Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador
I was obliged to return to a country inhabited by drooling freaks with criminal features.
For a longtime admirer of Thomas Bernhard, it was a little eerie to read Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador. Castellanos Moya’s mimicry of the narrative voice of some of Bernhard’s novels – especially Old Masters and Woodcutters – feels nearly pitch perfect, and the transposition from post-Nazi Austria to post-civil war era El Salvador is a brilliant piece of stagecraft.
Edgardo Vega, the endlessly complaining narrator who is disgusted with everything he sees (and who stands in for Thomas Bernhard in Castellanos Moya’s book), has returned to El Salvador’s capital city San Salvador to attend to the funeral of his mother and assist his brother in selling her home. San Salvador is “a truly vomitous city where only truly sinister people can live,” complains Vega, who fled long ago to become a Canadian citizen and a professor of art history. For the short duration of this 88-page novella, Vega sits in a comfortable bar and talks non-stop to his old school friend Horacio Castellanos Moya, a writer of “famished little stories” who never manages to utter a word. The fictional Castellanos Moya, like Vega, had also once left El Salvador. But, to Vega’s amazement, Castellanos Moya returned voluntarily.
Moya, I don’t understand how it could have occurred to you to come to this country, to return to this country, to settle here, it’s truly absurd if you’re interested in writing literature, this demonstrates that really you’re not interested in writing literature, no one interested in writing literature could opt for a country as degenerate as this, where no one reads literature, where the few who could read, never read it; just to give you an idea, Moya, the Jesuits discontinued the literature major in the university because no one reads literature, no one’s interested in literature here, which is why they discontinued the course of study, because there are no students of literature, all the kids want to study business administration…
Vega – hypochondriac, claustrophobe, paranoiac, racist – verbally ravages everything he can about “this nasty country,” including its beer (“a nasty diarrhea-inducing swill”), its food (“repugnant and harmful”), its newspapers (“rabid catalogs”), its politicians (“a party of thieves”), its artists (“vulgar, mediocre simulators”), its people (“a putrid race”), and even its beaches (“abominable”), . His own brother is “a lunatic,” his sister-in-law is “a freak whose entire intellect is limited to the newspaper’s society pages and Mexican soap operas,” while his two nephews are “stupid and pernicious.” Not only has Vega fled his family and the country of his origin, he has also – as he confesses in the final sentence – changed his name.
My name is Thomas Bernhard, Moya, said Vega, it’s a name I took from an Austrian writer I admire and who surely neither you nor the other simulators in this infamous place would recognize.
As I read this Bernhard-inspired rant, fully enjoying the bitchiness and the vicious black humor, I couldn’t help but ask myself: Was this really how Thomas Bernhard’s narrators were? Utterly self-centered? Blind to all nuance? Merciless to everything about the country of his birth and every one of its inhabitants? The answer is no. Castellanos Moya’s deliberately over-the-top pastiche of Bernhard’s style flails so breathlessly and aimlessly at El Salvador that it feels more like an endless barrage of comic insults aimed at a cartoon nation than a serious interrogation of El Salvador’s soul. Vega is too much of a buffoon to actually stand comparison with any of Bernhard’s narrators. In a 2009 interview over at Guernica, Castellanos Moya talked at some length about Revulsion.
I suddenly discovered not only that I had all these ideas in my head, but I discovered I had this character through whom I could tell all the biased prejudices, all the phobias, that I heard in El Salvador. This character is a kind of cocktail of every complaint I’ve ever had or heard about El Salvador.
In the end, Revulsion is a wild and humorous caricature of Thomas Bernhard’s late style and a satire of 1990s El Salvador. The thing about Revulsion is that Vega’s revulsion is so comprehensive that he makes no distinction between politically repugnant, blood-stained regimes and the common, innocent El Salvadoran who has the bad taste, in his opinion, to like the local beer and the local food. He hates them all and only he, Vega, has the good taste to realize how bad everything in El Salvador is. In this sense, Vega reminds me very much of the self-aggrandizing Donald Trump, whose tendency to repeat phrases, spew pure negativity, and mistake name-calling for thoughtful critique has made his presidential candidacy a grim joke.
Horacio Castellanos Moya. Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador. NY: New Directions, 2016. Translated from the Spanish by Lee Klein.