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.
El Salvador’s civil war ended in 1992, but the subsequent impunity-for-all peace deal allowed killers to walk free and take up positions in the government and private security companies. What’s worse, a thicket of violent gangs — Barrio 18, La Mara Salvatrucha, Miranda Lakes 13 — gangs which formed in Southern California, and whose leaders were deported by Congress in the early ‘90s, have spread across the country and created an atmosphere where “violence [and] death,” as the extraordinary journalist Oscar Martinez puts it, are “always close at hand.” Indeed the gangs are so powerful that government officers are afraid to speak out against them. Their effect on Salvador’s culture has been similarly disastrous. Today, young boys regularly drop out of school to become killers for this or that leader. Then they end up in overcrowded jails where prisoners are housed like poultry. The numbers are startling: over 50,000 Salvadorians are directly involved in gangs, and another 50,000 are economically dependent on them. This, from a population of six million.
In short, it remains impossible to speak about intellectual life in El Salvador. Or at least that's what the protagonist of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novel Revulsion believes. And his consequent rage, conveyed by Moya as a neurotic rant, calls attention to the impotence and anger of thinking types who live in societies that have no use for them.
Horacio Castellanos Moya was born in Honduras in 1957, and grew up in neighboring San Salvador. He was a young poet and editor there in the late 70s when, as with so many other Latin American writers of his generation, a civil war sent him into exile.
Fiction, unlike journalism, has allowed Moya to express the frustration and existential terror of living in a society thoroughly permeated by violence. The subject has become an obsession for him. Of his six novels translated into English, four are narrated by isolated individuals struggling against ultra-violent societies.
Faced with an inhuman world, Moya’s characters retreat within themselves—into their dreams, their insecurities, their petty desires. If their interiority is inflated to grand enough proportions, they intuit, the terrors of the real world will fade away. It does not, of course. These solipsists may renounce the world, but the world does not renounce them. Hounded by a reality then deny, Moya’s characters finally internalize their circumstances, interpreting external or political terror as a private vendetta. Prudent fear becomes obsessive paranoia (because its cause isn’t recognized). Pity and sorrow coalesce into a hatred of the world (pity embraces reality; hatred rejects it.) It’s not that they overreact — circumstances are often worse than they imagine — rather that they isolate themselves in personal nightmares instead of inhabiting the collective nightmare that is El Salvador.
In 2008’s Senselessness, for example, an alcoholic novelist is hired to edit 1100 pages of survivors’ accounts of massacres in Indian villages. (The country and massacres remain unidentified, but all signs point towards Guatemala). In a dark irony, he is less affected by the injustices and barbarity the report details — a Cakchiquel man watched “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…” — and more with the poetic language in which the Indians express their anguish. He even copies down the best sentences to latter use in a literary collage. In general, the novelist maintains a caustic indifference towards the Indians. (He thinks more about sex than about their massacres.) So why does he suffer an emotional collapse mid-way through his project?
…the first sentence my eyes lit upon was With only sticks and knives they killed those twelve men they talk about there, followed by a short statement that struck me as lethal—it said, They grabbed Diego Nap Lopez and they grabbed a knife each officer giving him a stab or cutting off a small slice…. — but suddenly my fury grew into a paroxysm of rage…a rage focused on the Panamanian who was to blame for my not getting paid in0 advance, who did that shit-face think he was?
Unable to deny his emotions, but unwilling to accept their cause, the novelist re-directs his rage toward the only concern a solipsist can accept: him own. This sort of tragicomic emotional sublimation occurs throughout Moya’s books, and it prevents his characters from making useful political or personal commitments. It also gives his books a weird narrative tension. Moya’s plotted revelations drive us forward, but his underground protagonists’ denials hold us back.
2009’s She-Devil In The Mirror is narrated by Laura Rivera, a right-wing, relentlessly superficial, telanovela-obsessed socialite, whose best friend has just been murdered. Throughout her account of the crime and its aftermath, Rivera ignores the violence, corruption, and impunity that surround her, and instead channels her fear into vicious gossip about the physical appearance, sexual capabilities, wealth, and general class of all those involved. Here she is introducing a potential suspect:
Look who has just arrived, my dear, Gaston Berrenchea himself, the one and only Yuca, look how handsome he is, and just as charming as ever, always so elegant, look how impeccably dressed he is, in that suit with that tie, beautiful…
The murder could have opened Rivera’s eyes to the pervasive danger that less-fortunate Salvadorians face everyday. But it does not. She remains wedded to her now-deflated class bubble. When reality sneaks through Rivera’s consumerist defenses, it manifests itself first as paranoia, then as an emotional breakdown.
Erasmo Aragon, the narrator of Moya’s most sophisticated novel, The Dream of My Return is also in danger of an emotional breakdown, but for very different reasons. An existentially disturbed Salvadoran journalist-in-exile, Aragon is thoroughly convinced that returning home will cure him of all his troubles. This is a complete delusion. Though El Salvador’s civil war is about to end, he cannot imagine how peace or the thuggish left can revitalize the failed state. Still, Aragon maintains belief in a prodigal return; he uses it as a mystical solution to all the real problems he is ignoring: a failing marriage, a dead-end career, social isolation. What emerges is an under-stated metaphor. Aragon’s future, like post-war El Salvador’s, is predicated on a false and neurotic hope.
In their form (furious rant), their black humor (I had to leave the library because Dream of My Return made me laugh so much) and their staging of a struggle between neurotic characters and evil societies, Moya’s novels have always resembled those of Thomas Bernhard. The similarity isn’t circumstantial. Early in his career, Moya wrote a novella in homage to the great cantankerous Austrian. Subtitled “Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador,” Revulsion was written as an exercise in style. “I would pretend to imitate Thomas Bernhard,” Moya noted in a later edition’s afterward:
As much in his prose based on cadence and repetition in his themes, which contain a bitter critique of Austria and its culture…I wanted to demolish the culture and politics of San Salvador, same as Bernhard had done with Salzburg, with the pleasure of diatribe and darkness.
The novella had quite an impact upon publication—both good and bad. On the bad side, it won Moya death threats in El Salvador and consequently forced him into exile. (Who said books don’t matter?) On the good side, it won him overnight cult literary status in Latin America, and also praise from Roberto Bolaño, who called him “The only writer of my generation who knows how to narrate the horror, the secret Vietnam that Latin America was for a long time.” Now that Lee Klein has translated it into English, we Anglophones can partake in the savagery.
An 83-page long unbroken paragraph of vituperation, Revulsion unfolds, like Bernhard’s Old Masters, as a second-person rant delivered to our narrator—a writer of “famished little stories” with the last name Moya, who has returned to San Salvador from Mexico to start a newspaper — by Edgardo Vega, another Salvadoran expat. An art historian at McGill University in Montreal, Vega left Salvador 18 years ago, and has returned there only — he stresses that only — to attend his mother’s funeral. Unlike so many others, Vega did not leave for political reasons. For him, it was a simple matter of hate. “I’ve been away from this country for eighteen years and for eighteen years I haven’t missed any of this,” he tells Moya:
because I was precisely fleeing from this country…I was born in the worst country of all, the stupidest, the most criminal, I could never accept it, Moya, which is why I went to Montreal well before the war began, I didn’t leave as an exile, not in search of better economic conditions, I left because I never accepted the macabre joke of being destined to be born in this place.
It’s a startling outburst — the sort of thing that could get you arrested in today’s Iran or Russia or India — but Vega is only warming up. Over two rounds of drinks (Moya and Vega are at a bar) he proceeds to attack every aspect of Salvadoran life: from its political situation, to its terrible recent history, to its intellectual decline, to its artistic irrelevance, all the way down to its food and drinking habits. Indeed Revulsion is less a monologue and more a conveyor belt of Salvadoran subjects paraded through for demolition.
What results is a mixture of high comedy and hushed tragedy. When the subjects are silly—there’s a long tirade against Salvador’s Pilsner beer — we simply laugh with (and perhaps at?) Vega. But he also expresses much authentic suffering masked as anger. Vega’s suffering, as you would expect from a professor, largely deals with Salvador’s collective intellectual suicide. Here he is describing a local rock concert:
The majority [have] a look in their eyes intending to make it clear they’re capable of murdering you at the least provocation, for them the act of murdering you doesn’t have the least importance, really they’re hoping you give them the opportunity to demonstrate that they’re capable of murdering you, said Vega…it’s not that how much cash you have is above all other values, that’s not what it means, Moya, it means that there’s no other value, another value beyond this doesn’t exist, clear and simple, it’s the only value that exists. Which is why…I don’t understand how it could have occurred to you to come to this country, to return to this country, to settle here, it’s truly absurd if you’re interested in writing literature, this demonstrates that really you’re not interested in writing literature, no one interested in literature could opt for a country as degenerate as this, where no one reads literature, where the few who could read, never read it; just to give you an idea, Moya, the Jesuits discontinued the literature major in the university because no one reads literature……
Rancorous anger notwithstanding, there is dark poignance behind this passage’s logic. We know from the relevant statistics and journalism that Vega’s fears about the murderous thugs are not exaggerated. Since death is worse than just about everything else, his invective against the thugs should logically be the end of his argument. But Vega is an art-loving intellectual. What most upsets him is the loss of values and culture, not the loss of life, precipitated by the growth in violence.
This is a selfish and amoral judgment. But it is not without appeal. Amidst the vast, senseless and seemingly unsolvable violence of Salvador, Vega’s anger — like a certain presidential candidate’s — represents an oasis of comprehension. It may be cruel, yes, but at least we get it.
Just as we get why he is so angry about his education (“No one can maintain their lucidity after having studied eleven years with the Marist Brothers, no one can become the least bit thoughtful after enduring an education at [their] hands”), about the University of El Salvador (“I couldn’t imagine anything so disgraceful, it seemed like a refugee camp in Africa”), about pupusas (“there’s nothing fattier, more harmful for your health than pupusas, nothing filthier and more detrimental”), about Latin American folk music (“weepy”) and about countless other things that we know, not that deep down, are petty and inconsequential. We get Vega’s various hatreds and even applaud him for voicing them. Unlike everyone else, he seems willing to call a spade a spade. But therein lies the con.
At its best, anger drives people to action. It expresses what others feel but are too ashamed to express. Vega’s anger, however, does not give shape to a common reality. In fact, it does the opposite. By democratizing his anger — channeling it equally at pupusas and death squads — Vega renders the details of reality irrelevant. It’s all bad, he implicitly argues. There’s no hope, nothing worth looking at. This is a typically bourgeois complacency. And in truth, Vega is finally just desperate to prove that he is better than other Salvadorans. Decades ago, Eduardo Galeano recognized the same tendency in certain upper-class Latin American intellectuals:
If reality doesn’t change [the intellectuals believe] at the pace I want, I won’t wait: from this moment on, I ‘pass’ on politics. The ‘popular masses’ rapidly become ‘those shitty people’ when they fail to follow the path that intellectuals have cut out for them. If the world doesn’t act like me, neither does it deserve me.
Moya himself is aware of all this. Throughout Revulsion, he calls attention to Vega’s elitism and cowardliness. And in book’s final scene, which involves Vega almost losing his Canadian passport at a nasty brothel (“I have never seen filthiness like this concentrated in such a small place…”) his fundamental escapism is revealed:
Terror overwhelmed me, Moya, terror pure and shocking: I saw myself trapped in this city forever, unable to return to Montreal; I saw myself converted again into a Salvadoran…That passport is my most valuable possession, Moya, there’s nothing else I more obsessively care for than my Canadian passport.
As soon as Vega faces real danger, his imperious anger turns to groveling. For his is not a useful, reality-changing anger, but one based on denial. The guy sounds like a peevish diplomat with a crappy third-world posting. The passport represents his existential, not just his geographical, inclination to escape.
From an artistic perspective, I don’t know if Moya’s getting the best returns on his talent. Anger, however appropriate, can achieve only so much when transmuted into fiction. To cite Galeano again: One only betrays reality by copying it. (This is Bernhard’s drawback too. And it takes nothing away from either of their high stylistic achievements.) From a political perspective, however, Revulsion has a lot to teach us. As evil clowns ascend across the first world, it’s likely that many western intellectual will suffer a (heightened) political helplessness. Vega (and Moya) show us the pitfalls of angry sublimation. It may be a gift, and it is very comforting, but lonely anger won’t help you in the end. Abscond from reality and there are only two places you can go: underground or Canada.