10 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Contemporary Latin American literature in translation abounds with words of posthumous support from Roberto Bolaño, a blurber par excellence for a generation of writers only now being ushered into the Anglo-American canon, in some cases two decades after first being published.

The mild absurdity of this gold standard, against which the works of many of his contemporaries are set, is hardly lost on his friend Horacio Castellanos Moya, who wrote a 2009 article for Argentina’s La Nacion, “Bolaño Inc.,” that began: “I told myself I wasn’t going to write or say anything more about Roberto Bolaño.”

Bolaño, for his part, wrote, or perhaps said, one of the more salient and lingering points one could make about Castellanos Moya calling him: “The only writer of my generation who knows how to narrate the horror, the secret Vietnam that Latin America was for a long time.”

The praise, like most pithy promotional quotes, is perhaps an overstatement, but hardly an invalid one, as Castellanos Moya’s excellent new creation, Tyrant Memory makes clear.

Set over the course of one month in 1944, with a concluding chapter taking place twenty nine years later, the novel’s backdrop is the failed military coup against Salvadoran President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, a sympathizer of European Fascism and casual mystic whose legacy of human rights abuses is frequently recounted by way of his assertion that it is better to kill a man than to kill an ant. The man will be reincarnated, the ant won’t.

The novel—which, it should be noted, is set during the nascent days of Latin America’s “secret Vietnam”—opens with the diary entries of Haydée, a housewife whose husband Pericles, a political journalist, has just been imprisoned for writing an article criticizing the government of Martinez, or as he is more commonly referred to throughout the novel, the Warlock. It is the eve of an anticipated coup and Haydée is certain that the impending fall of the Warlock will ensure her husband’s safe return. Instead the failed attempt on his life leaves her family in shambles, in large part to due her bumbling eldest son Clemens, who prematurely announces the Warlock’s death on national radio. Needless to say, Clemens is very soon public enemy number one.

The novel is built on two alternating narratives, moving from Haydée’s chatty diary entries to a far more streamlined, and slapstick, account of Clemens going into hiding. This pairing can read as a warped sort of he-said-she-said, whereby no one actually knows what anyone said. Both narratives are so thoroughly built upon hearsay, gossip and speculation that each serves as a highly adulterated, though hardly unfulfilling, accompaniment to the other.

Haydée, who remains in San Salvador after the failed coup, becomes active in organizing protests on behalf of the Committee of the Families of Political Prisoners. Together with several other women, the wives and mothers of prisoners, she participates in a thwarted street protest that ends with gunfire and becomes increasingly active in a clandestine network of citizens planning a general nationwide strike.

Clemens and his cousin Jimmy meanwhile are on the run from the National Guard, who have begun capturing and assassinating anyone complicit in the coup. Together the pair leaves the city shortly after Holy Week. Disguised as a priest and sacristan they make their way to the home of a man named Mono Harris, an American of unspecified profession who has access to airplanes, arms and a few leaked bits of military intelligence.

There are several American characters in Tyrant Memory, not least of which is Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who is known only by name, and his Yankee government and air force are popularly considered the only hope ending the Warlock’s tenure. Their presence in the region is taken for granted as a source of arms and military training and their influence on the Martinez administration, historically an easy proxy in efforts to staunch any semblance of communism in Central America, proves a vital source of life support.

Castellanos Moya is an especially adept writer of dialogue and stream of consciousness narration, and this skill is put to good use in Haydée’s diary entries as she recounts, if not quite the facts, then a certain colloquial spread of information and interpretation, for example rumors of U.S. intervention.

The day began with excellent news. Mingo dropped by the house to find out how Pericles is doing, and he took the opportunity to tell me that the Americans have already firmly turned their back on the general, yesterday the ambassador rejected the government’s proposal for the United States to send officers to reorganize the air forces, which was virtually dismantled after the attempted coup. “Such a rejection means they’ve lost all trust in the government,” Mingo explained to me with great excitement. I went straight to Father with the news. He told me he’d speak with Uncle Charlie to confirm. By noon everybody had heard that “the man” is being left out in the cold.

In the voice and words of Haydée, Castellanos Moya is able to nearly erase his presence as author. The narration is so casual it is almost audible, and revelatory in a manner that seems believably incidental, which, of course it is not. Castellanos Moya’s greatest triumph as a fiction writer is to recreate the daily ambiance of life at the margins of crisis. Though his novels often draw on political circumstance, they are not blindly or overtly concerned with the mechanics of politics.

Tyrant Memory is a novel about impression and interpretation, about the reading of an ambiguous reality, a reality that is distinctly Latin American, if one is inclined to heed Bolaño. Castellanos Moya’s fiction could be described as surreal, but only because reality is always so close but always unreadable: an eye test readers and characters likely fail before being told they need glasses they can’t afford.

This is an impressive affect for an author to replicate, and even more so to replicate more than once. Previous novels published in English by New Directions (Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror) and Canada’s Biblioasis (Dance with Snakes) bear the distinction of narrators with untrustworthy relationships to discernable, factual life. Together the novels cover a territory that range from the lucid and disturbing—the mass murder of an indigenous population in Senselessness—to the truly bizarre—a transient’s sexual relationship with five talking female snakes in Dance with Snakes.

Castellanos Moya’s narrators share a removed position on the periphery of their respective social circumstances, which is pretty apt coming from a writer who has lived much of his adult life in exile. Haydée, as a woman, is excluded from the realm of politics that has consumed her family. Deeply aware of her loss, she is never quite certain of what that emptiness entails, as when a friend asks for news of Clemens.

She wanted to know if I had heard anything she hadn’t. I told her the men in my family and Pericles’s family share the opinion that life-and-death secrets should not be shared with women, so I was totally in the dark. I returned home even more unsettled, and still now, after writing down all the events of the day, anxiety is gnawing away at me inside, as if something important were happening right next to me without my being aware.

Haydée’s diary, for all its impressionistic qualities, is not always engaging. Which may in fact be further proof of Castellanos Moya’s skill as a ventriloquist as he guides us through the subtle development of his character. The entries begin with an intimate jumble of names, relations and social engagements, the details of which can be easily lost, and at perhaps little cost. But by the novel’s end Haydée’s involvement with political action has increased and become more deliberate, more compelling.

The sections devoted to Clemens and Jimmy are told at more of a distance as the dimwitted Clemens provokes the ire of his cousin. Their buffoonery—Clemens is always on the verge of messing everything up as he lets a love of booze and his libido get in the way of every near escape—is at times a welcome respite from the steady, and sometimes overwhelming, hum of Haydée’s note taking.

This mosquito-in-the-ear quality, annoying though it can become, is hardly without foresight or merit, because it ultimately proves a far more insightful impression of a period in El Salvador’s history, than the military men’s antics.

As the husband of one of Haydée’s friends puts it to her, government ministers are “afraid of what people will do to them if the general is toppled, so they send their wives out to spread rumors about them wanting to resign, but once they’re face-to-face with the Warlock they start shaking in their boots.”

The final chapter, which takes place during one day in 1973, is narrated by the husband of Haydée’s best friend, a man named Chelón who has until now been a peripheral but constant presence. It is worth noting that it is only here, in the last fifty pages of the novel, that the reader’s given a physical description of Haydée and told the full details of her life. Neither are especially remarkable, save for the fact that in the absence of these typically requisite details, Haydée has managed to become a fully formed character with her isolated voice alone.

Which makes it all the more disappointing, though perhaps not surprising, when Chelón dismisses Haydée as “a woman from a conservative family who doesn’t fully understand her husband’s decisions . . .” Fair enough, but this slight begs the question—to what extent does that matter when she is the one narrating the fallout?

Castellanos Moya can be a brilliant practitioner of edge of collapse, culling searing narratives of exile and estrangement. Tyrant Memory can be a tiring novel, and it is not always a lucid one, but these attributes may in fact be the greatest of its many achievements. Because inherent to the fog of tyranny is an opaque and exhausting search for information and answers, for the elusive logic behind fickle oppression. Readers are well served with Castellanos Moya as a guide.

9 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next activities, we just posted an interview with Horacio Castellanos Moya about Tyrant Memory:

Chad W. Post: How does Tyrant Memory compare to the other works of yours that have been translated into English? It seems to revolve around similar political themes.

Horacio Castellanos Moya: Tyrant Memory belongs to a group of novels that deal with members of the Aragon family. And indeed, through the personal and family problems of these characters, you can grasp some intense historical moments in Central America. This is the first of that group of novels that has been translated into English.

One difference between Tyrant Memory and the other three works of mine that have been translated into English is that most of Tyrant Memory doesn’t take place in contemporary El Salvador, but in April and May of 1944, when there was a failed military coup d’etat and then a successful general strike to put and end to a 12-year dictatorship. Politics is all around, of course, but you see it through the eyes of a conservative, catholic, 44-year old lady, and to be more precise, through her diary, where she writes down whatever happens to her since her husband was put in jail for being a journalist who supports the opposition. And this is another difference: the main characters of the other three novels are a little bit out of their minds, deeply affected by violence; in Tyrant Memory, Haydee (the main character) is ruled by common sense and strong moral principals.

CWP: “Ruled by common sense”? This seems like a sharp diversion from the (justifiably) paranoid narrator of Senselessness, or the crazed protagonist killer in Dance with Snakes, or even Laura Rivera from She-Devil. How did you like writing a (somewhat?) sane character?

HCM: It was a challenge. I had to dig deep in myself in order to grasp the mentality and the voices of those conservative, common-sensed ladies that I have met along my life. The challenge was to do it without bias, trying to see the world through their eyes. Once I got the voice, it demanded me a lot of control to keep it. It was exhausting, but I enjoyed it.

Click here to read the rest of the interview.

7 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next focus on Tyrant Memory, here’s a link to the recording of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s appearance here in Rochester.

This took place last year, so it predates Tyrant Memory, but touches on some similar themes and is one of the best RTWCS events we’ve put on. (In my opinion.)

Enjoy, and check in tomorrow for a written interview with Horacio about the new book . . .

6 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on my last post, it’s a pleasure to announce that the first Read This Next selection is Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Tyrant Memory, which is translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver and available later this month from New Directions.

I’ve been a fan of Horacio’s ever since I read Senselessness, an absolutely stunning book about a man hired to edit a 1,100-page report of the atrocities committed by the military against the indigenous population. It’s haunting and beautiful and tight and paranoid. (See this review for more detailed info.)

Since that time, Biblioasis published his novel Dance with Snakes and New Directions did She-Devil in the Mirror. Although Senseless still stands supreme in my mind, both of those books are extremely interesting and cemented Horacio’s reputation as one of today’s most exciting and talented authors.

So when we decided to create Read This Next it seemed absolutely perfect to kick things off with Horacio’s new book, Tyrant Memory. This novel is a bit different than the others that have come out in English translation, mostly because it features three different narrators and styles. (The other three books are all first-person narratives.) It’s a “bigger” book in some senses, seeing that it deals with the coup and strike that lead to the overthrow of the Warlock, Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez in 1944.

Here’s New Direction’s jacket copy:

The tyrant of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s ambitious new novel is the actual pro-Nazi mystic Maximiliano Hernández Martínez — known as the Warlock — who came to power in El Salvador in 1932. An attempted coup in April, 1944, failed, but a general strike in May finally forced him out of office. Tyrant Memory takes place during the month between the coup and the strike. Its protagonist, Haydée Aragon, is a well-off woman, whose husband is a political prisoner and whose son, Clemente, after prematurely announcing the dictator’s death over national radio during the failed coup, is forced to flee when the very much alive Warlock starts to ruthlessly hunt down his enemies. The novel moves between Haydée’s political awakening in diary entries and Clemente’s frantic and often hysterically comic efforts to escape capture. Tyrant Memory — sharp, grotesque, moving, and often hilariously funny — is an unforgettable incarnation of a country’s history in the destiny of one family.

You can access the online preview of Tyrant Memory by clicking here, and you can purchase the book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound, and Powell’s at those links.

Enjoy!

9 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If you haven’t already come across it, Sampsonia Way is a relatively new web magazine, with a really cool back story:

In the summer of 2004, Huang Xiang became the first writer in City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s exiled writer-residency program. He immediately made his mark on the city, figuratively and literally, by covering the façade of his residency house on Sampsonia Way with calligraphies of his poetry. This remarkable artwork, called “House Poem,” became an instant landmark celebrating the freedom to write. Since then, it has attracted thousands of visitors and inspired many poets.

Huang Xiang’s “House Poem” motivated City of Asylum/Pittsburgh to create additional writer-residencies on Sampsonia Way, each a rehabbed single-family home with text-based artworks on the facade. Sampsonia Way (in reality, a long, narrow, hodge-podge of an alley) is now a “public library” of “house publications” that you can read any time just by walking down the street.

Anyway, the July issue is available in full online, but to supplement that, yesterday they posted a fantastic interview with Horacio Castellanos Moya (a personal favorite). There’s some great stuff here about his books, especially about the paranoia and humor that run throughout his narratives:

SW: Indeed, “Dance With Snakes“’ reckless pace and deadpan narrator have been described as being akin to some hyper-violent cartoon. Your other books also create comedy out of tension: Senselessness weaves together panic attacks and seemingly mundane events, and “The She-Devil In the Mirror” conveys its unrest through trite, commercial absurdities. Do you see humor as a device that you use to help cope with social problems?

HCM: In the background of all my books is a way of laughing. We are a little bit like that in my country. I think that’s because El Salvador is so small and such a criminal country and our history has been so tragic that the only way of surviving, of getting along, is just laughing. There you cannot take life seriously because life is worth nothing. It’s very easy to get killed and it’s very difficult to survive. So I guess that’s a cultural point. And there are, in Salvadorian literature, many writers that have the same feature, more or less—this way of laughing all the time.

It’s like, if you are in the street and there is a corpse that has been shot, you are not going to go: “Ohh! He’s dead!” You say, “Fuck, what an ugly guy,” because he is not the first dead person you’ve seen. [. . .]

SW: In a lot of your books—especially in “Senselessness” and “Dance With Snakes“—you have a protagonist who is running from something, only to find it again in the end. The plot always seems to follow them, wherever they go. I see a reflection of your own life in the structure of the books: You moved from the violence of El Salvador only to come back and write about the very place that you’ve left.

HCM: I have a book of short stories that is called something like “The Fugitive’s Profile.” And yeah, that’s a factor in my books. Characters are escaping. In my last novel, “Tyrant Memory” [to be published by New Directions in June of 2011], there are two characters who are escaping because if they are captured they are going to be killed for taking part in a coup against the dictator. Most of my books have this kind of character who is escaping. Of course, that’s related with my own life.

But, there are two levels of escaping: there is escaping from danger, from someone who wants to kill you, or you imagine wants to kill you—as Laura Rivera’s escaping of Robocop [in “She-Devil in the Mirror”]. But there is another level of escaping, and that is when you don’t want to be where you are, or you don’t want to be who you are, as is the case with the narrator in “Dance With Snakes.” It’s a way of escaping from yourself.

The other week, I met with John Palattella from The Nation, and we got to talking about the need for “literary heroes,” and how this plays out among readers and the marketplace, transforming decent, good books into The Best Thing Ever. (Probably not hard to figure out the name of one of the two authors we were talking about.) Anyway, this bit about the reaction to Moya’s Bolano, Inc. article (in which he talked about the mythologized image built up around Bolano) reminded me of that conversation:

SW: You were called “jealous” and a “bigot,” and one incensed comment says that you should rot in your own jealousies for the rest of your life. But you’ve published nine novels and five short-story collections translated to many languages. Still, in comparison to Bolaño, in the eyes of the American market you’re relatively below-the-radar. The main difference, maybe, is that you are still alive. In this midst of all these factors and pressures, how do you evaluate and define success? What does success mean to you?

HCM: For me, success would be if I write the books that I should write. If I am able to write and finish the books that are inside me, even if I don’t publish them, that would be success. But let me tell you, success is a very American concept, although now it is everywhere. It’s not a word that defines my work. I do not assume it. That word is related to market, celebrity, fame, and money, and in my case, I became a writer in a place where those values were not related to literature, where to be a writer was nothing. There was no way of getting “success.” There was no way of getting money and celebrity because of writing books. What you could get was to be shot, or to be labeled a communist.

When I was first published, I already had other values; for me, literature was a way of being rebellious against the society where I was, and expressing the rage that that society created in me. Those were the values that I had when I started to write, and in a way some of them are still my values. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like to sell books or I don’t like fame—everybody likes that. But what I mean is that my main motivation to write is not related with that idea of success.

The funny thing is that success is a very American concept, but American literature was created by failure, not by success. I mean, the three founders of American literature as we know them were Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. But those three were losers—American literature was founded by losers! Perhaps that is why there is now such an obsession with success . . .

And for more Horacio Castellanos Moya, you can check out this event that was part of the Reading the World Conversation Series last spring. (Still think this was one of the most interesting events we’ve put on.)

15 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This past Monday’s RTWCS event—featuring Horacio Castellanos Moya (author of Senselessness, The She-Devil in the Mirror, and Dance with Snakes among many other untranslated books)—was easily one of the best events of the series. Castellanos Moya is engaging, hilarious, and extremely interesting, and I think our joint enthusiasms worked off one another really well.

Just start watching—I guarantee you’ll be entertained. (And not just by the way the opening intro is shot as if we’re secretly pirating some blockbuster movie.)

8 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

This is not a post about my mental state—which is quite fine, thanks for asking—but a long-winded intro to next Monday’s event with Horacio Castellanos Moya. The event is at 6:30 in the Rush Rhees Library in Rochester, so everyone in CNY should come out. Horacio is an incredible writer whose work has been praised by dozens of luminaries, including Roberto Bolano.

Senselessness is a difficult book to pitch. Over the past few days, I’ve waxed enthusiastically about this brilliant novel to several friends, a bartender, my neighbor, some random guy in the park . . . And I’ve been met with a lot of perplexed stares and a bit of “umm, yeah, it sounds . . . interesting“ trepidation.

Aside from the false steps in my pitch (“it’s a book about an editor editing a book chronicling thousands of tortures and other abuses performed by the government on the indigenous people of an unnamed country”), the fact that the humor is in the prose not in the situation (“but her feet reek! Funny, no? No?”), and that the main literary influence (Bernhard) is not the most recognized or appreciated of authors (by the average Rochester reader, at least), the main problem is really conveying the humanity and power found in this book.

This starts to point at the question/problem of what people read for. If you’re most interested in plot, Senselessness might not sound all that appealing. (Is there anyone out there craving a little “Editor Lit”?) And if you want uplifting, you might want to step away from the page-long descriptions of massacres and other absolutely horrifying acts.

That all said, this book is one of the most poetic (frighteningly, shockingly so) and compelling novels I’ve read in a long time—mainly because it’s so character-driven.

And by that I don’t mean that there are a lot of quirky, memorable characters, rather that the way the narrative works—with its spiraling, run-on, page-long sentences that digress upon digression—it clearly and beautifully brings to life the inner workings of one man’s mind: a man who, despite all his boozing, womanizing, and good humor, is being driven, quite possibly with good reason, into a state of intense paranoia.

The narrator of this novel—whose mind we inhabit, whose viewpoint we are limited to—is working on this manuscript of horrors for the Catholic church. This project is being kept secret, for obvious reasons. (The military is generally not keen on exposés like this.) So naturally, the narrator is a bit wary of the government . . .

But what I found more interesting in rereading Senselessness is the ultimate amount of power given to this book, this collection of testimonies, the way that it infects the narrator’s mind, not only with the quasi-grammatical and powerfully poetic lines he comes across and writes in his little notebook (such as I am not complete in the mind, and for always the dreams they are there still, and wounded, yes, is hard to be left, but dead is ever peaceful, and we all know who are the assassins), but also in the way these testimonies both feed his paranoia (if the military is capable of these acts, they’re quite literally capable of anything) and cause him, on a few occasions, to try and imagine himself in the shoes of the aggressors, a devilish twist demonstrating how reading can expose you to different viewpoints. This manuscript the narrator edits is powerful. Powerful politically—exposing the truth is always a danger to the status quo, especially when said status quo is essentially evil—but also powerful in a very personal, very intimate way.

One final thing about this book: Although the sentences are paragraph-long and the paragraphs as long as short chapters, this work never feels as claustrophobic as Bernhard. I’m not exactly sure what it is that allows Moya’s novel to breathe, or have moments of escape, although it may be as simple as the fact that there’s more mobility to Moya’s character—he’s not stuck in a single setting, wheelchair, or situation. He experiences things, and although as readers we’re trapped in his head the whole time, he’s not nearly as self-deprecating, or as self-obsessed as the typical Bernhard character. So don’t be intimidated! Read the first two chapters of this book and I’m sure you’ll be hooked.

One final thing about Moya: His other books (at least the ones in English) are much different than this one. Dance with Snakes is a politically charged fantasy involving a guy who terrorizes a town with a group of near-magical snakes. And The She-Devil in the Mirror is very Puig-like novel in which we hear a series of one-sided conversations about a murder. And definitely check out this piece on the “Myth of Roberto Bolano.”

Finally: Come to the event on Monday at 6:30pm. It should be really interesting. And if you can’t come, we will record this and post it by the end of next week.

29 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last Monday we kicked off the spring season of the Reading the World Conversation Series with an event featuring the husband and wife translating team of Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson. They talked with Open Letter editor E.J. Van Lanen about the process of translating Ilf & Petrov’s The Golden Calf, which is definitely one of the funniest books I’ve ever helped publish. (If you doubt me, simply read this excerpt which is part of what I read to kick off the RTWCS event.)

Anyway, here’s the video of the event:

The next event in the series will take place on Monday, April 12th at 6pm in the Hawkins-Carlson room in the Rush Rhees Library on U of R’s campus. I’ll be having a discussion with Horacio Castellanos Moya about his work (Senselessness, Dance with Snakes, and The She-Devil in the Mirror have all been published in English translation) and about world literature in general. Including Horacio’s thoughts on The Bolano Myth.

25 March 10 | N. J. Furl | Comments

Our first Reading the World Conversation event was Monday, and it featured Helen Anderson & Konstantin Gurevich—the translators of our recently released edition of the Russian comedic classic The Golden Calf by Ilf & Petrov. Video of whole, engaging discussion will be posted soon, but, now, it’s time to look forward:

In a few short weeks, we’ll be be taking the stage, again, to talk with renown Latin American author Horacio Castellanos Moya. Here are the details:




APRIL 12, 2010
6:30 p.m.
Hawkins-Carlson Room (in Rush Rhees Library)
University of Rochester
(free and open to the public)

Horacio Castellanos Moya (Dance with Snakes, Senselessness, The She-Devil in the Mirror), widely considered among the leading contemporary Latin American writers, will discuss his work, journalism, the myth of Roberto Bolaño, and world literature in general with Chad W. Post, director of Open Letter Books.

A finalist for the 2009 Best Translated Book Award, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness introduced English-language readers to one of the most provocative, singular voices of twentieth-century Latin American literature. The recent publications of The She-Devil in the Mirror and Dance with Snakes received widespread attention, and with more translations already in the works, it’s clear that readers will be hearing about Moya for years to come.

(This event is hosted by Open Letter and University of Rochester Arts & Sciences. It is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.)

16 March 10 | N. J. Furl |



More information on each event will be posted separately, but—so you can mark your calendars now—here is the rundown of all three events in this spring’s Reading the World Conversation Series at the University of Rochester.

These events are hosted by Open Letter and University of Rochester Arts & Sciences. All events are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.

MARCH 22, 2010
6:00 p.m.
Hawkins-Carlson Room (in Rush Rhees Library)
University of Rochester
(free and open to the public)

Featuring: Helen Anderson & Konstantin Gurevich

Open Letter editor E.J. Van Lanen will discuss the difficulties, joys, and controversies of re-translating Ilf and Petrov’s The Golden Calf, a revered Russian comedic classic, with the novel’s translators, and Rush Rhees Librarians, Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson.
(Co-sponsored by the Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries.)

APRIL 12, 2010
6:30 p.m.
Hawkins-Carlson Room (in Rush Rhees Library)
University of Rochester
(free and open to the public)

Featuring: Horacio Castellanos Moya

Horacio Castellanos Moya (Senselessness, The Devil in the Mirror), widely considered among the leading contemporary Latin American writers, will discuss his novels, short stories, and journalism with Chad W. Post, director of Open Letter Books.

APRIL 26, 2010
6:00 p.m.
Hawkins-Carlson Room (in Rush Rhees Library)
University of Rochester
Reception to Follow
(free and open to the public)

A Celebration of Open Letter

To celebrate the third anniversary of Open Letter Books, ten participants—UR faculty members, Open Letter interns, and fans—will read 3–5 minute segments from ten different Open Letter titles. You’ll hear a wide range of voices from all over the world, and find out firsthand what types of works Open Letter is making available to English readers. All 18 books published by the press will be available for sale, and a reception will follow this lively event.

Featuring: Dean Susan Gibbons, Jennifer Grotz (Dept. of Eng.), Meredith Keller (Open Letter intern), John Michael (Chair of Eng. Dept.), Dean Joanna Olmsted, Claudia Schaefer (Chair of Modern Languages & Cultures), Joanna Scott (Dept. of Eng.), Laurel Stewart (Open Letter Intern), Brad Weslake (Dept. of Phil.), Phil Witte (Open Letter intern), and hosted by Chad W. Post, director of Open Letter.

(For additional info, contact nathan dot furl at rochester dot edu)

24 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece on Horacio Castellanos Moya’s The She-Devil in the Mirror that I wrote. Katherine Silver translated this, and New Directions published it a couple months ago.

Senselessness was one of my favorite books from last year, and She-Devil is up there on my Best of 2009 list . . .

Here’s the opening of the review:

At last year’s Best Translated Book Award ceremony, there were three novels cited as the best of the best: eventual winner Attila Bartis’s Tranquility, Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness. All the judges agreed that Moya’s book was really tight and amazing. Perfectly crafted, gripping, harrowing, and on occasion, quite funny.

What was especially promising was the long list of his other titles just sitting there, waiting to be translated. If only they’re 75% as good as Senselessness . . .

This fall two of his earlier books finally made their way into English: Dance with Snakes (translated by Lee Paula Springer and published by Biblioasis), a fantastical, political novel involving a man who uses a bunch of snakes to go on a killing spree (we’ll review this separately in the near future), and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Neither of these books is as ambitious or as powerful as Senselessness, but both prove—in totally different ways—that Moya is one of the great talents working today.

The She-Devil in the Mirror consists of nine one-sided conversations featuring Laura Rivera (who does all the talking), BFF of the recently deceased Olga Maria, who was gunned down in her own living room. Most of the narrative revolves around Olga Maria—the ongoing investigation into her murder, all of her various love affairs, and Laura’s increasingly complex explanation of who the mastermind behind Olga Maria’s death might be. These speculations are mixed in with Laura’s self-obsessed musings, silly observations, and numerous complaints about the police investigation in an intriguing, run-together way reminiscent of a teenager on a late-night phone call.

Click here for the full review.

24 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

At last year’s Best Translated Book Award ceremony, there were three novels cited as the best of the best: eventual winner Attila Bartis’s Tranquility, Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness. All the judges agreed that Moya’s book was really tight and amazing. Perfectly crafted, gripping, harrowing, and on occasion, quite funny.

What was especially promising was the long list of his other titles just sitting there, waiting to be translated. If only they’re 75% as good as Senselessness . . .

This fall two of his earlier books finally made their way into English: Dance with Snakes (translated by Lee Paula Springer and published by Biblioasis), a fantastical, political novel involving a man who uses a bunch of snakes to go on a killing spree (we’ll review this separately in the near future), and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Neither of these books is as ambitious or as powerful as Senselessness, but both prove—in totally different ways—that Moya is one of the great talents working today.

The She-Devil in the Mirror consists of nine one-sided conversations featuring Laura Rivera (who does all the talking), BFF of the recently deceased Olga Maria, who was gunned down in her own living room. Most of the narrative revolves around Olga Maria—the ongoing investigation into her murder, all of her various love affairs, and Laura’s increasingly complex explanation of who the mastermind behind Olga Maria’s death might be. These speculations are mixed in with Laura’s self-obsessed musings, silly observations, and numerous complaints about the police investigation in an intriguing, run-together way reminiscent of a teenager on a late-night phone call:

[. . .] Olga Maria was always so discreet, so modest, so reserved, never had those fits of hysteria, she defended her home and was totally devoted to her husband and children, that’s why her death makes me so angry, my dear, what’s the point, so many bastards they don’t bother killing and a woman like that—a paragon, so hard-working, look how she started that boutique from scratch, all with her own hard work. Those two coming in now, they’re the two policemen who came to Dona Olga’s to harass us, the one with the dark jacket is the one who says his name is Deputy Chief Handal: riffraff, my dear, they’ve got no respect for other people’s pain, what’s wrong with these people, how dare they come to a decent person’s wake, their heads must be full of rot—imagine: they wanted me to reveal all of Olga Maria’s secrets, as if any of her friends or acquaintances would have planned her murder . . .

Laura’s speech flits from subject to subject like that for 190 pages, unaware of its various contradictions, such as following the statement that Olga Maria was “totally devoted to her husband and children” with heaps of sordid details about her many affairs. Although initially Laura’s character is a bit incredulous, she starts to hit a rhythm and takes shape as a less-and-less reliable narrator even as she starts to postulate very dangerous ideas about the identity of the mastermind behind Olga Maria’s murder.

And that’s the simple tension that makes this book function: our only source of information to unravel the murder plot is a narrator who is either a flibbertygibbet or a true mental case. But if she’s right, the implications behind Olga Maria’s murder transform it from a daily tragedy into something with more shadowy political motives.

Overall, this book reads beautifully (all props to Katherine Silver for her wonderful translation), and is quite captivating. Looks like Moya’s reputation will continue to grow for years to come.

24 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

At Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito points to an interesting article by Horacio Castellanos Moya about his disgust with the “Bolano Myth.”

The article is primarily based on Sarah Pollack’s essay “Latin America Translated (Again): Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives in the United States,” which will appear in the next issue of Comparative Literature (pre-order your copy today!). Hard to get into too many specifics without having read Pollack’s essay, but it sounds like she questions the way Bolano’s personal life was mythologized in order to make him that much more marketable. (Moya points to the hippie-esque author pic on The Savage Detectives as an example of the “Bolano-as-Renegade” image, although TSD was written while Bolano was a calm family man.)

Since Scott’s Spanish is much better than mine, I’ll let him summarize the Moya piece:

Basically, in order to sell books marketers invented the Bolano myth, which Moya is taking as an act of U.S. cultural imperialism on Latin America. Throughout the rest of the piece, Moya goes on to argue that marketers and journalists created an image of Bolano to fit preconceived U.S. stereotypes of what a Latin American is—and especially what a Latin American author is. [. . .]

I can’t disagree too much with what Moya says, although I think he’s painting things a little too broadly. (Granted, this is a diatribe . . .) Where he’s dishing out blame, he’s mostly talking about the old media press and the publisher FSG, and while I would say that old media coverage of Bolano has featured a lot of what Moya calls out (remember the whole heroin thing?), I don’t think FSG is quite the publisher Moya claims it to be. True, it’s no New Directions, and, true again, if there was any justice New Directions would have gotten first shot at The Savage Detectives, but FSG does tend to treat literature with a lot more respect than other publishers out there.

First off, I agree with Scott. The mainstream media seems more to blame for this image creation than FSG. In fact, I’d argue that both FSG and New Directions did a great job marketing Bolano and helping introduce his masterful works to an English-speaking audience.

That said, this sort of stereotyping (in terms of what makes a “typical Latin American author” or constitutes a “typical Latin American book”) has gone on for a while, and in terms of aesthetic pigeonholing, publishers really do deserve a lot of the blame. Post-Garcia Marquez, it’s been near impossible for a non-magical realist from south of our borders to get published in America. A certain Isabel Allende-tainted vision of what “counted” as good Latin American literature came into being, and anything that didn’t fit that mold wasn’t marketable.

The “Crack group” (Jorge Volpi, Eloy Urroz, Ignacio Padilla, etc.) rose up as a response to this situation, this sort of pre-marketing that filters out certain types of literature in favor of more “marketable” books. And it would be foolish to pretend that marketing doesn’t play a role in which authors get published—especially in translation.

Another aspect of American cultural imperialism is our general arrogance that an author doesn’t exist until he/she is discovered by the American public. Although Bolano was huge in the Spanish-speaking world for years before his big novels were translated into English, there’s a tendency to treat him as a “new” author who has finally broke through. (Although the majority of reviews I read for 2666 and TSD were by really thoughtful, perceptive critics who were more engaged with the complexity of the work than with the myth of Bolano. So this is by no means a blanket statement.)

A good example of American publishing arrogance is what Scott Moyers said about W. G. Sebald on a “buzz panel” a few years back. I wrote about this at the time but his comment about how Sebald had been “getting his name out there a bit” thanks to New Directions, but that it was Random House’s publication of Austerlitz that put the “stamp of authority” on Sebald as one of Europe’s great writers still makes me vomit in my mouth a little bit.

4 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The fifth annual PEN World Voices Festival ended on Sunday, and based on the attendance at the few events I went to, it was pretty successful. I wasn’t able to attend as many panels as I would’ve liked, which is sort of a plus and minus for the festival—there’s a lot to choose from and you really do need to choose.

This might sound biased, but the two events that I found the most interesting were the two that Jan Kjaerstad was on: “Where Truth Lies” and “Faith & Fiction.”

Aside from Jan’s presence, the one thing in common between these panels was the fact that both were actual roundtable discussions, rather than panels where each participant presents some prepared remarks. From talking with some other attendees, I’m not the only one who prefers the actual discussion panels to the serial presentation one. No matter how good the guests are, when they each read their prepared remarks, there’s a tendency for the speakers to become compartmentalized, with little interaction between the various viewpoints. And besides, with rare exception (like Paul Verhaeghen’s wonderfully imaginative and funny speech), these opening remarks tend to be a bit dry and don’t lead to the sort of debate and disagreement that can make a panel fun to watch.

The Where Truth Lies featured Jan, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Marlon James, and Roxana Robinson. Noreen Tomassi of the Mercantile Library did a wonderful job moderating, keeping the discussion relevant and interesting, and creating some tensions that fueled the debate.

One of the most interesting divisions—to me anyway—was the huge difference between Jan’s belief that “form is greatly underrated” and that it’s the novelist’s job to make things strange and provide readers with a new way of seeing. With only a limited number of “masterplots” (a point that a couple panelists disagreed with, which was sort of odd, especially since the dissenters used examples that sort of proved that there are limited archetypes but that the difference is in the details, something that no one would dispute), the novelist has to “make things new” and can utilize form to accomplish this.

Roxana Robinson—whose aesthetic ideas ran so counter to mine that I’ll never ever read her books or her New Yorker stories—completely disagreed, arguing that a writer is just there to write, not to think of the audience of changing someone’s way of seeing or anything at all like that. She also made a comment about a recent Joyce Carol Oates interview in which JCO referred to tragedy as the highest art form, which is what she personally aspires to in her work. (Someone in the audience thankfully called bullshit on this, pointing out that JCO’s work—and Robinson’s by extension—isn’t actually tragic, just glum.)

This kind of schism is what makes for an interesting discussion, and in this case it really seemed to present two different literary approaches—writing to entertain and tell a story versus writing to create art.

There wasn’t such an obvious split in the Faith & Fiction, panel but Albert Mobilio—who is consistently one of the festival’s best moderators—did a masterful job sustaining a really interesting discussion about fiction and religion that featured Jan, Ben Anastas, Nadeem Aslam, and Brian Evenson. All of the panelists were fantastic, each having his particular viewpoint and responding thoughtfully to one another to create a truly interesting discussion.

Not to mention the panel awesomely opened with Albert quoting James Wood—something to the effect that novelists are skeptics, but novels act religiously—and Jan immediately stating that James Wood is a overrated . . .

A lot of the events were recorded and will be available on PEN’s podcast page in the near future. And for more information about particular events, be sure to check out the World Voices Blogs page, which has write-ups on nearly all of the panels and readings.

21 April 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

The 28th Northern California Book Awards were held in San Francisco last weekend, and, in conjunction with the Center for the Art of Translation, they awarded a Translation Award “to bring attention to all the wonderful translations coming out of the Bay Area and to encourage local audiences to read more international literature.”

This year’s winner was Katherine Silver, for her translation of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness.

Here’s a list of the nominees:

  • The Old Man’s Verses by Ivan Divis, Translated from Czech by Deborah Garfinkle, Host Publications
  • Odes and Elegies by Friedrich Hölderlin, Translated from German by Nick Hoff, Wesleyan University Press
  • State of Exile by Cristina Peri Rossi, Translated from Spanish by Marilyn Buck, City Lights Publishers
  • Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, Translated from Spanish by Katherine Silver, New Directions
  • Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World, Translated from Persian by Niloufar Talebi, North Atlantic Books

It’s a worthy list, and we’re not about to argue with the result. Senselessness is an incredible novel, and the translation is wonderful as well.

If you’d like a chance to meet Moya, and maybe get him to sign a copy of Senselessness for you, you can catch him at the PEN World Voices Festival next week. One of his events is with our own Jan Kjaerstad, which we couldn’t be more pleased about.

6 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

3 September 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of Quarterly Conversation is now online, and, as can be expected, filled with great stuff.

One of the lead pieces is Scott Esposito’s article about the similarities in the writings of Adolfo Bioy Casares and Franz Kafka:

In his Prologue [to The Invention of Morel, Borges calls on writers of the 20th century to prove that “if [the literature of] this century has any ascendancy over the preceding ones it lies in the quality of its plots.” Kafka and Bioy are two writers who responded to, and perhaps proved, Borges’s declaration. For all the differences in their lives, contexts, and ways of meeting Borges’s challenge, their fictions exhibit remarkable convergences. So clear are the similarities that one might follow William H. Gass, who once declared “that Schopenhauer has read Borges and reflects him, just as Borges reflects both Bioy and Borges.” If Schopenhauer can read Borges, then Kafka has clearly read Bioy, and the two reflect each other like two mirrors, except what’s multiplied in their midst isn’t a person but a world: our very own, skewed as images caught between mirrors tend to be, but seemingly contained in both at once and, as the reproductions trail off to infinity, slightly but clearly bending in the same direction.

There are also a number of reviews of interesting titles, including pieces on All One Horse by Breyten Breytenbach, on Boxwood by Camilo Jose Cela, and The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, which has a great opening paragraph:

Reading The Post-Office Girl is like trying to hit a slow-breaking curveball. You know the break is coming—you can intuit that the seemingly conventional story is going to drop on you in some way—but it hangs high for so long that by the time it does break, you’ve already swung blindly, thinking you knew how to read the book.

There are also reviews of Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya—one of my favorite books of 2008, which Scott Bryan Wilson also praises:

ike a lot of the great Central American novelists, Moya started out with aspirations of becoming a poet, and though Senselessness is full of really miserable, gruesome stuff, it’s exactly the ugliness, as well as Moya’s sense of language, compassion, and his healthy dose of pessimism), that make Senselessness a phenomenal read and an incredibly important work.

And finally, there’s an interesting review of Basrayatha: Portrait of a City by Muhammad Khudayyir:

Muhammad Khudayyir’s Basrayatha has no need for maps. Although the book is tagged as a travel memoir, it has little to offer the would-be (if-it-were-possible) tourist to Iraq. The narrative doesn’t pause to orient the reader—to remove our blindfolds and point us in a particular direction—and most of its landmarks are erased and rebuilt, renamed, and then erased and rebuilt again. The book’s only visual guides are not maps but slightly blurred, century-old photographs. These uncaptioned photos, like the images of a W. G. Sebald novel, obscure as much as they illuminate.

But just as Khudayyir does not present us with the pseudo-clarity of a CNN report, neither does he bring us a fuzzy, pre-invasion paradise. Basrayatha is nearer kin to Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. Khudayyir takes us into a story-reflecting-a-city, a series of memories and mirrors that point us toward what the book’s narrator calls “actual, defective reality.” This is not because Khudayyir has fled the land of his birth and must construct things, board by board, from faded recollections. He names himself a permanent citizen of Basra, and says that he has rarely left the city in forty-some years, his age when the book was published in Arabic in 1996.

In addition to all of these great articles, there are also interviews with Horacio Castellanos Moya and Jean-Philippe Toussaint.

Overall, a great issue.

7 August 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [2]

Over at the Elegant Variation, they’ve excerpted the first chapter of Moya’s Senselessness:

We are very pleased to be able to present to you, in its entirety, the first chapter of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s remarkable novella Senselessness, with kind permission from our friends at New Directions. This book – which will appear presently atop the Recommended sidebar, and will be given away in signed editions tomorrow – is a bleak, mordantly funny marvel. Compact but dense, it will linger in your imagination. He’s been blurbed by no less than Bolano himself, and so here’s an opportunity for you to judge for yourself, via Katherine Silver’s fine translation. Enjoy.

Very cool.

8 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Shortly after arriving in Rochester with the goal of creating Open Letter, I was flipping through the Ray-Gude Merlin Agency rights list and came across Horacio Castellanos Moya. I immediately e-mailed Nicole Witt only to find out that New Directions had already purchased the rights to Senselessness.

As a publisher I was disappointed for being late to the game . . . As a reader I was thrilled that this book was going to be available in the near future, and based on the description in the rights guide, I knew this was going to be an amazing book.

The year is only half over, but so far, this is my pick for the best translation of 2008. It’s a stunning book that’s been praised by the likes of Roberto Bolano and Russell Banks. Even more exciting (disappointing from the publisher angle?) is the fact that New Directions is going to be doing more of his works, including She-Devil in the Mirror, which is Francisco Goldman’s favorite.

Anyway, I didn’t give this much of an objective review, but there’s not much to criticize about this book. Personally, I think the long quotes in the review speak for themselves.

8 July 08 | Chad W. Post |

The first of El Salvadoran Horacio Castellano Moya’s books to be translated into English, Senselessness is frankly, one of the best books to be published this year. It’s one of those rare books written in a very specific, very stylized fashion that’s simultaneously accessible and captivating.

I am not complete in the mind, said the sentence I highlighted with the yellow marker and ever 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 almost single-spaced printed pages placed on what would be my desk by my friend Erick so I could get some idea of the task that awaited me.

His “task” is to edit a 1,100-page report of atrocities committed by the military against the indigenous population in an unnamed Central American country. And he has three months in which to finish.

This isn’t a novel about those atrocities though—at least not directly. Against this backdrop of what’s clearly one of the most disturbing, soul wrenching jobs in the history of editing, the narrator tries to live as normal a life as possible, getting drunk in bars, trying to pick up women, surviving amid the accounts of wretched acts in which he spends his daily life. There are several humorous sections to this book, like the bit about the woman’s stinky feet, which is absolutely hilarious in a viscerally disgusting way.

One of the many reasons this book works is the strange demented beauty of the Indians’ accounts, and the demented obsession the narrator has with the manuscript. He keeps choice quotes in a notebook, and has a tendency to read them aloud at bars to stunned, unappreciative audiences:

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 . . . ,” [. . .]

Moya’s cadences and run-on sentences that turn on themselves, that contain digressions upon digressions, that shift suddenly in unexpected directions, are masterfully rendered by Katherine Silver. Anything less than a perfect translation would utterly destroy this book. Each sentence, each paragraph, flows with a beauty that is very cinematic and adds a degree of immediacy to the prose.

And, beyond the art, aside from the Bernhardian rhythms, this style, so eloquently rendered, accurately captures and represents the narrator:

[. . .] this guy with a shaved head who very cunningly segued from this remarks about Vallejo’s poetry and its relationship to indigenous languages to a subtle interrogation about my work at the archdiocese and my friendship with Erick, all packaged neatly into his conversation with me at the kitchen table, not paying any attention to calls to join the group in the living room, where things were picking up, as if the guy had known ahead of time about the psychological problems that afflicated me and that consisted of wanting to tell everything once I’d been encouraged to start talking, down to the hairs and the smells, spill it all out to a point of satiety, compulsively, in a kind of verbal spasm, as if it were an orgiastic race that would culminate in my total abandon, until I was left without secrets, until my interlocutor knew all he wanted to know, in an exhaustive confession after which I would suffer the worst possible backlash.

As the novel progresses, the plot gets a bit darker, a bit more paranoid, a bit more inconclusive, leading to an ending that is pretty startling and made me rethink all that had come before . . . I don’t want to give anything away, but any novel that ends with, “ ‘Everybody’s fucked. Be grateful you left.’ “ is a classic in my book.

18 June 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Over at Ready Steady Book, Stephen reviews Senselessness:

The uncommon, elongated noun describing the mental state of the father is enough to remind the reader of Bernhard’s 1967 novel Verstörung — translated as Gargoyles yet meaning “disturbance” — in which a doctor takes his student son on a tour of his patients in rural Austria. It exposes him to a world of sick, brutalised and grotesquely malformed bodies and souls, just as the unnamed narrator of Senselessness is exposed to the haunted words of ravaged peasants. Inheritance is the bond. Where the son discovers that an escape into rational enquiry will not protect him from what’s bred in the bone, the editor will find his assured world of hard drinking and casual sex threatened by sentences emerging from what had once been silence.

His highly-wrought prose is consistent with a voice maintaining itself on an awareness of imminent breakdown. What happens on the doctor’s round in Gargoyles has a memorable impact on the novel. As if the son’s account has already succumbed to his inheritance, the second half is annexed by the monologuing Prince Saurau, an aristocrat whom father and son visit in his castle. For this reason, Castellanos Moya’s adoption of Bernhard’s style can be seen as more than homage. The editor in Senselessness is himself not all there; what we read is the inheritance of the manuscript.

....
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Elsewhere by Eliot Weingerber (ed.)
Reviewed by Grant Barber

What a wonderful, idiosyncratic book Weinberger has written. I say book, but the closest comparison I could make to other works being published right now are from Sylph Edition’s “Cahiers Series“—short pamphlet-like meditations by notable writers such as Ann Carson,. . .

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The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang
Reviewed by Chris Iacono

Early in Sun-mi Hwang’s novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, the main character, a hen named Sprout, learns about sacrifice. After refusing to lay any more eggs for the farmer who owns her, she becomes “culled” and released. . .

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Sankya
Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin
Reviewed by Kseniya Melnik

When Sankya was published in Russia in 2006, it became a sensation. It won the Yasnaya Polyana Award (bestowed by direct descendants of Leo Tolstoy) and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Award. Every member of. . .

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Stalin is Dead
Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor has been repeatedly described as kafkaesque, which strikes a chord in many individuals, causing them to run to the bookstore in the middle of the night to be consumed by surreal situations that no. . .

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Paradises
Paradises by Iosi Havilio
Reviewed by Andrea Reece

Paradises by cult Argentinian author Iosi Havilio is the continuation of his earlier novel, Open Door, and tells the story of our narrator, a young, unnamed Argentinian woman.

The very first sentence in Paradises echoes the opening of Camus’s The Outsider. . .

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Two Crocodiles
Two Crocodiles by Fyodor Dostoevsky; Felisberto Hernández
Reviewed by Sara Shuman

This pearl from New Directions contains one short story from Russian literary master Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Constance Garnett) and one short story from Uruguayan forefather of magical realism Felisberto Hernández (translated by Esther Allen). Both pieces are entitled “The. . .

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