Snake Meat and Reefer: Horacio Castellanos Moya

November 12, 2010 | 7 books mentioned 4 7 min read

This is what meeting one of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s narrators is like: you’re in a squalid cantina in Guatemala City, in an alley by the archbishop’s palace. Or maybe it’s a chic place in San Salvador, across from the mall, where the waiters are gorgeous and they serve fancy cold cuts with the rioja. They come late, and when they arrive they seem a little off – a little strung out, a little jumpy. Right away, they want to tell you everything, all at once: about the article in today’s paper by some has-been calling them a hack, Kati’s dress and how fat she looks in it, a conspiracy between drug dealers and the military police, the best place to get oysters, and isn’t marimba music terrible, the worst, and how they’d like to sleep with the Spanish girl from the human rights office, and did you hear about Olga?, of course she’d already fucked him before she died. It’s a torrent. You can’t get a word in edgewise so you just sip your beer or your wine and wonder if it’s the cocaine talking or something they got from their psychiatrist. But you are enjoying yourself, because however one-sided it is, they’re supplying everything a good conversation needs – sex, secrets, politics, and death, and because they’re funny, really funny, even as they’re being morbid or petty or paranoid. And they are paranoid – persecution-complex, Nixon-level paranoid. But as Kurt Cobain said, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you. Besides, you think, in this country, who knows what’s true and what isn’t, so you relax and settle into a rhythm and take in every story as it comes. And that’s when the real mayhem starts.

Even at the rare moments when they aren’t narrated in first-person, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novels feel like monologues. Like the best monologues, they float on a wave of relentless interiority, a steady stream of talk which feels like it is being pumped directly out of someone’s skull and which, however insane, carries the electricity of live thought (Moya has been lucky to have translators – Katherine Silver and Lee Paula Springer – who have been able to render this whoosh in English).

covercoverIn an interview at The Quarterly Conversation, Moya claimed to be influenced by Elias Canetti’s conception of the writer as “a custodian of metamorphoses,” the writer as someone who has the ability “to metamorphose himself into the people of his time, no matter how weak, miserable or dark they are.” Moya is a gifted mimic, and “weak, miserable or dark” isn’t a bad description for his protagonists, who are often limited and usually more than a little crazy. Thomas Bernhard is another major influence (the subtitle of Moya’s most notorious novel El Asco translates asThomas Bernhard in San Salvador”), and Bernhard’s almost boundless capacity for revulsion runs like a chain through his work. But Moya’s novels go beyond simple ventriloquism or scorn. They read like gonzo thrillers or amphetamine-fuelled nightmares, and owe at least as much to the pulp violence of Richard Stark or Mickey Spillane. Which is to say that it’s possible to draw up a perfectly respectable late-Modernist pedigree for Moya, reaching back past Bernhard and Canetti to Notes from the Underground and on through Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, with pitstops at Simenon and Gombrowicz. But to get at the mood of comedy and dread that saturates his work you need to think of Ralph Meeker’s deadpan sadism in Kiss Me Deadly or Lee Marvin disappearing into the shadows at the end of Point Blank.

coverOn the first page of Dance With Snakes, a beat-up yellow Chevrolet materializes on the curb next to a San Salvador housing project. The car is home to a ragged, bearded drunk who roams the neighborhood scavenging for trash. Eduardo Sosa, an unemployed sociologist who lives across the street, tries to befriend him. He joins him on his rounds and learns that his name is Jacinto Bustillo and that he was once a factory accountant. Outside a filthy bar called Prosperity, a toothless dwarf named Coco performs oral sex on Don Jacinto. They brawl; Jacinto kills the dwarf with a broken bottle. Eduardo slits the older man’s throat.  At this point, the novel finally leaves the world of the mundane.

Eduardo returns to Jacinto’s car and climbs inside. He feels as if he hadn’t just killed a man, but cut a hole in the fabric of reality, “As if I were Don Jacinto, as if the pocketknife with the bone colored handle were a kind of scalpel I’d used to make an enormous incision that allowed me to penetrate the world in which I wanted to live.” The car is home to four poisonous snakes – lady snakes – with names: Beti, Loli, Valentina, Carmela – and the ability to communicate. Eduardo explains to them that he is the new Bustillo, and together they set out on a two-day orgy of unspeakable violence.

Moya narrates the spree alternately through Eduardo’s eyes and over the shoulders of dogged cop Lito Handal and tenacious girl-reporter Rita Mena. In between explosions, stabbings, mass snake-bites, and stampedes, an image of San Salvador and Salvadoran society at large starts to come together in flashes, like the picture in a zoetrope. Politicians serve the wealthy; both are in bed with the drug cartels, and the cartels use the drug enforcements squads meant to pursue them for protection. Corruption is everywhere; the gulf between rich and poor is immense. Or, as Eduardo puts it:

We went downtown, to the buildings destroyed by the earthquake, the sidewalks packed with the street vendors selling piles of used clothing from the United States, the sound of hundreds of stereos playing at the same time, and the crazed crowds of people pouring out onto the streets. The yellow Chevrolet moved at a snail’s pace through the sea of bodies. It was hard to believe that what had once been the historic city centre had now been plunged into chaos, only as a result of the government’s indolence. I wanted to do my good deed for the day and help clean up the neighborhood. I stopped the car where the crowds were thickest and told the ladies to go out for a stroll.

coverSenselessness is written from inside a whirl of complexes: narcissism, sex-addiction, megalomania, paranoia, and a gnawing sense of inferiority – as a Central American among Europeans, as a writer, as an amateur among professionals. The narrator (unnamed, though clearly meant to be Moya’s stand-in) is a coward, a would-be womanizer and, from the sounds of it, a hack writer.

At one point he gets an idea for a novel.  He has been hired to copy-edit a 1,100 page report detailing human rights abuses perpetrated by the military against Mayan villagers. Some of their testimony sounds like poetry to him. He copies certain sentences in his notebook, like “I am not complete in the mind” or “At first I wished to have been a poisonous snake, but now what I ask for is their repenting,” and repeats them to everyone he meets; they remind him of César Vallejo. The novel is going to be about a dead man he dug up in his mound of documents, a murdered civil registrar from the town of Totonicapán, who would tell his story as a semi-decapitated, fingerless ghost, “always with the fingerless palms of his hands pressing together the two halves of his head to keep his brains in place, for I am not a total stranger to magical realism.” He comes up with this plan in bed. After, he gets up and takes a shower, heads over to a bar to meet a girl, and forgets about the whole thing.

When Senselessness came out, John Leonard faulted Moya for “aestheticizing…traumatic utterance.” He went on to sniff that the only thing clear at its end was that “the victims of genocide have not yet found a witness worthy of them.” In fact, Senselessness doesn’t spend much time on witnessing or utterance because it is miles apart from the naïve surrealism and moist hand-wringing which its novel-in-a-novel mocks. Moya knows how to treat his subjects obliquely. Here, the aftermath of a decades-long massacre becomes the occasion for a sex farce, an office comedy, and a paranoid thriller. The last lines turn the whole thing into a black joke.

coverLaura Rivera, the narrator of The She-Devil in the Mirror (2009), is Moya’s finest monster, less out-and-out destructive than Eduardo Sosa but at least as deluded (to the point that it starts to seem like clairvoyance), and with all the frenzy of Moya’s stand-in in Senselessness but with none of his hang-ups. A rich girl, her father owns coffee plantations outside of town and bought her a BMW for her eighteenth birthday. She was married and divorced; now she’s forever on the prowl – for gossip, for men, for distraction.

When She-Devil starts, Laura’s best friend Olga María has just been gunned down in her living room in front of her children. Laura is shocked, incredulous, and suspicious – and never shuts up about it. The book comes in nine chapters, and each one is a soliloquy delivered in a different place: at Olga’s wake, in Church, at a restaurant, on the run. We never hear what her interlocutor has to say; after a while we wonder if she’s even there.

Laura Rivera can’t stop talking about Olga’s murder, but she also can’t stop talking about herself. Her self-absorption, snobbery, and racism come out in waves, but for all her obliviousness, the death of her friend turns Laura into a kind of detective. She starts thinking about everyone she knows, starting with her ex-husband and the men Olga slept with. Like that, the little world of San Salvador society comes into focus: affairs, holding companies, coke habits, political rivalries, abandoned warehouses, embezzlement, and assassinations, all with no more legwork than a trip to the beach. In the background, Police Commissioner Lito Handal and reporter Rita Mena, last seen in Dance With Snakes, go about their jobs. So does Robocop, a former soldier, a killer with a shaved head on the run from one of Moya’s un-translated novels.

Politics in Moya’s novels is mostly an issue of making things visible. His characters move through societies unhinged by civil war and narcotics smuggling, and their manias channel wider pathologies. In the same way that the ticking time-bomb in Petersburg throws a moving spot-light on a city lurching toward revolution, violence in Moya’s books illuminates the collusion and corruption of power. Even Laura Rivera ends up sounding disillusioned: “It’s awful my dear… the same thing will happen that happens with all the crimes committed in this country: the authorities will never find out anything and people will simply forget about it.” Part of the fun of Dance with Snakes is that, by the end, Eduardo’s spree feels like more of an overreaction than outright madness.

But at the same time, Moya, who lived through the beginning of the Salvadoran Civil War and was twice exiled because of its repercussions, mostly keeps the recent past in the background. Even in Senselessness, which takes the aftermath of the Guatemalan Civil War as its immediate topic, it comes to the surface most forcefully in the corners – in old stories, rumors, and dark suspicions. In the two Salvadoran novels, the war is almost all substrate, history for people living violently in the present.

In the end though, Moya’s addled protagonists are capable of keeping his books aloft on their own steam. His novels are as much about the compulsive pleasures of speech as they are about anything else. As records of a time and place they lack any trace of didacticism or cant. As fictions they carry a sense of giddy possibility, of literature as a game without rules. So when you find yourself with Eduardo Sosa sitting down to a dinner of soup made from his dead snake lover and a pile of stolen marijuana, a soup which carries in itself the distilled essence of the snake’s lustful spirit and which propels Eduardo into a four-way inter-species orgy, you feel compelled to agree with his verdict: delicious.

is a writer and critic based in Berkeley, CA. His writing has appeared in The Awl, Tablet, Slate, Los Angeles Review of Books, Prospect (UK), and