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Horacio Castellanos Moya's Senselessness

The Stop Smiling Review

(New Directions) / R: Horacio Castellanos Moya

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008


Senselessness
By Horacio Castellanos Moya
Translated by Katherine Silver
(New Directions)

Reviewed by David Noriega

The late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño once wrote that Horacio Castellanos Moya’s work is “insufferable to nationalists,” that it “threatens the hormonal stability of imbeciles.” Though Bolaño died before he could read Castellanos Moya’s Insensatez, recently published in English by New Directions as Senselessness, he would doubtless have found in this little novel the most substantive and astounding manifestations of the Salvadoran novelist’s dogged and graceful hostility toward any and all dogma, be it nationalist, liberal, Marxist or anything in between.

Senselessness depicts a landscape dominated by the collapse of such ideologies and the concurrent dissolution of the individual. The novel is a rambling first-person account of a writer who has been exiled to an unnamed Central American country — there are reasons to believe it is Guatemala — and is working for a human rights project run by the Catholic Church. His job is to proofread a massive report detailing the massacring of thousands of indigenous people by the military. In between hours spent in his office in the “archbishop’s palace,” the walls decorated with only a crucifix, he encounters emblems of the country’s various factions: clergymen, watered-down left-wingers, military men and ex–urban guerrilla commandos. He regards them all with scorn, skepticism or (in the case of those with both power and guns) fear. Moya devotes much of his ceaseless internal monologue to cataloguing their hypocrisies and shortcomings.

Senselessness is perhaps best described a manic study in violence, not as a simple denunciation or dissection but as a sort of experiment in ambiguity and collapse. The novel submerges its cynical, exiled narrator in a place — geographically, mentally, physically — where everything is guided by violence, in various stages between mediation and immediacy: violence remembered and recounted, violence suspected and imagined, violence witnessed firsthand. The report on the massacres, which consists largely of testimony from surviving Cakchiquel Indians, provides a steady and haunting backdrop for the narrator’s misadventures and meditations. He regularly punctuates his narrative with loose phrases copied into his notebook: eerie, pained sentences in a rhythmic, broken syntax captured deftly in English by Katherine Silver. The narrator’s relationship with the report’s prose begins as mere perverse literary fascination — the Indians’ words remind him of the verses of seminal Peruvian poet César Vallejo — but ultimately becomes something of a crazed obsession, providing the visual fodder for the worst of his hallucinatory fits.

While the narrator is not reading graphic descriptions of state-sanctioned murders, he is almost wishfully finding evidence of plots against him (for his participation in a project unveiling crimes of the state), or he is simply in his apartment hearing gunshots fired in the street below—five shots or six, nobody seems to remember or care. To him, all this violence is, well, senseless, or rather pointless: he derides the lefties that call themselves human rights activists as much as he derides the military and the Church, so why should he put his neck in the guillotine for a project run by priests and vegetarians? He claims to care about little more than getting paid and laid, and he engages in the banal rituals of quotidian existence with a special loathing surpassed only by his disgust at his inability to escape them. He goes on reading and ranting and fucking — or failing to do so — but gradually his constitution proves brittle under the pressures of violence and vanity.

The narrator’s vanity is integral to the story, defining his character and providing the framework for his collapse. He is intelligent and hilarious, and he has come to think of himself as one of very few human beings who knows to distrust and mock in every direction with a sort of indiscriminate desperation. The novel consists, mainly, of the relation between this vain misanthropy and the world that surrounds it, often taking the form of various frustrations and humiliations: the scene is set with the free-thinking cynic having to swallow a tedious and cheap gig in the bowels of the Church to keep body and soul intact. And here, in the language of those who have lived through horror, he encounters, buried and bitter, rare instances of beauty: Allá en el izote estaban los sesos tirados, como a puro leño se los sacáron. (In English, with a little more poetic flair courtesy of the translator: “There in Izote the brains they were thrown about, smashed with firewood they spilled them.”) Violence begets beauty, given a series of circumstantial distortions: a new context, the right audience, time and chance affording distance and strangeness.

Mostly, though, Castellanos Moya’s narrator faces his inability to beat back an oppressively encroaching reality: the titular senselessness, which automatically rejects all modes of thinking available to make sense of a world at once violent and banal, engulfing an intellect hostile toward every placid worldview it encounters. Gradually, under such strain, the foundations of reason and sanity erode. In uncontrollable fits of imagination —“imagination,” he says, “is a bitch in heat” — he finds himself identifying with the Indian-killers, swinging invisible Cakchiquel babies up high and bashing their heads against roof beams. By the end of the novel, having concluded that “hell is the mind not the flesh,” he is reduced to frantic spasms of paranoia suspended in an ether of muted but penetrating uncertainty. His paranoia, though inaccurate (he grossly overestimates his importance to the project), is not entirely unfounded — violence, for all its guises and deceptions, is after all very real and very near. In the end, the reader still doesn’t quite know whether to think him pitiful for his arrogance and weakness or heroic for his constancy in cynicism, though perhaps one simply ought to think him both.

Silver’s agile translation treats American readers to a stunning specimen of contemporary Latin American literature: brimming with humor that is both vulgar and sophisticated, steadfastly cynical yet never quite resigned and always trembling with restless energy. Though Bolaño was this literature’s godfather and ardent spokesman, few other writers have benefited from his recent international popularity. There is, however, no dearth of recent works from Central and South American writers that deserve to be read elsewhere, and Senselessness is a testament to this fact. One can only hope its publication in English presages a larger wave of Latin American literature in translation, so that stateside readers will not remain benighted for long.

 

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