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)

Uruguay: losing your head

There are some titles that reach off the shelves, grab you by the throat and all but frogmarch you to the check out (or in this case the virtual cash desk with the little man hiding somewhere around the back of the computer) to make you buy the book. Horacio Quiroga’s The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories was one of these: as soon as I stumbled across the work on one of Wikipedia’s lists of writers by nationality, I knew I was going to read it. The fact several visitors to this blog subsequently recommended it only made me more excited about what I might find inside.

As its name suggests, this collection of short stories – selected from across Quiroga’s oeuvre by translator Margaret Sayers Peden – focuses on the startling, violent moments in which lives are altered beyond recall. Death, cruelty and vicious coincidence stalk its characters, feeding off their weaknesses and rarely allowing anyone to escape scot-free. There is the Indian worker driven to plot his bloody revenge by the high-handed discipline of a captain in A Slap in the Face’ and the father who retreats into eerie hallucinations after his young son’s death in a shooting accident in ‘The Son’ – a real shiver-in-the-sunshine moment in the best of the Gothic tradition. Meanwhile, the mini-masterpiece that is the title story shows how years of disappointment, hard luck and neglect can be distilled into a single, horrific act.

Jean Franco and George D Schade make much of the disturbing events of the writer’s own life in their Foreword and Introduction (several of Quiroga’s closest relatives and friends died in violent accidents, his first wife committed suicide and he killed himself in 1937). While these traumas must have impacted heavily on Quiroga, there is a strangely panicky feeling about the critics’ repeated references to them, as though they are anxious contain, defuse and even explain away the savage power of the text. At times, their comments take on the apologetic tone of the relative outside the room of the manic-depressive, whispering that dear Quiroga is not quite well.

This is perhaps because many of the stories in the book exhibit a disturbing, almost anarchic, approach to reality and sanity that is even more troubling than the violence they portray. From weird parables such as the story of ‘Julian Darien’, in which a tiger transforms into a boy only to be tortured to death by the villagers when his mother dies, to the excellent The Pursued’ — which describes the narrator’s obsession with a mentally ill friend-of-a-friend that makes him desperate to get at ‘the madman behind the actor who was arguing with me’ — the stories never allow the reader to relax. Turn your back for a second and the landscape has shifted, the rules changed: Quiroga is a writer who must be watched at all times.

It doesn’t always work. Some of the reversals are too abrupt and, while many of the animal stories are compelling, the anthropomorphism occasionally falls flat on its face – ‘Anaconda’, for example, in which snakes set out to attack the research centre trying to find an antidote to their venom feels like a bridge too far. Similarly, Quiroga’s dipping between registers, which is often effective, can sometimes feel odd, as in the opening story ‘A Feather Pillow’, the ending of which reads more like a public health pamphlet than a denouement.

But these are minor quibbles. All in all, this is a masterful collection that lifts the lid on some of the deepest and darkest wells of human experience. It will linger with the reader long after it’s been put on the shelf. Highly recommended.

The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories by Horacio Quiroga, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)