países –desiguales, corrompidos, penetrados por el narco y donde muchos jóvenes deben emigrar o unirse a una pandilla para sobrevivir– la realidad amenaza con volverse cada vez más gruesa. Frente a un horizonte que promete incrementar nuestro bestiario, el trabajo del escritor, ha dicho Horacio Castellanos Moya, consiste en tragar y digerir la cruda realidad “para luego reinventarla de acuerdo con las leyes propias de la fabulación literaria”.

Tyrant Memory by Horacio Castellanos Moya – Reviews

Three Percent has a good review of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Tyrant Memory, a book I reviewed several years ago when I read it in Spanish. I would recommend the book and if you are not sold on it just by the author then perhaps one our reviews will help.

My Review:

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.

From Three Percent:

Set over the course of one month in 1944, with a concluding chapter taking place twenty nine years later, the novel’s backdrop is the failed military coup against Salvadoran President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, a sympathizer of European Fascism and casual mystic whose legacy of human rights abuses is frequently recounted by way of his assertion that it is better to kill a man than to kill an ant. The man will be reincarnated, the ant won’t.

The novel—which, it should be noted, is set during the nascent days of Latin America’s “secret Vietnam”—opens with the diary entries of Haydée, a housewife whose husband Pericles, a political journalist, has just been imprisoned for writing an article criticizing the government of Martinez, or as he is more commonly referred to throughout the novel, the Warlock. It is the eve of an anticipated coup and Haydée is certain that the impending fall of the Warlock will ensure her husband’s safe return. Instead the failed attempt on his life leaves her family in shambles, in large part to due her bumbling eldest son Clemens, who prematurely announces the Warlock’s death on national radio. Needless to say, Clemens is very soon public enemy number one.

The novel is built on two alternating narratives, moving from Haydée’s chatty diary entries to a far more streamlined, and slapstick, account of Clemens going into hiding. This pairing can read as a warped sort of he-said-she-said, whereby no one actually knows what anyone said. Both narratives are so thoroughly built upon hearsay, gossip and speculation that each serves as a highly adulterated, though hardly unfulfilling, accompaniment to the other.

Review of New Horacio Castellanos Moya Book

El Pais has a review of the new Horacio Castellanos Moya. It is the fourth installment in his Aragon series. I know Tirania Memoria (Tyrant Memory) is coming out in the US this June. I thought the book was good and I think I would like to read the whole series someday. (you can read my review here) .

La saga de los Aragón se inició con Donde no estén ustedes (2003), siguió con Desmoronamiento (2006) y Tirana memoria (2008). ¿Habrá una continuación tras La sirvienta y el luchador? “Probablemente. Estas novelas van creciendo de forma espontánea. No tengo un diseño preciso de la saga, pero casi siempre queda un fleco suelto”. Ojalá. El lector se pregunta qué será de Joselito, que tiene ahora 19 años y está con los subversivos armados.

En El asco (1997), el escritor narra la demolición política y cultural de El Salvador; en el libro de relatos En la congoja de la pasada tormenta (2009), habla del miedo, de la violencia que trastorna la vida, de la guerra, del destierro, de las difíciles relaciones humanas. Son solo dos ejemplos de su obra, que estremece.

Horacio Castellanos Moya (Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 1957) se crió en El Salvador. “Mis historias son de El Salvador. Su eje es la experiencia de mi formación y crecimiento en este país. Quedé conmocionado. De ahí la radicalidad de mis temas”.

¿Alguna vez podrá escribir sobre un país en paz? “Creo que yo no veré esa paz. El gran problema es que una sociedad vive aterrorizada por la violencia política y cuando se logra una cierta normalidad, vive aterrorizada por la violencia criminal. Cuando todo esto alcanza a dos o tres generaciones es difícil desmontar los mecanismos del terror. Centroamérica vive el cansancio de una vida en zozobra permanente”.

There is also a second review in El Pais of the book, which gives it high marks.

La sirvienta y el luchador narra las peripecias de ambos cuando vuelven a encontrarse en circunstancias extremas después de muchos años. El Vikingo, una antigua figura de la lucha libre reconvertido en policía y que se encuentra gravemente enfermo, participa con su escuadrón en el secuestro de una pareja de jóvenes. Al día siguiente, cuando María Elena acuda a limpiar la casa de los desaparecidos y se dé cuenta del suceso, buscará al viejo luchador para que la ayude a salvarlos. Si ella representa la impotencia de una persona vieja y pacífica, él refleja el embrutecimiento de un hombre simple y bruto que, no obstante, es capaz de culparla por no haberlo redimido con su amor. Sin embargo, el pasado que comparten sirve fundamentalmente para tramar la dura historia de cómo van cayendo una a una las esperanzas de todos los personajes salvo, quizá, la del joven y revolucionario nieto de María Elena, cuyas esperanzas son de destrucción y muerte. A su vez, la enfermedad terminal del luchador podría interpretarse como esa agonía sin fin que supone la perpetuación de la violencia. La podredumbre de su cuerpo, en la que se insiste constantemente, se correspondería con la que se ha infiltrado en el país, ramificándose en una densa maraña de pasiones e intereses sociales, familiares y políticos cuya principal consecuencia es el temor. Acierta Castellanos Moya con ese final inclemente y algo precipitado que, sin embargo, conviene a una novela vertiginosa, aristada y esencial.

Horacio Castellanos Moya Reviewed at the Millions

The Millions has an interesting overview of the current works of Horacio Castellanos Moya in English, plus a bonus post from New Directions. I’ve been meaning to read Senselessness for sometime now in Spanish, but I’m not sure when I’m going to get around to it. They are all tough reads, but I think well worth the effort.

This is what meeting one of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s narrators is like: you’re in a squalid cantina in Guatemala City, in an alley by the archbishop’s palace. Or maybe it’s a chic place in San Salvador, across from the mall, where the waiters are gorgeous and they serve fancy cold cuts with the rioja. They come late, and when they arrive they seem a little off – a little strung out, a little jumpy. Right away, they want to tell you everything, all at once: about the article in today’s paper by some has-been calling them a hack, Kati’s dress and how fat she looks in it, a conspiracy between drug dealers and the military police, the best place to get oysters, and isn’t marimba music terrible, the worst, and how they’d like to sleep with the Spanish girl from the human rights office, and did you hear about Olga?, of course she’d already fucked him before she died. It’s a torrent. You can’t get a word in edgewise so you just sip your beer or your wine and wonder if it’s the cocaine talking or something they got from their psychiatrist. But you are enjoying yourself, because however one-sided it is, they’re supplying everything a good conversation needs – sex, secrets, politics, and death, and because they’re funny, really funny, even as they’re being morbid or petty or paranoid. And they are paranoid – persecution-complex, Nixon-level paranoid. But as Kurt Cobainsaid, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you. Besides, you think, in this country, who knows what’s true and what isn’t, so you relax and settle into a rhythm and take in every story as it comes. And that’s when the real mayhem starts.