“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Book Review: Senselessness

By Horacio Castellanos Moya
New Directions

Horacio Castellanos Moya is an El Salvadorian author who currently resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvani, and has written eight novels in Spanish. His work has been praised by Roberto Bolaño and has received a variety of awards. Senselessness mirrors aspects of the author’s own life; it tells the story of an El Salvadorian writer who claims he has been forced to leave his own country for political reasons. He has fled to a neighbouring country (presumable Guatemala), and, out of work and desperate, the atheistic author has accepted a job with the Catholic Church editing a 1000-page report detailing the brutal massacre of indigenous people during Guatemala’s long civil war.
But style is at least as important as plot in Moya’s work. The prose is written in long, stream-of-consciousness sentences that recall the prose of the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard. Much of the novel’s first-person narrative comprises the narrator delineating all his own peccadilloes and anxieties in a process of endless self-reflection that recalls Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, Italo Svevo’s The Confessions of Zeno, and, for that matter, Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm.
That being said, our protagonist is not a particularly pleasant individual. Although he seems sympathetic enough at the beginning of the novel, we quickly learn that he has in fact not been ‘exiled’ at all, but rather fled from El Salvador as a result of making racist comments about the president in a magazine article. We watch his crass and deceitful attempts to seduce two women that he works with, although he is ultimately undermined by his own ineptitude. Indeed, his main interest in the reports of the Guatemalan massacres that he is editing lies in the poetic quality of the victim statements, which he believes he can use in his own writing (and, in this sense, the novel reflects on its own use of such atrocities for ultimately aesthetic ends).
But our narrator’s problems are not entirely imaginary, either. The 1000-page report is top-secret, and there are elements within the government who would happily silence everyone involved in its writing and publication by any means necessary. The anxiety and paranoia created by this editorial occupation ultimately overwhelms the narrator, until his actions become more and more unreasonable.
Senselessness is an unusual reading experience, and readers’ enjoyment of it will depend on their ability to tolerate the often-despicable main character, who can be vengeful, selfish and sex-obsessed. Moreover, many passages are charged with scatological language that might strike more conservative readers as prurient.
Katherine Silver who won a Penn award for translating this novel from Spanish, and you can see why: it would be a nightmare to translate these long and difficult sentences from their original Spanish, while retaining any amount of fidelity to the original. Ultimately, however, as a reader, you are nevertheless aware that you are reading a translation and not every passage feels fully realised in English.
Regardless, this is ultimately a deeply intriguing work by an important Central American author. Senselessness does depict an unlikable character, but also makes him human enough to keep the narrative compelling. Moreover the text deftly changes registers, shifting from absurdist comedy to beautiful evocations of the horrific events of the Guatemalan Civil War, resulting in an unusual and rewarding novel. Senselessness offers a sustained mediation on the relationship between individuals and greater political struggles, tinged with irony and wry humour.

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