As narrators go, Erasmo Aragón is about as unreliable as they get, and he knows it. It might be more accurate to say that the protagonist of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s first-person novel The Dream of My Return (El sueño del retorno, 2013; tr. from the Spanish by Katherine Silver, 2015) is not so much narrating as probing his own psyche, attempting to wade through the shifting currents of memory and accumulated debris of neurosis. One wonders, then, if, in the thick of those tortuous, rambling sentences which constitute his narrative, Erasmo is even aware of the reader or if, rather, it is only an oblique awareness, such as that shown by the patient on the couch toward his psychoanalyst. And in fact, that is what we are: voyeurs into the inner workings of an intelligent yet deeply troubled man incapable of trusting anyone, let alone himself.
If Erasmo is our patient, then we the readers have our work cut out for us in evaluating him. Though he is often the object of others’ analyses, Erasmo believes his own self-understanding to be far superior and scornfully discounts — or even, grows deeply suspicious of — any psychological revelations made about himself, including by his therapist, Don Chente. He conceals the most important details of his relationships from everyone but the reader, the most crucial, contextual information slipping in only as an afterthought. (So why confide in the reader? Perhaps because we are inside him, as Castellanos Moya so masterfully constructs the narrative around us, walls us into Erasmo’s convoluted cognition.) And, he has moments of blistering self-delusion, which only the reader sees through, thanks to the author’s stylistic sleight of hand which manages to create a wholly interior narrative that is simultaneously real, ironic, and suspenseful:
And while I sat at the kitchen table and drank down the quart of cola, waiting for the espresso pot to boil, the dreaded tape began to play in my head, the scene in which I leapt out of my chair and stampeded across Muñecón’s living room to the front door, which I swung open and didn’t close behind me, because the only thing I cared about was reaching the staircase and flying down it in leaps and bounds, with Mario Varela at my heels in hot pursuit so that he could smash in my face; this was the scene that would play in a loop in my head, over and over again all through the day, each time making me feel ashamed for my starring role and sending spasms of distress coursing through my spirit, distress I would be liberated from only after I called my uncle to apologize, an act of contrition I was not yet in any condition to carry out; I would let minutes, even hours, pass before I faced the consequences of that fateful brandy, which I never should have drunk, because everything started at that moment when I turned with glass in hand and heard Mario Varela say that Don Chente was suspected of having collaborated with the CIA at the end of the ‘60s and then recount a putative episode on the shores of Lake Ilopango, where my doctor was signaling with lights at midnight to an imperialist agent who’d spent the night on a boat in the lake, all slander without a leg to stand on [. . .]”
Erasmo’s voice, then, carries the plot, and does so successfully. The protagonist is complex without being contrived, flawed — at times shockingly so, as when, for instance, he rather cavalierly contemplates a vengeful murder, then admits, after carrying his scheme to the very edge of the precipice, that he was too much a coward ever to have seriously considered such a drastic move — and, most importantly for readers, sustains his anxiety at such a fever pitch as to keep us glued to the page even while we recoil at the intensity of his self-absorption. To ventriloquize such a multi-faceted voice into English translation surely presented a challenge for Katherine Silver. For Castellanos Moya’s circuitous prose aims to disorient, mined as it is with flashes of insight and deeply cutting humor, so that every sentence in this slim volume is a landscape unto itself. Nevertheless, Silver’s inspired translation deftly navigates this gauntlet and pries from out of the murky narrative terrain Erasmo’s authentic voice in all its vivid intricacy.
The result is a compact yet profound novel which explores the themes of memory, trauma, and identity. Because despite his professed bravura, Erasmo reveals himself to be deeply insecure (as evidenced by his dependence on his therapist), rendered internally powerless by the political upheavals in his native country. Ultimately, then, The Dream of My Return is about the (unreliable) stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, especially when dramatic events leave us wondering if we could have been someone else, if only we had taken a stand.
What makes the ending so humorous is its simplicity, as juxtaposed with the painstaking construction of Erasmo’s interior tension, driven in large part by his quest to reconcile his own madcap adventure with the disappearance of his therapist en route to El Salvador. Thus what seems an anti-climactic resolution is really a comment on the spiraling anxiety which has separated the narrator both from reality and from his deepest psychological problems. Still, the unsettling questions sown by the narrative remain like a camera flash long after the ending. The Dream of My Return is a maddening yet provocative whirlwind of a novel that forces us to confront not only the absurdities of global politics but also the darkness within ourselves.