Tuesday, January 6th, 2009
I've seen a few references to Horacio Castellanos Moya's newly translated Senselessness -- sounded interesting and worth checking out. Chad Post of 3% posts about it today as part of his Best Translated Books of 2008 series, with links to reviews and to interviews with Castellanos Moya and translator Katherine Silver. I'm much more interested now after reading these -- and by coincidence I have the movie Innocent Voices currently checked out from Netflix, also about victims of the civil war in El Salvador.
New Directions has an excerpt from the first chapter up on the book's home page.
l am not complete in the mind, I repeated to myself, stunned by the extent of mental perturbation experienced by this 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. Nobody can be complete in the mind after having survived such an ordeal, I said to myself, morbidly mulling it over, trying to imagine what waking up must have been like for this indigenous man, whom they had left for dead among chunks of the flesh of his wife and children and who then, many years later, had the opportunity to give his testimony so that I could read it and make stylistic corrections, a testimony that began, in fact, with the sentence I am not complete in the mind that so moved me because it summed up in the most concise manner possible the mental state 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 state 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 peoples' 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.
Friday, January 30th, 2009
Today I started reading Senselessness -- you can read the first two chapters online at Words without Borders to get a taste of Castellanos Moya's writing style. I am drawn in quickly and easily to his narrator's world.
Castellanos Moya uses a similar style to Saramago's Baroque sentences -- the rhythm and pacing are distinct from Saramago, but I'm not sure yet how to describe the difference beyond saying the author's voice is his own. Chapter II closes with a reference to Quevedo's poem "Prevención para la Vida y para la Muerte":
Si no temo perder lo que poseo,
ni deseo tener lo que no gozo,
poco de la Fortuna en mí el destrozo
valdrá, cuando me elija actor o reo.
Ya su familia reformó el deseo;
no palidez al susto, o risa al gozo
le debe de mi edad el postrer trozo,
ni anhelar a la Parca su rodeo.
Sólo ya el no querer es lo que quiero;
prendas de la alma son las prendas mías;
cobre el puesto la muerte, y el dinero.
A las promesas miro como a espías;
morir al paso de la edad espero:
pues me trujeron, llévenme los días.
...and after relishing the delightful tickle of that first sip, I fnally recovered my equilibrium and relaxed, capable now of observing the flow of my thoughts while remaining separate from them, not identifying with them, as if they were somebody else's mental movie I was watching with a certain amount of indifference...The narrator's temper tantrum at the office and his brief sexual fantasy at the bar are to be taken as indications of his internal disorder which he associates with reading the papers he is editing -- here he is finally able to get back into his cool, detached head and feel in control again.
At this point in reading the novel, I am getting a sense that I know how the book will play out -- along the lines of, making his way through the papers he is editing will force the narrator to face internal demons probably including racism ("Didn't he realize I wasn't just another miserable Indian like he was used to dealing with?") and misogyny... If this is all that this book is, I will be a little disappointed -- this is pretty well-trodden conceptual territory. On the other hand the setting is something new, and the prose is fresh and engaging; so I would not be too disappointed. Also, I am still near the beginning of the novel, and there is absolutely room for me to be surprised.
Saturday, January 31st, 2009
...Until she had gotten over what had happened with Humberto she wouldn't be capable of being with anyone else, she insisted, even though she liked me and she felt good with me, she just couldn't. And then all the listlessness in the world fell upon my shoulders -- I had gone to the wrong theater, which was showing a boring old movie I could follow with my eyes closed because I'd seen it a thousand times -- a listlessness so overwhelming and paralyzing that I didn't even have the wherewithal to stand up and get myself a taxi...
I'm kind of circling around the text in Senselessness, I find -- the imagery is vivid and the rhythm, as I said, pulls me in, and it seems like Castellanos Moya is encouraging me to identify with his narrator; but there's a feeling of being manipulated, that Castellanos Moya is setting up his narrator as obviously flawed and disordered, to make room for his redemption by the work he is doing. I'll be the first to admit this reading is facile and superficial; I'm having a hard time getting past the surface of the narration. I see a distinction between third-person narration of flawed characters (which I've seen recently with Saramago and with García Márquez), and this first-person narration -- with the former I had a much easier time putting myself into the story. Of course I may be projecting this reading, this difficulty, onto the text; I don't know if anybody else would have this reaction.
Sunday, February first, 2009
It strikes me midway through that I have been reading Senselessness wrong, that I have been reading it as "foreign" when actually it's a comic piece similar to other works I'm familiar with. I was expecting it for some reason to be more on the order of Innocent Voices but it's not that at all. Reminiscent of wartime slapstick like the first portion of Gravity's Rainbow? Not as fully realized as that, I think, and the narrator's misogyny really strikes me as off, in a way. Like it's impossible to sympathize with it unless it were being made fun of, and I sort of can't read where the author is coming from here.
But the powerful memory of that pearl of pus between my legs made me understand that this was an issue of first things coming first, that my strategy for repudiating Fátima could wait, and that first I had to stop the infection, so, swiftly, perhaps with the speed of one possessed, I made my way toward the enormous wooden door, crossed the filthy street teeming with beggars and street vendors, and entered the corner drugstore to find a pharmacist who could give me a prescription for the strongest possible penicillin to treat the disease I had caught.
Got my first real laugh in the book here -- kind of black comedy I'm thinking as I review the passage -- and clicked Oh, I see, this is a funny book not (or not only) a grim one...
...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, until my interlocutor knew all he wanted to know, in an exhaustive confession after which I would suffer the worst possible backlash.
(Wow, has Castellanos Moya spent much time in the blogosphere?...) I want to refine my previous declaration about this work being a dark comedy, and say instead that it does not fit into a genre. I'm a little surprised because it's such a brief book, it seems like too little space for such a lot to be going on. But each chapter now is changing how I want to categorize the book; so I think the best approach is to call it sui generis.
I just finished Senselessness -- nothing prepared me for those last sentences. Probably need to reread the book without the preconceptions I had going in.
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