A man is condemned to a small room in a castle in a land that is not his own. A thousand typewritten pages cover the desk before him. Each of the thousand pages recounts two hundred murders. The man will not be released until he has read every word of every cold-blooded killing, and has made sure that every comma and period is in place.
For the average North American, this scenario probably reads like a Kafkan parable, or one of Stanislav Lem’s thought-experiments. In Central America, however (where, the joke goes, “magical realism” is just called “realism”), it might pass for a news item. Indeed, in the cathedral of Guatemala City in 1998, a thousand-page document very much like the one above was presented to the public. It was the work of the church-backed Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (REMHI) project, and it recorded in meticulous detail the Guatemalan Army’s reign of terror during a 30-year Civil War. Two days after its release, Bishop Juan Gerardi, who spearheaded the effort, was found beaten to death in his own garage.
Now two of our most talented writers – the Guatemalan-American Francisco Goldman and the Salvadoran Horacio Castellanos Moya – have trained their sights on this singular event. The resulting books are, in many ways, a study in contrasts: one is long where the other is short; one is factual where the other is fictional. Taken together, though, they offer a contour map of Central American politics, a shadowland where the borders between the state and the individual, between the nightmarish and the quotidian, and between narrative and truth threaten to disappear entirely.
Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed The Bishop? takes a journalistic approach to the slaying of Bishop Gerardi. Through eight years of painstaking reporting, Goldman confirms that Gerardi’s murder was in fact an assassination, and he reconstructs the plot in forensic detail. Unlike Goldman’s three novels, The Art of Political Murder takes a meat-and-potatoes approach to language; the book’s real art lies in its narrative structure. It builds its case in widening circles, implicating layer upon layer of bureaucracy. The cumulative effect is like Rashomon – every time we return to the central murder, we see it from a new angle – except that, with each reiteration, Goldman is bringing us closer to the truth.
He is also, not incidentally, taking us on a tour of Guatemalan history. It turns out that the horrors documented in the REMHI report were not as remote from the metropole as they seem. They were facilitated, like parallel campaigns in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras, by funds and personnel from the U.S. government. We learn here of the United Fruit Company’s machinations in the Kennedy cabinet, and of the double-dealing of later presidents. We learn of the bureaucratic intricacies of Guatemala’s security apparatus, which persisted even after the negotiated peace of 1996. Really, Goldman concludes, the military campaign never ended.
In many ways, the legal battle over the Gerardi case turns out to be a proxy war, a struggle for control of the historical record that pits the people of Guatemala against the Army’s powerful officer corps. Goldman’s political sympathies are clear: he stands with the supporters of REMHI; the military men who plot against them are portrayed as soulless killers. But confined to the hothouse of Guatemalan politics, this struggle between good and evil takes on the urgency of a thriller, and the moral grandeur of opera.
Like Goldman, Horacio Castellanos Moya writes about the REMHI report from first-hand experience; unlike Goldman’s, his experience predates the Gerardi murder. The months he spent editing human rights documents in Guatemala might have made for an interesting memoir, but in Senselessness, Castellanos Moya is apparently after something more. In 140 trenchant pages, he crafts an intimate first-person account of the psychological toll state-sponsored terror exacts on witnesses as well as victims.
Like the late Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard (at least in Castellanos Moya’s memorable formulation), the narrator of Senselessness “is a snake. He has rattles. He has poison.” But here Castellanos Moya bends the long Bernhardian prose line to his own purposes. His sentences (in Katharine Silver’s sinuous translation) coil through registers and tenses:
Life is marvelous, I exclaimed to myself, about three hours later, marveling at the sight of [a girl]… about whom I knew so little until that moment and who was about to become the object of my attentions but also those of half a dozen indolent beasts drinking beer in the Modelo Cevichería, a kind of food kiosk with a few plastic chairs squeezed onto one side of the small plaza in front of the Conservatory, half a dozen beasts among whom I ought to include myself a bit shamefacedly and who were stupefied and drooling as they stared at the two girls crossing the street in front of the Conservatory and approaching down the sidewalk toward the cevichería.
It also registers the uncertainty and insecurity (“a bit shamefacedly”) behind the imperious voice.
The narrator’s emotional and syntactical excesses are in constant tension with the novel’s spare architecture: we get a setting scrubbed of identifying markers – it could be any Central American capital – and very few actual characters. In place of any real plot, Castellanos Moya gives us a growing sense that the narrator is losing his mind.
The proximate cause of his breakdown is the haunting language of the report he is editing. Phrases from the testimony of the war’s survivors lodge in his mind like burrs, but he is unable to communicate their poetic power to the Guatemalans around him, who appear inured to horror. As he meditates privately on his lines of found poetry – “That is my brother, he’s gone crazy from all the fear he has said“; “For me remembering, it feels like I am living it once more” – his sexual frustration, misanthropy, and paranoia converge and threaten to engulf him. And then, in an unnerving conclusion we come to see that the narrator’s blackest intimations may in fact be evidence of sanity.
North of the border, we now tend to confuse literary gravity with literal weight. Our most serious novels are doorstoppers. But Senselessness, like Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star (or, from the 1980s, Humberto Constantini’s The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis), reminds us that the short novel has a heft of its own. It will be interesting to see in the coming years what North American writers can learn from their colleagues south of the border. The region’s recent history may be a kind of charnel-house, but it has forged a generation of writers who synthesize political conviction and aesthetic bravura, on canvases small and large.