Senselessness is the eighth novel by Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya and, remarkably, the first to appear in English. Moya has been hailed as El Salvador’s foremost novelist, and Senselessness, published in Spanish in 2004, took only four years to arrive in the States—not a bad track record, considering that Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, released here last fall, was first published in 1998.
A chaptered but nearly paragraphless 142 pages, Senselessness reads like a vicious, novella-length rant by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard—had Bernhard spent his developmental years drinking mescal in a corrupt, oppressively Catholic Latin America and having sex with passionate Spanish women. Bernhard’s influence is obvious, like Joyce’s influence on Flann O’Brien and J.P. Donleavy, but never burdensome. By filtering Bernhard’s addled consciousness through his own, and steeping it in the humidity of a thinly disguised Guatemala, the novel provides a kind of meta-analysis of the neurotic Austrian master—though it stands alone, too, as an innovative and invigoratingly twisted piece of art.
This is familiar terrain for Moya. In 1997, he published a book titled Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in El Salvador, an attack on Salvadoran life written with the same piqued intensity as Bernhard’s attacks on his homeland, and starring a fictional version of Bernhard himself. Its publication resulted in anonymous death threats to the author and his voluntary exile. Perhaps the ubiquity of such tactics in Central America left Moya unfazed, because Senselessness goes after a neighboring government in a similar way.
Senselessness‘s unnamed narrator has been saddled with the task of editing a 1,100-page report of atrocities committed against an indigenous community by the country’s military. Stationed in the archbishop’s palace, by day he copies particularly poetic, but always horrifying, lines down in his notebook (“There in Izote the brains they were thrown about, smashed with logs they spilled them“). By night he descends into severe paranoia under the report’s influence. His only respites are sex, a conveniently located cantina, and the unconsciously musical verse of the victims. Horror has bestowed them with silver tongues.
Moya is among the generation of south-of-the-border novelists who, like Bolaño, have rejected the stereotype of the rustic Latin American magical realist. There’s a worldly urbanity to Moya’s voice, as much a result of his city upbringing and extensive traveling—he’s lived in Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico, Spain, Germany, and parts of the U.S.—as it is of his European influences, which include Elias Canetti and the Swiss writer Robert Walser. In Senselessness, Moya nevertheless makes a few self-aware forays into the supernatural. Daydreaming in his office, the narrator conjures the plot of a novel centered around the ghost of a murdered civil registrar, then pre-emptively quips: “I am not a total stranger to magical realism.” This light-hearted irony is cut with literal graveyard humor. An itinerant journalist in Mexico and Central America, Moya has witnessed death of genocidal proportions, and he indicts the senseless massacres with scathing absurdism. When a lieutenant in charge of a torture chamber is promoted to chief of military intelligence, the narrator concludes: “Torture is the measure of intelligence in the military.”
Death, if extreme and graphic enough, can require a savage humorist’s touch if it’s to be viewable at all. How else to read about soldiers crushing babies’ skulls against ceiling beams, or living prisoners reduced to “a mass of bloody, rotten, purulent flesh, where the worms had already made their appearance”? If these scenes, painfully envisioned by the narrator as he reads the report, didn’t typically result in his diving into the pants of repressed “typical Spanish” girls—hilarious attempts to rub off the stain of death with sex—it’d be tough to keep reading. But Moya’s humor is too alluring. These wicked sexual escapades give off a kind of post-adrenaline-rush euphoria, relieving the stress of the accounts without trying to erase their memory.
The process by which the victims’ testimony gradually engulfs the narrator’s consciousness is Senselessness‘s most impressive achievement. His immersion in the report is so deep, and his imagination so unhinged, that he inevitably—and convincingly—identifies with both the tortured and the torturers. And yet the tragedy of mass death is overcome by Moya’s perverse sense of humor, as morbid and resilient as a laughing skull.