Senselessness, Horacio Castellanos Moya (Katherine Silver, trans.) New Directions. 160pp, $15.95.
Senselessness is the first novel by Honduras-born Horacio Castellanos Moya to be translated into English, and though it’s quite slim, it’s a stunner. Hired by the Catholic church to copyedit an 1,100-page report which details (with gruesome exactitude) military massacres against the indigenous peoples of an unnamed Central American country, the novel’s never-named narrator is swiftly seduced by what he sees as the poetry of the testimonies, as the first line of the novel is the first line of the manuscript that leaves him dumbstruck: “I am not complete in the mind.”
Pages later, he acknowledges that maybe he’s made a bad decision: “which led me to an even worse conclusion, even more perturbing, and this was that only somebody completely out of his mind would be willing to move to a foreign country whose population was not complete in the mind to perform a task that consisted precisely of copyediting an extensive report of the one thousand one hundred pages that documents the hundreds of massacres and proves the general perturbation.” From there, things only get worse, as the narrator begins to succumb to unmitigated paranoia, contracts a venereal disease, gets on the bad side of a woman’s boyfriend, and finds himself trying to explain the poetic nature of the atrocity testimonies at a party: “For always the dreams they are there still, I said as a kind of amen when Johnny finished his story, which created a certain discomfort among those present, especially the birthday boy.”
This novel seems owes a huge debt to Thomas Bernhard, one of Moya’s major influences and an inspiration for his as yet untranslated book, Revulsion/Thomas Bernhard in El Salvador. Note the Bernhardian syntax in this sentence: “I was entering a world ruled by the laws of Catholicism, which had always produced in me the greatest revulsion.” Moya’s sentences pile clause upon clause and can reach incredible length (making him difficult to quote succinctly), and, like Bernhard, Moya is full of venom and is very, very funny. Even though in Senselessness he’s writing about atrocities, he can switch gears and go from outright brutality to outright comedy, seemingly without any effort.
Moya began the novel in a state of terrible poverty and unemployment, and there’s certainly a sense of desperation and exasperation and frustration in the text; it’s present in the subject matter certainly, but even more so in the way the prose is presented. Take for example the scene in which the narrator meets a woman who isn’t one of the “ugly doyens of messianic causes who thronged the archbishop’s palace,” who when she begins to cry about an ex-boyfriend, he says:
For the moment I found myself in an uncomfortable situation, for there is nothing more repulsive to me than a woman who cries as a result of her own stupidity and who in addition asks for my commiseration, but at the same time nothing so stimulates my fantasies as the possibility of fornicating with a good-looking girl recently abandoned because of her own stupidity whom I could delightfully take advantage of during the act of love.
Perhaps inevitably, by the time the narrator gets to what must be the funniest scene involving fellatio in all of literature, he’s found another woman.
Though Senselessness is a short work, its sentences are so intricate that if you miss one word it’s usually necessary to backtrack three or four pages to find that word. It’s not a terribly difficult novel, but it is one that requires full attention.
In addition to the humor and its brutality (both of which are attractive precisely because they suck you in to the book), it’s Moya’s sharpness and skill with the voice of the narrator that really impresses: in the midst of the 1,100 pages (of which “300 of those pages were lists of massacres and victims’ names and the other eight hundred were very well written,”), the narrator flees his office for some air to escape the images he is no longer able to suppress, and his interior monologue begins to take on the characteristics and the monstrosity of the report. For instance, a woman he knows triggers this mental outburst when he remembers a detailed rape scene he’d read earlier:
her vagina and anus torn to shreds, barely able to take a step and still unaware of the gonorrhea infection that was beginning to eat away at her and the putrid semen that was turning into a fetus in her uterus, paralyzed by terror, believing the lieutenant was leading her to a slaughterhouse, where they butchered the political prisoners and that is why she was but one single tremor of battered flesh as she entered the abattoir, where there was nothing but a prisoner hanging from the ceiling, naked, a Salvadoran guerrilla and arms dealer, the lieutenant explained to her, a mass of bloody, rotten, purulent flesh, where the worms had already made their appearance.
Moya’s (and his narrator’s) anger at the senselessness of government-endorsed and -approved violence is always present and vivid, as the effects of reading about it permeate every facet of the narrator’s being, from his attention span to his sexual relations to his psyche. Like a lot of the great Central American novelists, Moya started out with aspirations of becoming a poet, and though Senselessness is full of really miserable, gruesome stuff, it’s exactly the ugliness, as well as Moya’s sense of language, compassion, and his healthy dose of pessimism), that make Senselessness a phenomenal read and an incredibly important work.
Scott Bryan Wison is a frequent contributor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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- The Horacio Castellanos Moya Interview In Notes about the Political in the Latin American Novel, Horacio Castellanos Moya wrote: [I]f someone tells me that I write “political novels,” I immediately get on guard. My reaction is primal, but it has an explanation. First, I don’t like to attach labels to the fiction I write; to...
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