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 me they are novels or stories, period. Second, in these times the word “political” is very much discredited, just like politicians. But, despite this primal reaction, I must recognize that the political filters through, sometimes irrepressibly, in the fictions that I have written, and that this filtering stems from a more unequivocal fact and that is that politics has been a dominant presence in my life. . . . On some occasions I have said that my first memory, what appears farthest back in my memory, is a bombing that destroyed the porch of the house of my maternal grandparents. Back then my grandfather was the president of a nationalist party and was conspiring to oust a liberal government; I was a child of three who came outside in her grandmother’s arms amidst the rubbish, the dust, and the ululation of the sirens. . . . I lived my adolescence in the prolegomena of a civil war, and later I became a journalist in the covering of that long war. I tell this to explain that I never intended to write ‘political novels,’ but that politics were a part of the air that I had to breathe in my formative years. From there what J.C. Onetti would have called “the genetic burden.” 1
Perhaps it is not surprising then that this interview often turned to the subject of politics. Or perhaps it is surprising and the interviewer included the above passage to excuse his excess of political questions. Either way, the works of Horacio Castellanos Moya are about more than politics, of course, but I would rather skip the nutshelling intro and instead point you to an excerpt of his recently translated novel here, to The Quarterly Conversation’s review of that novel, and to my review of it in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The following email exchange took place between July 1 and July 6, 2008. I emailed Castellanos Moya two or three questions in English every day, to which he replied in Spanish on the following day. 2 My translations of his answers, and of the excerpt above, and of the excerpts from Revulsion, were sent to the author beforehand for final approval.
I) Early Work/El Salvador
Mauro Javier Cardenas: I found some of your first publications at the San Francisco public library. On your first novel, La diaspora (1989), someone had underlined many of its pages, scribbling notes and starring key passages on the margins. At least what this someone (a school boy?) thought were the key passages. I found similar markings, although in a different handwriting, in Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta (1995). All this penciling on your books led me to the question of whether your work is being taught in El Salvador or elsewhere. It also led me to the question of how your first novel, which deals with the Salvadorian revolution, was received in El Salvador back then.
Horacio Castellanos Moya: I have no news that those two books you mention have been taught in El Salvador. What I do know is that the novel Revulsion/Thomas Bernhard en San Salvador is currently in the curriculum at the Universidad Centroamérica (UCA) of that city and that one of the two major newspapers in the country has protested with indignation from its editorial pages against the fact that that book is being taught. Apart from that, I think where a more in-depth study of my work has been carried out is in the University of Postdam, Germany, where there was an intense seminar about my work. I was there for a couple of days working with them and it was a gratifying experience. You can see the information here.
How was my first novel received? It’s a long story. In 1989, La Diaspora won the National Award for the Novel that back then UCA used to sponsor. El Salvador was living a civil war. When the news of the award was announced, many believed that the novel was a panegyric to the guerrilla and a criticism of the right wing military. But the novel was more of a criticism of the Stalinization and the crimes within the guerrilla itself. They invited me to receive the award toward the end of May, 1989. I was living in Mexico City and I placed one condition on going to San Salvador: to not circulate the novel until the award ceremony, so as to give me an opportunity to leave the country without consequences. It was a bit risky in any case: the war in the capital was intense, like Baghdad is now, with daily combats, mass killings, bombing, and helicopters patrolling overhead. Things turned out well: there was a well-attended ceremony in the auditorium of UCA, a reception, and later I left to spend a day at a friend’s house on the beach, a house no one knew I had gone to. It was a lightning trip. When I returned to Mexico, a sympathizer from the guerrilla wrote an article in the newspaper El Financiero in which he said that surely I was a CIA agent. Stupidities. The novel then passed unnoticed: in the middle of a civil war no one worries about fiction. And the Jesuit priests that used to oversee UCA when I received the award, the military murdered them in November of that same year, 1989.
MJC: Which novels were you reading back then (in that period before Revulsion)? Since we’re on the subject of your first publications: which novels do you think had an influence on you becoming a writer?
HCM: I think that in that period there were three authors who made a great impression on me: the Flaubert of Sentimental Education, Milan Kundera, and Juan Carlos Onetti.
MJC: On one of your interviews I remember reading that the only book on your nightstand was Onetti’s Let the Wind Speak . . .
HCM: Yes, it was while I lived in Frankfurt. But in that same interview I said that the book was just there, atop my nightstand, unopened (I had read it twice already), just as a reminder of a way of understanding literature and life. Onetti is immense.
II) Revulsion and Thomas Bernhard
In Mexico City in the late ’90s, everyone seemed to be reading Revulsion/Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador.3 Perhaps this 119-page monologue—which erupts against a country without a history major, without a literature major, against a country of militaries and business administrators, against oyster dishes, Marista priests, folkloric music, bus drivers, against the state university that’s like a “turd expelled from the rectum of the militaries and the communists,” against a hypocritical race that “in the innermost part of their soul want to become gringos”—struck its readers because it openly shared with them the rage and disillusionment at how our Latin Americans countries turned out. At the same, it allowed its readers to poke fun at the rant itself, which is the kind one can easily imagine hearing from a Latin American who returns to his native country after a long stay in a more developed country. After its publication, Castellanos Moya received death threats that forced him into exile. Excerpts from Revulsion can be found in the excellent Words Without Borders anthology and here:
It’s incredible, Moya, really incredible, human stupidity has no limits, particularly in this country, where people take stupidity to unimaginable records, only in this way can one explain that the country’s most popular politician of the last twenty years has been a criminal psychopath, only in this way can one explain that a criminal psychopath who sent thousands of people to be killed in his anticommunist crusade has become the most popular politician, that a criminal psychopath who sent the archbishop of San Salvador to be killed has become the most charismatic, most loved, not only by the rich but by the population in general, a revolting fact of monstrous proportions, if you think about it carefully, Moya, a criminal psychopath killer of archbishops turned into a heroic forefather, a criminal psychopath transmuted into the statue that a good part of the population worships, because that murderer torturer blasphemed with such glee that his tongue was putrefied with cancer, his throat was putrefied with cancer, his body was putrefied with cancer, only in this country and with this people can a barbarism of such dimensions happen, a revolting fact so flagrant like converting a criminal psychopath into a heroic forefather, said Vega.
And the worse are those miserable politicians from the left, Moya, those who were guerrillas before, those who used to have others calling them comandantes before, those are the ones who produce in me the most revulsion, I never believed there were individuals so fake, so wretched, so vile, truly revolting beings, after they sent so many people to their deaths, after they sent so many natives to their sacrifice, after they tired of repeating those stupidities that they used to call their ideals, now they behave like the most voracious rats, rats that traded the military uniform of the guerrilla for a suit and a tie, rats that traded their preaching about justice for any crumbs that fell from the table of the rich, rats that the only thing they ever wanted was to take control of the State to plunder it, really sickening rats, Moya, I feel pity to think of all those imbeciles who died because of these rats, it produces in me a great pity to think of those thousands of imbeciles who got killed for following the orders of these rats, of those hundreds of thousands of imbeciles who enthusiastically went to their deaths for following the orders of these rats that now only think about obtaining the biggest quantity of cash possible so that they can resemble the rich they used to battle before, said Vega.
MJC: The Bernhard connection is one that might interest many readers of The Quarterly Conversation. Much has been written about that connection in the context of Revulsion/Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador (1997), and you have answered many questions about it too, so instead of asking you the same questions I want to quickly summarize some of what has been written and some of what you’ve said for those who don’t read Spanish and then see if there’s anything left for us to talk about in regards to that connection. So my quick summary: the Bernhard connection starts with a friend of yours pocketing Bernhard’s books in Mexico City so he could then give them to you. The first Bernhard book you read was The Basement, then The Origin, and then you started on his novels. Old Masters, which made a great impression on you, was the stylistic springboard for Revulsion. You’re not a huge Bernhard fan though. Your relationship with his work has been a more pragmatic one. More of a stylistic exercise. Did I leave anything out?
HCM: Last May 1st, at the Austrian Cultural Center in New York City, I participated in a panel about Thomas Bernhard entitled The Art of Failure. I committed myself to rereading part of his work and some of his biographical essays on him, ten years after that author had left my life. I rediscovered in me, although with a taste of reheated food, the enthusiasm Bernhard awakened in me toward the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s. Bernhard is an author of only one voice, although channeled through different characters, a voice that’s very potent and powerful, a voice that became a style, a sticky style to whoever has a good ear, because you’re dealing with a prose that’s constructed musically from the principles of the fugue. Now I understand that with Revulsion what I did was try to rid myself of that style that was infecting me.
MJC: In the University of Postdam seminar about your work, the essay about Revulsion poses the question: “Is it justifiable to name Horacio Castellanos Moya as a second Thomas Bernhard?” Aside from Revulsion, the stylistic Bernhard influence is somewhat apparent in Donde no esten ustedes, Senselessness, and perhaps a bit on La diabla en el espejo. But then after Revulsion there’s also novels like El arma en el hombre and Desmoronamiento that have nothing to do with that style. So I guess the answer to the Germans is no? That you’re not interested in being a second Thomas Bernhard but that each novel of yours has its own stylistic requirements?
HCM: 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. And so it is that, in my case, every novel has its own stylistic requirements born out of the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. The challenge is to enter inside the characters and become one of them, to see the world like they see it and to dispose of my thoughts and emotions just as they would dispose of theirs. On another note, I must confess to you that I began to write La diabla en el espejo and El arma en el hombre a few weeks before Revulsion, although I was working on those three in the same month of December, 1995. Each one of them had its own distinct process and timing, of course, and each one also demanded different stylistic resources.
MJC: You have said in other interviews that Revulsion was born out of rage and disillusionment with what was happening in El Salvador in that period of transition after the war. You were doing a lot of journalistic work in El Salvador back then. Could you talk a little a bit about that period?
HCM: I returned to San Salvador from Mexico in May, 1991, six months before the civil war was over, with the purpose of founding a monthly publication, which at the beginning was a bulletin and then became a magazine. Two years later we began our efforts to launch a weekly newspaper, with the purpose of transforming it into a daily. I was the editor-in-chief. But soon we failed. The bankruptcy came in the middle of 1995: there was no space for an independent medium in that period and we weren’t skillful at the administrative part, either. In that period I did what all editors of magazines and newspapers do, the one difference being that I had to move inside a violent and polarized society that had just come out of ten years of civil war. I had very little time and energy for literature in those years.
MJC: When I was preparing to review Senselessness, I went back to Antigone—the novel’s epigraph is from Antigone—and one of the things that stayed with me this time was Antigone’s railing against her cursed fate. Against Oedipus, who’s the origin of all her troubles. So where does the curse begin, I remember wondering, for the indigenous people of Guatemala? My answer could have taken the fuku route, of course, but at that point I had already read your novel El arma en el hombre, and because of the circular fate of its protagonist, I was thinking of more recent origins. In El arma en el hombre, a soldier nicknamed Robocop is trained by the Americans to fight the guerrillas. Then, after the war is over, Robocop is demobilized and thrown on the street. Given his training, he seems to have no choice but to continue the violence as a criminal. At the end of the novel, after he razes through El Salvador, the Americans capture him and offer him a job as a DEA agent. So perhaps in some of your novels, I remember thinking, the curse of violence begins with the American interventions in Central America and then continues unabated?
HCM: What is the origin of the “curse of violence” for Oedipus, who kills his father without knowing that he is his father, marries his mother without knowing that she is his mother and unleashes the tragedy of his sons? The Gods, of course. There’s nothing one can do against fate, Sophocles tried to tell us. And what is the origin of the “curse of violence” in Latin America? The answer to this question is material for a book. I have no doubts that the politics of domination and plundering of the United States toward Latin America has played an important role in the recycling of violence, but it is not the only element nor do I think it is the historical origin of it. In the specific case of Robocop, my character in the El arma en el hombre, you do see a closing of a cycle: the killing machine created by the United States to fight against communism can later be used as a killing machine against drug trafficking. Power lacks moral or principles. It only has interests.
MJC: I think that in a more general sense what I was trying to ask you had more to do with your relationship as a writer to the American interventions in Central America. Your generation had to live through the impact of those violent interventions. Mine, on the other hand, had to read about it in books, although of course we did live through our own interventions but of a more economic type. Sometimes I wonder if it is not impossible to write a Latin American novel in which politics plays an important role without considering, even tangentially, these kinds of interventions.
HCM: I think the novel about the American intervention in Latin America was developed above all by writers who were born at the beginning of the twentieth century: in Central America the novels of Miguel Angel Asturias and of the Costa Rican Carlos Luis Falla are the ones that come to mind at the moment; these are works with an open intent to denounce intervention and stale language. Perhaps in South America there was not such a pronounced novel of intervention because there was no invasion of American troops or of banana companies, like there was in the Caribbean and Central American during the first six decades of the 20th century. Now, what came after, the intervention of the United States in the Central American isthmus in the ’80s was indirect, through the millions of dollars in support of military governments or irregular forces (like the Nicaraguan Contras), such that the inclusion of these events in fiction requires more subtlety.
MJC: Perhaps like in that passing comment in La diaspora, when Carmen asks Juan Carlos about the war and the political party and he doesn’t want to answer, “especially in front of those gringos who were travelling in the taxi” . . .
HCM: I am not sure that’s the best example. The phenomenon was more complex, at least in the case of El Salvador: while the government of Reagan was giving million of dollars in guns per day to the Salvadorian militaries so that they could commit the massacres against the population, it was within the United States itself that the biggest movement in solidarity with the revolutionaries forces of El Salvador developed, a movement that contributed a lot of money. In literature things aren’t black or white; shades and paradox are almost always at the base of great art.
MJC: The snippets of testimony in Senselessness are taken from actual testimonies. You did some work for the human rights report where these testimonies come from. Could you talk about your experience in working with that report? I’m not trying to find out how autobiographical Senselessness is. I’m just wondering about that original experience that was later to become the starting point for the novel.
HCM: What I did was a kind of editorial advisory work for a human rights organization toward the end of 1997 and the beginning of 1998. Back then I wrote in a notebook some of the phrases from the testimonies of the witnesses of the genocide, just as I always write in my notebooks phrases from the books I am reading that make an impression on me. . . . But it was not until six years later, in 2003, when I was planning to travel to Guatemala to find a journalistic job, that I began to browse my old notebooks, found those phrases, and told myself that there was a potential novel in them. I started working on it immediately.
MJC: I remember that when I was reading Senselessness for the first time those snippets of testimony seemed almost humorous to me because of their syntax. It was only when I finished the novel that the sadness of those testimonies began to sink in. They are like relics of a world completely foreign to me, a world that was being disappeared . . .
HCM: The force of those snippets arises from the pain and the desolation that they contain in a very concentrated way; it arises too from the sadness of a Mayan culture submitted to blood and fire for 500 years. The fact that those snippets have been said by people who could barely speak Spanish and who had a different vision of the world gives them their poetic character, and to me it also gave me the liberty to use them as a rich and malleable literary material.
MJC: One of the many things I liked about this novel is that the narrator isn’t a saintly humanist but a “depraved atheist.” This gives the narration a kind of emotional veracity . . .
HCM: It was the way to give consistency to the fictional character of the book. A political seriousness or an ideological partisanship would have drawn it dangerously close to “testimonial” novels, a genre I don’t cultivate and that I don’t like at all. The challenge was indeed to explore how the editing task of the report could break the psychic and emotional apparatus of a cynical character without faith of any kind.
MJC: There is also an obliquity in the novel that reminds me of what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, speaking about the movies of Alfonso Cuaron, called the Paradox of Anamorphosis: that there are certain things that one cannot see if treated frontally. It seems to me that in Senselessness there is a conflict between explicit violence and an oblique treatment of violence that culminates in the graphic scene of the baby . . .
HCM: It is interesting that you speak of obliquity because the master of obliquity in Latin American literature has been Onetti. I think that in the case of Senselessness it is indeed, like we were mentioning earlier, the faithless nature of the character that permits an oblique positioning at the beginning, in relation to the report about genocide as well as in relation to genocide itself. But later this starts changing . . .
IV) Literature/Roberto Bolaño
MJC: Which are the books you still return to?
HCM: Some of the authors to whom I always return to are Sophocles, Tacitus, Quevedo, La Rochefoucauld, Stendhal, Nietzsche, Hermann Broch, Canetti, Roque Dalton, Cioran . . .
MJC: I discovered your work a few years ago by reading an interview with Roberto Bolaño in which he mentioned you as one of his favorites. In that same spirit of discovery, could you share some of your favorite contemporary Latin American writers?
HCM: Bolaño always had a group spirit, like that of a teenage bunch, a spirit that reflects itself very well in The Savage Detectives. In his literary beginnings, in Mexico City, he led the foundation of the Infrarrealistas (the ones he calls Visceral Realists in his novel), and in the last years of his splendid career, he still didn’t lose that sense of literary “tribe,” only then it was at a Latin American level. And since he was a generous man he would mention all those who wrote works with which he identified, and since he was a voracious and intense reader he was up to date with the latest writing published in Latin America, and since he was brave and had no hairs on his tongue he became the reference of the new generation of Latin American writers. I committed myself to read those works that Bolaño would mention as the best that were being produced in Latin America. Many of them I think are very good, of course, but not others. A matter of taste. Of the ones that were not4 mentioned by Bolaño and whose books I have enjoyed I can mention Elmer Mendoza and Enrique Serna in México, Juan Forn in Argentina, Evelio Rosero in Colombia, Rafael Menjívar in El Salvador, among others. Then come those born in the decades of the sixties and seventies, but those are many and I have just started to read them . . .
MJC: 2666 is going to be published here in the United States soon. How did you like 2666? It has an incredible narrative speed, no? And that black hole . . .
HCM: The novel 2666 is a tremendous work. It could have only been written by a genius who intuited that death was at his heels, that there wouldn’t be another opportunity, that he had to burn the ships and bet it all. From this arises the intensity, the force, the will to be all encompassing . . .
MJC: You maintained correspondence with Bolaño (“an irregular and melancholic correspondence” as Bolaño wrote) . . .
HCM: That’s right: an irregular correspondence, that seemed melancholic to him. One time he invited me to come to Blanes and we spent an afternoon together: we ate with his wife and his son Lautaro in a restaurant, later I accompanied him to the coast so that some reporters from Madrid could take pictures of him and at the end we stayed talking and drinking tea in the living room of his apartment, surely for multiple hours, because when I returned by train to Barcelona it was very late at night. His death saddened me like I would have never imagined.
Mauro Javier Cardenas is an Ecuadorian writer who lives in San Francisco. His fiction has been published by The Antioch Review and his book reviews by the San Francisco Chronicle.
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