Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Tyrant Memory is a book of revolution, of tanks rolling through city streets, of intrigue, imprisonment, and exile, of torn families and firing squads — but it will not for that reason be passed around dorm rooms, nor is it likely to feature on Glenn Beck’s old chalkboard. In El Salvador in April 1944, the dictatorship of Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, a fascist who welcomed the advance of Hitler, suffered first a coup, then a general strike. Led by a coalition of patrician families, businesses, and banks, the strike succeeded in toppling Martinez, nicknamed “The Warlock,” and winning its general demands: greater liberty, stable export prices, and closer ties with the USA.
Vive la Revolution! Revolutions, it seems, like recessions, take many forms, not many of them communist and none of them purely “from below.” The rich are in revolt at least as often as the poor, against others of their class and, more familiar to those of us in the United States, against the social and political pretensions of the poor themselves. At any rate, that stubborn image of the great unwashed leaving their humble chores — as maids and coal-miners and such — to topple statues and write inspirational graffiti, is not a great deal of help.
In Tyrant Memory, recently translated by Katherine Silver and released by New Directions, the poor aren’t even given a chance. The novel begins in the diaries of Dona Haydée Aragon, a patrician mother whose husband Pericles has been jailed for writing polemics against the Tyrant. Over the course of the novel, she gradually transforms from a loyal wife with connections into a zealous political agent. This is, of course, the glorious transformation prophesied by a great deal of revolutionary agitprop: that in the moment of struggle we will cease to be ourselves.
But Tyrant Memory is closer to The Prince than The Wretched of the Earth; and in El Salvador, politics is the birthright of an extraordinarily small number of people. The poor have food riots; the rich have the state. Our Haydée is a typical member of that transnational network of elite families, that class of multilingual Hilton hoppers who have business interests with the gringos and educate their kids in Paris and the Ivy League. These are the people with different schools, different hospitals, and different suburbs; and they expect a different police force, a different political apparatus, and ultimately a different law.
To Haydée’s mind, the terminal crisis of the 1944 revolution and the fatal mistake of the Warlock is his impertinent disrespect for the privilege of this patrician class. When Pericles is jailed, Haydée pulls her various strings: with the chief of the prison, with her family in the army, as well as with the general ass-kissers which populate the bureaucratic establishment. The extraordinary overlap of her social network and the networks of power extends to Pericles himself, who — we are hardly surprised to hear — was once the Warlock’s personal aide. As we come to see the insular connections of the network, the historical epic of a nation of millions comes to resembles the drama of a high school of several hundred — Tyrant Memory thus lying somewhere between The Battle of Algiers and Gossip Girl.
And Haydée is a sort of historical gossip: a smart, articulate, and compelling guide through a revolution cast almost entirely from her network of friends and associates. And what gossip! Pericles, when he was at the Warlock’s side, once reported the successful execution of communist leaders. Later, he returns to find “ ‘the man’ in his office, his eyes red and moist, as if he were suffering a bad conscience, trying to expiate his guilt for his crime, aware that he had stepped over a line and that there was no going back.” Moya, as usual, tends to paint-by-numbers (“stepped over a line,” “there was no going back”), but the scene itself is a wonderfully gross example of political connections, made more effective by Moya’s typically straight face.
If the book lacks a Che Guevera — and is perhaps written almost entirely against that particular myth — it has a number of potential Castros. While Guevara left his post in the fledgling bureaucracy of Cuba to make revolution across the third world, Castro stayed for the long game of politicking and propaganda. So does Pericles, the rather unsatisfying star of Haydée’s affections. Pericles is a communist of sorts, but a peculiarly well-connected communist, who finds himself allied with the coalition of coffee growers and bankers against the Warlock. Unlike the Bolsheviks, for whom banks were there to be robbed or “expropriated,” and for whom social democracy was a bridge too far, Pericles’ communism is much like communism in the United States today: a curious but tame affectation which is not held against him but which, like an interest in Heavy Metal, is not taken particularly seriously either.
Regardless, his imprisonment is an effective “McGuffin,” as it propels Haydée’s transformation, by far the most interesting part of the novel. With tanks in the streets and her family on the run, we watch as she teeters on the edge of collapse:
I somehow believe that my son and my husband will suffer terrible consequences unless I can muster all my strength. But the streets have been taken over by the general’s troops, nobody can get near the barracks, the government buildings, or the Central Prison; the authorities are telling people to stay at home. Thus my agitation flounders in a sea of impotence. I will finish knitting Belka’s sweater.
The situation, of course, is a gift — the quiet moment of reflection in the eye of a storm — and while Moya does not send it into the stands, here we see him give it a bloody good whack.
Tyrant Memory thus shuttles between scenes of political suppression and the splendor of the Latin American bourgeoisie. When the coup fails, Haydée’s family is split by the result: her son, a radio announcer during the coup, flees his probable firing squad, while her grandfather in the army stays loyal to the regime. With the general strike on the horizon, and the tyrant’s repression extending into the patrician class, Haydée begins to organize. As events zip by, the pages of Haydée’s diary resemble a catalog of historical facts, threatening to become nothing more than a superior Wiki entry, a version of the textbooks Moya canvased in his research.
At times, this novel grabs you by the collar, as it pulls you though the confident mind of Haydée. If only it stayed there. But after the excellent first section, we move to the story of the fugitives, Haydée’s spoiled playboy son Clemente and Jimmy, her lout of a nephew. Here, Moya’s formal and conceptual choices weigh rather heavily, as he decides to balance the monologue of Haydée by giving the story of the two boys almost entirely in speech. Here, the technique is unreflective, with the sentences functional and ordinary — ugly, even — next to the careful meditations of Haydée. Some of the prose, the standard filler of the airport novel, is dead on arrival: “Jimmy turns to look at him disapprovingly.” “Go ahead, keep making fun of me, see if I care.” “Oh no, we’re capsizing!”
If this is a tax on the novel, Moya seems aware that he is paying it. Elsewhere, he manufactures drama with glee. Haydée is made to write such sentences as, “where is my son at this moment?” Elsewhere, her declarations are like shots of juice: “They’ve sentenced Clemente to death!” “What a day, dear God!” “Once again, intimidation and violence!” “What a day! My goodness!” “Juan is dead!” “The warlock is resigned!” Such tactics, if cheap, are effective enough, and Moya seems happy to sacrifice a sentence or two for the speed and clarity of the plot. And while he often overplays the callous banter of the young men (“I almost fell and broke my ass!”), his set-pieces are a laugh, as when Clemente and Jimmy dress as fellows of the church and stop to hear the confessions of soldiers who are ostensibly on their trail. If Haydée’s diary is a portrait, these sections read like the quick banter of golden age movie scripts.
But Moya is mean to these boys, who are caricatures — which is not to say they couldn’t be real — and they are given the techniques of caricature with which to relate their story. The dialogue quickly becomes tiring, as it is no doubt meant to; but Moya leans too heavily on the norms of farce and the rapid quibbles of the generic odd couple. He wishes to show their immaturity, with fart jokes and dreams of fucking; but his technique means that this is all he is able to show. Novels exist, in part, to teach us that there is nothing more complex than ordinary experience: god knows it is harder to write the story of “Joe the Plumber” than Lenin or Mao. It is not that Moya aims at this complexity, but misses: it seems that he does not wish to try.
To Moya’s credit, the novel avoids the stale romanticism of most revolutionary tales. There is, of course, something wondrous about such movements, so prominent in the last two centuries: dissent so carefully organized that it can topple a state. This unattractive pair, at any rate, does not transform for the better; they do not represent some new and vital humanity. Our Marxian tradition — from Lenin and CLR James, to Frantz Fanon, who ought to have known — always returns to this basic assumption: that when societies are overturned, we who are formed in society are overturned as well. As we follow these boys, Moya’s counter-lesson becomes apparent: wherever heights are found in the glory of revolutionary action, they do not last. There is no permanent revolution. Soon, the new structures of power will find their normal work; institutions will ossify; the cruel distributions of misery and wealth will return, until one more crisis upturns the social order, and the profound energies required to confront sedimented power are discovered anew. Or: if you are a douchebag before the revolution, a douche you are likely to remain.
But there is more to it than that: the revolution of Tyrant Memory is not the revolution of Marx or Fanon, but of Bentham and Mill. It is not a fight between two great classes, but a skirmish within the ruling classes themselves. Coups are not often the work of the poor, and the 1944 coup in El Salvador is no exception. Class haunts this novel, and the new state desired by our heroes — characterized by financial reform, greater ties with America, etc. — is not a state organized for the benefit of the rural and urban poor. Haydée is not the only character to fear the “hordes of peasants.” Moya, to his credit, does not argue this case, but lets it sit, mostly unsaid, the constitutive hypocrisy of the lives of the revolutionary rich. As Moya hints at the novel’s close, the outrage of the rural poor would erupt in later years, a violent coda to the relatively bloodless general strike related in Tyrant Memory.
Moya begins his novel with a rather great epigraph from Elias Canetti, on the burden of remembering the dead, which concludes, “Perhaps human beings are not free because they contain too much of the dead and because this surplus refuses to ever be abolished.” The novel we might expect to spawn from this terrific sentiment, plump with modernist introspection and various kinds of Madeleine cakes, is clearly not in Moya’s wheelhouse. Tyrant Memory is mostly a novel of the immediate and spontaneous. With this epigraph, we are left with an uncertain fusion: the excitement of revolutionary action, of life in the flux of history, and the memories, in quieter times, of the sadness of living through these old plots.
It is only in the epilogue that Tyrant Memory is faithful to its title, when our absent hero Pericles arrives, now elderly, to wax mournful with an old friend. Though Moya frames the epilogue as the profound decline of two potentially great men, their conversations droop into easy ironies and pat Nietzscheanisms, as Moya spends his energy tying ends that were not particularly loose. Haydée’s is the only perspective, after the farce and the revolutionary kerfuffle, that we really give a fig for; when she leaves, the novels wilts.