Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bearing witness to the inferno (by proxy): Senselessness

Horacio Castellanos Moya

An unnamed writer arrives in an unnamed Latin American country to copyedit 1,100 pages of testimony taken from the survivors of atrocities committed against indigenous communities by their own military forces. Overseen by the Catholic Church and a small legion of international human rights workers, the incendiary report awaits only this final polish from the foreign writer before being made public. The writer’s job, as he sees it, is to “make sure that the Catholic hands about to touch the balls of the military tiger were clean and had even gotten a
manicure…” The writer, recently slandered in his own country for politically correct misinterpretations of critiques he made of his country’s president in a national newspaper, has taken the work for essentially cynical reasons. He’s here for the remittance and to escape an unpleasant situation, and it behooves him to approach his work dispassionately.

Yet the writer immediately finds himself marveling at the primitive poeticisms of the Cakchiquel Indians who describe their trauma in curious phrases such as “I am not complete in the mind.” The writer jots down several such phrases in his personal notebook and even commits them to memory, repeating them to everyone he meets. He also however finds himself tormented by the sheer horror of what he’s charged with reading and revising, the steady, massive and dark waves of torture, rape and mutilation remembered by witnesses, one of whom even suggests that it is only with the forgetting the names of the victims that they will finally rest in peace.

The writer turns to drinking and cultivating sexual encounters to provide a balm to his agitated mind. His crudity and crassness with regards to the women he seeks to seduce makes a striking, blackly comic contrast to the ostensible solemnity of his task. Reading about violence perpetrated against human flesh only seems to make him crave more contact with human flesh, preferably when it covers a body roughly akin to that of Demi Moore. The contrast between the unimaginable suffering of many and the festering, petty, carnal obsessions of one might cause the reader to find kinship between Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness (New Directions, $17.50) and numerous novels by Martin Amis. But Castellanos Moya’s prose in this, his first novel to be translated into English, by Katherine Silver, isn’t quite as merrily misanthropic as Amis, bless his black heart, can often seem. As the writer’s paranoia balloons to terrifying proportions over the course of his work; as he realizes that the memories he’s being exposed to can’t be shut out through fleeting and typically less than satisfying pleasures; as he begins to acknowledge the titular senselessness of the supposed identification that he, a well-fed writer, feels with the impoverished survivors of massacres, to the point of appropriating their words to express his own feelings, Castellanos Moya imbues his protagonist—who bears more than a few similarities with his creator—with a certain sympathy. Who among us is capable of fully digesting, of making any sense of, stories of abysmal slaughter?

The prose style of Senselessness is actually most in keeping with that of Thomas Bernhard, especially its long, fluid sentences, which read not as leisurely digressions or opportunities for pedantry but rather as anxiety-riddled bursts of compulsive extrapolations from a guy on the verge of totally losing his shit. Written in the warts-and-all first person, Senselessness’ rambling sentences give a vivid sense of a protagonist utterly overwhelmed, tense as a wire designed to asphyxiate, with every period punching into the page like a drowning man coming up for air. The evocation of burgeoning madness can probably be most accurately aligned to Gogol or Kafka—whom we can also trace in the novel’s dichotomy of bureaucratic abstraction and looming threat of genuine violence. The short, sharp finale has the effect of reminding us that terror cannot be confined to the frontiers of the third world.

In a sly bit of self-referral, there’s a moment in Senselessness when the writer, already beginning to feel les than complete in the mind, declares his new goal of “not wallowing in any of the testimonies that I would never turn into a novel, because nobody in his right mind would be interested in writing or publishing or reading yet another novel about murdered indigenous peoples…” Well, so much for that idea. But Castellanos Moya’s contribution this genre, if we can call it that, is hardly a work of unbridled bathos and hand wringing. It doesn’t pretend to contain in any neat fashion the atrocities the writer reads about (which are presumably modeled after similar crimes committed in Guatemala). In fact Senselessness is about our inability to do precisely this, no matter what our proximity is to the events in question.

Castellanos Moya circa 1980

Castellanos Moya’s own proximity to atrocity has fluxuated vertiginously. Born in Honduras in 1957 but raised in El Salvador, he has been a citizen of Guatemala, Canada, Costa Rica, Spain, Germany, and Mexico, where he spent 12 years as a journalist and political analyst. He now lives in Pittsburgh, living in exile as part of the City of Asylum Project. In a recent interview he stated his intense distaste with being identified as a political novelist, though he admits that his earliest memory is of a bombing that destroyed the porch of his grandparents’ house back when his grandfather was the president of a nationalist party and conspiring the oust a liberal government, so perhaps politics is something he would be incapable of excising from his work if he wanted to. In any case his is another vagabond and unsentimental voice from Latin American literature that the rest of us would do well to listen to. As we stand back and try to comprehend the chaos that continues to unfold in the rest of the Americas Castellanos Moya can help us to decipher not only the experiences of those who live there, but of us too, in our watching.

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