Reading: Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya

The deep dark days of our country’s unpleasant cold war collaborations and obfuscations in Central America are behind us. That string of brutal wars, secret and not-so-secret, waged against the poor and indigenous people of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, are the stuff of another decade, or so I thought. After the 1980s, at the end of which the Soviet Union collapsed and our government’s foreign policy focus shifted gradually away from our banana backyard, it was easy to imagine that things were calmer in Guatemala and Tegucigalpa and San Salvador. But this may be wishful thinking, and I wonder if there have been any profound shifts at all in the power structures of these countries. All still seem to be places from which increasing numbers of people wish to flee, to make the long and perilous journey across Mexico.

The auto-expatriation of Horacio Castellanos Moya by airplane to Germany, if easier to achieve than walking to and across the Rio Grande, tells a more sinister story about present day Central America. Castellanos Moya, a Honduran, now lives in exile in Pittsburgh. (At least as of the 2008 printing of his recently translated Insensatez.) He is a novelist. Reading Senselessness it is clear that a man who peaceably composes sentences and chooses words and muddles them about on a page, in a manner displeasing to the authorities of the wrong country, is a man still very much in danger.

Exile, a leap into the unknown

A short, swirled cocktail mixed from exile, paranoia, and an unhealthy dash of bitters, Senselessness concerns a Honduran writer who has fled to Guatemala and accepted the underpaid job of editing the Catholic Church’s massive forthcoming report on human rights violations and the genocide perpetrated against countless indigenous groups of disenfranchised rural Guatemalans: “…as if I didn’t already have enough problems with the armed forces of my own country, as if the enemies in my own country weren’t enough for me, I was about to stick my snout into somebody else’s wasps’ nest….”

Repelled by the horrors recounted in the oral histories of the survivors, he is attracted and even transfigured by their blunt poetic truths, by the emotion carried in their simple turns of phrase. He takes a notebook to work with him and writes down these pithy epitaphs and laments and then goes out drinking while they swirl in his head, unable to understand why his friends and the women he wants indiscriminately to sleep with could want to talk about anything else. This is a man alienated from his own species who finds humanity’s redemption only in the testimonies of the still-living, who struggle valiantly to express the grim depths of their sorrows. Through the desperate grappling of the highland Indians with language, their efforts to capture what they have seen and felt (in a language that is not their own) this novel becomes, among other things, a metaphor for the writing of a novel.

Antipathy toward the church, his employer; the constant contact with the savagery and bloodletting of the military, recounted in the texts he is copy editing; lust; his exile sense of having lost control of his own life; his inability to relate to those around him; all these things flow out of the narrator in a stream of text. Castellanos Moya likes to deliver enormous, stringy sentences a page long and more, sentences that veer from disgust and fear and sights and smells to sexual fantasy and personal philosophy, all in the same breath, the way the active mind works. This muddled, confusing rush of competing considerations is in my experience central to the process of human thought, and it takes very little time before we understand and recognize the narrator and his worries and preoccupations.

His deadline, psychoses, and venereal disease combine to push this man (a person many might find an unpleasant combination of the overbearing and the effete) over the edge into a whirlpool of paranoia. A prickly fellow, in some ways distasteful, he is redeemed by his love for the language and memories of the survivors, the most favored of which he takes to chanting out loud, like mantras. By the time he loses it altogether, left alone at a spiritual retreat with only his tortured thoughts and the 1100-page chronicle of savagery he has been contracted, we cannot decide if his mounting fears are justified or just an imploding hallucination. Just as Castellanos Moya did, he flies away in haste, to Germany.

The first seven words of this short novel, “I am not complete in the mind,” makes up the first of the many phrases the narrator finds so compelling in the Indians’ testimonies, and rarely have the opening few letters so efficiently foreshadowed an entire book. The last seven words of Senselessness are just as effective at resolving our lingering doubts and questions, but I shall not tell you here what those are.


I've stepped away from my desk

Do not attempt to adjust your set. There is nothing wrong. We regret this temporary suspension in our regularly scheduled programming and apologize in advance for any discomfort or dissatisfaction that might result from your frustration at returning time after time to this page, only to find a lack of updates or new ideas. We will soon return, to continue our usual onslaught of missives outlining all that is important and wacky.

There are corners of the world where technology's reach is still weak, and for the next blissful two weeks, I will be in one of them. I look forward to bobbing in the sea, enjoying a momentary respite from the tyranny of the blog. For legal reasons I must abstain from revealing the specifics of my upcoming activities; suffice to inform that I will be on board a ship, somewhere in the western Indian Ocean, near the equator, where bandwidth is scarce and blogging a luxury I shall likely be unable to permit myself.

For those few of you who haven't done so already, might I respectfully suggest that this would be an excellent time to purchase and read my book. Walking to Guantánamo is far less pedantic and much more restrained in its exploitation of adverbs than this post, and altogether a better read. I know that there are still those of you who look quickly in the other direction when you see me on the subway car, or jam your ipod earbuds further into your ear canals, fearful that a moment's casual conversation will reveal your lack of patronage: think how much more comfortably you will ride to work in the mornings, safe from the threat of this sort of mortification, hoping, in fact, that we might find ourselves side by side, riding together, enjoying a mutual chuckle over the vicissitudes of life of in Cuba.


And they serve watermelon for dessert...

Spotted at Aunt Jemima's Revenge is this exciting new food product, a demonstration of just how much the Germans love our new president. In fact, they think he is finger-licking good. The box comes full of succulent fried chicken tenders, parochialism, and myopia, all served with a curry dipping sauce. Two ethnic treats for the price of one! Der Spiegel has more, at least in their English edition....


Charting the Mortgage Crisis from the Air

One doesn't have to travel far in virtual outer space to find evidence of how shelter, that most basic of all human needs, has in recent decades been converted into just another commodity, manufactured in bulk. From above, the subdivisions look like pieces from a board game waiting to be played, a perfect visual representation of the packages of shoddy balloon mortgages that were swapped and leveraged all along the merry road to our current economic calamity.

Clusters of identical constructions appear shrink-wrapped. Crammed into gridlike spaces with not a buildable square foot unaccounted for, the proper ratio of building to lawn to pavement to price appears to be the result of a process of consumer research, rather like the test marketing of a new soda pop. When did the American Dream morph into a housing development that resembles a circuit board?

San Antonio, TX

Riverside, CA

I don't need a real estate agent to lay out for me the varied prices for homes in each of these quadrants near Plainsborough, NJ

Phoenix, AZ

Cut and Fill near Tampa, FL

Las Vegas, NV

Albuquerque, NM

All images cadged, in a few idle moments, from Google Earth


Reading: In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

“The wind sighed through the municipal araucarias.”

For years I didn’t read any travel literature. This is rather strange, given that I was aspiring to write a travelogue of my own. But I didn’t want to pollute what I hoped would be a style, my style; I assumed my memory was bad enough that I could avoid the undue influence of the great travel writers by neglecting them for a time. But this boycott wasn’t meant to last as long as it did; writing a book took much longer than I had anticipated. (Should the next one prove to be so time consuming I shall have to arrange to be reincarnated).

The problem is that once having begun my ascetic eschewing of the pleasures of Theroux and Newby and Kapuscinski, it seemed predictive of failure to renege. And so the years went by. I restricted myself to novels and biographies, and memoirs that did not involve passports. (Of course this is silly).

Not long ago I realized that Guantánamo has been out for months without my taking advantage of what I now hope will only be a narrow window of time in which I am not actively working on my own travel literature. (If I want to continue to read my favorite books, I am going to have to develop the self-confidence to believe that I will not let myself be overwhelmed by them).

What to read, then? It dawned on me that I haven’t read Bruce Chatwin since the 1980s. Despite his premature passing and limited output, he is a titan amongst literary wanderers. He is a pioneer in the conjuring of a sense of foreign place not only by direct observation but also through the deft incorporation of all sorts of ancillary threads and diversions, so that, like his bushwhacking from place to place as he seeks trails on the ground and through the forest, his writing also diverts along forking paths through the history and literature of the places he visited, giving a fully crafted but altogether alternate sense of past events. Never more so, perhaps than in In Patagonia.

Chatwin’s Patagonia is purple and orange and sulphurous. It is chilly and damp, as befits an outpost of the British Isles. This it apparently is, a sort of loser’s ground for expatriated sheep farmers and adventurers who, once in Patagonia, settle for sheep farming. Butch Cassidy and his gang flee Utah to hide out here. It is a part of the Americas wilder and more remote, even, than their wild west. They farm. Bored, perhaps, they go back to armed robbery in the Argentine-Chilean borderlands. The tales Chatwin tells of them are typical of his unparalleled nose for backstory, his ability to find the choice historical nugget that gives a place meanings unrevealed by classical history.

Once he crosses south into the wilds, Chatwin scarcely meets a Chilean or Argentine latin, just anglos clinging on to their bagpipes and wooly sweaters and Wellington boots, fragments of a distant transatlantic culture. There are a few miserable indigenous folk serving as transient sheep-shearers, and a new wave of Italian Peronists agitating to seize lands long ago cleared and fenced by sturdy brits. These upstarts have a much less legitimate claim to Patagonia than the generations of Welshmen, but the latter, stolidly failing to learn Spanish, remain forever outside the dominant political structures of Buenos Aires, to the far north.

Ushuaia, at the end of the world: "The blue-faced inhabitants of this apparently childless town glared at strangers unkindly."

"I left Ushuaia as from an unwanted tomb...."

It is a gloomy picture, but only very rarely, and with the most stringent economy, does Chatwin tell us how he feels and what he thinks. (In contrast, my eagerness in Guantánamo to exploit my own misery, the chuckles easily extracted from the reader by recounting the blisters, aches and pains and psychological discomforts of hard, solitary travel, feel cheap). Once, two thirds of the way through, he lets the words of a fellow traveler, a Miss Nita Starling, also wandering the world, sneak in to speak his own thoughts. “It is beautiful,” she says, “but I wouldn’t want to come back.” “Neither would I,” allows Chatwin.

Nita Starling, horticulturalist: "For seven years she had traveled and hoped to travel till she dropped. The flowering shrubs were now her companions. She knew when and where they would be coming into flower. She never flew in aeroplanes, and paid her way teaching English or with the odd gardening job.... She quite liked Tierra del Fuego. She had walked in forests of Notofagus antarctica."

Although virtually every singles ad ever placed online expresses the evidently desirable desire to do more traveling, it is a convention of travel writing that the motivation for a particular trip must be related. There must be a thing being escaped from, or a goal toward which one is rushing. (Perhaps the singles ads really mean “I need someone to travel with—for nobody in their right mind travels alone--” another way of demanding that those of us who do so should explain ourselves). Why else would one walk out the front door, away from the comforts of home and hearth?

One measure of the brilliance of a travelogue is the economy with which this question is disposed of, since the real answer, at least for me, tends always to be: why not? In The Happy Isles of Oceania, Paul Theroux dispenses with his failed marriage in a single paragraph on one of the first pages of his weighty kayaking epic, through the long course of which we never again ask what the hell he is doing paddling about aimlessly through various pacific island chains. Another measure might be the flimsiness of the pretext: In his very first paragraph, Chatwin, who wrote another book titled simply What am I Doing Here?, recollects from his English childhood a square of hairy skin that his grandmother kept in a cabinet of curiosities. It had been sent from the tip of South America by an unknown but legendary relative, Charlie Milward, a seafaring man who, perhaps by way of explaining his own wandering, had once written “Liverpool or Middlesbrough are not places to raise your spirits to a high pitch.” Little Bruce longed for it, this tiny tuft of wooly mammoth, or brontosaurus, and In Patagonia purports to be the quest for its origin.

Before Chatwin steams away from the cold gloomy mists of Patagonia at the book’s end, he hikes to the cave where Charley Milward had discovered the preserved corpse of a mylodon. Upon finding a few remnant hairs, Chatwin admits: “I had accomplished the object of this ridiculous journey.” But by this time he has covered so much fascinating literary, historical and anecdotal ground that we can only disagree strongly with his choice of adjective.