As a weekend send-off, I thought I’d round off this week’s entries in the Month of a Thousand Forests with a bit from one of my favorite books of recent times — Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya.
You hopefully know this by now, but if you order A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from the Open Letter site before the end of September, use the code FORESTS and you’ll get it for only $15.
It seems to me that these pages reflect the absurdity and ridiculousness of desire, and also the complexity of the human psyche, never really content with what it has. I like the correspondence between the earthquake and the anxiety of the character. I also chose this chapter because I greatly enjoyed writing it.
My dead are present in the majority of my books, sometimes quite veiled, sometimes less so. My father died when I was thirteen and since then, every now and then, death rings its bells again: friends and cousins murdered in the flower of life, the beloved elderly who die old. It seems that I write not so much to conjure death but to settle scores with her, to pay her for my dead, and also to settle scores with the murderers. The influence of Faulkner is permanent, but for me it is easy to speak literarily with Onetti, for reasons of language, and because he is the Latin American writer I most admire, although he himself said once, with a wink of modesty, that one should not read his work but rather that of Faulkner. Still, recently I have not conversed much with dead writers; instead I have returned to thinkers addicted to the aphorism, like Cioran, Nietzsche, Canetti, Schopenhauer. Perhaps as I get older and I begin to descend the opposite slope I am looking for another type of conversation, more concise and profound. In practical terms, I turn to Sophocles when I am blocked: only he is able to unblock me.
Lying in the bed, the recently possessed body snoring beside me, I was taken by surprise by an idea, an idea that suddenly blinded me, the idea that hell is the mind not the flesh, I became aware of this at that moment, the idea that hell resided in my agitated mind—distraught—and not in the sweating flesh, for in no other way could I explain the fact that there I was in my bed in my apartment in the Engels Building, unable to enjoy the splendor of Fátima’s milky-white skin, a skin that in other circumstances would have delighted all my senses, but whose proximity had now plunged me into a state of such dire agitation that I would have given anything for her not to be there, for nothing to have happened between us, for everything to have been just one more of my fantasies. But no, I told myself as I tossed and turned in bed without being able to fall asleep, with anguish gnawing away at the mouth of my stomach, no, that body I had so strongly desired had only made me understand the vulnerability of pleasure, its fragile and crumbling nature, I reproached myself, unable to find a comfortable position that would allow me to fall asleep or even relax, my gaze fixed on the windows whose curtains I had not closed completely and through which midnight and its suspicious sounds entered; that body so desired by everybody had suddenly lost its charm when just one hour before she had asked me point blank if I’d rather she suck it or masturbate me, a question that didn’t make any sense considering the fact that we had been kissing and touching each other passionately for only three minutes—a few seconds more, a few seconds less—on the couch in my apartment, and what should have followed, after she already had my member in her hand and I had my middle finger inside her pussy, was to get totally undressed and lick each other all over until we consummated the act of love, instead of her posing that indecent and inappropriate question as to whether I preferred a blow job or a hand job, as if that whole preamble of confessions, caresses, and kisses that had begun in that beer joint Tustepito as evening was falling had been only a ruse to bring on the moment when she could ask me what I preferred, a hand job or a blow job, something I’d expect from a shrewd prostitute showing her price list to a horny client rather than this Spanish beauty whom, according to me, I had seduced with my charm. Who knows what expression she saw on my face, but she immediately explained in no uncertain terms that she didn’t plan on fucking me—damn it!—that she had a boyfriend whom she loved very much and who would arrive in the country the next morning, a boyfriend she would never be unfaithful to, even though at that very moment she held my member in her hand and was offering to let me choose if she would jerk me off or suck it, she repeated, instead of getting naked and giving herself to me as logic would dictate. I told her to suck it, because it wouldn’t have been a good idea to remain aroused and with my balls bursting, such a strain causes pain and makes walking difficult, even though the magical moment had already passed, that instant when the magic of possession rises resplendent had gone to the dogs the moment she asked that indecent question, more typical of a professional than a girl who’s been seduced, I thought as I contemplated her with my member in her mouth, sucking, with agitated and slightly arrhythmic movements, which made me worried I would sustain an injury, perhaps the scratch of a canine, so I suggested she calm down, take it more gently, resting my hands on her head, not concentrating too much on the pleasure she was supposedly giving me but rather attempting to figure out what difference it would make as she was reaffirming her fidelity to her boyfriend, who would arrive the following morning and whom I had just found out about, if she had given me a blow job or been penetrated, a difference that was frankly difficult for me to discern, much more so when she tried to talk without taking my member out of her mouth, saying something like “ca-cu-ca-ci,” and looking at me worriedly and without diminishing the flurry of her movements she mumbled over and over again in a guttural way “ca-cu-ca-ci,” with such concern in her eyes, until I told her that I couldn’t understand what she was saying, that she should take my member out of her mouth before talking, which she did immediately and then she clearly repeated what before I had heard only as “ca-cu-ca-ci,” which in fact was the question, “Are you happy?”
(Translated by Katherine Silver)
The battle between Honduras and Bosnia and Herzegovina is a contrast in style. This is obvious as the two teams line up for pre-match ceremonies: on one side, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s understated Senselessness, with a few tasteful blurbs—from Roberto Bolaño, Russell Banks, and Francisco Goldman—adorning the back jacket; on the other side is Saša Stanišić’s gaudy How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, with its bold, ALL CAPS, multi-colored blurbs, pages and pages of extravagant praise, and a “Reading Guide,” designed no doubt to help palliate those readers concerned about the accents in the Bosnia author’s name. The packaging of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone feels compensatory, too showy. As it preens and struts, confident of its greatness, Senselessness gets right to work, scoring an early goal with its crisp opening salvo:
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 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.
Honduras 1 – 0 Bosnia and Herzegovina
After these initial maneuvers, the Bosnians marshal their forces, realizing that a nifty kit alone does not a soccer team make, especially not in fevered battle against a righteously angry and caustic opponent. They launch an offensive, with a series of beautifully executed passes, backing the Hondurans into their own end. Stanišić’s use of chapter summaries (reminiscent of E.T.A. Hoffmann) is clever and worthy of appreciation. We learn, for instance, that Chapter Five will explain the following:
When something is an event, when it’s an experience, how many deaths Comrade Tito died, and how the once-famous three-point shooter gets behind the wheel of a Centrotrans bus
And that later, as the novel moves from more or less innocent childhood memories to war and genocide, we’ll understand:
What we play in the cellar, what peas taste like, why silence bares its fangs, who has the right sort of name, what a bridge will bear, why Asija cries, how Asija smiles
This seldom used tactic results in a goal by Stanišić’s side.
Honduras 1 – 1 Bosnia and Herzegovina
This might be the most fevered, high-strung match in the World Cup of Literature, with lulls in play coming few and far between. Each side seems intent on pummeling the other into submission, and goals are scored in bunches: Castellanos Moya’s wicked humor and coiled sentences spring into action, tilting things in Honduras’ favor . . .
Honduras 2 – 1 Bosnia and Herzegovina
. . . and Stanišić’s effective, if occasionally too cute heartstring-tugging getting the Bosnians back into the match . . .
Honduras 2 – 2 Bosnia and Herzegovina
. . . then, Senselessness gets really offensive with an STD, sending the Bosnians scurrying back on defense . . .
Honduras 3 – 2 Bosnia and Herzegovina
. . . after regrouping—nothing a little penicillin can’t cure, boys!—the Soldier and his Gramophone comes back strong, striking two goals in quick succession with a one-legged former soccer player, Kiko, and twenty pages of a No Man’s Land soccer match that involves cowardice, duplicity, a 6’9” tall lethal striker nicknamed Mickey Mouse, land mines, and a miracle comeback for the ages. The Hondurans are reeling, they can’t hold up against this onslaught. With their hyperactive exuberance, the Bosnians take the lead.
Honduras 3 – 4 Bosnia and Herzegovina
What do the Hondurans have left as we near the ninetieth minute? One last charge that falls flat against the nimble-footed Bosnian, who steals the ball, streaks toward the goal and deposits an insurance goal, putting How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone up for good.
Honduras 3 – 5 Bosnia and Herzegovina
You can be sure that a people who “sing even when they’re killed” will be celebrating in style.
Stephen Sparks is a buyer at Green Apple Books. He lives in San Francisco and blogs at Invisible Stories.
I hear that soccer/football fans are pretty excited about Switzerland these days. (Sorry everyone, I haven’t been keeping up with the world of FIFA.) In a literary match-up against Honduras, though, its chance at a win feels a lot smaller. Neither country is really one of the literary world’s power-houses, but in this match Honduras brings to the table the potent prose of Horacio Castellanos Moya, whose Senselessness is pretty remarkable.
“I am not complete in the mind,” begins Moya’s narrator. And no, he most certainly is not: he is caustic, sex-obsessed, unstable, and at least a little bit insane. If you go with it, though, if you let his sentences pull you along for pages with their paranoid urgency, you’re in for a hell of a ride. He is an irritable, obsessive atheist who has gotten himself caught up in the affairs of the Catholic Church as it fights to bring to light the atrocities committed by the unnamed country’s power-hungry military. His rage and angst spiral into what he calls an “expanding maelstrom of paranoia.” And, whether you believe in his conspiracies or think he’s lost his mind, it’s very compelling. An excellent (and excellently unreliable) narrator, a great story and a satisfying ending: this is Moya’s hat-trick.
Now comes Switzerland, with Urs Widmer’s My Mother’s Lover. From the start, it looks grim. A melodramatic title and some pretty awful jacket copy leave me unenthused, but I’m willing to give it a chance. Which is my own mistake, really.
The narrator’s mother starts out the novel waist-deep in a lake, frantically shouting her lover’s name (“Edwin!”) across the water. Her former lover, once a poor musician and now the richest man in the country, lives in a mansion across the water and never even thinks about this woman, who he was involved with for a couple of months in his youth. She, on the other hand, obsesses over him, is possessed by the thought of him, hears the wind whisper his name to her all day long. I’d say that this is still a better love story than Twilight, except that a sad and confused woman who shrieks “Edw-!” into the empty night actually sounds an awful lot like Twilight. (I take full responsibility for the fact that, by bringing up the T-word, I am probably fulfilling the literary equivalent of Godwin’s law.) There’s some big, over-the-top Freudian thing going on here; her father is a taciturn, cantankerous control freak who treats her like dirt, and her lover is an insufferable egomaniac who also treats her like dirt. And I just can’t bring myself to care about any of it.
On top of this, the narrator speaks in this bizarre, inverted Yoda-speak (“Pushing and shoving they’d be to get to her,” and “flat as a pancake everywhere was”) and uses em-dashes in baffling and excessive ways.
Stylistic weirdnesses aside, My Mother’s Lover suffers from a lack of empathy. Moya’s characters are not likable (far from it, in fact), but I cared what happened to them. With Widmer’s, I didn’t. At all. And so this novel—supposed to be a tragedy of unrequited love across a backdrop of war and loss—fell flat.
The only major redeeming factor is Widmer’s harrowing and believable portrayal of the mother’s descent into madness. But it isn’t enough to make up for the huge gap in style, impact and appeal that separates it and Senselessness. Between the two, there’s no comparison. Honduras 3, Switzerland 0.
Hannah Chute translates literature from Russian and French. She is currently a master’s student in the University of Rochester’s Literary Translation Studies program. She is exceptionally bad at soccer.
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.
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.
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.
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