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Posts from the ‘Horacio Castellanos Moya’ Category

Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador

Moya Revulsion

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.


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.