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.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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