One approach to discovering exciting new Latin American writers is to scout for contemporary authors whom Roberto Bolaño counted among his favorites. Another approach is to just wait for New Directions to publish them. Either method will eventually lead you to Horacio Castellanos Moya and his novel "Senselessness," recently translated seamlessly into English by Katherine Silver of Berkeley. Castellanos Moya is "the only writer of my generation," Bolaño said, "that knows how to narrate the horror, the secret Vietnam that Latin America was for a long time."
Castellanos Moya belongs to the modernist tradition of bile: of Celine and Thomas Bernhard, particularly the fluid, compulsive rhythms of Bernhard's long sentence style. Something alchemic results from this pairing of the Bernhard style with the horrors Castellanos Moya chooses as his subject. It's as if a new habitat has been found - one in which rapturous spouting doesn't turn to puffery. It all seems to have started with his first novel, "Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador" (1997), a barbed monologue against everything Salvadoran: pupusas, the putrid state university, the ex-guerrillas who grovel after the rich, the trove of assassins that makes up the military, whorehouses, beer. In El Salvador, "Revulsion" earned Castellanos Moya notoriety and death threats. He now lives in Pittsburgh.
"Revulsion," however entertaining, now reads as a warm-up to the masterwork that is his 2004 novel "Senselessness." In it, a vitriolic Central American journalist is hired by the Catholic Church to copy edit the "one thousand one hundred pages" of firsthand accounts "that documented the genocide they had perpetrated against their so-called compatriots." "They" are the armed forces, which in "Senselessness" still assert a frightful power over this unnamed Central American country. And they aren't too happy with the report the narrator is copyediting or with anyone associated with it. (The report in the novel seems inspired by "Guatemala: Never Again," the historic four-volume document published by the human rights office of the archbishop of Guatemala).
How will the "depraved atheist" handle the dark enormity of the material he's copyediting? And how will it affect him? These are just two of the many questions - aside from the strength of the prose style, which at times seems to bolster the narrator against a howling collapse - that make of "Senselessness" an arresting read.
The paranoid narrator with his self-described "sick imagination" partially copes with reading the hundreds of testimonies by transcribing into his personal notebook sentences he finds compelling. He then shares these culled fragments with whomever he meets. What he wants is for others to appreciate their "sonority," their "curious syntactic constructions" that remind him of the poet Cesar Vallejo. Most react uncomfortably to this sharing, although, in a way, this is what one might expect from people dealing with an acrid type.
But as we gradually find out, the narrator's callousness does not make him immune to the pain of others. After he decides not to share one of these fragments with the bishop, he tells us he was afraid the bishop "might see me as a deluded literati seeking poetry where there were only brutal denunciations of crimes against humanity ... that he would think that I was a simple stylist who wasn't paying any attention to the content of the report."
At the beginning of the novel, the narrator is transfixed by one such piece of "poetry":
"I am not complete in the mind, I repeated to myself, stunned by the extent of mental perturbation experienced by this Cakchiquel Indian who had witnessed his family's murder, by the fact that this indigenous man was aware of the breakdown of his own psychic apparatus as a result of having watched, albeit wounded and powerless, as soldiers of his country's army scornfully and in cold blood chopped each one of his four small children with machetes, then turned on his wife, the poor woman already in shock because she too had been forced to witness as the soldiers turned her small children into palpitating pieces of human flesh."
This statement sums up "in the most concise manner possible the mental state of tens of thousands of people," leading the narrator to conclude "that it was the entire population of that country that wasn't complete in the mind." These transcribed sentences snag our attention on almost every page: "The houses they were sad because no people were inside them"; "[t]he pigs they are eating him, they are picking over his bones"; "[a]t first I wished to have been a poisonous snake, but now what I ask for is their repenting."
There are more of these fragments than there are scenes of military barbarism. There are only four: The first one, set in a bar, is couched in humor; the second scene he frames as the outline for a future novel; but the last two are as explicit as the torture scenes in Mario Vargas Llosa's novel about Trujillo and the Dominican Republic, "The Feast of the Goat." This carefully arranged mix of many bits of testimony and a dearth of complete scenes gives the reader the impression of advancing into the dark, surrounded by a cemetery of voices portending terrors that will be fully realized toward the end of the book.
The end of "Senselessness" is brutal. The awful fate of the indigenous people of Central America, a region cursed by American intervention and wars, stays with you. As one of the fragments of testimony (echoing the last grieving lines of Czeslaw Milosz's poem "Dedication") copied down by the narrator says, "May they wipe out the names of the dead to make them free, then no more problems we'll have."
(Publicado en San Francisco Chronicle)