In the novels of Horacio Castellanos Moya, the political is personal
“It’s not possible to speak of intellectual life in El Salvador.” That’s what Joan Didion heard from a group of Salvadoran writers and professors, as they huddled together in the then safe (and soon to become unsafe) precincts of San Salvador’s Universidad Centroamericana, for an American Embassy-sponsored coffee hour in 1982, four years into the country’s 12-year civil war.
Two different presidents had moved troops into the National University campus — one forcibly shutting it down for two years, the other killing 50 students and systematically destroying facilities — even before the war had begun. During the war, professors were regularly disappeared if authorities took issue with their lessons. Outside the ivory towers, mutilated corpses were found each morning by roads, in parks, in a “lunar field of rotting flesh” known as El Playon. And in the countryside, the killings were truly unspeakable. In December 1981, to take but one example, the CIA-trained Atlacatl Battalion murdered 767 indigenous people, of whom 358 were infants and children under the age of 13. All in all, 70,000 Salvadorians were killed during the war, which made it difficult to speak about civilization let alone of intellectual life.