Friday, November 21, 2008

Senselessness, by Horacio Castellanos Moya

"[O]ne testimony... seemed like the plot of a novel I had once read and that on that Sunday morning came back to me along with an urge to take it on and release all restraints on my imagination, for in fact no such novel existed, only the desire to write it, to turn the tragedy on its head..."

Senselessness is, in many ways, a Bolaño novel. It features those ever-so-long sentences that James Wood frequently celebrates—"Much of the most successfully daring postwar fiction has been by writers committed to the long dramatic sentence (Bohumil Hrabal, Thomas Bernhard, W. G. Sebald, José Saramago). Bolaño is in their company..." or, in a review of Saramago, "Some of the more significant writing of the past thirty years has taken delight in the long, lawless sentence—think of Thomas Bernhard, Bohumil Hrabal, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño—but no one sounds quite like Saramago."

Senselessness is narrated by a fugitive writer who seems to do very little writing, contains strong statements of anti-clericalism and homophobia (by the way, why does no one mention the homophobia of Bolaño's characters?), and seeks to blur the distinctions between literary and physical violence. In all three respects and in some others, one might easily mistake Moya's novel for a work by Bolaño. And, for what it's worth, there's a blurb by Bolaño himself on the back of the book.

My intent in pointing out these similarities is not to outline the author's debts or insinuate mere emulation; Moya is far too strong an author with very definite and independent notions of art, violence and politics to be mistaken for an acolyte. But I do think a comparison brings to the surface some issues I had with the book, and with books that feature similar narrators. I could, however, just as well be comparing Moya with Bernhard, whose dramatic monologues also share a great deal in common with the narrator of this novel.

First, a brief summary of Senselessness. The narrator has been invited to work on a project that consists of copy-editing and "manicuring" 1,100 pages of testimonies from survivors and witnesses of the hundreds of massacres in Guatemala. The narrator's contributions to this report become a little tumor of ironies swelling at the heart of the novel: the narrator dislikes and distrusts the Church; he is an atrocious copy-editor of his own thoughts, impulses, and words; and he dwells compulsively on the "poetry" of the traumatized witness accounts, writing the best sentences in a little pocket notebook, a crude inversion of the work of an investigative reporter. He also, in a series of encounters which I believe are meant to be darkly comic, tries to share his feelings for the beauty of these sentences of despair.
[...] what I really wanted, as I told him now a little pissed off by the circumstances, was to show him the richness of the language of his so-called aboriginal compatriots, nothing more, assuming that he as a poet might have been interested in their intense figurative language and their curious syntactic constructions that reminded me of poets like the Peruvian César Vallejo, and I proceeded to read, now with more resolve and without letting myself be intimidated by the marimba that again started up, a longer fragment so that Toto could have no doubts whatsoever: Three days I am crying, crying I am wanting to see him. There I sat down on the earth to say, there is the little cross, there is he, there is our dust and pay our respects we will, bring a candle, but when we bring the candle, the candle there's nowhere to put it... And this sentence, tell me, I rebuked him, now decidedly more pissed off, if this isn't a great verse, a poetic jewel, I said before reciting it with greater intensity: Because for me the sorrow is not to bury him myself...
The aesthetic pleasure the narrator takes in the traumatized witnesses' remarks is unsettling, and clearly meant to be so. The problem is that this ironized feeling of vague repulsion—our vague repulsion and the assumption that the narrator's interlocutors are also vaguely repulsed—is all we get, is the closest we get to the actual violence and brutality of the massacres. The narrator offers us a chance to evaluate the massacres—or rather their products, the words of the witnesses—but not to feel them, or at least feel what they mean to the witnesses or the victims. Everything is cited; nothing is spoken.

To counteract this, Moya tries what has now become a very old trick: to generate the real repulsion we should feel toward the massacres and the forces that perpetrated them, make the narrator repulsive. I expected our narrator to break out at the end of every page with an "I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man." I don't understand why writers think this is an appropriate or honest approach: to pretend to magnify the horror, depravity and ugliness of the world by giving us a horrible, depraved and ugly tour guide who speaks only about himself, who is more desperate to convince us of his internal depravity than he is concerned with external horror. That isn't magnification, that's distraction.

But my final objection to this strategy is not moral but aesthetic: a narrator like the one in Senselessness is simply gratuitous because nothing seems held back. The narrator doesn't act like a structuring principle or agent but merely as a source of several unfiltered obsessions. Which is where the comparison with Bolaño comes back in. Take Padre Urrutria, for example, in By Night in Chile. There are things he clearly is not willing to tell us, and revelations which are obviously composed for specific effects. The narrator is not merely a source of thoughts, but a thinker, a conscience and not just a consciousness. In Moya's novel, the narrator is an excuse for a flow of thoughts, and the flow of thoughts is an excuse to keep the reader distracted, unable to engage with the real trauma which the narrator refuses to acknowledge except in aesthetic terms, terms which float easily on the flow of thoughts and are silently borne away.

Later (12/5): I came across this excellent review at ReadySteadyBook. It similarly demurs from the opinion that Moya really gets the horrors of the brutal regime across, that the narrator's antics detract from the report itself, and of the voices it contains. Stephen Mitchelmore, who wrote the review, believes that the narrator is more deeply affected by the report than I would allow. "Seeking to remain fully himself, he clings to habit: carousing in bars, seducing the first pretty girl he meets in the archbishop's palace, only for the sentences he has copied into his notebook to recur in his mouth, producing at first a kind of rapture at their expressive power, but then propelling initial disturbance into paranoia."
Yes, the narrator lapses into paranoia, but I don't think the report has as much to do with it as his narcissism; the first two instances of acute paranoia come from seeing his name in the paper and from believing he's just met an Uruguayan military officer whose girlfriend just gave him the clap. The third outbreak of paranoia is exclusively related to his descent into the horrors of the report, but after firmly establishing himself as a venal and vain figure, I can't see how the narrator's sudden attention to the report (which he successfully avoids for most of the novel) isn't ultimately vitiated. The narrator's half-prurient, entirely discompassionate response to the fellow Church employee whose rapes and beatings he reads about completely destroyed for me any sense that the narrator could or would invest himself in the justice or the risks of the project, and that the effects it had on him were nothing compared to those of his own selfish drives. Note, though, that I am not arguing that Moya shares in his narrator's narcissism; I think the narrator's voice took over the story and became larger than the idea Moya started out with.

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