Best Translated Book 2008 Longlist: Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya
For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. (El Salvador1, New Directions)
I am not complete in the mind, said the sentence I highlighted with the yellow marker and even copied into my personal notebook, because this wasn’t just any old sentence, much less some wisecrack, not by any means, but rather the sentence that astonished me more than any other sentence I read that first day on the job, the sentence that most dumbfounded me during my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred single-spaced printed pages place on what would be my desk by my friend Erick so I could get some idea of the task that awaited me. I am not complete in the mind . . .
This is how Senselessness, the first of Moya’s books to make its way into English, opens. To give a bit of context: the narrator is a writer who has been hired to edit a 1,100-page report collecting testimonies from survivors of slaughtered Indian villages. “I am not complete in the mind” is one of the lines from this report that surfaces throughout the novel again and again, in a way sort of haunting the narrator who is actually trying to lead a normal life hanging out in bars, picking up women, etc., while working on this very disturbing project.
One of the things I found most interesting about this book was the quality of the excerpts from the 1,100-page report of atrocities. The bits are disturbing, but in a very poetic sort of way, which is one of the reasons the narrator writes a bunch down in his notebook:
You’re a poet, just listen to this beaut, I said before reading the first sentence, taking advantage of the marimba having just ended, and in my best declamatory voice, I read: Their clothes stayed sad . . . and then I observed my buddy, but he in turn looked back at me as if he were waiting, so I immediately read the second sentence in a more commanding tone of voice, if that were possible: The houses they were sad because no people were inside them . . . And then, without waiting, I read the third one: Our houses they burned, our animals they ate, our children they killed, the women, the men, ay! ay! . . . Who will put back all the houses? And I observed him again because by now he must have fathomed those verses that expressed to me all the despair of the massacres, but not to my buddy Toto, more of a landowner than a poet, as I sadly discovered, when I heard him mumble something like “Cool . . . ,” [. . .]
But as I wrote in my review this novel isn’t all violence and depressing stories—it actually has a number of very humorous sections (like the bit about a woman’s stinky feet) and is an incredibly human book.
And the Bernhardian rhythms of the prose are beautifully translated, absolutely drawing the reader into the narrator’s world.
Speaking of the translation, I had a chance to meet Katherine Silver last week at the MLA convention. She’s a remarkable translator—and very fun person—and told me about how she discovered Moya at the Guadalajara Book Fair. I can’t find an account of this online, but basically she said that someone gave her the book, and was blown away when she read it on the plane ride home, and decided that she absolutely had to translate it. And thankfully, Barbara Epler of New Directions (who has spectacular taste) picked it up.
And speaking of Katherine, Scott Esposito interviewed her for Bloomsbury Review, a magazine with a large circulation and completely dysfunctional website. Thankfully, the Center for the Art of Translation re-ran this interview on their site:
Scott Esposito: Now Moya is a big comma-user in Senselessness. To a large degree these commas regulate the pace of the sentences, and the sentences are always changing speed. If you compare Moya to someone like Proust of Henry James, these writers have long, elaborate sentences too, but their sentences always seem to move at the same speed, whereas with Moya we’re up and down depending on the narrator’s erratic consciousness. What was it like trying to reproduce this effect in English?
Katherine Silver: One thing we did, and this was Barbara Epler’s suggestion, we got rid of the serial commas. I liked that a lot because it made the adjective/noun combinations more fluid, like they were all one unit, and it let the comma be more of a pause in these long sentences. If we had cluttered up the book with things like serial commas I think we would have lost the impact of the punctuation.
SE: And do you feel like you were successful in keeping Moya’s rhythms?
KS: I think I was. This was the big challenge of the book, keeping Horacio’s rhythms, and I think it worked. It wasn’t the same rhythms as the Spanish obviously, but I think it mimics the effect. Whenever I see Horacio read the book out loud, I’m always very pleased. I can see him getting into a rhythm with the English, even though he’s not pronouncing the words quite right, he gets into his own rhythm and he seems to have an intuitive sense of the text. And whenever I see him read, it’s like a layering: it’s his work on the bottom, and them my translation, and then him again reading it—interpreting it, really—and drawing on both.
And as one of the big proponents for this novel when it first came out, Scott also published an interview with Moya in The Quarterly Conversation which includes a bit about the “snippets”:
Mauro Javier Cardenas: The snippets of testimony in Senselessness are taken from actual testimonies. You did some work for the human rights report where these testimonies come from. Could you talk about your experience in working with that report? I’m not trying to find out how autobiographical Senselessness is. I’m just wondering about that original experience that was later to become the starting point for the novel.
Horacio Castellanos Moya: What I did was a kind of editorial advisory work for a human rights organization toward the end of 1997 and the beginning of 1998. Back then I wrote in a notebook some of the phrases from the testimonies of the witnesses of the genocide, just as I always write in my notebooks phrases from the books I am reading that make an impression on me. . . . But it was not until six years later, in 2003, when I was planning to travel to Guatemala to find a journalistic job, that I began to browse my old notebooks, found those phrases, and told myself that there was a potential novel in them. I started working on it immediately.
MJC: I remember that when I was reading Senselessness for the first time those snippets of testimony seemed almost humorous to me because of their syntax. It was only when I finished the novel that the sadness of those testimonies began to sink in. They are like relics of a world completely foreign to me, a world that was being disappeared . . .
HCM: The force of those snippets arises from the pain and the desolation that they contain in a very concentrated way; it arises too from the sadness of a Mayan culture submitted to blood and fire for 500 years. The fact that those snippets have been said by people who could barely speak Spanish and who had a different vision of the world gives them their poetic character, and to me it also gave me the liberty to use them as a rich and malleable literary material.
1 This is sort of inaccurate. From the author bio: “Horacio Castellanos Moya was born in 1957 in Honduras, but grew up in El Salvador. He has lived in Guatemala, Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico (where he spent twelve years as a journalist, editor, and political analyst), Spain and Germany. . . . [He] is not living in exile as part of the City of Asylum project in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.