18 dic. 2008

Bill O`Driscoll

Uncommon Senselessness

Bill O’Driscoll


Bill O'Driscoll is Arts & Entertainment Editor for the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper. Other publication credits in recent years include The Nation magazine. His reporting on the arts and other subjects has won numerous regional awards. Find more of his work, including his 'Program Notes' blog on the Pittsburgh arts scene, at www.pghcitypaper.com. In the following article, which has been condensed for editorial reasons, O’Driscoll recounts exhaustively Horacio Castellanos Moya’s literary work highlighting not only its aesthetic feats, but also its roots in the heart of darkness of Central American recent history.

The genocide that accompanied Guatemala's civil war has been called "the silent holocaust." From about 1960 until 1996, when peace accords were signed, an estimated 200,000 civilians died. Most were indigenous people of Mayan descent, and most perished, often horrifically, at the hands of the Guatemalan military. But the atrocities committed in this country are much less acknowledged than those that occurred in Nicaragua and El Salvador, then suffering through their own civil wars.

If awareness of Guatemalan genocide is scant, it's not for lack of information. In the 1980s, at the height of the army's reign of terror, human-rights groups issued reports like Guatemala: A Government Program of Political Murder. Within three years of the war's end, two major reports, one of them by a United Nations truth commission, documented the extent of the horror. They identified the killings as genocide --the deliberate, systematic destruction of a racial or cultural group-- and laid the vast majority of the blame on the U.S.-backed Guatemalan military.

In 2002, the acclaimed Salvadoran novelist and journalist Horacio Castellanos Moya was in self-imposed exile in Mexico City. He had fled El Salvador in 1997, after his controversial novel El asco (Revulsion) drew death threats. Broke and looking for work, he began writing what became a new novel, one partly inspired by one of those human-rights reports, the Catholic Archdiocese of Guatemala's Guatemala: ¡Nunca más! (Never Again!). Moya's novel was structured as a monologue by an alcoholic, anxiety-ridden editor assigned to proofread a similar report. The novel was published, as Insensatez, in 2004.

Now, about two years after he moved to Pittsburgh through a program for persecuted writers, the novel has become Moya's first to be translated into English. Senselessness makes striking, darkly comic use of both its narrator's fevered voice and rapidly disintegrating psyche, and of material from the lightly fictionalized human-rights report itself.

Moya belongs to the new wave of his region's literature, and Senselessness has been reviewed in periodicals from Publisher's Weekly to The Village Voice, which called it "an innovative and invigoratingly twisted piece of art."

Senselessness begins with a confession: "I am not complete in the mind." The line is a quotation. It's cited by the book's narrator --his shocked repetition of words spoken by another man, a survivor of genocide whose story he reads on the first day of his three-month proofreading assignment.

The sentence, he says,

dumbfounded me during my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred almost single-spaced printed pages ... I am not complete in the mind, I repeated to myself, stunned by the extent of mental perturbation experienced by the Cakchiquel man who had witnessed his family's murder, by the fact that this indigenous man was aware of the breakdown of his own psychic apparatus as a result of having watched, albeit wounded and powerless, as soldiers of his country's army scornfully and in cold blood chopped each of his four small children to pieces with machetes, then turned on his wife, the poor woman already in shock because she too had been forced to watch as the soldiers turned her small children into palpitating pieces of human flesh.

Yet, after first deciding that "it was the entire population of this country that was not complete in the mind," the editor realizes the diagnosis applies to him as well. After all, he is reading of these horrors in the palace of the archbishop in a Central American country which is never named (though it's clearly Guatemala).

The 142-page novel's tone and style --comically profane self-absorption and accusatory bile expressed in rambling sentences of 200 words or more-- reflects its essential dynamic: the narrator's struggle, by any means, to distance himself from a manuscript he insists he is editing only for the money.

Moya's narrator, who is never named, attempts to achieve this separation physically, with frequent breaks for beer in neighborhood cantinas. In his intermittent rages, he fumes over slights like not getting paid on time, even building revenge fantasies from the descriptions of brutality he's proofreading. He plunges into attempted seductions of young women, with raunchily funny results. But most intriguingly, he attempts to escape the report by sinking into his fascination with the very sentences spoken by the survivors of atrocity.

Struck by their odd syntax and vivid imagery --most of the testimony was either given in Spanish as a second language or translated from one of many Indian dialects-- he begins copying such sentences into a small notebook. He comes to regard the statements ("Because for me the sorrow is to not bury him myself," for example) as a kind of poetry. And he foists these aesthetic objects on others. "You're a poet, just listen to this beauty," he tells a friend: "Their clothes stayed sad ... The houses they were sad because no people were inside them ..."

At one point, the editor summons the words of an elderly man whose entire family had been murdered --"If I die, I know not who will bury me"-- to express his own anxiety over learning that a woman he's just bedded has a potentially violent boyfriend. The paranoia heightens his suspicions that retribution awaits anyone involved with the report: Certain he's a target, he eventually flees the city, and then Central America entirely.

The narrator might be paranoid, but someone really might be out to get him. That possibly jealous boyfriend is after all a military man, in a country where political murder persists. Part of Moya's balancing act in Senselessness is to keep readers wondering which threats are imaginary and which are plausible. In an echo of real-life events, the novel ends with an e-mail from a friend in Guatemala: The bishop who delivered the report has been murdered. "They smashed his head in with a brick," the friend writes. "Everybody's fucked. Be glad you left."

Moya began to write Senselessness in Mexico City. In Guatemala, he'd read parts of Nunca más. As a veteran political journalist, he'd known of that country's dirty war, but he'd still been shocked by the savagery the report described, and by its concentration among the indigenous population. Rummaging through his belongings one day, "I discovered a notebook where I had these kind of phrases," he says --the testimony of indigenous victims. Like his fictional editor, Moya was mesmerized by how these survivors spoke.

Senselessness "was written on a kind of impulse" --often in snatches in the notebook he carried around. He finished it the following year, in Guatemala, where he'd gotten a newspaper editing job. There, it was easy enough to re-enter his narrator's mindset: "Guatemala is a very violent society, so it is very easy to get paranoid," Moya says.

Contemporary Guatemalan politics were forged in a CIA-led 1954 coup against Col. Jacobo Arbenz, whose land reforms threatened powerful agricultural interests. Repressive military regimes ruled for nearly the next half-century, with Guatemalan officers receiving training from the U.S. military. The army's torture and killings were part of a strategy to terrorize even potential guerrilla supporters.

The country is still rife with both political violence and street crime, and according to a May 2008 report by Human Rights Watch, "impunity remains the rule when it comes to human rights violations."

The U.N. truth commission's 1999 report, titled Memory of Silence, blamed the military for 90 percent of the killings.

Both Memory of Silence and the Archdiocese's Nunca más were meant to expose the truth so national healing could begin. Bishop Juan Gerardi, who shepherded Nunca más to completion, was murdered two days after its release.

The first-person testimony in Nunca más is wrenching. What we have seen has been terrible: burned corpses, women impaled and buried as if they were animals ready for the spit, all doubled up, and children massacred and carved up with machetes. The women too, murdered like Christ.

Senselessness is literature, not history. But its approach to genocide --a sort of black comedy orchestrated at arm's length from its source material, and even further from the killing itself-- might seem odd. This is, after all, an era of harrowing nonfiction accounts of mass atrocity.

In its own way, though, Senselessness asks readers simply to see. Its narrator, says Moya, "doesn't want to be there. ... He doesn't want to recognize that he is being affected not only by what he's reading, but by the whole situation in that suppressed society."

In Central America, says Moya, "If you are urban middle class or you are in the capital city, you don't want to know all the killing that is happening outside... That's why these societies recycle violence: because societies are not dealing with what happened."

Some reviewers have found Senselessness to fall short. "It isn't clear whether [the editor's] aestheticizing of traumatic utterance is intended to inspire our wonder for the indigenous or our contempt for the narrator," wrote Harper's Magazine's John Leonard, in his review.

In an otherwise admiring review on the Web site readysteadybooks.com, Stephen Mitchelmore wonders whether Moya's brief treatment of the killings, like the fleeting excerpts of the survivors' testimony, lets readers off the hook. What if, Mitchelmore asks, rather than fleeing, the narrator had become "a witness for the witnesses"?

Others say Senselessness hits the mark. "This carefully arranged mix of many bits of testimony and a dearth of complete scenes [of brutality] gives the reader the impression of advancing into the dark, surrounded by a cemetery of voices portending terrors that will be fully realized toward the end of the book," wrote critic Mauro Javier Cardenas in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Perhaps Senselessness is best understood as writing that shares the experience of living in a world where mass killing is a fact of life. In his Village Voice review, Jed Lipinski wrote: "The process by which the victims' testimony gradually engulfs the narrator's consciousness is Senselessness' most impressive achievement... yet the tragedy of mass death is overcome by Moya's perverse sense of humor, as morbid and resilient as a laughing skull."

The late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, author of The Savage Detectives, once wrote that Moya had proved himself "the only writer of my generation that knows how to narrate the horror, the secret Vietnam that Latin America was for a long time."

Moya was born in Honduras, in 1957. A few years later his family moved to El Salvador, where he grew up the oldest of three brothers. By the 1970s, political turmoil was brewing in the country, which had been ruled by military dictatorships for decades. In 1975, for instance, when Moya was 17, at least a dozen students were massacred at a public protest. In 1979, just months before a military coup heralded civil war between the Salvadoran government and leftist rebels, Moya left to attend university in Toronto. Aside from one brief visit in 1980 --when "the killing was terrible," he says-- he didn't return until 1991, living mostly in Mexico.

Moya's first novel, La diáspora, published in 1989, told a story of young Salvadorans growing disillusioned with leftist politics. It was written while he worked in journalism; in Mexico, for instance, he covered regional military and political issues for Proceso, a national newsweekly.

Along with such writers as fellow Salvadoran Claudia Hernandez, Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa, and even Savage Detectives author Bolaño, Moya heralded a new wave of Latin American novelists. That newfound sensibility only grew stronger after Moya returned to El Salvador in 1991, a few months before peace accords were signed.

Moya had hoped post-war El Salvador would have room for public discourse transcending the old divisions between revolutionary left and nationalist right. But endeavors like Primera plana, the monthly politics and culture magazine he co-founded, made friends on neither the Salvadoran right nor the country's left with their willingness to criticize both.

In 1997, Moya published his third novel, El asco (Revulsion). Subtitled "Thomas Bernhard in El Salvador," it was an extended homage/parody inspired by the late Bernhard, an Austrian novelist known for his splenetic characters whose ranting, paragraphless monologues disdain Austrian culture. El asco's self-exiled main character has briefly returned against his better judgment. He spends the book venting to a character named "Moya" about his forsaken homeland, from its public art ("only a troglodyte mind could have conceived such monstrosities") to its politics and even its national beer ("pigswill"). An excerpt published in translation in the 2007 Anchor Books anthology Words Without Borders culminates with "Bernhard" vomiting in the fetid bathroom of a whorehouse his brother has dragged him to --although his biggest anxiety is that he's lost his passport, his only ticket back out of the country.

Anonymous death threats referencing El asco followed; strident Salvadoran nationalists revile the book to this day. But even as Moya fled his literary reputation grew.

"I would consider [Moya] one of the most important writers in the region today," says Misha Kokotovic, an associate professor at University of California at San Diego. With the publication of Senselessness, Moya became one of a handful of Salvadoran writers translated into English. (He's also been translated into French, German, Italian and Portuguese.) He is among the few Salvadorans to be carried by a major publishing house in Spain: Tusquets, which has published his four latest novels.

As in Moya's earlier novels La diabla in el espejo (The She-Devil in the Mirror) and El arma en el hombre (The Weapon in the Man), the narratives are often first-person, suggesting the testimonio. Perhaps they even parody it: Those two novels, after all, are from the perspectives of a politically conservative upper-class woman and a demobilized death-squad soldier named "Robocop." But the works aren't apolitical; they simply denounce both official lies and free-market depredations in a sophisticated literary form, revealing an extreme disillusionment with both the violent realities of life in contemporary Central America and the unfulfilled promise of reform.

Senselessness, says Kokotovic, "ends up finding a new way of criticizing the society about which it is written." It's a condemnation perhaps more appropriate to a cynical postwar atmosphere than earnest testimonios and human-rights reports. Yet at the same time, says Kokotovic, "The novel works to undermine its own cynicism, or that of the narrator."

"This book is like a wink, saying, 'Come on ... You can deal with this without being so serious,'" says Moya. He adds that his narrator's reaction is "[p]erhaps closer to the way in which common people deal with [atrocity] in those societies. Because you are not complaining every day. You have to live."

Senselessness might be even braver than many readers realize. Kokotovic notes that a key to the novel's blending of fiction and fact is the way the narrator, who's fled to Europe, repeats the last of the quotes he cites from the human-rights report: "We all know who the assassins are." In the novel's final pages, he's no longer savoring the aesthetics, but rather relaying the sentence's actual meaning. Moreover, he's doing it in a bar in Switzerland where he imagines another customer is a brutal general from earlier in the book named "Octavio Pérez Mena." The name suggests Otto Pérez Molina, a real-life Guatemalan general who was active during the war and last year unsuccessfully ran for president.

Moya is living here thanks to City of Asylum Pittsburgh, a branch of an international writers'-refuge program that provides housing, a living stipend and health benefits. It's his first extended stay in the United States. Through City of Asylum, he's done a series of readings at regional universities. Moreover, this summer, venerable New York-based independent New Directions Publishing arranged several readings for Senselessness, in Manhattan and Princeton, and at San Francisco's legendary City Lights bookstore. Other support has come, indirectly, from the National Endowment for the Arts, whose $20,000 fellowship for translator Katherine Silver was instrumental in getting Senselessness published in English.

Meanwhile, this past spring Moya taught a class in contemporary Latin American fiction at the University of Pittsburgh, and will do so again this fall. Best of all, City of Asylum --like a sister program that hosted him in Frankfurt before he came here-- lets Moya forgo a day job. That means he's busy writing. His ninth novel, Tirana memoria (Tyrant Memory) is due out this fall, the third in a trilogy about modern El Salvador as lived by three generations of a single family.

But the asylum program lasts two years. And Moya's two years are up, even if Henry Reese, the businessman who sponsors the program with partners including the Mattress Factory museum, won't just boot him from his North Side house.

One place he's not headed is El Salvador. The murder rate is among the world's highest, which Moya views as symptomatic of official corruption. "The police are the killers. They are the kidnappers," he says. "The criminals are in charge of law."

And for Moya, there is still the matter of how his former countrymen see him. On June 9 --the week he debuted Senselessness, at the reading in New York-- an editorial in the right-wing Salvadoran daily newspaper El Diario de Hoy decried that Moya's controversial El asco is still taught at Salvadoran schools and universities.

To be sure, Moya has many supporters in El Salvador. Last year, Miguel Huezo Mixco, a columnist for daily La Prensa Gráfica, marked El asco's 10th anniversary by writing that "the novel gave shape to the frustration of post-war El Salvador." Earlier that year, El Diario itself touted Moya's new novel, Desmoronamiento (Decay), with a feature article that said "it seizes the reader from the first with its devilish pace of dialogue."

But Moya says that in 2004, when he left Guatemala for a writers-in-exile program in Germany, there was a "campaign" in El Salvador to question Moya's claim that he had received death threats over El asco. The phone calls that terrorized Moya can't be documented, and a La Prensa article questioned whether Moya truly qualified for refuge. A sidebar quoted no less than President Elías Antonio Saca, who said, "Here no one is persecuted for his ideas."

Often, Moya says, he feels he has become a nonperson in his former homeland. The sentiment recalls the relative invisibility of the Guatemalan genocide whose echoes he conjures in Senselessness. It also suggests Moya's decision to not explicitly name the novel's setting. As he has learned in his years of exile, universality in fiction can be preferable to focusing on a part of the world that is easily overlooked. "I've been out of the region long enough to know that we almost don't exist."

Translation assistance by M.A. Vignovich. A version of this article first appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper.