El Salvador: true dedication

I’m a sucker for a good dedication – which is great because the 67 books I’ve blogged about so far this year have provided loads of them. From succinct statements such as Roberto Saviano’s ‘To S., damn it’, which hints at the massive toll taken by his investigation into the Neapolitan mafia, to Dany Laferrière’s playful ‘For everyone who would like to be someone else’, 2012 has given me a feast of dedicatory delights.

Even so, I’ve rarely come across a more intriguing – or even backhanded – inscription than the one that appears after the title page of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness: ‘To S.D., who made me promise I would never dedicate this book to her’. Perverse, playful and wilful, it piqued my interest and, as I was to discover, it sets the tone for the cat’s cradle of contradictions and contrariness of which the novel consists.

Let’s face it, the premise of a ‘depraved atheist’ accepting a contract to edit a lengthy report on massacres in local Indian villages for the Roman Catholic Church, was always going to generate a degree of narrative friction. However, the sparks that fly as the protagonists sinks into paranoia and an unhealthy obsession with the graphic accounts he is working on are something else. Retreating further and further inside his own mind and the visions of the atrocities he is reading about, the editor finds himself wandering the naves of a vast cathedral of craziness in which he is the author of both heaven and hell.

Breathless, furious and funny, the writing reflects the mental unravelling of its subject. Moya sets out his stall on the very first page with a labyrinthine sentence that reels the reader from the editor’s desk through into the heart of one of the massacres about which he is reading. This is complemented by various startling metaphors that reflect the breakdown of the protagonist’s inhibitions as the narrative proceeds – at one point, he tells an acquaintance that Erick, the friend who found him the work, ‘had stuck it in me crooked and without lubrication’ because the manuscript is longer than he expected – and a series of hysterical rants against topics ranging from the media to vegetarianism.

The narrator’s capacity for self-scrutiny keeps him three-dimensional and he lays bare the workings of his mind with disarming frankness. At first his confessions about his tendency to get hysterical and his descriptions of the ludicrous frenzies that leave him standing in the middle of his private office acting out stabbing his mild-mannered colleagues have an endearing quality. However, as the book progresses it becomes clear that they are part of the problem themselves.

Much as the editor’s habit of reading out quotes from massacre survivors to everybody he meets to demonstrate the ‘poetic quality’ of the report begins to unsettle his acquaintances, so the unflinching descriptions of his responses to the world around him begin to take on an unsettling quality. The description of his impatience when a woman he is dating breaks down – ‘for there is nothing more repulsive to me than a woman who cries as a result of her own stupidity and who in addition asks for my commiseration’ – for example, displays a cold, almost psychopathic edge. Strangely devoid of the social filtering processes that most people sift their thoughts through, this unedited stream of confessions becomes every bit as disturbing as the manuscript with which the protagonist is working.

The result is a masterful and engrossing portrait of a mind unmaking itself. I want to say I loved it, but it doesn’t quite feel comfortable to put it that way. Something gapes beneath the narrative’s surface and makes you wary, as though you might tumble through into its labyrinth and be lost if you allow yourself to get too close.

Maybe senselessness is only one unedited manuscript away from each of us. And maybe the reasons for S.D.’s reluctance to be mentioned in the dedication aren’t such a mystery after all.

Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions, 2008)

28 responses

  1. i was looking through some of the entries and i just wanted to say how much i love your crisp, evocative style and your almost academic tone of analysis!

  2. I love this. As a freelance writer who is working on a book (based on my blog), I think I should begin considering my dedication.

    “To S., damn it” is one of the best I’ve seen! Thank you for sharing…


  3. P.S. At first, I thought this was going to be a review of Joan Didion’s “Salvador.” If you’ve read it, did you sense any resonance between the two books?

  4. Interesting take on the book. Having read about a half-dozen reviews of the book, I’m always surprised that none of those reviewing see the author’s intention.

    The author uses an atheist, led through hell by the catholic church. Think of Dante or Milton:

    “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”
    ― John Milton, Paradise Lost

    The atheist’s mind is seen as depraved and weak in this book, and by society at large.

    The atheist is used because they are easy targets, considered untrustworthy by a large majority. In fact, in the U.S., several polls placed them the least trusted of all minorities.

    Notice that the atheist is not only that, a non-believer, but a hedonist. The prose may be impressive, but the symbolism is cheap rhetoric.

    Congrats on being freshly pressed.

    • Thanks Richard. Certainly that’s one take on it, although I’m not sure I’d call it cheap rhetoric – as you say, some impressive writers have explored a similar theme in the past.

      However, the fact that the book is filtered through an atheist’s mind means that the Christian framework is tough to impose wholesale on the book – the protagonist doesn’t have access to it as a means of understanding his predicament because he doesn’t believe in it. This throws up the question of where we put / how we explain all those things that would traditionally have been associated with hell and evil if the traditional structure of religion is taken away.

      Thanks very much for stopping by.

      • Allegorically, the Divine Comedy by Dante represents the journey of the soul towards God, with the Inferno describing the recognition and rejection of sin. The entirety of the book is written and to be viewed through the framework of christianity.

        The Roman poet Virgil, does not have access to the fact he is being used as a device to guide Dante through hell. He just does the bidding of the author.

        Same for Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” It isn’t just a long-form poem, it’s a work of christian literature. The poem concerns the Biblical story of the Fall of Man: the temptation of Adam and Eve by the fallen angel Satan and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Milton’s purpose, stated in Book I, is to “justify the ways of God to men.”

        This book, is also an allegory. The atheist in the book need not view it as such, it is what we, the readers are to take away that is important. The atheist in this book, is Dante in “The Divine Comedy.”

        The reason it is “cheap rhetoric” is because it is a very old, abused literary device to make an atheist a lost soul, one who lives without morals. As most believers don’t know one, it is easy to make them appear so, because it is what they want to believe.

        In reality, if we lost all atheists tomorrow, we would lose the 93% of all scientists nominated by their peer into the National Academies of Science. Polls taken of the top scientists position on religion are easy to find online, I won’t post them here.

        Sad situation in El Salvador. This book continues the slander of an entire group of people. Few would continue writing about gays as if all of them spent their time in bath-houses having anonymous sex, as was done little more than a couple of decades ago. We’ve grown to understand the LGBT community.

        Time to understand atheists…or, just continue to portray them as weak minded people with no morals.

  5. I’m not a writer but used to love reading good literature or not so good one sometimes, I’m a mother of two now and can even start a book, soon I hope those days will come back. I’m Salvadorean and it got my attention when I say your blog on the main page here in WordPress. Moya, oh Moya, I’ve read other books from him before and the first one is called El Asco and I was offended by all the things he said about his “own country” (he was born in Honduras) and stopped reading it for a while and when back again a few weeks later. I finally understood his point and didn’t feel so bad anymore. He’s a good writer and very well known in some latin american countries. I haven’t seen much of your blog but I think it will help me to get hints for new reading material to look for.
    Cheers from Canada!

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