In 2004, in an essay in the Mexican magazine Letras Libres, Horacio Castellanos Moya recalled how, on a rainy August afternoon in San Salvador in 1978, he and two friends, all three of them poets in their early 20s, were interrupted by a knock on the door as they put together the ninth issue of their literary magazine El Papo/Cosa Poética (The Jowl/Poetic Thing). The fat man in an untucked shirt who came to the door was looking for someone who didn’t live there, but the tone of his voice and the military jeep across the street told the true story–somehow the poets had attracted the attention of the secret police.
None of the three were involved in politics. In fact, they had started the magazine because they felt trapped between the right-wing extremism of El Salvador’s newspapers and the doctrinaire demands of the left-wing Latin American literary establishment. Their passions were literary, Modernist, even esoteric: they were reading poets like Pessoa, Michaux, Perse, Milosz, Montale, Pavese, in translations published in Argentina. And yet by the end of 1978, military death squads were blowing up the bookstores that sold poetry in translation, and the career paths for young writers had changed: instead of becoming journalists or professors or novelists, they could become organizers or guerrilla leaders or press agents for the revolutionary forces of the FMLN.
The shift came gradually, but as civil war took hold in El Salvador, it trespassed deep into not only the reality of everyday life but also the world of the imagination, of aspiration, of expectations. A day came when no one questioned the fact that poets carried Uzis in their backpacks, and that instead of Pessoa and Michaux they read Lenin and Clausewitz. Castellanos Moya’s friends became “proletarianized” and organized strikes. Castellanos Moya himself observed the early stages of this from afar. His family had the means to send him out of the country, and by February 1979 he was in Toronto, watching the war on television. Near the end of the year, he was back–letters had come pleading for him to return, Toronto was cold–but he felt, as he says in the Letras Libres essay, like an extraterrestrial, an alien in a world of war, terror, weapons and conspiracy.
The civil war, which ended in 1992, shaped Castellanos Moya’s life and his fiction, but it never seems to have conquered his imagination. Though most of his novels (there are now nine) revolve in some way around the war and its aftereffects, Castellanos Moya never assimilates or romanticizes the culture of violence, never loses his hyper-awareness of its strangeness. As a writer, he is at once highly sensitive to brutality and unsentimental about it. In the brilliantly funny and unsettling Senselessness, which in 2008 became his first novel to be translated into English, the narrator is a writer who has taken a job copy-editing an eleven-hundred-page human rights report on the massacre of Indians during the civil war in an unnamed Central American country, and who finds himself struck by the strange beauty of the language in which the victims describe the violence of their aggressors. The phrases he copies down migrate into his banal accounts of office politics and failed seductions, until gradually the horrors that the Indians describe leak into his consciousness and turn what was a mild case of the jitters into raging paranoia.
His paranoia is probably justified. He’s working for the Catholic Church, at an office in the archbishop’s palace in a shabby Central American capital, and he’s nervous about everything from his salary (will it be paid on time?) to the quality of the tap water to the motives of all kinds of suspicious-looking characters on the street. His twitchy fastidiousness, his cranky alienation from his surroundings and his perpetual sense of aggrievement make him a familiar character in Castellanos Moya’s fictional universe. He’s immersed in an interminable chronicle of war and terror, but he’s not ennobled by it or touched by the grandeur of tragedy. When he meets Joseba, the Spanish psychiatrist in charge of collecting the testimonies published in the report, he’s properly impressed, but his rambling profession of admiration quickly takes a number of absurd turns in which he first imagines Joseba shedding his “pellucid armor of a loyal knight-errant” in order to get it on with their co-worker Fátima, and ends up babbling about Prince Felipe of Spain and his Norwegian girlfriend (“I could practically taste that Nordic flesh, I told Joseba”).
The writer’s two obsessions are his own safety and the pursuit of sex (particularly with Fátima), and these preoccupations collide alarmingly when he finally gets Fátima into bed. In a hilarious sex scene, he is first jolted when Fátima asks him point-blank whether he’d like a blow job or a hand job and then revolted when she takes off her military boots, from which wafts a terrible stench. After a humiliating failure to complete the act, he’s disturbed by the revelation that her boyfriend is a major in the Uruguayan army, due to arrive in the country the next day, and he’s utterly terrified when Fátima explains that she’s honor-bound to tell him about their encounter.
The ignominy of the writer’s adventures and his pusillanimity stand in marked contrast to the macho attitudes of the so-called warriors who perpetrated the atrocities described in the report. This is subtly subversive, as is the protagonist’s whiny garrulousness. The narration of war crimes, whether in fiction or news reports, tends to come wrapped in a kind of reverence or hushed awe, or at the very least, a grave reserve. Such a tone shows a proper respect for the victims, but it can inadvertently dignify the crime, too. Here and elsewhere, Castellanos Moya deflates the rhetoric around the atrocities of war in Central America in order to reveal them as the squalid, shameful acts they really are.
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.
Castellanos Moya’s writing is plain and colloquial, even calculatedly artless. Often it achieves a pleasingly jittery, caffeinated rhythm, but the satisfaction of these novels is less in the prose than in their cleverness and the sharpness of their bite. And the no-frills language serves a purpose: it signals that nothing is hidden in the trappings of eloquence. Like Roberto Bolaño, who was a friend, Castellanos Moya is an anti-rhetorical writer, determined not to settle for smooth turns of phrase (though Bolaño’s oblique lyricism otherwise has little to do with Castellanos Moya’s bluntness). The plainness and the slang make his work tough going for translators, but both Katherine Silver and Lee Paula Springer acquit themselves admirably. Springer tackles the snake mayhem with relish and delicacy, and Silver (who also translated Senselessness) grapples valiantly with the chatty flow of The She-Devil in the Mirror, which is a monologue of the sort that makes translators tear their hair out.
The voice heard in The She-Devil in the Mirror is that of Laura Rivera, a vapid, canny Salvadoran society girl whose best friend has been murdered, shot in her own living room in front of her two daughters. Laura can’t imagine who could have wanted to kill Olga María, but she does know a lot about her friend’s life–particularly her ex-lovers, of whom it is soon revealed there were many. The killer has been dubbed RoboCop: he’s big, he’s tall, he has short hair and he walks like the movie character, according to one of Olga María’s daughters. The question is who hired him, and Deputy Commissioner Handal (here rendered as Deputy Chief Handal) is on the job again, looking to find out.
The novel’s real drama, however, revolves around Laura, as the title suggests. At first she comes across as gossipy and entertaining–superficial, yes (“Sergio’s car is such a pretty color, I love that lilac; I wanted one that color but BMW doesn’t make it”), and rude to the little people (“riffraff, my dear”), but goodhearted beneath it all. Only gradually does it become plain that her sense of what’s normal is very different from the generally accepted sense, and when it does, the reader’s recoil is almost physical. Corruption seeps from every pore of her perfect skin. She’s so steeped in it that it’s invisible, until certain unavoidable facts begin to surface.
The person Laura is most determined to defend from the persecution of Deputy Chief Handal is Gastón Berrenechea, nicknamed Yuca, a childhood friend and now “a VIP, you know, he owns a chain of superstores, and he’s a deputy in the government and a high-ranking party official.” Yuca was Olga María’s lover, though things didn’t go smoothly between them. Laura, playing the coy go-between (“I suggested he have a seat on the sofa next to me and tell me all about what had happened”), makes the unsettling discovery that Yuca has a problem with cocaine. But when gossip suggests that Yuca’s involvement with drugs goes beyond personal use, Laura is wildly indignant.
Both Yuca and Laura play cameo roles in another novel, El arma en el hombre (The Human Weapon, 2001), yet to be translated, which is a kind of companion piece to The She-Devil in the Mirror. Besides providing some revelatory information about Yuca’s drug connection, it tells the story of RoboCop, the killer for hire who shot Olga María. If Laura is the warped, glossy surface of Salvadoran society, RoboCop is the machinery beneath it. He learned his trade during the civil war, and when it ended he took work wherever he could get it. At first, he tries to maintain some semblance of loyalty to his army comrades, but he soon discovers that there are no sides anymore, just shifting alliances of old-money landowners, politicians and drug lords, among whom there is always someone willing to pay good money to have someone else killed.
El arma en el hombre, like The She-Devil in the Mirror, is a conspiracy theorist’s delight, a kind of fairy tale of corruption (including lovely visions of poppy fields). Every murder is a sinkhole that leads down to some crime kingpin, and the network of connections is dizzyingly complex. And yet to invoke conspiracy theory suggests that crime is always some kind of puzzle complete with a solution, no matter how byzantine. What Castellanos Moya’s novels really capture is a world in which answers are essential, but often surreal; in which a series of terrible crimes might lead to a drug lord but also to a crazy man in league with four lady snakes. His characters are people who have somehow internalized these circumstances and adapted to them, with disfiguring results, or who, like the protagonist of Senselessness, become nervous wrecks, every fiber of their being vibrating in apprehension of countless looming threats.
Castellanos Moya has turned anxiety into an art form and an act of rebellion, and redeemed paranoia as a positive indicator of rot. Despite his estrangement from his country and his merciless criticism of it, he has put El Salvador on the literary map, giving it an international existence independent from the front-page news. If the university in El asco is stripped of its literature department, Castellanos Moya has tried to restore it. And he has done so by patiently, repeatedly and inventively exposing the grotesqueness of attitudes and behavior that have become normalized in countries where brutality and corruption are daily fare. To read Dance With Snakes or The She-Devil in the Mirror is–in a small way–to understand how Castellanos Moya felt when he returned to El Salvador on the cusp of civil war: like an extraterrestrial in the country he called home.