Discussed in this essay:
• Senselessness, Horacio Castellanos Moya (trans. Katherine Silver). New Directions. $15.95. 160 pp.
• The She-Devil in the Mirror, Horacio Castellanos Moya (trans. Katherine Silver). New Directions. $14.95. 160 pp.
Viví mi adolescencia en los prolegómenos de una guerra civil, y después me hice periodista en la cobertura de esa larga guerra. Cuento esto para explicar que nunca me propuse escribir una “novela política”, sino que la política era parte del aire que me tocó respirar en mis años formativos.
I spent my adolescence in the prologue to a civil war, and afterwards I became a journalist covering this long war. I’m telling this to explain that I never set out to write a “political novel,” but that politics was part of the air I breathed in my formative years.
—Horacio Castellanos Moya
Antes que nada debo confesar que si alguien me dice que yo escribo “novela política”, de inmediato me pongo en guardia.
First of all, I must confess that if someone tells me that I write “political novels,” it immediately puts me on guard.
—Horacio Castellanos Moya
What Comes After What Came After The Boom
First there was the Boom. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, the lush, cosmopolitan novel of Latin America that dared to make the realities of the continent universal. The era of great optimism, the Bolivarian novel that would unite the continent, that would define the values of Latin America, that would place it on the world stage.
That didn’t happen. Though the Boom more than made its mark, its way of writing fell out of style, and as the writers of the Boom began to cede ground to the so-called post-Boom writers (sometimes evolving into post-Boom writers themselves), a seismic shift was underway in both the Latin American continent and the Latin American novel. By the late 1970s, both were very different places. The continent, once full of belief in progress and progressive government, was discovering the pleasures of dictatorship, and as the likes of Pinochet came into power the literatures of Latin America turned from one form of engagement with the body politic to a very different one. Magical realism was out, gritty reality was in. The scope of the novel was pared back from the entire continent to just one aspect of it. Writers no longer hobnobbed with presidents and wrote for the elite. They turned their energy toward the people.
In many ways, the post-Boom was a return to writing before the Boom, but some things could not be put back. That is to say, though the post-Boom writers were more prosaic in subject-matter (no vanishing Louvres or generals with 5,000 children here), their novels were written in anything but staid 19th-century realism. Nor did they completely embrace the delightful fables that Borges charged toward. Thus, for instance, the post-Boom produced the Argentine novelist Manuel Puig, who combined in his novels the low genre of Hollywood films, well-defined characters, allusions to the Argentine dictatorships, strong plots, and a mode of storytelling much closer to the nouveau roman than to Henry James.
The post-Boom made its mark. The dictatorships sputtered, failed, and faded. As time marched on the Latin American governments put behind them the utopian dreams of Communism, the tragic realities of despotism, one by one they settled into nice, dull democracy—though a turn toward continent-wide democratic government hardly meant an end to coups, inequality, or warfare. The post-Boom writers, who had so eloquently and powerfully dissected the extremes of the ’70s and ’80s in Latin American governance and society, began to be replaced by writers who had grown up amidst war and disaffection, writers for whom both the belief in progress and the disbelief in atrocity were artifacts of previous generations.
This brings us to Horacio Castellanos Moya, a writer who counts as his first memory the explosion of a radical’s bomb on his grandfather’s porch. The Salvadorian novelist came of age during his nation’s thirty-year civil war, eventually engaging it as a war reporter and becoming disillusioned by the leftist guerrillas that fought to bring down El Salvador’s conservative, tyrannical government. He lived abroad for years in Mexico, eventually returning to El Salvador on a permanent basis in 1991; six years later he was forced to flee into exile when he took a page from the legendarily irascible Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard and wrote a novel extremely hostile to his nation of birth. Moya’s Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in El Salvador pulled no punches in denigrating Salvadorian society in the many places where Moya thought it could use a little smack. For his efforts he was denounced and forced into exile on fear for his safety. Moya’s 2003 novel, Senselessness, similarly spoke truth to power about some of the most excessive government abuses of Guatemala’s 30-year civil war. (One stretch, for instance, recreates the shattering of a baby’s skull against a tree trunk by military death squads.)
At this point it would be understandable to declare Horacio Castellanos Moya a political novelist. Indeed, he seems incapable of writing a novel that is not intimately linked to the governments, wars, and corrupt political classes of Central America. And yet, Moya is quite clear. He has asserted that he does not write political novels. He is absolutely right.
A Brief History of the Political Novel
In his essay “Apuntes sobre lo político en la novela latinoamericana” (“Some Points on the Political in the Latin American Novel”), Moya himself traces the advent of the term “political novel” to Edmund Speare’s aptly named book, The Political Novel, published in 1924. Therein Speare layed out a view of a political novel that sounds very much like Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men: a book that examines the actual stuff of politics—legislation, political campaigns, the rise of great careers. Speare cautions that the political novel isn’t merely a sort of quasi-journalism; it is a work of literature unto itself, he claims, although he also claims that a political novel is a sort of “propaganda” that “leans rather to ‘ideas’ than ‘emotions.’”
So much for Speare. The next point of reference Moya designates on the development of the term political novel is Irving Howe’s 1957 book, Politics and the Novel. Though Moya notes some similarity to Speare (Howe defines it as: “a novel in which political ideas play a dominant role or in which the political milieu is the dominant setting”), he points out an important difference in Howe’s definition: “The political novel is peculiarly a work of internal tensions,” says Howe. “To be a novel at all it must contain the usual representation of human behavior and feeling; yet it must also absorb into its stream of movement the hard and perhaps insoluble pellets of modern ideology.” Thus Howe reverses Speare: rather than ideas coming before humanity, humanity comes before ideas—with a few insoluble pellets of ideology stuck in its veins. Moya quotes Howe’s examples of the political novel as The Red and the Black and The Possessed, although he registers some complaint that Howe ignores Conrad (especially the adventure epic set in a fictitious Central American nation, Nostromo) and James (The Princess Cassamassima) in favor of jumping right to Orwell and Malraux.
Moya then comes to Tom Kemme, who in his book Political Fiction, the Spirit of the Age and Allen Drury greatly expands the definition of the political novel: it is a pop cultural work intended for mass consumption and it “primarily focuses upon the exercise of political power” and “political acts permeate and unify the novel.” This is a break indeed. Whereas the political milieu was essential to Speare and Howe, for Kemme the political novel need only concern itself with the “exercise of power” and “political acts.” This throws open the field to a novel such as The Godfather, which—though not explicitly political—could function as a primer on the exercise of power.
What is interesting about the arc of the political novel as Moya traces it is that the political is becoming more and more mundane. From Speare’s definition, which relies on books that dramatize weighty ideas within government itself, we descend to Julien Sorel and Winston Smith, and then we descend further to the mere exercise of power and “political acts.” The political is being demystified, it is being brought down from the hallowed halls of government to the space of the everyday. In that it mirrors how the Boom’s quasi-mythic magical realist approach to politics became the much more common, popular approach embraced by the post-Boom novelists and beyond.
Once Moya has presented this trend toward a less and less mythic concept of the political, he offers his own thoughts on what a political novel should be, albeit in his own strange way. Moya flatly declares that speaking of the political novel as such—that is, as the Anglo-Americans do—doesn’t interest him. He writes:
I prefer to speak of a way of seeing the world, of writing it, of reading it; of the risky intersection between politics and the novel. So I will not refer to myself as a political novelist but as just a novelist, one who in some of his works has put more or less emphasis on the political theme.
In the balance of the essay Moya fleshes this out. He discuss the Latin American novel, a type of novel that he claims in the 20th century has been “permeated” by the political. It is not the Latin Americans set out to write political novels, it’s that the political keeps working its way in. As Moya elaborates this vision of this Latin American novel, the difference between the Anglo-Americans and the Latin Americans looms larger and larger. Moya goes out of his way to note the vast differences between the United States and Latin America. He laments the “catastrophe that maintains more than half the population . . . in poverty”; he describes a justice system ruled by an impunity to crime; he talks about “weak” and “vulnerable” political institutions that still exist in most Latin American nations.
In the wake of such vast differences between North America and Latin America, it becomes clear that the differences in approach to the political are fundamental. So many of the great Latin American novelists of the 20th century have seen the political play an essential role in their work, yet Howe’s “hard and perhaps insoluble pellets” of ideology are for them utterly soluble and difficult to extract. It is because, as Moya declares, “for many [Latin American] writers it has been natural to breathe this politicized air.” Politics is not insoluble—it poisons the very air. And he is quite obviously including himself among the poisoned. For a writer such as Moya, a world where ideology can be grasped in the hand and placed to the side is unimaginable. Ideology, and politics, are as implicit to his books as are the rules of grammar, as basic to his characters as is the need to eat food and drink water.
And yet, though I cannot imagine a Moya novel without politics, in none of his novels have I found that politics feels as though it is the dominant force. He is interested in something quite different, something that is connected to the political by the tightest of knots.
In the Swirl of Subjectivity
In Moya’s first novel to reach U.S. shores—Senselessness, published last year by New Directions—a lowly proofreader comes to see himself as the center of a conspiracy to hide the details of Guatemala’s civil war. The man is clearly not any more an egotist than most people, and yet the fact that he is the most inconsequential link in the chain that will deliver a report on the war’s dead to a truth commission doesn’t keep him from coming to fantasize enemy agents behind every bush, himself a wanted man on the run from military commandos.
|Horacio Castellanos Moya. photo: Nina Subin.
At the same time that the proofreader develops his comically off-the-mark self-image of beleaguered anti-government agent, another very substantial change is going on. It is a transformation that, though ostensibly independent of the other transformation, is in fact closely linked. It is this: as the proofreader reads the report, he is struck again and again by the naïve, broken Spanish in which the indigenous Guatemalans describe the government-ordained massacres that wiped out almost all inhabitants of the villages. He finds it poetic and compelling, and as his self-image becomes infected by the guise of a hunted man, the rhythm and substance of his thoughts become infected by the cadences, grammar, and substance of the Native Americans’ testimony. Thus, Senselessness begins with the words “I am not complete in the mind,” and at this point the protagonist views these words as wholly outside himself. (He in fact jots them into his notebook for future study.) Yet by novel’s end the protagonist will have used just those words to describe the mindstate he has reached. Reflecting the radical fragmentation of his own identity that has been brought on by his paranoid obsession with hidden government agents, Senselessness’s narrator will conclude the book pondering his own image in a mirror, concentrating “on the expression on my face, which suddenly looked different to me, as if he who was there wasn’t me.”
Such a figurative mental fragmentation was portrayed concretely in Moya’s 2000 novel The She-Devil in the Mirror (note the title’s final word), just published in English by New Directions: whereas Senselessness’s protagonist merely imagines himself to have multiple identities, She-Devil’s narrator actually becomes acutely schizophrenic over the course of the novel.
The two books connect in some very important ways. She-Devil is narrated by yet another paranoid political outsider. In both books the protagonists are trying to piece together a mystery they’re not quite sure exists. And in both an ostensibly democratic but terror-inspiring Central American government will soon become implicated in crimes.
There is one important difference: rather be narrated by Senselessness’s bohemian artist on the fringes of society, She-Devil is narrated from the consciousness of a woman comfortably ensconced at a high level of conformity and privilege: a wealthy Salvadorian who is the daughter of a powerful businessman.
As She-Devil progresses this woman imagines herself becoming the central player in the mysterious death of her friend. Unlike in Senselessness, where the political angle is obvious to the narrator from the very first sentence, in The She-Devil in the Mirror the murder is first envisioned by the narrator as a wholly apolitical act. In fact, she sees it as inexplicable—”I don’t know anybody who could have even thought about committing such a brutal crime—maybe it was a mistake”—and it is only in the quest for an answer that the narrator comes to believe that the death is orchestrated by individuals operating at the highest levels of political and economic power. Yet though the narrator does not immediately see the murder as political in nature, a pervasive political atmosphere is established almost from the start: the murdered woman is sexually involved with a candidate for president of El Salvador, and the narrator’s own memories of life with her friend contain allusions to politics and terror. (Of course, her privileged reaction to them reads as both dark and hysterically funny.)
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.
The most noteworthy aspects of the context in Moya’s novels are the two forces that drive his narrators from innocence and ignorance to a full confrontation with human subjectivity: the brute application of political power and spiraling paranoia. Moya’s handling of these elements represent a break both from how politics has been written about in the lineage of Stendhal, Conrad, Orwell, et al., and from how politics has been considered by the Latin American Boom and post-Boom writers. In Moya’s new Latin American context the most brutal of government actions no longer shock, and no attempt is made to comprehend—or even represent—them. Moya knows that in such an age as his any attempt at explanation or representation would only be gratuitous in the face of so many thousands of pages of documentation and explanation. He is not out to further document the events; rather, he will document an everyday citizen’s relationship to the political. He will attempt to consider how the history of atrocity in El Salvador and Guatemala condition an everyday citizen’s life, how the Latin American concept of power and paranoia function together.
In place of representation, answers, or understanding, Moya’s novels emphasize the search—a search that ultimately undoes his protagonists. These novels take on the conventions of detective fiction, which Moya in his essay explicitly singles out as his preferred method of writing political fiction: “It seems to me that one of the most successful and effective forms of tackling the political is by the technique of the thriller or the detective novel, not only thanks to their virtues for creating suspense but also because with detective fiction it is possible to immerse oneself so deeply in the sewers of political power.” To this Moya might also have added that detective novels thrust the search to the forefront and do not require an answer (though one is often given), for his novels do just that: they run rationally through the possible solutions one by one, and yet, when virtually all of the information is available and the resolution should slide tightly into place, the answer to the fundamental question that drives Senselessness and She-Devil remains elusive.
Not only is that last piece of information never bestowed—each narrator’s sanity is revealed as so thoroughly compromised that the validity of all foregoing information is placed into doubt. One starts to look for the exact page where reality and the narrator’s mind parted company. Thus the books are finally seen for what they truly are: not a search for objective reality but a dramatization of how one’s subjective reality is continually formed and re-formed as a tangible piece of objective reality is pursued. At the end of each, when certainty seems perhaps finally within the protagonists’ grasp, we are thrown violently back into the search: Senselessness ends with the narrator in Europe, infected with the specter of the Guatemalan civil war and unsure of who is good and who is evil; She-Devil ends with the narrator schizophrenic, trapped in a hospital, and still desperately scrambling after a truth that is more elusive than ever. They are in exile, safe but scarred, possessed by a need to return and try once again to grasp a truth whose opportunity to hold they have let slip away.
It is the pursuit of these voices that drives Moya as a novelist: he is a writer far more interested in the workings of the mind than in the machinations of politics. Though politics plays a substantial role, it is always filtered through each character’s consciousness, as are several other prevalent features of Latin American culture: sex, religion, indigenous culture, wealth disparities between rich and poor, the stereotypes and petty rivalries between nations. It is this consciousness that Moya is fundamentally most interested in. As he put it in a 2008 interview, “I think the one who most influenced my idea of literature was Elias Canetti, with his conception of the writer as a ‘custodian of metamorphoses,’ the writer as someone who has to be able to metamorphose himself into the people of his time, no matter how weak, miserable, or dark they are.”
Moya’s greatest tool in this pursuit of metamorphoses is a supple, precise style—indeed, though Moya can do plot, character, and structure, he is foremost a precise and painstaking stylist. Even the briefest glance at Senselessness’s forking, swinging, letter-perfect sentences will make that clear. The fact that the political seeps into these narratives like spilt ink penetrating a white tablecloth is evidence not of Moya’s status as a political novelist but of the necessity of the political as he pursues Latin American voices. Thus the books become a brilliant elucidation of an ordinary citizen’s sense of confusion, impotence, outrage, and horror when the use of political power is laid bare, as it so often is in the nations that Moya has inhabited.
The Democratization of Paranoia
Paranoia has always been an inescapable fact of political fiction. Take for instance Orwell’s Winston Smith, for whom the mere acts of keeping a diary and falling in love were necessarily shrouded in layers of secrecy. Smith had good reason to be paranoid: he was knowingly pitting himself—almost singlehandedly—against the most repressive and omniscient government in the history of humankind. To take another example: even an all-powerful political actor like Robert Penn Warren’s Willie Stark was necessarily paranoid—indeed the more powerful became, the more paranoid he had reason to be.
What distinguishes Moya’s work, and what allows it to be at once utterly political without being political fiction, is that Moya brings this kind of paranoia to the ordinary individual. He does not write about political actors—more often than not his characters have no interest in politics beyond the average citizen’s concern with the news of the day. And yet, through paranoia his characters come to feel deeply—too deeply—involved in the great national political matters of their time.
This innovation of making the political apolitical is something that Moya shares with Roberto Bolaño. The Chilean author put it well when he stated that in his work violence functions “in an accidental way, which is how violence functions everywhere.” Violence does often feel “accidental” in Bolaño. It feels beside the point, irrational, mysterious, and what is terrifying about this is that often the state commits—or at least sanctions—this violence. (Almost always the violence can be traced back to the powerful, which generally implies political connections.)
This sense of accidental violence was what allowed Bolaño to bring a feeling akin to the fear of political repression into the everyday lives of his largely apolitical characters. When violence feels arbitrary it is easy to believe that anyone can be its next victim, and, sadly, in many Latin American nations violence felt exactly arbitrary at various points in the 20th century. In fact, such terror was a potent tool of population control in venues such as the Argentine Dirty War or the Pinochet era in Chile. In these climates of fear it was impossible to guess who would be the next victim of the state, because the violence carried out by the government against its people seemed so arbitrary, so fundamentally accidental. No one knew what precisely the grounds for persecution were; thus, everyone was necessarily a political target.
Even if they do not seem consciously aware of it, the narrators of Senselessness and She-Devil innately grasp this logic. Though the nations these protagonists live in are ostensibly democracies at peace, the governments of these states nonetheless hold the power to inspire in the protagonists a feeling that anyone might be a target at any time. These books can best be seen as dramatizations of how the protagonists come to believe this. Whereas Bolaño portrays this feeling of state-inspired terror through the idea of a void—some dark, pervasive energy that no human can escape from—Moya portrays it by showing how in this distinctive atmosphere even the most conformist individuals can become susceptible to a kind of wraith-like paranoia.
Moya’s novels drag political paranoia down to the level of the mundane—not the paranoia of Pynchon or DeLillo, which though occasionally applied to everyday citizens feels more like a cause than a consequence, but quiet paranoia that infects and disrupts like a virus. It is a conception of the political in fiction that is becoming more and more prominent as a generation whose default setting toward government is apathy and suspicion has grown up to write novels. It is politics as life, the feel of a place where everything is political and apolitical at once. Moya’s novels imply that in such an atmosphere poisonous to the non-politicized individual, trying to separate politics from life can and will be dangerous to one’s sanity.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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