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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello from the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium!