On April 26, 1998, Monseñor Juan José Gerardi Conedera was beaten to death in his garage with a chunk of concrete, a few days after he announced the publication of a fourteen-hundred-page, four-volume report on the atrocities committed by the military during Guatemala’s endless civil war. The report detailed in painfully unambiguous terms the torture, rape, and genocide perpetrated against Guatemala’s indigenous Mayans, thought by the military to be sheltering guerilla warriors.
Senselessness, El Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya’s first novel to be translated into English, barely mentions these names and dates, yet the basic elements of the story are present: In a nameless city, a nameless man copyedits an eleven-hundred-page, four-volume report chronicling the slaughter of an indigenous people by an unnamed military regime. Castellanos Moya invigorates these facts by using them to consider the effects of memory and language, or the ways in which we absorb and tragically re-create the stories of our past.
The book’s narrator, who relates his tale in long, sweeping sentences (the translation, by Katherine Silver, is especially impressive, given Castellanos Moya’s meandering syntax), has been forced out of his native El Salvador after writing an article critical of the government. Arriving in a “neighboring country,” he is helped by a friend, who gives him the job copyediting the human rights report, or, in the narrator’s words, “cleaning up and giving a manicure to the Catholic hands that were piously getting ready to squeeze the tiger’s balls.” Both an atheist and a confirmed sensualist, he begins an awkward, frequently comic ballet of tragedy and farce—becoming fascinated by the simple, broken language of the oral histories (“There in Izote the brains they were thrown about, smashed with logs they spilled them”), while trying to persuade employees of the archbishopric to go to bed with him.
Increasingly obsessed with the horrific text he’s correcting, the narrator descends into paranoid madness, his speech limited to quotations from the report. Convinced that he’s being hunted down, not only by the soldier boyfriend of a would-be lover but also by a notorious military torturer (whose name shares initials with former head of Guatemalan military intelligence Otto Pérez Molina, whom some have accused of orchestrating Gerardi’s assassination), he hides in a church retreat and eventually flees the country just before the report’s release.
Castellanos Moya’s scabrous, forceful, and very funny style is addictive. At one point, his narrator complains that “nobody in his right mind would be interested in writing or publishing or reading yet another novel about murdered indigenous peoples.” Fortunately, our author (along with his publisher and translator) has abandoned his senses in this case.