Category Archives: horacio castellanos moya

Natasha Wimmer on Horacio Castellanos Moya, Name-Checks Quarterly Conversation

In The Nation.

Graciously, Wimmer sends some kind words toward The Quarterly Conversation:

El asco struck a nerve not just in El Salvador but across Latin America. Photocopies of it were circulated where the printed book wasn't available, and in an interview with Castellanos Moya (published in the online journal The Quarterly Conversation, which does an admirable job of covering literature in translation), Mauro Javier Cardenas notes that everyone in Mexico City seemed to be reading it in the late 1990s. More than ten years after its publication, it is taught in at least one Salvadoran university, but it continues to be reviled in the Salvadoran press.

The essay covers everything by Castellanos Moya currently available in English: Senselessness (read our review), as well as the recently published novels The She-Devil in the Mirror (my essay here) and Dance with Snakes. Notably, toward the end Wimmer also briefly mentions El arma en el hombre, which I believe is being translated at the moment:

Both Yuca and Laura play cameo roles in another novel, El arma en el hombre (The Human Weapon, 2001), yet to be translated, which is a kind of companion piece to The She-Devil in the Mirror. Besides providing some revelatory information about Yuca's drug connection, it tells the story of RoboCop, the killer for hire who shot Olga María. If Laura is the warped, glossy surface of Salvadoran society, RoboCop is the machinery beneath it. He learned his trade during the civil war, and when it ended he took work wherever he could get it. At first, he tries to maintain some semblance of loyalty to his army comrades, but he soon discovers that there are no sides anymore, just shifting alliances of old-money landowners, politicians and drug lords, among whom there is always someone willing to pay good money to have someone else killed.

El arma en el hombre, like The She-Devil in the Mirror, is a conspiracy theorist's delight, a kind of fairy tale of corruption (including lovely visions of poppy fields). Every murder is a sinkhole that leads down to some crime kingpin, and the network of connections is dizzyingly complex. And yet to invoke conspiracy theory suggests that crime is always some kind of puzzle complete with a solution, no matter how byzantine.

Horacio Castellanos Moya Is Disgusted with the “Bolano Myth”

I'm not sure I can translate this properly, but this has to be one of the best lines I've read recently:

El mercado tiene dueños, como todo en este infecto planeta, y son los dueños del mercado quienes deciden el mambo que se baila, se trate de vender condones baratos o novelas latinoamericanas en Estados Unidos.

This line comes in conjunction with a very acidic essay that novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya has written on the "Bolano Myth" (published in the Argentina newspaper La Nacion). The following line explains what moved Moya to such a statement (partial translation below):

Lo digo porque la idea central del trabajo de Sarah es que, detrás de la construcción del mito Bolaño, no sólo hubo un operativo de marketing editorial sino también una redefinición de la imagen de la cultura y la literatura latinoamericanas que el establishment cultural estadounidense ahora le está vendiendo a su público.

Basically, in order to sell books marketers invented the Bolano myth, which Moya is taking as an act of U.S. cultural imperialism on Latin America. Throughout the rest of the piece, Moya goes on to argue that marketers and journalists created an image of Bolano to fit preconceived U.S. stereotypes of what a Latin American is–and especially what a Latin American author is.

Moya concludes that the Bolano created by American marketers and journalists fits in with a sterotype popularized in recent movies and books about Che:

Fue esa faceta contestataria de su vida la que serviría a la perfección para la construcción del mito en Estados Unidos, del mismo modo que esa faceta de la vida del Che (la del viaje en motocicleta y no la del ministro del régimen castrista) es la que se utiliza para vender su mito en ese mismo mercado. La nueva imagen de lo latinoamericano no es tan nueva, pues, sino la vieja mitología del "the road-trip" que viene desde Kerouac y que ahora se ha reciclado con el rostro de Gael García Bernal (quien también interpreta a Bolaño en el film que viene, a propósito).

Moya notes that most of the inspiration for this diatribe comes from an essay called "Latin America Translated (Again): Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives in the United States" that Sarah Pollack will be publishing in the next issue of Comparative Literature.

I should remark here that I covered a lot of this territory about a year and a half ago with this essay in Hermano Cerdo.

First off, I think it's pretty interesting to see how much Spanish-language authors have been pushing back on the seizure of Bolano by the U.S. intellectual classes. I think it's great, especially since it's fostering an authentic trans-national dialogue on literature (of the kind that Horace Engdahl said we don't participate in enough these days). I don't know if this sort of this happened with Gabriel Garcia Marquez when he became big in the English language, but I get the feeling that the changing relationship of the U.S. vis a vis the Latin American world has made the absorption of Bolano a little different than that of Garcia Marquez.

I can't disagree too much with what Moya says, although I think he's painting things a little too broadly. (Granted, this is a diatribe . . .) Where he's dishing out blame, he's mostly talking about the old media press and the publisher FSG, and while I would say that old media coverage of Bolano has featured a lot of what Moya calls out (remember the whole heroin thing?), I don't think FSG is quite the publisher Moya claims it to be. True, it's no New Directions, and, true again, if there was any justice New Directions would have gotten first shot at The Savage Detectives, but FSG does tend to treat literature with a lot more respect than other publishers out there.

But more than that, I do think there is a community of readers that is attempting to read Bolano on his own terms, instead of in terms of a prefabricated Latin American stereotype. Certainly there's lots of bandwagoning and dumb reader tricks happening around Bolano's books, but I do get the feeling that they've captured the imagination of many readers and inspired them to try and live up to the books.

This does happen from time to time, after all. Moya's own translator, Katherine Silver, has in fact spoken very eloquently on how a translated work of literature (in this case, Moya's own Senselessness, which I cover in an essay here) can work to subvert dominant ideas in the U.S. mental image of Latin America. She's right, and I think Senselessness has done just that with its American readership.

More on the Anagrama Panel: Bolano’s Fav’s and Vila-Matas Sauced

Garth reports some interesting findings at the Anagrama panel at PEN. First he discusses Bolano's favorite authors:

The first to speak was Daniel Sada, who, according to Herralde, was on Roberto Bolaño's short-list of favorite writers, which fluctuated according to who he was friends with at any given time. The other candidates? Rodrigo Fresán, Alan Pauls, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Javier Marías, and the man seated to Sada's right, Enrique Vila-Matas. Sada spoke about the 19th-Century tradition that shaped him, and its two great problems: managing character and managing time. He quoted Zola: "a novel with less than 25 characters is not worth reading." Sada's ambition as a young man was to write a 19th-Century novel that would also be a piece of poetry. "I understand now that this is an idiotic idea," he said. Still, his fiction is apparently difficult to translate because of his careful attention to the rhythms of his sentences. (All of this made me hungry to read his novel, Almost Never, which will be published in English next year by Graywolf.)

Actually, there are a few more authors on that list. Horacio Castellanos Moya is one of them, and you can find out the rest in this footnote in our interview with him.

Garth also delivers what I believe may be the first English-language media description of Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas:

The final panelist was Vila-Matas, whom I can only describe as looking like an Iberian Christopher Hitchens. Open-collared and looking pleasantly sauced at 7 p.m., he delivered a fluid series of anecdotes and aphorisms, most of them offering a rascally picture of his dealings with [Anagrama founder] Herralde. My favorite had to do with bumping into Herralde in a discotheque while "in a euphoric state" and lying about having completed a novel. In the end, though, Vila-Matas turned earnest. "Without the trust [of Herralde and Anagrama] it's not clear I would still be a writer."

Gotta say, after reading several of his books and viewing numerous photos of him, I never once imagined Vila-Matas as an "Iberian Christopher Hitchens." Although the rest of Garth's description rings true.

Here's video of the man himself. You make the call:

Related Content

Two New Moyas

Great news for fans of Horacio Castellanos Moya. This fall we will have two new translations from the author of one of my favorite novels of 2008, Senselessness.

In September, New Directions will roll out its second Moya title, She Devil in the Mirror, translated by Katherine Silver, who also did Senselessness.

Also in the fall, Biblioasis will be publishing Moya's Dances with Snakes, translated by Lee Paula Springer.

She Devil I've known about for a while, and it's similar to Senselessness in that it's a rather chaotic monologue, this time spoken over the course of a few days by one woman as she stares at herself in the mirror.

Dances with Snakes is new to me, although Letras y Libres reviewed it back in 2002 when it was published in Spanish. The review, though not entirely positive, does make it sound pretty incredible:

Dos planos se contrapuntean en la novela: el de la realidad misma, poblada de horrores, mentiras, deseos emboscados, miserias diversas, y el de la imposible y que quiere ser efectiva alegoría, trazada mediante símbolos y confiada en el hipotético ánimo del lector, en sus ganas de sonreír, complacido por una exageración sin velos. Primero la realidad: en una zona donde habitan personas de baja clase media, se instala una destartalada carcacha acaso intencionalmente llamativa por el amarillo de su vieja carrocería. Se oculta en ella un hombre que contribuye al misterio mediante su hosquedad, su marcada misantropía, su fascinerosa facha, y que sale a la luz sólo a recolectar desperdicios para luego mercarlos y surtirse de aguardiente.

Hasta este punto todo parece ocurrir normalmente: un vago entorpece la calma de un barrio e inquieta a un hombre no cercano a la normalidad. Luego Castellanos Moya dispara la acción de la novela para dotar a ésta de un ritmo notable por su velocidad, sus firmes trabazones, sus nudos finos.

Needless to say, expect coverage of these in The Quarterly Conversation.

A Writer Comes Home to Death Threats

Words Without Borders has a short essay by the Salvadorian author and personal favorite Horacio Castellanos Moya. In it, he discusses how he discovered the death threats occasioned by his novel El Asco, whose title has been translated as "Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador."

Ten years ago, in the summer of 1997, I was visiting Guatemala City and staying with a friend when the phone rang in the middle of the night. It was my mother calling from San Salvador: badly shaken, she said she had just received two phone calls from a threatening man who told her I was going to be murdered on account of a short novel I had just published a few weeks prior. Despite the fact that my mouth had gone bone dry from the sudden shock and the feeling that my blood pressure had gone through the roof, I managed to ask her if the caller had identified himself. She said no, he had not, but that he had made his threat in earnest. She asked me worriedly if, under the circumstances, I was still going to come home as I had planned.

The novel which aroused such wrath is called Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador. I had written it a year and a half earlier in Mexico City, as a stylistic exercise in which I attempted to imitate that great Austrian writer, as much in his style, which is rooted in cadence and repetition, as in his content, which consists largely of acerbic criticism of Austria and its culture.

Moya discusses El Asco in our interview with him.

CR Readers’ Picks

Based on Amazon purchases made through links on this website, the following are the "picks" of Conversational Reading’s readers for 2008:

#1

By a large margin, The Invention of Morel was the most popular purchase among readers of this blog. Obviously, my sincere praise of this book helped move it along, but I’m convinced that not nearly as many copies would have been purchased if this wasn’t a great book, and if Borges wasn’t Bioy’s literary collaborator. A great read, and if you haven’t had a chance to yet, definitely pick it up.

#2

Not really a surprise, but something of an unusual pick is experimental British writer B.S. Johnson’s novel-in-a-box, The Unfortunates. Clearly, readers were drawn to this one for the atypical presentation (loose signatures collected in a box), although Johnson’s status as one of Britain’s most notable experimental authors of the late 20th century certainly didn’t hurt. For all you Johnson fans looking for more, be sure to check out Jonathan Coe’s excellent biography, Like a Fiery Elephant.

#3

2666. For quite obvious reasons.

#4

There’s a bit of a tie for fourth place with Senselessness, Television, and The Siege of Krishnapur, all excellent books. It’s a little interesting to see Television so high up, as it was published a couple years back and I’ve been talking more about two of Toussaint’s other books this year: Monsieur (re-issued this year) and Camera (published in English this year). But I won’t argue with your choice: I like them all, but I would put Television on top.

#5

A number of books tied for fifth place:

#6

And here are the rest that made a notable impression, saleswise:

The Art of Political Murder

This year, many U.S. readers became familiar with a new voice from Latin America–Horacio Castellanos Moya, whose novel Senselessness was published by New Directions in an excellent translation. (And has since been nominated for the Best Translated Book of 2008.) The novel is narrated by an obsessive, paranoid writer whose improbable job it is to edit a 1,400-page report documenting atrocities that occurred during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. (About 1/4 of the report is simply a listing of the names of innocents murdered.)

Like many, upon first encountering Senselessness I took this report as the product of Moya’s twisted imagination, but it is in fact quite real. The report, entitled Guatemala: Never Again, was published in 1998 and there’s even a shortened trade version of it available for purchase.

Two days after the report was published, Guatemalan Archbishop Juan Gerardi, who was the force behind the production and publication of the report, was assassinated in Guatemala City. From the get-go the murder was highly suspicious, and Francisco Goldman’s journalistic book The Art of Political Murder lays out the years-long effort to prove that the Guatemalan Army was in fact behind the murder and punish those involved.

Goldman is best known as the author of three previous novels set in Central America. (I’d say that he’s the U.S.’s best fictional chronicler of that region.) Although he has published his journalism widely, this is his first book-length non-fiction work. He’s done a good job here, as The Art of Political Murder is deftly plotted, well-characterized, and meticulously researched.

Part of what leads to the psychological breakdown of Senselessness’s narrator is the uncanny quality of the testimony of Guatemala’s native peoples, which he reads while proofing the report. Most of the testifiers are native speakers of a Mayan language, and their Spanish is spotty. But rather than diminish the intensity of their speech, the narrator finds that this gives their testimony a poetic quality that makes it all the more powerful.

The Art of Political Murder includes a few passages from the report, and I was surprised to find that it corresponds very closely to the language reproduced in Senselessness.

For those who enjoyed Senselessness, or simply for those interested in finding out about the fallout from one of the most disastrous U.S.-sponsored wars in Latin America, The Art of Political Murder is highly recommended.

Horacio Castellanos Moya Fun

I will now present to you many links regarding Horacio Castellanos Moya, whom you will all remember as the Salvadoran author of the recently translated Bernhardian novel Senselessness.

First, there is this profile of him that I wrote for Boldtype magazine. Here I will quote myself:

After fleeing El Salvador, Moya eventually ended up in Guatemala in 2003, and his stay there inspired his only novel that is currently available in English, Senselessness. This passionate, sexual, paranoid rant is the story of a writer gradually driven insane as he edits a 1,100-page report documenting atrocities committed during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. As with most of Moya’s work, Senselessness is short overall, while its sentences are long and sinuous. It is a book that gapes in horror at the brutalities people inflict upon one another, but, at the same time, it also indicts the audience for craving art about the darkest incidents of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Second, I will remind you that The Quarterly Conversation has an interview with Moya himself. We also reviewed Senselessness. Please read both of those right now.

Third, the current issue of The Bloomsbury Review features my interview with Katherine Silver, translator of Senselessness. (As far as I know, the interview is unavailable online, but the magazine itself is widely available). One more time I will quote myself:

TBR: In Senselessness, Moya is a big
comma-user. To a large degree these commas
regulate the pace of the sentences, and
the sentences are always changing speed. If
you compare Moya with someone like
Proust or Henry James, these writers have
long, elaborate sentences too, but their sentences
always seem to move at the same
speed, whereas with Moya we’re up and
down depending on the narrator’s erratic
consciousness. What was it like trying to
reproduce this effect in English?

KS: Again, this is part of what made
the translation interesting, challenging.
One thing we did—and this was the
editor Barbara Epler’s suggestion—we
got rid of the serial commas. I liked the
effect of that because it made the adjective/
noun combinations more fluid, as if
they were all one unit, and it let the
comma be more of a pause in these long
sentences. If we had cluttered up the
book with things like serial commas, I
think we would have lost the impact of
the punctuation.

TBR: Do you feel like you were successful
in keeping Moya’s rhythms?

KS: I hope so; this was the biggest
challenge of working on Senselessness.
Whenever I hear Horacio read the book
out loud, I’m pleased. I can see him getting
into a rhythm with the English;
even though he’s not pronouncing the
words quite right, he gets into his own
rhythm and he seems to have an intuitive
sense of the text. It’s a beautiful
kind of layering: There’s his text on the
bottom, and then my translation, and
then him again reading it—interpreting
it, really—and drawing on both.

Fourth, those living in the San Francisco Bay Area have the opportunity to see Silver discuss Senselessness, translation, etc as part of the Center for the Art of Translation’s Lit&Lunch series. The date is October 7, the time 12:30 – 1:30, the place 111 Minna Gallery:

Join us for the first reading of our 2008-2009 season. Katherine Silver reads and discusses her NEA award-winning translation of Senselessness, Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novel in which a boozing, sex-obsessed writer finds himself employed by the Catholic Church to proofread a 1,100 page report on the army’s massacre and torture of thousands of indigenous villagers a decade earlier, including the testimonies of the survivors.

The event is free, although I believe you will be smiled upon favorably if you make a donation.

John Biguenet, Rising Water; Horacio Castellanos Moya, Senselessness

Risingwater
We are not lacking for literary responses to Hurricane Katrina; the one that has engaged me the most so far is playwright and novelist John Biguenet’s. As a New Orleans resident, Biguenet wrote about the disaster’s aftermath for the NY Times. He also used the disaster as a backdrop for a play, Rising Water (video info and stills from the performance), the first of a trilogy considering Katrina. After hearing him speak about it, I hope it’s coming to the Bay Area soon.

I recently had the opportunity to see Biguenet discuss Rising Water at an event put on by the Center for the Art of Translation. The play involves a couple trapped in the attic of their house, watching the water slowly creep up the stairs and into their refuge. As Biguenet explained, their likely fate was rather unenviable: many real-life Katrina victims did just as the couple in the play did, climbing from living rooms to attics as the water invaded their home. The lucky ones were able to punch out a window and escape to the roof before the water enveloped their home completely; those that didn’t faced likely dehydration and death while waiting for rescue that was criminally slow in coming.

This was an event by the Center for the Art of Translation, and though Biguenet published his play in English, there is translation involved. For the play, he integrated a haunting short story he wrote about the wife and daughter of a ship’s captain who died and are buried at sea. For the play, the story is told by one protagonist to the other as they pass the time it the attic. Biguenet read his story to us, and then we watched the "translated" version by performed by two actors as a story-within-a-story in the play.

After the performance, Biguenet discussed the metaphorical significance of the water in his play. He considered the play primarily about the couple’s very personal response to crisis and likely imminent death. Only secondly was it about the disaster, and for him with water worked on multiple levels: he mentioned the titular rising water being something that every couple faces, either as strife due to a souring relationship or as an inevitable part of life and death. He said that the story he translated into the language of the stage was a way to implicate the hurricane while maintaining focus on the central relationship.

Moya
The week following Biguenet
, I saw novelist Horacio Castellenos Moya read from his new novel, Senselessness, at City Lights. Moya is either an aspiring actor, someone who has internalized the narrative voice of this novel, or simply a person who has given this reading many, many times, because his interpretation of the protagonist’s inner monologue was spot-on. Moya speaks English with a heavy accent, and this perfectly suited the narrator, especially as Moya repeatedly returned to the narrator’s refrain: "I am not compleet in de MIND."

Moya read from the novel’s first pages, in which two things are repeated again and again: "I am not complete in the mind" and "one-thousand-one-hundred pages" (the length of a report on atrocities the narrator is editing). Hearing Moya speak these refrains with emphasis and color hammered home the importance that these two quotes have for the novels opening section. Hearing Moya read also worked as a curious kind of re-reading–while he read I started seeing new associations between the starting chapter and the rest of the book.

Publisher Barbara Epler and translator Katherine Silver were also on hand for the event. I was surprised to hear Epler say that she had first learned of Moya from novelist Francisco Goldman, who had also first brought Roberto Bolano to her attention. At the event, Epler mentioned that the next Bolano novel from New Directions would be The Ice Rink, and that, in addition to his poems and novels, they will be publishing a book of his essays. Epler mentioned that much more Cesar Aira is on the way, as well as another novel from Moya (I’ll be eagerly waiting), with a title currently translated as "She-Devil in the Mirror."

LINKS

Smithsonian
The Smithsonian now has a flickr photostream.

News

* Matt Cheney releases the TOC for Best American Fantasy 28

* Blackwells in the UK is testing out the so-called book ATM in one of its stores. At 40 pages per minute, you could POD a copy of Vollmann in under half an hour.

* The Wall Street Journal shows how Amazon shows its clout, turning a summer book into a bestseller:

Driving that unexpectedly heavy demand has been strong
reviews and promotional support from Amazon.com. The Web retailer chose
the book as one of the best books of June and aggressively hyped it,
including by posting a long and enthusiastic blurb from best-selling
author Stephen King. The same blurb was printed inside "early reader"
copies sent to reviewers, bloggers and booksellers.

Amazon also kept "Edgar Sawtelle" on its home page for
two weeks at a 40% discount before the book hit stores, and posted an
essay written by the author at Amazon’s request.

* 100 best reads of the last 25 years

* The Literary Saloon points me to this profile of an author many consider "the most important Romanian writer of the last two decades"

Reviews

* Steve Mitchelmore has a great review of Senselessness. In addition to teasing out more of the Bernhardian influence, he gives a delightfully balanced look at the book that, thought positive, doesn’t shrink from honest critique.

* Matthew Cheney offers an overwhelmingly positive review of Stoner by John Williams, a book I keep hearing very good things about

* In Rain Taxi, a review of a sort of librarian-superhero comic, Rex Libris:

We have few badass librarian stories. Joss Whedon gave us Rupert Giles, who can swing a sword as well as shelve a tome. Kelly Link introduced us to Fox, the gorgeous and similarly sword-wielding librarian in the story "Magic for Beginners." The husband of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveller’s Wife takes care of Special Collections as his dayjob. The orangutan librarian of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is not to be messed with. Infinite librarians inhabit Jorge Luis Borges’s very small story, "The Library of Babel."

This is a fine company of heroes, but, given what we owe librarians, it is still an insufficient tribute. Librarians were among the first to stand up to the Patriot Act. They safeguard the sum of our knowledge and keep it findable. They let us read books for free. They spend their days battling forces of darkness and ignorance, and now they have Rex Libris to demonstrate this to the world.

James Turner’s square-headed, noir-ish, immortal survivor of Alexandria’s famed library is a marvelous creation.

Essays

* In The Guardian Colm Toibin on The Golden Bowl

* TNR offers an essay/review of the new work of criticism from the increasingly omnipresent Adam Thirwell

Video

Author and Believer-editor Ed Park discusses his new book, Personal Days, as part of the Authors@Google series.

The Rest

* Boxing’s highbrow appeal

* Chad Post runs down contemporary Japanese lit

* Chas Newkey-Burden hates second-hand books because previous owners tear out chapters and leave their snot in them. I find this a little dramatic. As someone who regularly picks up books off the street (and also buys plenty second-hand), I don’t think it’s too hard to flip through to see if a book has been defaced, and have yet to find any bodily waste lying in wait for me.

* Tolstoy’s translator is too sensitive?

* Books for which burning is too gentle a response

* Someone thinks he’s figured out who Godot was. But this person also interprets The Crying of Lot 49 as about the JFK assassination. So . . .

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