Born in Honduras in 1957 and raised in El Salvador, Horacio Castellanos Moya is part of a new generation of South American novelists who have been catapulted into the public eye (and into translation) following the Roberto Bolaño craze that gripped North America. Stacy Hardy interviewed him.
Like his contemporary Bolaño, Moya’s gritty urbanism and graphic political violence challenges Western perceptions of a Latin American literature rooted in “authentic” rural magical realist traditions. But Moya’s books are less a rejection of the past, than a fierce response to the contemporary global world.
It’s a world all too familiar to Moya. Exiled from El Salvador in 1997, he has lived in Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico, Spain, America, Germany and Japan. From these disparate locations he produced nine novels and five books of short stories that have made him a leading figure in South American literature.
Senselessness, recently published by New Directions in the US, is his first book available in English. And it’s easy to see why the West has so long overlooked Moya. Part detective novel, part black comedy, part literary investigation into the nature of knowledge, Senselessness frustrates easy categorisation. Based on the subversive charge of language against all dogma – be it nationalist, religious, Marxist or liberal – it opens new spaces of resistance from which we can think through how we are situated in relation to the political polemics that shape our collective contemporary reality. As Bolaño once wrote, Moya’s work is “insufferable to nationalists” and it “threatens the hormonal stability of imbeciles”.
Stacy Hardy: Many of the characters in your novels are civilians without an overtly political agenda who become entangled in politics. You have expressed a distrust of politics or the political novel. How do you negotiate space – the problems yet the inescapability, the seduction of politics – as a writer?
Horacio Castellanos Moya: That negotiation has been the story of my adult life. And if the negotiation has been successful for literature it is because from the beginning I was completely sure that I was not going to become a politician. I come from a family involved in politics, but in my late teens I didn’t like politics, I despised it, I just wanted to write poetry. But civil wars are very intense phenomena: if you are young, you find yourself suddenly supporting the side of your best friends or dear relatives or whoever has influence on you at the time. Of course very soon I got disillusioned, but I remained following politics as a journalist. I earned my living doing political journalism for 23 years, not as a reporter, because I guess I’m not a good reporter, but as an editor dealing with political powers. Less than a seduction, politics has been for me like an addiction, deeply related with political journalism. Now I am detoxified. I only have a glass of wine with the dinner.
SH: Other South American writers of your generation, such as Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño have expressed a similar disillusionment with the possibility of finding a political solution to the problems we face. If violence isn’t an option and politics isn’t an option – what’s left? How can we move forward?
HCM: Fiction writers are not supposed to find solutions to the problems of their societies. Elias Canetti used to say that a writer should be as a bloodhound that sniffs his own time, that can’t stop sniffing around, putting his snout in every hidden place. That is what we do. We can immerse ourselves through fiction in the problems of human beings and societies. But to get solutions is not our business.
SH: In Senselessness the narrator is a writer who has taken a job with the Catholic church copy-editing a 1,100-page human rights report on the massacre of indigenous people during the civil war in an unnamed Central American country. What is your experience of such reports and commissions? Could Senselessness be described as an attempt to critique or find value in that process?
HCM: My experience with those reports has been as a reader and as a journalist searching his political reality. And of course those reports have been very important and useful for our societies (Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and Guatemala). It is important to know who were the killers and who were the victims. It is important to try to heal the wounds of a society that has suffered repression and massacres. And Senselessness is not a critique of those reports, it is the story of a copy editor who has to deal with one of them without having been prepared psychologically and emotionally. A copy editor who is affected by all the violence and cruelty he is reading once and again as part of his job.
SH: You’ve described the act of writing your third novel, Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador as at least partially an attempt to rid yourself of Bernhard’s style which “infected” you after reading his work. What is the relationship between reading and writing for you? What other authors have driven you to write?
HCM: The relationship is simple: reading is first, writing is second. And regarding other authors who have been an inspiration for me (like Henry Miller, Dostoyevsky, Kundera, Bernhard), they have something in common: I can never go back to them. I read them once. It is impossible for me to read them again. Their influence is just one explosion. But there are other authors, more important for me, I guess, because I read them once and again, and most of them are not novelists: Sophocles, Ovid, La Rochefoucauld, Schopenhauer, Canetti, Cioran.
SH: On the world stage, El Salvador is notable almost solely for the brutality of its civil war and the corruption of its government. How do you write about violence in such a situation? How does one as a writer escape perpetuating the very myths you seek to critique?
HCM: Violence is everyday life in many places, including my country. So I don’t have the explicit purpose of writing about violence, what happens is that violence is part of the atmosphere where my stories take place. And I think I can’t escape of the very myths I seek to critique. A writer is part of his own time, even though he critiques his own time. He is not above or on the side.
SH: You’ve critiqued the West’s current love affair with Roberto Bolaño – the “Bolaño myth” as you call it. Are you in danger of falling into the same trap now that your books are available in translation?
HCM: Bolaño didn’t fall in that trap. He was dead when the show started. And a writer doesn’t know what is going to happen with his books once he is dead. And don’t be worried, there is only one exceptional case as Bolaño’s in each generation.
SH: In his novel, Correction Thomas Bernhard writes “If we keep attaching meanings and mysteries to everything we perceive, everything we see that is, and to everything that goes on inside us, we are bound to go crazy sooner or later, I thought.” Many of your narrators suffer this specific fate. What in your view is the relationship between power and paranoia?
HCM: The relationship between power and paranoia is malign in our times. Power needs to create and intensify paranoia in order to strengthen its control on societies. For this reason, power needs an enemy. If it doesn’t have it, it has to promote it or to create it. You can see it in the global level: once Soviet communism was defeated, big brother needed another enemy. Communist China couldn’t be, because big brother doesn’t destroy his own market. So big brother said: let’s look for those guys we trained and supported, those Islamic fundamentalists, for sure they’ll play the game. And that is what we have. It has its own logic. And most of media play the game too. I wonder who is going to be the next enemy now that it seems that the Islamic fundamentalists are in retreat; perhaps Mexican narcotraffickers. Who knows…?
SH: Your novels all work between high and low cultural registers. Who do you perceive as your reader?
HCM: I know some persons who enjoy my books in different countries, continents and cultures. Perhaps what they have in common is their love for literature as an art and their sense that we as human beings are much more complex than what we are supposed to be. Anyway, I got used to writing without thinking on a reader because I come from a society where literary life is almost nonexistent.
SH: You’ve lived in San Salvador, Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico, Spain, the US, Germany and Japan. What or where is home for you?
HCM: The translation of the word “home” in Spanish is “hogar”. But its meaning lacks all the sentimentality and emphasis that it has in English. It doesn’t make sense to ask in Spanish, for instance: What or where is home for you? We ask: Where do you come from? Or: Where do you live? Home for me is where I live. Now Pittsburgh, a couple of years ago it was Tokyo, before it was Frankfurt, and Guatemala, and Mexico and so on. In a couple of months, if I’m still alive, home will be Iowa City, where I’ll be moving to teach next August. I’m homeless if you understand “home” as a property that you own. It seems to me that all this mystification of “home” comes from the ideology of the proprietary. But I don’t see life that way.
SH: As a former newspaper founder and editor do you think newspapers can still play an important role in society?
HCM: The trend of our times is uniformity. It is the result of the concentration of all the wealth, resources and power of the planet in the hands of few corporations. Newspapers have been victims of this trend in two ways: the concentration of ownership in few hands and the uniformity of contents. Of course they have a role to play in our times, but I don’t think they are playing it; they are too much subordinated to economic and political power. Besides they face the challenge of the internet. It is not an easy time for them.
SH: What’s your perception of the socalled “Bolivarian Revolution” in Latin America? Do you see any hope in it?
HCM: Hugo Chávez is funny. He could be a very good TV comedian. I enjoy when he starts to make fun of the US politicians. The only problem is that he also is a military, a coronel. And I don’t like coronels or military officers ruling governments, it doesn’t matter the ideology they wave, because their first impulse is to militarise societies and to become caudillos. I don’t like that. And I don’t see any hope on that.
SH: There seems to be very limited interaction between African and South American writers. Do you read any African writers?
HCM: I have read some African writers. Of course, the one that I admire most is J.M. Coetzee, a white South African now an Australian citizen. When I’ve said this to some Africans writers they react very strongly. I guess it is the same reaction that we have when an African writer is asked about Latin American literature and he or she mentions García Márquez. We say: That means you know nothing. So, I know nothing. And it would be very positive to have institutions promoting Latin American literature in Africa and African Literature in Latin America. I don’t know if they exist. It would be very good for readers and writers, for increasing our mutual cultural knowledge.
The English translation of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness is available from New Directions. A review features in the first edition of Chronic Books, as part of Chimurenga Vol. 16: The Chimurenga Chronic, where this interview was also originally printed. Read the review here.