Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Senselessness

Senselessness is the eighth novel by Salvadoran writer Horacio Castllanos Moya but first to be translated into English and having now read it I am hoping that his publisher and translator are already working to bring out his other works in English for it is truly a remarkable and a very original book.

As has been noted in other reviews Moya is a great admirer of Thomas Bernhard and the prose style in the book feels like a conscious homage to him, specially in the way his sentences go on to great lengths and certain phrases are repeated as if in a musical refrain, which in effect manages to capture a state of mind which is breaking apart and going under the weight of its own consciousness. Other than that, Bernhard's peculiar style of narration also achieves this strange intermingling of "voices" and this suits Moya's subject in the book too.

The unnamed narrator of Senselessness, who is living in exile in a neighbouring country, has taken up the burdensome job from the catholic church of proofreading and editing 1,100 pages of confessions, testimonies and evidences of massacres of the native population and other atrocities perpetrated by the army. He soon finds himself falling under the spell of the strange poetics of the horror stories in the first person testimonies in the report: "I am not all complete in the mind" says one and at other place another voice laments, "The houses they were sad because no people were inside them..." He notes these down in his personal notebook and obsesses about the "sonority" and "curious syntactic constructions", comparing them to the poetry of Cesar Vallejo who tried to incorporate indigenous voices into his poetry too. He also decides not to share one of these fragments with his employer and colleague because he thinks (and this underscores what I think is the main theme of the book too) that they "might see me as a deluded literati seeking poetry where there were only brutal denunciations of crimes against humanity ... that he would think that I was a simple stylist who wasn't paying any attention to the content of the report."

This is only half of the novel. The other parallel narrative track follows his growing paranoia as he distrusts both the church and the military, which still employs one of the perpetrators of the atrocities, in fact as a senior officer even. He is also a compulsive drinker and is obsessed with sex. All of this result in some strange humour which is all the more unsettling because it feels so out of place. Still there is one "sex-scene" which is really one of the most comical things I have read in a long time. I still don't exactly know what to make of this part of the novel but the remarkable end does put a perspective to all the paranoiac ravings that preceded it.

Lastly, and this may be a potential spoiler, the book reminded me of Francisco Goldman's The Art of Political Murder (Review from new york times here) which was widely reviewed last year and which talks of a very similar incident in Guatemala. I haven't read the book but it seemed Moya is using the same real life incident as a starting point for this book. Of the few reviews I read of the book, none of them have mentioned it.

In the end, neither the Thomas Bernhard homage nor the real life connection take anything away from it or diminish Moya's achievement in any way. It is one of the most unusual and original books I have read in quite some time. Also, I wish they had kept the original Spanish cover of the book. It wonderfully captures what is inside.

Update: This article talks about the background in detail and also mentions the truth and reconciliation commission in Guatemala which inspired this book.

Also, among other reviews I liked this one in the village voice. Another enthusiastic (and exhortatory) review from Kubla.

18 comments:

Kubla Khan said...

May i say, a fine review by yourself.you have mentioned all the salient points in this novel. the style is sometimes as important as the content and the way it has been written is a tribute to his ease as an artist.

the Goldman book has been mentioned in various reviews but i was not aware of that one. another novel is being translated by new directions but i don't remember the name.

there are obvious similarities with Bernhard but Moya's voice is original. there is a review of this novel at RSB which is terrible, i think. try to read that.

thanks for the mention.

Alok said...

These truth commissions and human rights investigations are depressingly common in the latin american countries. It is like a cycle in history and it doesnt depend which country it is, military dictatorships and human rights abuses are everywhere. It was only the last line of the novel that made me think of that specific incident which formed the basis of that book by Goldman. It was I think on the cover of new york times book review so that's how i remembered it. I haven't read it.

Moya of course doesn't name the country or any real personage in his book thus keeping it free from the burden of particularities.

Kubla Khan said...

One of the striking features of past Russian literature is the particular political tone of most of the major novels. even in the stalinist era, major Russian writers roughened it out, inspite of the usual punishment. Bulgakov, platonov for eg and later discovery of Kharms to name a few.

how can it be otherwise? even the great works of English literature bear testimony to this though somehow it is diluted in more recent english fiction though i have not read much of it of late.

to come to the point, in Latin American literature, this is quite obvious, the politics of what we read and the direct involvement of the writers in one way or the other. to write a purely non-political novel w'd be unachievable.

even those works like Ulysses are social and cultural critiques, though it seemed to have spawned a host of similiar works.consider Alexanderplatz and in the very first pages, Biberkopf speaks at length about the "system". even the hugely satirical works of Bernhard resonate with kindred themes.

however, once it is done with style, as Moya does, it elevates this genre, for genre it is, of writing, to real art.

i w'd recommend that you read Mempo Giardenelli, especially his Sultry Moon. it is somehow similar but raises deep psychological issues, especially in the context of a volitionally committed crime.

your cover choice was beautiful and depicts admirably what is inside. The new directions one is tame though it does not matter. the next translated novel is titled "She devil in the mirror".

Stephen Mitchelmore said...

From what I've read elsewhere, mine is the most appreciative and in-depth review. Kubla Khan't should read it after setting aside his infantile grudge against me borne on what can only be jealousy.

Kubla Khan said...

I don't want to tarnish the comments section of Alok's post by responding to Steve - that would be "infantile."

Alok said...

ah readers fighting with each other :)

steve: I read your review at the rsb site just now, I thought it was appreciative and perceptive. may be kubla felt that it gave too much space to Bernhard and the comparison with Gargoyles. Also may be your critical tone about the "magical realist confections".. Isabelle Allende is hardly the pinnacle of Latin American fiction.

It left me hungering for more of those first person testimonies too but then I realized if Moya had used the Bernharndian style of narrating from the testimony wholesale it would have become a horror-novel, specially since it is not all a work of imagination. It works now because he only gives indirect hints and the true scale of horror is left for the readers to imagine and if he is interested in really reading he can read any journalistic book about it.

kubla: I understand how you must feel about a review you didn't like but we are all readers here, and we all have our own personal needs and expectations that we fulfill by reading. Taking categorial stands about these things doesn't make sense to me.

I agree with you on what you say novel and politics. While politics is always present (even in the most introspective and personal writers) these latin american writers write under the extra burden of history and this gives their works an added moral weight. In fact I remember reading an essay by David Foster Wallace (a leading "post-modernist" writer) in which he was lamenting that writers of his generation have nothing to fight for or feel agitated about, unlike those great 19th century Russian writers who were motivated by a deep sense of purpose and which gave them a moral weight. This actually sums up most of the contemporary literature in the anglo-american world, most of which is written to please the readers and win awards. I will see if I can find that essay somewhere.

Kubla Khan said...

"Taking categorial stands about these things doesn't make sense to me."

i agree with you, the point was about the review in RSB, not the person, for they are different. my objection to the review in question is exactly what you have identified so clearly....the reference to Gargoyles, which is unasked for, inappropriate and slightly patronizing. Allende and pinnacle?

anyway,

i agree with what you say is the historical burden of the Latinos though always elsewhere, it does not lead to the same result.

at the end of my post on Senselessness, i wrote, "Is it enough just to read this horror and then carry on( reading other stuff as usual) and what then is the ultimate purpose of reading?"

what do you think?

Alok said...

well, that's a complex philosophical problem: the problem of action.

Personally I don't think that a thought, a feeling or an idea is valuable or "useful" only if results in any immediate action. If you can internalize it, it will become part of who you are and that's how one lives and "grows" in the world... Reading about the horrors of the world also sensitizes us to it. What can we do about it? I don't know... may be who knows if those torturers had read poetry they wouldn't do what they do. May be it is an optimistic notion or may be it is not.

btw, Have you read Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden? It is set in the Pinochet regime in Chile and how a torturer who is a fan of schubert does his job while the music plays in the background... it was made into a great film by Roman Polanski too.

On the other hand in last year's German film The Lives of Others one such person is profoundly transformed by Brecht's poetry and Bach's music and even almost sacrifices his life for another person...

Kubla Khan said...

"I don't know... may be who knows if those torturers had read poetry they wouldn't do what they do".

In Bolano's Nazi literature in the americas, it is the amateur poets and writers who are killing machines, acting on their own and at times, employed by the state. it does not seem to change things a bit.

i have not read the play you mention but will aim to do so.

yes, i watched the movie some time ago and indeed this is interesting.

the idea of a detachment from horrors and marrying oneself to aesthetic activities for their sake alone......the idea must be to allow the action that results from any philosophical act to grow inside.

in the end, only acts matter rather than the ideas. the ideas remain elusive. thje reader is as important, his actions after reading a book equally so. perhaps it the same after reading religious texts.....do people actually change for the good?

Alok said...

I think something like it was there in Bolano's By Night in Chile too - a torture chamber run by fashionable literary people in the basement of the same place where literary parties take place.

"in the end, only acts matter rather than the ideas. "

this may be true and this is something that troubles me personally. this problem of alienation - the disconnect between thought or idea and action.

cider said...

Hello, a really fine review on the book.

Although when you said Moya is heavily influenced by Bernhard my heart skips a beat.

I still remembered reading Bernhard's book (The Loser) and after finishing it, I just want to beat my head with a shovel and roll into a grave. What a depressing book (though a fine book).

Offhand question: why is your blog named 'Marcel Proust' when it's not really (just) about Proust?

Alok said...

cider: thanks. i feel a little embarrassed about the url. I picked it up on a lark without thinking much, since I was reading him at that time and i was in his thrall. I don't want to change it now because people have it bookmarked.

I found "The Loser" very bleak and depressing too and I just couldn't see any humour which other readers had led me to believe. His other works like Woodcutters and Old Masters are both complete riots, both brilliantly written satires. I think Extinction is his best work which mixes the two really well...

This book also talks about dark and troubling subjects and this certainly is not light-reading but there is also an exuberance, liveliness, "a will to style" as Bolano calls it which makes it far from depressing.

Anonymous said...

Commiting crime after literaure is one half of the same coin that has inaction to be its other half. hence, action is important. but what generally forms a debilitating question is how does one start the change? As with any endeavor, we start thinking big. But action is effective when it comes forth through small changes, like initially wearing that bold "demand truth" t-shirt in public or even for that matter maintaining a blog, :) and then allowing such a change to grow on you with bigger actions. With such an approach action does not become an effort but a means of betterment and even a challenge to oneself.

Anonymous said...

I'm gonna buy this book (en espaƱol) based solely on your review, so it better be at least as good as Bernhard. Will check back later.

Anonymous said...

Oh and not the same anonym from the earlier post.

Alok said...

anon1: I totally agree. In fact if one is immediately motivated to act after reading something then it is most likely a propaganda and not a work of art which encourages reflection and introspection...

anon2: Thanks. I should be asking for some percentage of his royalty from Moya now...

He uses the same technique and style as Berhnard but he puts these to his own use. The experience of reading this book is not really same as that of reading Bernhard's. And yes I envy your knowledge of espanol too. I really don't see any scope for disappointment then.

lalegini said...

I enjoyed a lot this review and I can't wait to read this book. By the way, isn't this guy from Honduras? Thanx

Alok said...

thanks. I think he is originally from El Salvador but he has lived in exile (In Honduras for some time) most of his life because of political reasons.