Horacio Castellanos Moya: Senselessness

For obvious reasons, the title Senselessness (Insensatez, 2004; tr. from the Spanish by Katherine Silver) 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.

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

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.

5 thoughts on “Horacio Castellanos Moya: Senselessness

  1. Sigrun says:

    Since you’re linking this review to your thoughts on Fatelessness I hope its ok that I write a short note on my experience with Kertész’s book.

    Being born in 1967 I have spent a lot of time in school learning about the 2WW. We read lots of texts about it, but none of these – being ordinary history text-books, biographies, and even self-biographies, struck met he way that Kertész’s book did. I am still trying to understand why. And my best explanation so far is that, in spite of his main character’s seemingly distance to his own life (his own destiny?), the narrator manage to set me in this young mans position. I feel his feeling of not knowing, of surprise and curiosity; I feel the strangeness of the world… Kertész manages to put me in the situation there and then – free of all clever afterthoughts, those insights we all share today, when we know what happened. Kertész put me into the pre-history, so to speak, and makes me walk the road together with his narrator-character; I become the not-knowing youth who under no conditions could be able to foresee what was coming. I become the young man who has to struggle on, after the war, with much too much sadness and emptiness.
    Could this be fatelessness? (the Norwegian title is Without Fate)

    No textbook, no scientific paper has ever made me feel like this.

  2. Trevor says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Sigrun. I have had similar experiences with Kertész’s work, particularly Liquidation and Kaddish for an Unborn Child, two books which follow Fatelessness. If you have already, you should check them out! Of course, I also fully recommend The Pathseeker (fantastic!) and The Union Jack.

    As for Castellanos Moya, next June here in the United States, New Directions will be publishing his Tyrant Memory. Here is their write-up:

    The tyrant of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s ambitious new novel is the actual pro-Nazi mystic Maximiliano Hernández Martínez — known as the Warlock — who came to power in El Salvador in 1932. An attempted coup in April, 1944, failed, but a general strike in May finally forced him out of office. Tyrant Memory takes place during the month between the coup and the strike. Its protagonist, Haydée Aragon, is a well-off woman, whose husband is a political prisoner and whose son, Clemente, after prematurely announcing the dictator’s death over national radio during the failed coup, is forced to flee when the very much alive Warlock starts to ruthlessly hunt down his enemies. The novel moves between Haydée’s political awakening in diary entries and Clemente’s frantic and often hysterically comic efforts to escape capture. Tyrant Memory — sharp, grotesque, moving, and often hilariously funny — is an unforgettable incarnation of a country’s history in the destiny of one family

    Sounds great to me, and I can’t wait to see his style again (masterfully translated by Katherine Silver).

  3. Henry Reese says:

    You can read excerpts from Senselessness, essays by, and interviews of Horacio Castellanos Moya on Sampsonia Way online magazine. There are even some video clips.

  4. stujallen says:

    I found this was an attack more on the catholic churches ability to turn a blind eye at vital times in Latin America ,like it has done over the years ,it is about truth ,when people should know the truth and the main character thou flawed has this decision to make ,I loved it am reading she devil at moment ,all the best stu

  5. Lisa Hill says:

    I picked up a copy of Fateless at the library yesterday and have just started reading it…

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