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Uncommon Senselessness

Horacio Castellanos Moya's novel -- his first translated into English -- views atrocity through an ironic lens

The genocide that accompanied Guatemala's long-running 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 small country just south of Mexico are much less widely acknowledged than those that occurred even in Nicaragua and neighboring El Salvador, then suffering through their own bloody 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 with titles like Guatemala: A Government Program of Political Murder. And within three years of the war's end, two major reports, one of them by a United Nations truth commission, documented the full 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 now 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 mas! (Never Again!). Moya's novel was structured as a book-length 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 -- whose work is still controversial in his former homeland -- 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." Meanwhile, the new attention for Moya, and for the book, also forces readers to reflect on the ways in which we seek to understand the outbreaks of mass violence that are a hallmark of modern times.

Uncommon Senselessness
Photo courtesy of the author.
Moya, in 1980, works on his first collection of short stories in San Jose, Costa Rica.
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). And, he reflects,

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. I am also not complete in the mind ...

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. (Click here for a longer excerpt from Senselessness.)

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. (He is repulsed by one woman's smelly feet.) 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 beaut," he tells a friend: "Their clothes stayed sad ... The houses they were sad because no people were inside them ..."

While most of his friends are unimpressed, he goes on to juxtapose the report's horrors with his own trivial woes. 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. (Meanwhile, the narrator can't even bring himself to face a woman whom he learns is an actual victim of atrocities.) 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.

But Senselessness is not simply an ironic joke at the expense of a self-absorbed proofreader. While the narrator might be paranoid, for instance, 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, 50, is slightly built, with a small paunch, short dark hair and round-framed glasses. He has a high forehead and searching brown eyes, and in his book-jacket photos he can look severe. But in person he is almost boyish, dimpled, with an animated manner. He speaks English fluently, with an accent, and smiles and jokes readily. For two interviews with CP -- each at a different North Side watering hole where the bartender knew him by name -- he wore a ballcap, T-shirt and jeans, and leather sandals he doffed before curling up on his seat. At one bar, when an anomalously grand, throne-like armchair in one corner was pointed out to him, Moya joked that it might be a self-esteem aid. "If you have some personality problems, you can sit here!" he said, laughing.

Moya began to write Senselessness in Mexico City, where he was jobless and living with his former partner and their two children. In Guatemala, he'd read parts of Nunca mas. 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.

His narrator, in turn, channeled some of Moya's own inability to shut out a troubled world. "I think I was so fed up with everything, that it was easy to get this kind of character, that was completely like affected by reality," Moya says.

Moya plans most of his novels carefully, but 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 in their battle against leftists. The army's torture and killings were part of a strategy -- considered unique in its ferocity in Central America -- to terrorize even potential guerrilla supporters. (International human-rights activist Aryeh Neier has written that deaths in Guatemala nearly equal "the known total of all those killed in war and repression during the 1970s and the 1980s throughout the rest of the western hemisphere.")

About 200,000 Guatemalans died -- the equivalent of every 20th person in the country. The vast majority of victims were Mayans, who make up 60 percent of the population. Hence the later charges of genocide. 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."

Guatemala's civil war was less widely publicized than those in El Salvador and Nicaragua: U.S. involvement in those countries was much less covert, and most of the butchery in Guatemala took place in remote villages. Though human-rights concerns curtailed U.S. backing for Guatemala's regime during the Carter administration, military aid escalated heavily under President Ronald Reagan. In 1982, as the slaughter peaked, Reagan called denunciations of then-president Efraín Rios Montt by Amnesty International and Americas Watch "a bum rap."

The U.N. truth commission's 1999 report, titled Memory of Silence, blamed the military for 90 percent of the killings. Its three authors, two of them Guatemalans, wrote, "[N]one of us could have imagined the full horror and magnitude of what actually happened."

Both Memory of Silence and the Archdiocese's 1,400-page Nunca mas were meant to expose the truth so national healing could begin. Bishop Juan Gerardi, who shepherded Nunca mas to completion -- and was murdered two days after its release -- had said he wanted a report that would "enter readers through their pores."

The first-person testimony in Nunca mas 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. Such utterances, meanwhile, sit strangely with the academic, even clinical language of the report's authors: "[T]he predominance of the military aspects of the guerrilla struggle, coupled with organizational rigidity, bred insensitivity toward suffering ..."

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 like Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which indelibly documented the horrors of 1990s Rwanda.

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. "About the only thing we're sure of at the end of Senselessness is that the victims of genocide have not yet found a witness worthy of them," concludes Leonard -- a judgment that seems to critique both Moya and his fictional narrator.

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. As Moya says, his character flees because "reality is kind of ... brutal, really." 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 and a friend of Moya's, 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 diaspora, published in 1989, told a story of young Salvadorans growing disillusioned with leftist politics. Like most of his eight novels and five short-story collections, it was written while he worked in journalism; in Mexico, for instance, he covered regional military and political issues for Proceso, a national newsweekly. Years later, prominent U.S.-born, Guatemalan-raised novelist Francisco Goldman would write that La diaspora "was the first novel I read by a Latin American of my own age, and it showed me that young writers were finding their own ways of renewing the novel."

For decades, Central American literature had been overtly political, often poetry identifying with the revolutionary cause. Literary fiction was further marginalized with the emergence in the 1980s of the genre known as testimonio. These were usually first-person accounts of social injustice; the best-known example was I, Rigoberta Menchu, a 1983 autobiography of a 23-year-old Guatemalan Quiche Indian whose experience with poverty and repression led her to social activism. Menchu (based on interviews with Latin American anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos Debray) was translated into a dozen languages, and Menchu herself won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.

But along with such writers as fellow Salvadoran Claudia Hernandez, Guatemalan writer Rodrigo de Rosa, and even Savage Detectives author Bolaño, Moya heralded a new wave of Latin American novelists, whose less-dogmatic approach radically broke with tradition. 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. "There is almost nothing in the middle in a political way," says Moya. "They are still very polarized ... with that mentality, there is no way of doing thinking. There is no way of doing anything."

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 -- the start of several years during which he lived in Madrid, Mexico and elsewhere in Central America -- his literary reputation grew.

Alexandra Ortiz Wallner, a Salvadoran-born literature instructor, was living in Costa Rica when El asco came out. She recalls the book as a literary event: In a region with a weak home-grown publishing industry, it was among those works circulated in photocopied versions. "It was something totally new, totally original," says Wallner, 34, who now teaches Moya's work at the University of Potsdam, in Germany.

"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. Indeed, 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.

Unlike traditional Central American literature, says Kokotovic, postwar voices like Moya's are urban, not rural. (This also distinguishes them from that other dominant strain of Latin American literature: magical realism from the venerable likes of Gabriel García Marquez.). They're concerned not with the collective consciousness, but with the individual's, and unlike revolutionary literature they don't propose any answers to society's travails.

Meanwhile, 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 1,400-page 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."

"I think that this work is really brave," says Wallner. "It's touching some really sensitive things for Guatemala and the Latin American people."

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.

It's a "ballsy thing" to "publicly call this guy out as a torturer and a murderer," Kokotovic says. Moya, he surmises, "is a little bit fearless."

Asked about the character, Moya says, "I was just trying to show an archetype, not any particular person."

Moya's next move in life is uncertain. He's 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. And on Sept. 11, at the New Hazlett Theater, he'll read as part of a Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures program called "An Incident of Human Rights" alongside his friend Francisco Goldman, the novelist whose 2007 nonfiction book The Art of Political Murder investigated the killing of Bishop Gerardi -- the event whose fictional analogue concludes Senselessness.

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. "When I did most of my novels that are known, I didn't have a life as a writer," he says. "Now I have a life as a writer." 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. His mother still lives there, but 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." (Human-rights groups have noted longstanding links between Salvadoran police and vigilante groups, who are blamed for political violence of the kind that's claimed two dozen leftist activists in the past two years.)

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. The unsigned editorial called it "a book whose title says it all" -- about "the class of writing that it is [and] the mental state of the author." A week later, another anonymous El diario editorial about the sorry state of education again blasted El asco ("whose author is a native of Honduras") as "a kind of bitter revenge for imaginary affronts."

Moya expresses dismay that El asco is still vilified 10 years after it was published. He notes that, a generation ago, El diario also disparaged Archbishop Oscar Romero, who criticized the army for human-rights abuses -- and who was assassinated in 1980 while offering mass. The right wing's links to the death squads of the civil-war era still haunt Moya. "These people are bad," he says. "I don't like the idea that they still remember me."

To be sure, Moya has many supporters in his El Salvador. Last year, Miguel Huezo Mixc, a columnist for rival daily La prensa grafica, 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.