Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya (Insensatez, 2004) translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (2008) New Directions (2008) 142 pp
For obvious reasons, the title Senselessness reminded me of Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness, a book about a young Hungarian boy who becomes a prisoner in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Senselessness, in part, contains the chronicles of a population that was tortured and nearly eliminated. Castellanos Moya’s book and Kertész’s book are very different, but both remind us just how terrible and violent our recent history is. And each is written by fantastic writers.
The book begins when our narrator recites this line: “I am not complete in the mind.” The narrator highlights this line on his first day at his new job. The narrator is an author, like Castellanos Moya. And, like Castellanos Moya, he was forced to leave his country because of something he wrote. In this case, our narrator said that El Salvador was the first Latin American country to have an African President (by which he meant the ruler’s “dictatorial attitude,” not his race). To get by, the narrator has accepted a job from a friend. The job, which much to his distaste puts him in the service of the Catholic Church (he is a “depraved atheist”), is to edit “one thousand one hundred almost single-spaced printed pages” that document “the genocide perpetrated by this country’s army against the unarmed indigenous population.” Though the book does not state it explicitly, “this country” is Guatemala. The lengthy report, several of the groups of people, and several of the violent events that occur in the book are part of Guatemalan history in the 1970s and 1980s.
Our narrator is a strange individual. He knew this job would be dangerous, yet he came almost on impulse. The people who committed the genocide are still very much in power, and now he is playing a role in ensuring “that the Catholic hands about to touch the balls of the military tiger were clean and had even gotten a manicure.” The line of testimony that he highlighted — “I am not complete in the mind” — strikes him as a perfect statement about himself. This simple statement seems to explain why he is doing what he is doing, a discovery he does not necessarily want to make:
which led me to an even worse conclusion, even more perturbing, and this was that only somebody completely out of his mind would be willing to move to a foreign country whose population was not complete in the mind to perform a task that consisted precisely of copyediting an extensive report of one thousand one hundred pages that documents the hundreds of massacres and proves the general perturbation.
He becomes increasingly paranoid. He was alcoholic and sex-obsessed before (our narrator is not the do-gooder you’d think would sign-up for this type of work), but now these are methods for evading emotion. The detail gives the book an unpleasant texture; however, any discomfort we may feel is well put.
Castellanos Moya emphasizes this evasion and paranoia with his style. The narrator speaks in long, rambling sentences (wonderfully translated by Katherine Silver) that search for an explanation where there is none — which is part of the point. I have pulled only one larger quote from this book because it was hard to find one that didn’t run, necessarily, for line after line after line. I was tempted to put at least one that went on for over a page, but, as you can see, I didn’t give in to that temptation; I believe the book is probably cumulative, so any such quote wouldn’t mean much out of context anyway. But in context, we get a ride through the narrator’s perturbed mind that is as thrilling as it is disturbing.
Is there an explanation for why the narrator — despite the distaste he has for his employer, despite the danger of being found by the military rulers, despite his own lack of attachment and ample cynicism — continues to edit these testimonies? If there is, it must be in the testimonies themselves. The lines that Castellanos Moya includes in this book (which, like the report, are real) are obviously not spoken by native speakers — the syntax is all off, the word choice is unfamiliar — yet these lines are poetic in the way they compact years of terror and violence into five or six words in a phrase. They haunt the narrator as he marvels at their perfection and trembles at their significance. He is pulled into the book even though it, combined with his appropriate terror, is driving him to paranoia.
Senselessness is a fascinating book. It’s thoroughly unpleasant in the best sense. As he did in The She-Devil in the Mirror, Castellanos Moya has created a paranoid narrator we can’t help but follow to the end. While I probably enjoyed reading She-Devil more for its story, Senselessness contains a great deal more gravity and is sticking with me still. It is worth more attention.