Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya
"This is a brilliantly crafted moral fable, as if Kafka had gone to Latin America for his source materials." So says Russell Banks recommending Horacio Castellanos Moya's first novel to be published in English. "I've not read anything quite like it", he adds. It's a puzzling addition considering he's just compared the novel to Kafka. However, it does make one thing clear: Russell Banks has not read Thomas Bernhard. Senselessness is an overt pastiche of the great Austrian novelist's high-wire prose style. It begins, as Bernhard novels often begin, with breathless virtuosity.
I'm not all there in the head, said the sentence I highlighted with the yellow marker and even copied into my personal notebook, because this wasn't just any old sentence, much less some wisecrack, not by any means, but rather the sentence that stunned me most of all the sentences I read that first day on the job, the sentence that left me dumbfounded during that, my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred almost single-spaced printed pages placed on what would be my desk by my friend Erick so that I could get some idea of the labor that awaited me.
It continues in this vein for another 141 pages. Leaping aboard such a rollercoaster of prose must present a considerable challenge to a translator yet Katherine Silver has caught the singular rhythm familiar to Bernhardians everywhere. There is, however, a crucial difference -- nothing to do with the translation -- which has significance for the ultimate achievement of the novel. I'll come back to this.
The narrator's labour is to edit for publication the transcripts of testimonies given to Church activists by survivors of massacres in a Central American nation.
I'm not all there in the head, I repeated to myself, stunned by the extent of mental perturbation this Cakchiquel Indian, who had witnessed his family's murder, experienced, by the fact that this Indian was aware of the breakdown of his psychic apparatus as a result of having witnessed, though wounded and impotent, soldiers of his country's army scornfully chop to pieces with machetes and in cold blood each one of his four small children, then turn on his wife, the poor woman already in shock because she too had been forced to witness as the soldiers turned her small children into palpitating pieces of human flesh. Nobody can be all there in the head after having survived such an ordeal, I said to myself[.]
The uncommon, elongated noun describing the mental state of the father is enough to remind the reader of Bernhard's 1967 novel Verstörung -- translated as Gargoyles yet meaning "disturbance" -- in which a doctor takes his student son on a tour of his patients in rural Austria. It exposes him to a world of sick, brutalised and grotesquely malformed bodies and souls, just as the unnamed narrator of Senselessness is exposed to the haunted words of ravaged peasants. Inheritance is the bond. Where the son discovers that an escape into rational enquiry will not protect him from what's bred in the bone, the editor will find his assured world of hard drinking and casual sex threatened by sentences emerging from what had once been silence.
His highly-wrought prose is consistent with a voice maintaining itself on an awareness of imminent breakdown. What happens on the doctor's round in Gargoyles has a memorable impact on the novel. As if the son's account has already succumbed to his inheritance, the second half is annexed by the monologuing Prince Saurau, an aristocrat whom father and son visit in his castle. For this reason, Castellanos Moya's adoption of Bernhard's style can be seen as more than homage. The editor in Senselessness is himself not all there; what we read is the inheritance of the manuscript.
Seeking to remain fully himself, he clings to habit: carousing in bars, seducing the first pretty girl he meets in the archbishop's palace, only for the sentences he has copied into his notebook to recur in his mouth, producing at first a kind of rapture at their expressive power, but then propelling initial disturbance into paranoia. Are there government operatives waiting for him in the street? He tries to share the sentences with acquaintances such as the bishop overseeing his work, then worries that he "might see me as a deluded literati seeking poetry where there were only brutal denunciations of crimes against humanity" or "that I was a simple stylist who wasn't paying any attention to the content of the report." To play safe he discusses practical issues, leaving the manuscript to work through his system in private.
Perhaps this is what Russell Banks sees as the "moral fable": that, in order to tell the darkest stories, one must inure oneself to the subject; to descend into the underworld yet, unlike Orpheus, not look back as one returns to the light. Such blind-eye turning mastery is certainly the most obvious achievement of contemporary US literature. Or is Banks suggesting the novel is a warning against the editor's hedonism? Whichever, Castellanos Moya has produced a remarkable alternative to magical realist confections such as Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits which have often passed as the pinnacle of South American fiction. However, what Senselessness adds to the Bernhardian form -- its terrible subject matter and the relatively conventional persona of the narrator -- perhaps doesn't go far enough.
Roberto Bolaño, one of the author's admirers, said Castellanos Moya is "the only writer of my generation that knows how to narrate the horror, the secret Vietnam that Latin America was for a long time." The North's preoccupation with Vietnam has of course been with the suffering of the perpetrators of that country's misery. Yet this novel narrates horror only indirectly and very briefly which, for a short novel, is fair enough. However, it does mean that the subject can be held at arm's length, even played down. After reading Senselessness, Powell.com's reviewer can write "this is a novel about the author's homeland of El Salvador, the site of some of the dirtier aspects of the civil wars of the '60s and '70s". He seems to be unaware that there were around 25,000 deaths in the first two years of the 1980s alone. In February 1980, San Salvador's Archbishop Óscar Romero begged President Jimmy Carter not to continue military aid to those massacring unarmed Indians. In March, he was assassinated as he celebrated Mass. In the same month at least 600 villagers were slaughtered at Rio Sumpul by Government forces. Such is the "moral authority" of the "peacemaker" we now see fawned over at literary festivals (the nearest word to "Salvador" in Jonathan Freedland's recent interview is "sales"). Reagan went on to spread the terror to destroy Nicaragua's hard-won independence and now, as the US agitates against democracy in oil-rich Venezuela, the threat of "civil war" remains.
So, instead of the brief sentences quoted in Senselessness, I imagine a much longer novel with as much original testimony as that of the editor's story. Like a reverse-Dante careening toward Hell on the helter-skelter of Mount Purgatory, this would have given his descent a wider spiral. As it is, we never quite sense the editor's response to the one thousand one hundred pages is much more than a McGuffin. Moreover, the discomforting presence of these anonymous, broken voices might have enabled the novel to achieve both distance and urgency in the editor's engagement. It has clear Bernhardian precedents in Prince Saurau's monologue or the brief interjections in Bernhard's later work, such "writes Rudolf" in Concrete or "writes Franz-Josef Murau" in Extinction. The first means the doctor's son both descends into his fate and somehow escapes it, while the latter means that what we read is always now however often it is read.
Similarly in Senselessness, if space had been given over to other voices, the narrator might have resisted his fate by becoming a witness for the witnesses. Bernhard's great gift to us and to literature is this setting free of a voice; a letting go without wish-fulfilling denial. While the lyric hyperbole of the editor's desperation is a brilliant comic performance, its conclusion confirms the reader's suspicions that he has been in control all along. Perhaps this affirms the ultimately ephemeral influence of stories and Banks' moral about hardening one's heart. However, it does appear like an abstention. This is not meant as criticism so much as an attempt to define why Senselessness is a brave and important novel rather than a great one.