Novelist From Another Planet: On Horacio Castellanos Moya
Senselessness is one of Castellanos Moya's more recent novels, published in Spanish in 2004. Translations of two earlier novels have just been issued in the United States: Dance With Snakes (1996) and The She-Devil in the Mirror (2000). Both of them are vintage Castellanos Moya, written around the same time as the as-yet-untranslated novel that made his name in Latin America, El asco: Thomas Bernhard en San Salvador (Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, 1997). After his brief return to El Salvador in 1979, Castellanos Moya spent most of the war years abroad, primarily in Mexico City. He ran a press agency for the FMLN for a few years, but violence within the ranks of the guerrilla forces and a hardening of revolutionary ideology caused him to disassociate himself from the movement. As the war was winding down, he returned to San Salvador, where he started a magazine and then a weekly newspaper, earnestly seeking to support the transition to peace and create a cultural framework for democracy. The failure of the newspaper in 1995 for lack of funding was the backdrop against which Castellanos Moya wrote El asco. Upon its publication, he received death threats and was forced to leave the country.
El asco is a 119-page rant, a no-holds-barred Bernhardian monologue delivered by Edgardo Vega, a Salvadoran living in exile who has returned briefly to the country and finds it execrable in every way. Vega, an art historian at McGill University in Canada, directs his remarks to a writer called Moya, a childhood friend who's trying to start a new kind of newspaper. Vega hates absolutely everything about El Salvador, from its most popular politician (a "criminal psychopath") to its capital ("it has all the poverty and filth of the great cities and none of their virtues") to its monuments (the "Monument to Our Distant Brother" reminds him of a giant urinal). In general, the excretory functions are frequently referenced: pupusas and the local beer give him diarrhea.
One of the larger points Vega makes is that El Salvador is a nonexistent country, at least artistically: "no one's heard of it, nobody born here exists in the world of art unless it's because of politics or crime." On the world stage, El Salvador is notable solely for the brutality of its civil war and the corruption of its government. And the country itself has no interest in literature or history. "This is an oral culture, Moya...a culture that leapt from the most horrendous illiteracy to an absorption with the idiocy of the television, a deadly leap, Moya, this culture skipped right over the written word, it simply missed the centuries in which humanity developed through the written word." As if to make Vega's point for him, a university in San Salvador has eliminated its literature department, and none of the city's universities offer courses in history.
This is hyperbole, of course, but Castellanos Moya has talked more earnestly, too, about how hard it is to write in a region where violence and crime have created a landscape of brutality and impunity. The headline news can't be ignored, but at the same time it's hard to make use of it in a convincing fictional way. In a lecture given at the University of Paris in 2007, he cited a favorite tactic of the Mexican drug cartels--decapitating informers and leaving their severed heads outside police stations--as an example of a real act of violence that's too extreme to be credible as fiction. And yet this is the kind of material that's been thrust upon him. Maybe it's not the beat he would have chosen--the reader can't help but get that sense--but his wry outrage (at the crimes committed, as well as at his assignment as their chronicler) serves him well as a writer.
El asco struck a nerve not just in El Salvador but across Latin America. Photocopies of it were circulated where the printed book wasn't available, and in an interview with Castellanos Moya (published in the online journal The Quarterly Conversation, which does an admirable job of covering literature in translation), Mauro Javier Cardenas notes that everyone in Mexico City seemed to be reading it in the late 1990s. More than ten years after its publication, it is taught in at least one Salvadoran university, but it continues to be reviled in the Salvadoran press.
If El asco is a torrent of inspired vitriol, Dance With Snakes is an extra helping of venom. It's Castellanos Moya's only overtly fantastical novel, and a different kind of revenge fantasy. Instead of working the intellectual angle, it goes for the jugular. Eduardo Sosa is an unemployed graduate in sociology who develops a fascination with a yellow Chevrolet parked on his street. The windows of the car are covered with cardboard, and its inhabitant, a grimy individual called Jacinto Bustillo, emerges only at night. Shortly after befriending Bustillo, Sosa stabs him to death in an alleyway and takes possession of the Chevrolet. He feels strangely comfortable in Bustillo's smelly hideout, where he's surprised to discover four poisonous but friendly snakes in residence. Beti, Loli, Valentina and Carmela--ladies all--fill him in on Bustillo's story. Before Bustillo took to the streets, he was a prosperous accountant, but then he began an affair with his secretary and her husband had her killed.
Curious, Sosa sets out to visit Bustillo's former wife and his lover's husband, but he and the ladies get sidetracked by a visit to the mall. The snakes are thirsty for action, and guards and wealthy customers are slain left and right. A stop at the market in the city center is even more deadly: the ladies slither through the stalls, leaving behind dozens of bodies. Sosa knifes Bustillo's wife and then moves on to check out Raúl Pineda, the husband who had Bustillo's lover killed. After a temporary setback and another snake attack (plus a giant fireball) at a fancy Esso station, Sosa and his snakes massacre Pineda and a roomful of his friends, who turn out to be narcotics agents partying with bags of dope.
By this point, Deputy Commissioner Handal is on the case, and the novel turns into a police procedural. Handal is one of the many recurring characters in Moya's novels (he'll show up again in The She-Devil in the Mirror); another is Rita Mena, an ambitious reporter for the newspaper Ocho Columnas. In the fictional climate that Castellanos Moya conjures up, the idea that there are policemen and reporters who go about their business in a more or less efficient way is almost harder to believe than the possibility that four talking snakes and a rogue sociologist might terrorize a city. In fact, the snake attacks come to seem almost plausible--just another tabloid horror tale--that is, until the lurid, outrageous denouement, which begins with a dose of marijuana-inffused snake-flesh soup and ends with a graphic episode of man-snake love.
The snakes are a living, writhing embodiment of the paranoia that Castellanos Moya so often channels. Nothing could be as terrifying and unpredictable (and faintly ridiculous) as a gaggle of poisonous snakes. In the novel, all of San Salvador lives in fear of a new attack. Even Rita Mena, the tough reporter, is spooked by a false sighting of a yellow Chevrolet ("'The snakes!' she shouts. 'They're coming!'"). Precisely because they're so ludicrous and so terrible, they're the perfect stand-in for real-life violence that's too extreme to be credibly portrayed in fiction. And Sosa might easily stand for those Salvadorans who were seduced by the culture of violence during the war; who took on new wartime identities (everyone assumes it's Bustillo who's committing the crimes); and who resume their civilian lives in the end, with no repercussions.