by Horacio Castellanos Moya
Reviewed by Chris Faatz
There are a lot of great one word descriptions that come to mind when I consider Horacio Castellanos Moya's new novel, Senselessness. Among them are driven, obsessive, wrenching, and paranoid. The one that seems best, however, is fevered, as this sums up perfectly the pitch at which this brilliant and devastating novel spins out.
Written with virtually no paragraph or sentence breaks, Senselessness is a tightly woven, brutally compelling tale of the progressive mental deterioration of its narrator, a man who has been hired to copyedit the testimonies of an unnamed country's indigenous survivors of government massacres. Senselessness follows the logical thought process of a mind under tremendous pressure; the story is delivered in the form of a series of loosely connected thoughts that fairly leap off the page into the reader's imagination.
The unnamed narrator is a man like any, though with perhaps more vices than most. He's a neurotic, a misogynist, and a drunk; constantly suspecting others of being out to get him, he continually weaves elaborate fantasies of revenge for perceived slights. His interactions with women are horrendous, completely and calculatingly instrumental, with but one goal in mind.
As the novel progresses, the narrator's paranoia inexorably deepens, as eloquently depicted in this excerpt:
...until I got to Polo Rosas's column, where to my surprise I saw myself mentioned in a most ignominious way, that hack whom I'd met only a few times in my life when I lived in Mexico stated in the aforementioned column that I had told him that so-and-so had told me that another so-and-so had been opposed to Polo Rosas being awarded a prize for his novel ten years before, which of course left me flabbergasted not only because of the false nature of the information but also because the entire rigmarole had been drummed up to prove that I was some kind of snitch, which would have been nothing worse than insignificant gossip if I didn't find myself at that moment carrying out a delicate task whereby the genocide perpetuated by this country's army against the unarmed indigenous population was being documented and exposed, making me almost choke on my coffee, and I didn't feel like even tasting my churros when I realized that this was a clear message from the Presidential High Command letting me know in no uncertain terms that they knew I was in that city, involved in what I was involved in, which wasn't really a surprise to me, considering the high quality of the military intelligence services, the surprising aspect being that they would employ some hack with a reputation as a leftist rebel to communicate this message to me.
Perceived plot upon perceived plot, calculated countermeasure upon calculated countermeasure, the whole book rolls out in this intricately web-like, utterly fantastic and complex manner. It also resonates with the reader as totally true. In the end, not all of the narrator's perceived plots stem from the government, and his reactions grow more and more elaborate and his utterances increasingly histrionic.
Clearly, on one level, this is a novel about the author's homeland of El Salvador, the site of some of the dirtier aspects of the civil wars of the '60s and '70s. On another level entirely, this is an utterly riveting psychological account of a mind under siege and of its response as it progressively deteriorates under the pressure. Senselessness is a painful and demanding book. It's also incredibly beautiful, and, in a way, emblematic at the deepest levels of what the response of any human being -- with all of his or her foibles -- might be under such terrible duress.