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The Past Is a Remote Galaxy


…nobody in his right mind would be interested in writing or publishing or reading yet another novel about murdered indigenous peoples…

The nameless narrator of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novel Senselessness, which has just appeared in an English translation, has been hired by the Catholic Church to edit a manuscript of eyewitness testimonies to massacres that occurred during the civil war of a Central American country much like El Savador.  He immediately plunges us into the nightmarish account of a man who was forced to watch the murder of his family, and I braced myself for for a squeamish read.  But quickly the book veers off and much of the time the narrator is more interested in making sure he gets paid, sipping beers with acquaintances, and trying to get laid.

The first thing I knew about Fatima was that I wanted to lick her all over due to the appetizing creamy texture and light rosy hue of her skin and her perfect curves pressed into a pair of red-denim jeans and an organdy blouse under which could be descried her seductive belly button as well as a little path of fuzz my eyes began to follow, descending, while she talked about her recent trip to a village in the highlands, where years ago half the population had been slaughtered – initiated by the army but with an enthusiasm that left no room for doubt – by the other half, their fellow citizens, one of the 422 massacres contained in the one thousand one hundred pages that awaited me on the bishop’s desk the following day, when I would continue my task of copyediting and correcting and about which I refused to think, wanting only to descend the peach-fuzz path that would carry me from Fatima’s belly button to her fleshy cave…

At one point, upon visiting the well-appointed house rented by a forensic anthropologist, he is even cynical enough to remark “that it was much more profitable to dig up Indians’ bones than to edit pages bearing their testimonies…”

Castellanos Moya’s tumultuous prose reminds me of Roberto Bolaño (with a dash of Thomas Bernhard thrown in for good measure).  His narrator wants “to tell everything…down to the hairs and the smells, spill it all out to a point of satiety, compulsively, in a kind of verbal spasm, as if it were an orgiastic race that would culminate in my total abandon, until I was left without secrets…”  At the same time, Castellanos Moya’s attempt to weave the ghostly presence of the victims of death squads into the present moment cannot help but remind the reader of W.G. Sebald, especially The Emigrants.

Senselessness presents us with a very uncertain moral landscape.  The narrator is little more than an average Joe who is too weak-kneed, self-centered, and paranoid to finish his task properly.  His every attempt to understand the big picture results in delusions and mistaken identities.   He is occasionally haunted by the horrific tales he is editing, but he is more intrigued by brief fragments of text that he notes down and recites like outsider poetry to be admired for their quirky syntax and grammar. Here he rhapsodizes over the phrase For always the dreams they are there still:

a splendid sentence…its sonority, its impeccable structure, which spread itself out into eternity without skipping over the moment, its use of the adverb to wring the neck of time, a sentence spoken in the testimony of an old indigenous woman from who knows what ethnic group…

Presented with an opportunity to come face to face with a woman who provided one of the testimonies in his manuscript the narrator flees.  And in one telling episode, his daily life is more upset by the smelly feet of a woman he tries to bed than with the tales of torture he is editing.

Senselessness is a brilliantly pessimistic book – and a conflicted one, as well.  Castellanos Moya has written the book about murdered indigenous peoples that “nobody in his right mind” wants to read, and here I am (along with a few thousand other people) reading it.  But Castellanos Moya seems deeply skeptical about this enterprise.  Whenever his narrator dutifully tries to tell others what he is doing, to somehow share the almost unbearable events from his manuscript, he finds that the past is as distant and uninteresting to others as the history of “a remote galaxy”.

As a German, Sebald believed that it was possible – or at least morally necessary – to try to achieve some kind of restitution through a willful act of the imagination.  Castellanos Moya doesn’t provide us with any such hope.  He seems to suggest that any such attempt is doomed from the outset to be simply irrelevant.

If anything, Senselessness goes even further by hinting that everyone has the seed of a murderer buried deep within.  At one point, the narrator momentarily becomes transfigured into a military officer whose death squad is in the midst of a killing spree.

I returned to the hut of those fucking Indians who would understand the hell that awaited them only when they saw flying through the air the baby I held by the ankles so I could smash its head of tender flesh against the wood beam.  And it was the splatter of palpitating brains that brought me back to my senses: I found myself in the middle of the room, sweating, a little dizzy because of the vertiginous movements of swinging the baby over my head, but at the same time with a feeling of lightness, as if I had taken a load off my back, as if my transformation into the lieutenant who exploded the heads of newborn babies against beams had been a catharsis, freeing me from the pain accumulated in the one thousand one hundred pages…

Yet in the end, Castellanos Moya makes it perfectly clear who, repeatedly, are the victors.

Yesterday at noon the bishop presented the report in a bombastic ceremony in the cathedral; last night he was assassinated at the parish house, they smashed his head in with a brick.

Horacio Castellanos Moya has written an additional seven novels in Spanish.  I sincerely hope someone is in the midst of translating each one of them.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. “(with a dash of Thomas Bernhard thrown in for good measure).”

    A dash?! It’s overtly Bernhardian! From what I remember of the coverage, there’s an earlier a novel with the subtitle “Thomas Bernhard in El Salvador”. Senselessness worth comparing with Bernhard’s Verstorung, as I did in my review. And of course you know of the deep influence of Bernhard on Sebald.

    November 28, 2008
  2. Steve, Yes, there probably is more than a “dash” of Bernhard in Senselessness, but I wanted to imply that I didn’t find the influence either overwhelming or annoying. And you are also right – he’s done a 1997 book “El asco, Thomas Bernhard en El Salvador”.

    November 28, 2008
  3. Just to thank you for this post. It allowed me to get to know the Castellanos Moya’s book. I’ve probably already had heard about it in a newspaper or so, but it had the opposite effect of your text. I’ve read it a few days ago in an apparently bad Portuguese translation, but I liked it very much, specially the narrator’s fixation on the survivors broken phrases and its tough humour.

    I agree with you that Bernhard’s influence on Castellanos Moya is not annoying. In fact, Bernhard style is much more condensed and based on repetitions.

    Congratulations also on the blog. Sebald was a revelation for me a few years ago and my enchantment hasn’t at all finished.

    Have you ever seen Patrick Keiller’s films? Keiller is perhaps the director I know with a method somewhat related to Sebald’s. There’s an BFI dvd edition of his interesting films.

    December 6, 2008

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