(Sleazy) tales of revolution and betrayal


Ronald Flores examines the work of the Salvadorean novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya, one of Central America’s most prolific writers whose Senselessness (Insensatez) was published this year by New Directions

IT HAS BEEN almost 30 years since the first publication of Horacio Castellanos Moya (Honduras, 1957-): a modest anthology of six Central American poets entitled La margarita emocionante (1979). Since then, Castellanos has published nine novels, four short story collections and a political essay, which have turned him into one of Central America’s better known writers. The translation by Katherine Silver of his novel Insensatez, published earlier this year by New Directions, serves as his introduction to the English reading public.

In Central America’s literary tradition, Castellanos belongs to a generation of novelists who are beginning to gain attention beyond Latin America, along with Rafael Menjivar Ochoa (El Salvador, 1959-) and Rodrigo Rey Rosa (Guatemala, 1959-), and who follow that generation led by the well regarded Nicaraguans Sergio Ramírez (1942-) and Gioconda Belli (1948-). Even though this emerging generation of writers has a shared political background – encompassing the long Central American civil conflict and postwar social strife – substantial differences of style and perspective emerge, as expected, when each author is examined.

In his novels, Castellanos usually personifies an elitist character (wealthy or educated), who dishes out all sort of verbal abuse (funny and/or mean) on common folk, by using a polished, poignant and repetitive vernacular. Some critics claim that Castellanos’ predominant style is ironic or cynical, but I consider it sarcastic (for its constant ridicule and bitter commentary of popular traditions, habits and ideology).

Born in Honduras into an upper middle class family and educated in El Salvador, Horacio Castellanos Moya has been a journalist most of his adult life. He has lived in Canada, Germany, Guatemala and Mexico. This article intends to offer a panorama of his novelistic work from La diáspora (The Diaspora), published in El Salvador in 1989, to Desmoronamiento (The Breakdown), published in Spain in 2006.

From revolutionary militancy to partying around

Castellanos won the National Novel Award in 1988 with La diáspora, his first novel which tells the story of the arrival of Juan Carlos, a guerrilla deserter, on the Central American solidarity scene in Mexico City in the mid eighties. Castellanos portrays the Central American groups who try to hold on to their revolutionary values in the big city. The main character has gone into exile to find a place to make money and, maybe, write a novel about the murder of the two top “comandantes” of the Salvadorean revolution (the FMLN’s Ana María and Marcial).

Juan Carlos meets the cast of the solidarity groups, from the conspiratorial chief of a Salvadorean news agency to a flirty UN worker. Among them is Turco, a bohemian musician, whose anarchic voice takes over the last third of the novel that describes a party that unites all of them. The drama of the Central American revolution is diluted in a night of gossip, booze, drugs and sex.

His second novel, Baile con serpientes (Dances with Snakes, 1996), is a celebration of gratuitous violence carried out by an unemployed sociologist armed with four snakes gone wild. Even when the attacks by sociologist Eduardo Sosa carry out the repressed will of former beggar Jacinto Bustillos (whom Sosa murdered), the snakes’ complicity provides for a wicked irrationality.

Baile con serpientes presents some of Castellanos’ recurring characters (such as the police investigators Handal, Flores and Villalta and the reporter Rita Mena), as well as issues (scandals, escalating violence). But, mainly, Baile con serpientes offers a delirious speculation about the illicit relations between the financial elite, police and drug cartels that form most of Castellanos’ panorama.

Three episodes of postwar terror

In his next novel, El asco (The Nausea, 1997) Castellanos’ main character is Edgardo Vega, a professor of art history who resides in Canada. El asco mounts an intense attack on the national culture of El Salvador through sarcastic comments on everyday life: from religion to politics, and everything in between, including soccer and traditional food.

Vega repudiates all that the national culture stands for and even suffers “extreme nervous attack” for just being back in El Salvador, his country of birth. Near the end of El asco, Vega mentions the murder of the wealthy Olga María de Trabanino, which he considers a symptom of the transition that the whole region is experiencing: “from the terror of war to the terror of rampant crime”. [p.108]

His following novel, La diabla en el espejo (The She-Devil in the Mirror, 2000) is about that murder. Castellanos’ provides, through the voice of Laura Rivera, the victim’s best friend, a full account of Olga María’s love affairs, along with the lives of the rich and powerful in El Salvador. The secret world of affairs among elite families, the political intrigues behind the presidential election, a national economic scandal, all collide in Rivera’s delirious account of Olga María’s murder, in which all are suspects.

La diabla en el espejo was a finalist in the prestigious Romulo Gallegos International Literary Award, and it is arguably Castellanos’ most accomplished novel to date.

As a kind of a supplement to La diabla en el espejo, Castellanos’ next novel, El arma en el hombre (The Weapon on Man, 2001) was about the life of Robocop, Olga María’s assassin. Robocop is a former member of the army’s Special Forces whose motto is “the weak die”. The novel describes the criminal underworld of El Salvador and Guatemala and is full of links between the security forces, political parties, the economic elite and organised crime. El arma en el hombre ends up being a light, comic novel, however, since it addresses the very loaded issue in a sort of cartoonish manner and with a sci-fi type of ending.

Fictionalising autobiography

In contrast, the predominant tone of his next novel Donde no estén ustedes (Wherever You Are Not, 2003) is nostalgic. It is about the failure of the revolutionary ideal, personified in Alberto Aragón, an unemployed Salvadorean diplomat, who moves to Mexico City in search of a new beginning but dies of heart failure. Castellanos uses the life of Aragón to expand on El Salvador’s civil war, in which personal and national history intertwined. The melodramatic story, unsurprisingly, is about a mutual betrayal.

Insensatez (2004), recently published in the translation of Katherine Silver as Senselessness (2008), is set in Guatemala City. Its main character is a journalist, very much like Castellanos, who is proof reading the Church’s Truth Report. As Turco, the narrator is caught between his work and bohemian desires. The novel offers a humorous snapshot of the postwar scene in Guatemala full of international volunteers, journalists, human rights workers and politicians.

As in La diáspora, a birthday party for Johnny Silverman near the end of Senselessness gathers all of the characters, while the protagonist confesses to suffer from a compulsive need always to tell-all. The narrator also suffers from paranoia and egomania, which drive him to believe that his proof reading work makes him the centre of all conspiracies in the country. So, he flees to Europe.

With Desmoronamiento (The Breakdown, 2006), Castellanos fictionalises part of his family’s history: the marriage between a Salvadorean journalist and a wealthy Honduran, the infamous soccer war and the inheritance of Grandma Lena. The novel spans almost 30 years (from ’63 to ’92) and is a like a social chronicle of a family feud, a microscopic representation of the civil war that tore Central America apart.

Besides the sarcastic comments, the general tone of the novel is nostalgic. Desmoronamiento is a mature novel, in many ways, intense yet familiar. In that sense, Castellanos has inverted the usual focus of his novels from political to personal. This might be his best work since La diabla en el espejo.

Reading Castellanos’ work, one finds two predominant narrators, with a similar social discriminative perspective: the wealthy socialite and the disgruntled intellectual. Both characters consider themselves a class apart from the common folk of their country. This author’s main topic is betrayal, for lust or power. His general tone is sarcastic, full of cruel jokes, lacerating humour (sometimes offensive or close to hate-speech), portraying the classic Latin American intellectual pursuit of criticising established national cultural traditions.

With nine novels to date (including Tirana memoria, 2008, not reviewed here), Horacio Castellanos Moya has established his place as one of Central America’s most prolific emerging writers.

Ronald Flores is one of Guatemala’s most prominent novelists, whose works include Último silencio (Final Silence). He has also written about Rodrigo Rey Rosa for the Latin American Review of Books. Click here to read his blog

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