Wednesday, July 22, 2009

“…how much things have changed”

On my way to New York on 26 June I finished Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novel Senselessness.

As I turned the penultimate page and returned the book to my bag, I had no idea that events in Honduras two days later would drive some of its themes home.

I was initially drawn (who wouldn’t be?) to the book by the flyleaf description:

An alcoholic, atheist, sex-obsessed writer finds himself employed by the Catholic Church (an institution he loathes) to edit the testimonies of the survivors of slaughtered Indian villages. The writer’s job is to tidy up the 1,100 page report: “that was what my work was all about, cleaning up and giving a manicure to the Catholic hands that were piously getting ready to squeeze the balls of the military tiger.” Mesmerized by the eerie poetry of the Indians’ phrases, the increasingly agitated and frightened writer is endangered twice over: by the spell exerted over his somewhat tenuous sanity by the strangely beautiful heart-rending voices, and by real danger. The Church is hunting the military, but the military is still in charge of the country, and our booze-soaked writer is soon among the hunted – or is he paranoid? Or is he paranoid and one of the hunted?

If this synopsis (not to mention the elegant cover design) made the compact volume difficult to resist, the back-cover praise of Castellanos Moya by the late author Roberto Bolaño made it impossible. It was Bolaño’s By Night in Chile

which led me back to Latin American literature, and it’s easy to see what Bolaño appreciated in Castellanos Moya – these are the same qualities I admire in both authors.*

Like By Night in Chile, Senselessness is a first-person novella, featuring grounded, prosaic description, biting, misanthropic commentary, and paranoid, manic thought sequences spun out in sentences stretching on for paragraphs or pages. This mix, narrated by a difficult (and often alienating, to good effect) protagonist in Latin America,** where the history of real horror makes it difficult to dismiss even the most seemingly paranoid ravings, is powerful.

In this recent interview with Guernica,*** Castellanos Moya - born in Tegucigalpa in 1957 - discussed recent political events in his country, El Salvador, where popular movements are on the rise. In a region in which rumblings from below for democratic control and economic justice have shaken the fanged powerful – the wealthy, the military, and the Church - Castellanos Moya’s protagonist’s agitation and dread capture a real political condition. Whatever the psychological stresses on his fictional narrator, the events of the past few weeks in Honduras corroborate the relevance of this work. In the April Guernica interview, the writer offered a guarded hope for his country, warning however that “we shouldn’t overestimate how much things have changed.”


*(I believe Bolaño’s work implicated the reader in a way Castellanos Moya’s does not, but this may be an artifact of personal guilt.)

**Though set in an unnamed Latin American country, the novel is loosely based on real events. Some reviews, annoyingly, describe this in detail. I won’t, though I will soon write more about the historical inspiration.

***He speaks in this interview from the perspective of a disillusioned Marxist. I have questions and criticisms of his former and present political views and how they affect his literary perspective, but these are separate issues.

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