on Senselessness, a novel by Horacio Castellanos Moya, tr. by Katherine Silver (New Directions)

An unnamed writer comes to an unnamed Central American country to copyedit the oral testimonies of Indians who had witnessed atrocities committed by the military. His employer is the “perfidious Catholic Church … so-called defenders of human rights.” On page one, the writer mentions the “one thousand one hundred” pages of transcription to be edited (these will be referenced as such over and over again), and “my friend Erick” who will be mentioned many times as well but never appears. The first seven words of the narrative are “I am not complete in the mind,” a fragment from the 1,100 pages. He continues, regarding the fragment (to quote, I must interrupt a long flow of words, more an outburst than a mere sentence):

moya.jpg“… it summed up in the most concise manner possible the mental states of tens of thousands of people who have suffered experiences similar to the ones recounted by this Cakchiquel man found themselves in, and also summed up the mental states of thousands of soldiers and paramilitary men who had with relish cut to pieces their so-called compatriots, though I must admit that it’s not the same to be incomplete in the mind after watching your own children drawn and quartered as after drawing and quartering other people’s children, I told myself before reaching the overwhelming conclusion that it was the entire population of this country that was not complete in the mind, 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.”

Thus, Senselessness (Insensatez, originally published in 2004) wastes no time sketching both the political context and the situation of the narrator. The former acts as an immutable environmental factor. But the real action is the strangely entertaining agitation of the narrator, by turns comical and corrosive. For no sooner do we hear about the massacres than he complains that his friend Erick “had stuck it in me crooked and without lubrication” by doubling the number of pages to be copyedited without increasing his pay. He disparages the director of the archdiocese’s human rights project, as well as Jorge the office manager (“that despicable Panamanian who was to blame for my not getting paid my advance, who did that shit-face think he was? Didn’t he realize I wasn’t just another miserable Indian like he was used to dealing with?”) He says, “I had been forced to leave my country because I had written an article that stated El Salvador was the first Latin American country to have an African president, a statement that was characterized as ‘racist’ …” In fact, his victim’s attitude leads to contentious episodes wherever he goes. In Senselessness, there is a fine line between the hilarious and the disturbing, one of the artful wonders of this novel. When the narrator talks about his fear of death squads, the reader senses both an exaggerated self-importance and legitimate terror in the narrator’s mind.

The reader plays the same role here as Toto, a friend and drinking buddy of the narrator, who with an infinite reserve of patience empathizes with his complaints in their favorite bar. Castellanos Moya manages a brilliant narrative strategy in Senselessness: like Toto, the reader doesn’t wish to misplace the trust placed in him (the sinister aspect in this world, after all, is frighteningly real, and the writer-narrator’s susceptibility to confusion and mishap is endearing), but he also feels that the paranoia is extreme. The narrator’s unabated stream of words, pressing his now comic-now tragic case for vindication, perhaps oblivious to the interests of the listener (but delighting him anyway), behaves like a kind of literary Asperger’s syndrome. It comes as no surprise that Castellanos Moya is not only an admirer of the fiction of Thomas Bernhard, but that his first novel, Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador (1997, titled El Asco, not yet translated in English) features a character who believes he is Bernhard. Castellanos Moya adapts his predecessor’s non-stop, reiterative, propelled style to his own ends, adding his own brand of narrative personality, comedic, and plotting elements.

“Bingo: I finally found a good-looking girl,” the narrator announces to begin chapter four. “Allow me to clarify: she was no Demi Moore, but she had all her parts in all the right places, was well-proportioned, had fine features and a healthy expression, without that resentment so typical of those ugly doyens of messianic causes who thronged the archbishop’s palace …” But Pilar has a defect: she is a vegetarian, “… as I soon discovered, for we hadn’t even reached the vegetarian restaurant when I began to detect certain expressions that made me suspect that my delightful companion might be a fanatic of that nonsense called political correctness, which put me slightly on my guard and thereafter made me think that the very fact that we were about to enter a vegetarian restaurant already constituted one alarming symptom, for only a mind accustomed to absurd abstractions and fashionable activism could prefer that insipid food to a good cut of tender juicy meat …”

Castellanos Moya situates us in a place where the unspeakable has happened (and may yet again occur), but where “fashionable activism” is a kind of “insipid food” for the politically correct. He integrates us into a solely personal perspective – our hapless, fearful narrator’s – a view that draws us into the madness, even as one laughs at his romantic misadventures, as Pilar gives way to Fátima ("The first thing I knew about Fátima was that I wanted to lick her all over due to the appetizingly creamy texture and light rosy hue of her skin ...") who in turn leads to the spectre of murderers, henchmen, and war criminals. The narrator’s dispassionate quests and his offhand remarks on sex are hilarious. Yet in the next moment, he is sickened by the story of a woman who has been serially raped by soldiers. In Senselessness, where everything happens almost at once, the horrific and the humorous, we hear how one man manages to maintain a precarious, imbalanced foothold in a world gone mad.

moyab.jpgCastellano Moya knows that malevolence may inflict permanent damage – not only on the witnesses and survivors but on anyone who hopes to live within the affected society. Born in Honduras, Castellanos Moya grew up in El Salvador, left the country in 1979, and returned in 1991 just before the civil war ended. He received death threats after the publication of El Asco and emigrated first to Frankfurt and then to Pittsburgh, two host cities in the International Cities of Refuge Network for exiled and persecuted writers. For the writer, the uncertainty and fear continue – and in Senselessness, they lead to a bleak conclusion.

At a party for Johnny Silverman, a “New York Jew” who had come to the country as a forensic anthropologist in the cause of exhuming evidence, our narrator’s morbid tendency to see threat and slander everywhere gets him into more trouble. A conversation with one of Johnny’s friends unnerves him: “… as if he were placing me inside a bubble constructed out of his crafty questions and my inevitable answers, as if the guy had known ahead of time about the psychological problems that afflicted me and that consisted of wanting to tell everything once I’d been encouraged to start talking, down to the hairs and the smells, spill it all out to a point of satiety, compulsively, in a kind of verbal spasm, as if it were an orgiastic race that would culminate in my total abandon, until I was left without secrets …” Strictly speaking, the narrator has no secrets to tell. But his self, under siege, is secret enough. This is what Castellanos Moya so poignantly conveys: the feel of crazed vulnerability. Katherine Silver’s version powerfully captures the nature of the narrator’s porous verbal membrane, his “wanting to tell everything” (even about an STD acquired from a girlfriend with dangerous connections), just as the survivors wanted to tell all.

[Published May 29, 2008, 142 pp., $15.95]