Horacio Castellanos Moya - Senselessness
An unnamed writer has been commissioned by the Catholic Church to investigate a series of massacres that have taken place over the last decade. The military is responsible, and worse, they remain in power and have not been taken to account for their horrific actions. The Church, rather than seek to lay blame – for the dictatorial regime of the country is far too powerful and entrenched for a mere document to do much good – wants to create a tangible archive of the massacres that a regular person could conceivably read and learn from. Enter the writer, and enter Horacia Castellanos Moya's brief novella of madness, violence, humour and sex.
In Senselessness, the writer lives on the cusp of madness, already teetering on the very first page, when his assignment has only just begun and he is still somewhat optimistic about the job and the five thousand dollars coming to him upon completion. “I am not complete in the mind” is a quote taken from an Indian who was forced to watch as soldiers chopped his four children into small pieces, and then, after he still wouldn't talk, did the same to his wife. As pages and pages of horror go by – roughly one thousand one hundred, though three hundred of those pages merely list the names of Indians who were killed – the writer begins to apply the Indian's sentence to himself as he accurately and, in one of Moya's many excellent touches, wittily, observes, comments upon, and wallows in his own breakdown.
There is much violence in the novel, but it is mostly told through the perspective of the writer's memory of what he has read, or from brief extracts he has seen fit to copy into a notebook. Like so many of the wars, the massacres, and the disasters that have befallen countries from virtually every continent in the decades since newspapers, television and the internet disseminated information at lightning speed, the truth of a death comes down to no more than a momentary frown, if that. A stubbed toe often causes a person more grief than the news of a thousand dead civilians in a faraway land, but those who experience tragedy closer to home necessarily forget as well. How significant it is that of all the characters in this novel, only the writer really learns the words and feelings of the people who were forced to go through such horror – nobody else knows, or cares, even though it happened in their country, and by their government. And who would read the Church's edited text, really? You?
That is not to say that Senselessness is a bleak and sombre little book. Not at all. If anything, this novel is a stronger piece of comedy than it is of horror. The writer is an exceptional character brought about through the strength of Moya's incredibly tight writing. He has written the writer as an exuberant, engaged, introspective and ever-embellishing observer, a man who is happy to write and write and write about the things happening around him. Sentences are typically long and full of clauses joined tenuously by commas. Dialogue is presented as information told by the writer, rather than delineated with dialogue marks. All of this has the effect of keeping us firmly inside the writer's mind as he edits the texts, goes to the pub and drinks beer, meets and has sex with girls, and attends a party. That's most of the novel summarised in a sentence, but the magnitude of the work comes through Moya's sharp focus. We are never away from the writer, we are always inside his mind, deeply inside, as he examines and observes. A typically constructed sentence reads: “Then I stood up and began to pace around the room, by now I was utterly possessed, my imagination whipped up into a whirlwind that in a split second carried me into the office of the aforementioned, at that hour of the night when nobody remained in the archbishop's palace except that Jorge fellow there in his office, supposedly poring over his accounts but really savoring the knowledge that he had shit on me, my humanity, so focused on that thought that he didn't hear me arrive and thus couldn't react when I stabbed him in the liver, a blow that made him fall to his knees, surprise and terror in his eyes, mouth gaping, his two hands trying to staunch the flow of blood from his liver, making him even more incapable of defending himself when I stabbed him a second time under his sternum, with even greater fury this time, such was my spite, my zealous arm plunging the knife again and again into the body of that arrogant Panamanian who had refused to pay my advance, until I suddenly found myself in the middle of my office imitating the furious movements of someone stabbing his worst enemy, of course without a knife in my hand, like a lunatic, as anyone suddenly and without warning who opened the door to my office, which I realized in disgust was unlocked, would have thought.” And on, and on, and on, it goes. Comedy mixed with violence, pages upon pages of similarly stylised writing.
This is a very funny book. When the writer is involved with first Pilar and then Fatima, her house-mate, we are presented with a serious of hilarious observations and reflections, most of which require too much context, and are too filthy in tone and language, to reproduce here. The writer is unashamedly sexual, and unashamedly self-absorbed, with his thoughts and observations turned so far inwards that he cheerfully admits to not knowing when Fatima has shifted from giving him oral sex to straddling him. Not only that, but the writer is so fascinated with the sparse, almost poetic language of the grief-stricken Indians that he excitedly quotes from his papers at the most inopportune times, amazed that others see not the beauty of the words but only the horror. Stop and think, Moya seems to be saying: There is a lesson to be learned from everything, and the lesson does not have to be only bad.
The novel unravels a little toward the end, as the girl's recede into the background and the writer completes his work. The ending – the last paragraph or so – ties all the ends together, and finishes the work satisfactorily, but there is a sequence of about ten pages or so when the writer is attacked by the military that seems unnecessary. In such a short novel (142 pages), a ten pages mistake is very large indeed, but the rest of the novel more than makes up for this error in judgement and execution. Katherine Silver's translation of Senselessness – the first of Horacia Castellanos Moya's works to be translated into English – is uniformly excellent, and one hopes that there are other works by Moya on their way. Only fifty, he published eight novels and counts as a far no less an author than Roberto Bolaño, the current poster-child for Latin and South American literature. After reading Senselessness, it is clear why. Strongly recommended.
Also by Horacio Castellanos Moya:
---Dance With Snakes
Bolaño, Roberto - The Savage Detectives
New Directions Publishing - Publicity Page
ReadySteadyBook - Review
The Quarterly Conversation - Review