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.

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.

New Directions to Publish Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Tyrant Memory June 2011

New Directions is going to publish Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Tyrant Memory (Tirana Memoria) in June of 2011. Below is a description of the book, or if you can’t wait you can read my review of Tirana Memoria. If you are familiar with his works which are marked with violence and extremes, Tirana Memoria is much more funny and not as heavy.

The tyrant of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s ambitious new novel is the actual pro-Nazi mystic Maximiliano Hernández Martínez — known as the Warlock — who came to power in El Salvador in 1932. An attempted coup in April, 1944, failed, but a general strike in May finally forced him out of office. Tyrant Memory takes place during the month between the coup and the strike. Its protagonist, Haydée Aragon, is a well-off woman, whose husband is a political prisoner and whose son, Clemente, after prematurely announcing the dictator’s death over national radio during the failed coup, is forced to flee when the very much alive Warlock starts to ruthlessly hunt down his enemies. The novel moves between Haydée’s political awakening in diary entries and Clemente’s frantic and often hysterically comic efforts to escape capture. Tyrant Memory — sharp, grotesque, moving, and often hilariously funny — is an unforgettable incarnation of a country’s history in the destiny of one family.

Results of Book Shopping in Barcelona: Sada, Moya, Palma, Abirached, Munoz, Ndongo, Letelier

I had the luck to have a couple of days to do some book shopping in Barcelona and came back with 7 books. It was hard to limit myself because I recognized so many authors that I’d seen on El Publico Lee. And when I found the display of books from Paginas de Espuma on my last day I was tempted to buy a couple more books. In the end I settled on the following, a mix of Latin American, Spanish, African and Lebanese books. I normally don’t buy books translated into Sanish but Zeina Abrached’s books are unavailable in English so I could justify it.

  • Felix J Palma -El menor espectaculo del mundo
  • Miguel Angel Munoz – Quedate donde estas
  • Zeina Abrached – El juego de las golondrinas
  • Zeina Abrached – Me acuerdo Beruit
  • Daniel Sada – Ese modo que colma
  • Horacio Castellanos Moya – Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta
  • Hernan River Letelier – El arte de la resurrecction
  • Donato Ndongo – Las Tinieblas de tu memoria negra


Overview of Novelist Juan Carlos Onetti at the Nation

The Nation has an excellent overview of Juan Carlos Onetti, his works and his place in Latin American Literature. I have been thinking of reading him, especially after Horacio Castellanos Moya called him an unlucky writer, someone who never quite got the respect he was due. Calling him a mix of Faulkner and Celine who writes stories that are fantastical, but not magical realism is intriguing.

Born in 1909 in Montevideo, Uruguay, Onetti was one of the most idiosyncratic and virtuosic Latin American writers of the twentieth century. His readers in Spanish know this. In his later decades, after years of writing in relative obscurity, he earned a reputation as a quirky, cosmopolitan Modernist–a South American Faulkner who also enjoyed an aesthetic kinship with Borges and Céline (an unlikely pairing that only Onetti could provoke). In 1980 Onetti won the Premio Cervantes. He also became known as a writer’s writer. Mario Vargas Llosa, Roberto Bolaño, Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar and Antonio Muñoz Molina are among his admirers, all of them better-known (and very different) masters who have acknowledged, always in intensely personal terms, the debt they owe Onetti. Bolaño, who attempted to interview Onetti in Mexico in 1975, once joked that he was himself a terrible writer by comparison. Vargas Llosa, for his part, said no other modern writer has grasped the human need for fiction “with more force or originality” than Onetti.

[…]

When not treated with utter disinterest or disregard, Onetti’s literary output was–and still is, you might say–beset by critical misunderstandings. The latest example comes from the admiring Vargas Llosa, whose as yet untranslated book on Onetti, El viaje a la ficción, appeared in 2008. Even though Onetti liberated Latin American fiction from parochial literary traditions, Vargas Llosa argues, he nevertheless represents a Latin America of “failure and underdevelopment,” a world whose exigencies breed an author almost congenitally inclined to stage fantasies and flights from reality. Vargas Llosa casts Onetti’s work as the inevitable product of a universal Latin American experience that forces its literary denizens into the counterfactual and heady realm of fiction. Such an appraisal, though, doesn’t clarify the Uruguayan’s work. In one sense, Vargas Llosa is clearly trying to affix Onetti to the Latin American literary firmament, where there is already a richly ennobling tradition of masterly fantasizing and defiance of realism. And yet, in another way, Vargas Llosa propounds an ill-fitting essentialism, something that obscures rather than illuminates the particularities of Onetti’s visions, which have at least as much in common with Sartre and Camus as with his towering Latin American counterparts.

Review of New Horacio Castellanos Moya Book at El Pais

El Pais gave a brief review of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s latest book Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta. It is a good review, if brief.

Even though he has not put the stories together with this purpose, the 22 stories in Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta (With the Grief of the Tormented Past), by the Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya (Tegucigalpa, 1957), could serve one who does not know the rest of his books as an introduction to characters and themes that people them. Here one meets soldiers and journalists, professors and waiters, photographers and whores, revolutionaries and ex-prisoners, in addition to the endless supporting characters that with a  mere stroke acquire an immediate life (in this Castelanos is Cervantesque). As for the themes, over all of them is one: love, but not hevenly but the other urgent love that is the passion to posses, already seducing, cheating or believing cheated, paying or believing bought. In fact, some stories would fit well in a magazine with naked bodies if it were not for the literary quality, that style of sensual microsurgeon, that is as torrid as the subject mater. Also, because in the stories appear some complicated characters, insecure and anxious men, enfeebled by the testosterone that eroticises one with fantasies about what the rest do in their bed. Likewise alcohol occupies a place of honor – whiskey and beer most of all -, the public places where people drink and the alcoholics in general. And finally, the last of the short list is war, that conditions everything, manipulates and overturns so that the characters walk through the path of exile or brutalization. These three themes, nerveless, treat with unequal fortune and provoke disparate stories, something normal to keep in mind is the stories were written over 20 years. You can recognize two of stories, ‘Variaciones sobre el asesinato de Francisco Olmedo’ and ‘Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta’, that are really short novels. The first relates a trip into the past of a man who looks for the truth about the death of his friend in a gang, or that is what he believes, and fabricates the search with success until it leaves the reader convinced of all his uncertainties. The second uses for its title a quote from Don Quixote when the he found himself at the sale of prostitutes, drinkers and squabbles. Here the narrator is a waiter that becomes involved in a nightmaire at the hands of snobs of all types, and is also about the investigation of a murder. Both stories are near perfect and show that Castellanos dominates that rythm that is not easy to control.

Aunque él no los haya reunido con este propósito, los 22 cuentos de Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta, del escritor salvadoreño Horacio Castellanos Moya (Tegucigalpa, 1957), podrían servir a quien no conociera el resto de su obra literaria como introducción a los personajes y los asuntos que la pueblan. Aquí se encuentran militares y periodistas, profesores y camareros, fotógrafos y putas, revolucionarios y ex reclusos, además de un sinfín de secundarios que con un simple trazo adquieren vida inmediata (en esto Castellanos es cervantino). En cuanto a los asuntos, son sobre todo uno: el amor, pero no el celeste sino ese otro amor urgente que es la pasión por poseer, ya sea seduciendo, engañando o creyendo engañar, pagando o creyendo comprar. De hecho, algunos relatos encajarían bien en una revista con cuerpos desnudos si no fuera porque aquí la calidad literaria, ese estilo de microcirujano sensual, es tan tórrida como el contenido. Y también porque en ellos aparecen algunos personajes complejos, hombres inseguros y ansiosos, enfebrecidos por la testosterona que se erotizan con fantasías sobre lo que hacen los demás en la cama. Asimismo ocupan un lugar de honor el alcohol -sobre todo la cerveza y el whisky-, los lugares públicos en donde se consume y los dipsómanos en general. Y, por fin, el último de la terna es la guerra, que todo lo condiciona, lo manipula y lo trastoca para que los personajes caminen por la senda del exilio o del embrutecimiento. Los tres asuntos, sin embargo, se tratan con fortuna desigual y dan lugar a cuentos dispares, algo normal teniendo en cuenta que se trata de relatos escritos a lo largo de 20 años. Hay que destacar dos de las historias, ‘Variaciones sobre el asesinato de Francisco Olmedo’ y ‘Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta’, que en realidad son novelas cortas. La primera relata el viaje al pasado de un hombre que busca la verdad sobre la muerte de su amigo de pandilla, o eso cree, y que fabula esa búsqueda con éxito hasta dejar al lector convencido de todas sus incertidumbres. La segunda lleva por título una cita tomada del Quijote, cuando el caballero se encuentra en la venta, de nuevo lugar de putas, bebedores y trifulcas. Aquí el narrador es un camarero que se ve involucrado en una pesadilla a manos de señoritos de todos los pelajes, también a propósito de la investigación de una muerte. Ambos relatos rozan la perfección y vienen a demostrar que Castellanos domina ese ritmo nada fácil que exige el medio fondo.

Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta

Horacio Castellanos Moya

Tusquets. Barcelona, 2009

309 páginas. 18 euros

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.

Horacio Castellanos Moya Interviews

I was on the Talpajocote blog and found links to some interviews with Horacio Castellanos Moya. Each are ten minutes long and worth watching.

In the first, from a Spanish TV station, he talks about how he traveled around Central America when he was young, hoping that the country would become democratic and eventually gave up and moved to Mexico. He returned to El Salvador 10 years later, but left again, disillusioned. He also talks about Tirana memoria his latest book. He mentions the title comes from something a character at the end of Donde no estén ustedes says, which along with Desmoronamiento, is part of a trilogy. He describes what he sees as the focus of the book is: the growing liberty and awakening of a woman while her husband is in prison, as if his imprisonment is her liberation.

In the second, more literary, but a little bit more difficult to understand, he talks about how he sees Mexico as the capital of Meso America, and Salvador as one of the small provinces of the area. Central American and Mexico are not as different from each other as Central America is to South America. He also mentions that a lack of literary tradition in El Salvador has led him to use the language itself as tradition. It is liberating, because unlike a Mexican of Argentinian he has no wave of tradion he rides on. Instead he can search the world over for what he wants to use as an influence, such as Thomas Bernhard.

Tirana Memoria (sp)

Tirana Memoria
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