Senselessness, by Horacio Castellanos Moya. Translated by Katherine Silver

Guatemala, exile, El Salvador, Indigenistas, slaughter, remembrance, witness, suffering beyond words, words for suffering, escape from the words, deeds, torture, complicity. Paranoia with grounds.

Horacio Castellanos Moya has written a powerful and important novel, extremely compressed, about a real situation too horrific to be true. But it happened. The slaughter of Indigenous populations in various countries located in the Americas. Past, present, and likely enough, the future. Castellanos Moya has his fictional narrator immersed in the recent past (the book was written in 2004), the death squads, the machetes, and the few survivors who witnessed the atrocities. Their words of remembrance and disbelief. The narrator is chosen to edit an eleven-hundred page recite of the survivors, and their sentences haunt him. Haunt him so much he continuously repeats these phrases, seemingly without tracing them back to the people who suffered excruciating tragedies. He’s almost clinical at times, but mostly he’s just lost. What makes it all the more believable, compelling, and complex is that the narrator seems only indirectly impacted, haunted by the words while generally keeping the horrors below the surface. As his run-on sentences continue, build up, and become more and more off-kilter, he seems to translate the words he reads into his own, personal song of paranoia. Their words of horror become his own ground for egoism. As his mental imbalance slowly grows, it becomes normalized through a strange communion between his present and the past of the Indigenistas.

Thomas Bernhard is an obvious precursor for this novel and Castellanos Moya in general. He wrote a novel with Bernhard’s name in the title — not yet translated into English — and the prose in Senselessness, as well as the story indirectly, point to Bernhard’s Gargoyles, one of my favorite works by the old curmudgeon. The impact of the style is to increase the rate of paranoia on display, without melodrama, without the sense that the narrator is losing it for any particular reason. A cumulative effect, rather than any stunning realization or sudden epiphany.

Adding to the sense of realism amid surrealism is the way the narrator describes himself, his actions, his lusts. He does not think he is boorish, sexist or a bigot, but his review of his actions point to that. It is also difficult to know exactly what side of the political fence he stands on, even though that is essential to much of the ongoing narrative outside his personal space. And in this way he is much the everyman of literature, an anti-hero reminiscent of Camus’s best. All of that makes the subject matter of the slaughter of the indigenistas more strange and more real. Distant, but forever crushing him from inside.

Beginning in what is probably Guatemala, the novel ends in Europe, but Central America is never far behind the narrator or the reader. A powerful book, a terrible history. Art must remember.


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