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.