TOWARD THE END of Salvador, Joan Didion’s account of her visit to El Salvador during its 12-year civil war, one episode crystallizes the “local vocation for terror” that so gripped the small Latin American nation. In the parking lot of a morgue, Didion finds her car boxed in by two motorcycles and further impeded by three men in uniform, one of them “caress[ing] the G-3 propped between his thighs.” A request to leave receives only an enigmatic smile. “This was a kind of impasse,” she writes. “It seemed clear that if we tried to leave and scraped either motorcycle the situation would deteriorate. It also seemed clear that if we did not try to leave the situation would deteriorate.” Finally, desperately, her driver manages to maneuver onto a curb, and out of the lot. “Nothing more happened,” Didion concludes, “and what did happen had been a common enough kind of incident in El Salvador, a pointless confrontation with aimless authority.”
The novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya, an exile from El Salvador, seems permanently transfixed by arbitrary terror. His novels, five of which have been translated into English, chart the lives of those thrown into what Roberto Bolaño called Latin America’s “Secret Vietnam.” As in the purest of Greek tragedies (Moya calls Sophocles one of his favorite writers), his slim, exacting books operate according to the shifting logic of distant, mysterious forces. The Olympian gods were the original aimless authority; the various players in Latin America’s civil wars, with their capricious interests, capacity for violence, and callous indifference to suffering, are the gods’ modern incarnations.
Moya’s characters have internalized a nation in which, Didion writes, “no ground is solid, no depth of field reliable, no perception so definite that it might not dissolve into its reverse.” In The She-Devil in the Mirror, a society woman in San Salvador investigates the murder of a friend, because, she says, “the authorities will never find out anything and people will simply forget.” Trying to disentangle the threads of this apparently motiveless murder leads her into extreme paranoia: “Can you believe it, somebody escapes from jail […] And on the same day they uncover [a] multimillion-dollar fraud?” It seems as if no crime in San Salvador is committed without every sector of society being implicated. No ground is solid, and her investigation is a form of madness, which eventually drives her wholly insane.
The narrator of Senselessness suffers from what might be called document-madness. Hired by a bishop to copyedit 1,100 single-spaced pages of testimony from the massacred indigenous people of an unnamed country (probably Guatemala), the narrator buckles under the horror. He, too, descends into paranoia, perceiving between the lines of newspaper columns “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.” Although Moya ironizes such paranoia — there’s often something comical to his characters’ mania — this isn’t the stylish paranoia of a Thomas Pynchon novel or the mild paranoia of having one’s metadata collected. This is the paranoia that lives in terror of rape, mass graves, disappearance. “Things here are always worse than we imagine,” says an old man in Tyrant Memory, and as Moya himself noted in an interview, “[P]aranoia is another way of being realistic in a violent society.”
Erasmo Aragon, the narrator of Moya’s new novel, The Dream of My Return, has internalized El Salvador to an extreme degree. Indeed, this manic, alcoholic, frequently lecherous journalist-in-exile has so absorbed the Secret Vietnam that it has vanished into his intestines. Were it not for a vicious case of colitis, he might never have been alerted to what he’s been repressing — the murders of his father, his friend, and, more broadly, his identity. Living in Mexico City in the last years of the civil war, Erasmo is set to return to El Salvador to start a magazine, and this harrowing, even maddening novel is a novel of many returns: Erasmo’s impending homecoming, but more importantly the awful return of memory.
Don Chente, a retired doctor and fellow exile with ties to Erasmo’s family (the Aragons are the subject of several Moya novels), sets about curing Erasmo of his colitis. But instead of prescribing medicine, Don Chente retrieves Erasmo’s memories through hypnosis. Erasmo doesn’t recall these sessions — snapping out of hypnosis is itself a “returning from so far away” — but Don Chente records his patient’s testimony in a book. To Erasmo, Don Chente becomes a mystical savior, “a kind of modern Paracelsus” exploring “the black hole in my mind.” Erasmo expects “a summation during which Don Chente would repeat back to me, methodically and with consummate wisdom, what had come out of my mouth during those trances, consequent to which he would illuminate those dark areas of my psyche that were irritating my intestines and were responsible for certain kinks in my character.” In detailing all that Erasmo expects from Don Chente’s “book,” Moya seems to be ironizing the role of Latin American authors at large and how much we readers expect them to illuminate their continent.
One of Erasmo’s kinks, of course, is paranoia. Like the House of Atreus, the Aragons are cursed, their family tree decimated by politically motivated murders — or murders one can only, in the aimlessness of Salvadoran history, presume political. (This is, after all, the nation where the revolutionary poet Roque Dalton was executed by the very revolutionaries who had his verses on their lips.) It is easy, even realistic, for Erasmo to believe that the family curse has pursued him into exile. In his uncle Muñecón’s apartment, the conversation turns to politics, while Erasmo wonders how his uncle managed to bed Iris, a much younger girlfriend:
Then an idea flashed through my mind, not as a suspicion but as an absolute conviction: Iris was an informer for the Mexican intelligence services, hired to keep an eye on the plots being hatched in Muñecón’s apartment, the meeting place of Communists and one or another ultra-right-winger.
This thread is left hanging, is never developed into a coherent conspiracy. But such thoughts are part of Erasmo’s self-obliterating cycle: “It was to chase away this last idea, to put a stop to the paranoia that was spinning out of control, that I stood up and walked over to the table to pour myself another brandy.”
Another one of Erasmo’s kinks is shared by many Moya characters: his constant need for escape. We already know him to be a fugitive from memory, an avid drinker and user of hallucinogenic mushrooms and peyote, all of which abet him in simultaneously escaping himself and burrowing further into himself. This is not someone who can bear being alone. Even the most annoying friend is better than no one at all, and the moment Erasmo escapes his wife and daughter, he’s on the scent of another obsession: “a brunette with long legs scantily covered by a miniskirt, and a round upturned ass,” someone who will “listen intently to all my woes.” The only calmness this compulsive, vacillating, sometimes repellent narrator achieves is in the hypnotic trance, where there’s no memory, no narration, absolutely nothing at all. If only he didn’t have to wake up.
How effective is hypnosis in curing Erasmo? Don Chente’s sessions are successful in returning fragments of memory, some of them profoundly troubling. But this is not an optimistic parable of psychological catharsis. Unlike so many writers working with memory, writers who have faith that pronouncing the horror somehow silences it, Moya constantly barricades that exit. In this Sophoclean vision, we live in a tragic universe, and the process of memory, with its hard-fought reclamations and brief vistas of relief, is yet another phase of decline. All together, Moya’s novels ask, What is the real use of memory? Won’t someone tell us? For the epigraph of Tyrant Memory, Moya chose lines from Elias Canetti’s The Agony of Flies: “Would it be better if nothing remained of our lives, nothing at all? If death meant our instant obliteration in the minds of all who have had images of us? Would this be more considerate of those who follow?”
Erasmo Aragon is one who follows — and unfortunately, the death of friends and family members hasn’t obliterated his memories of them. Somehow, he must reckon with the past, and Don Chente helps him recognize certain patterns. He comes to see, for instance, that the breakdown of his marriage — “a swamp of reproaches, bitterness, and accusations” — is directly linked to his relationship with his grandmother, who monopolized his affections as a child. He sees how his sense of masculinity was challenged early by the murder of his father, and how El Salvador has permanently infantilized him: “it was as if my umbilical cord were attached to that place.”
But Moya always pulls the trapdoor on a character’s will to change. “Seeing clearly the source of an illness didn’t mean that the illness would cease to exist,” Erasmo realizes and, in doing so, subtly calls into question our reading of books like Moya’s: what good does it do? So much literature has poured forth from the Secret Vietnam, but perhaps the 1,100 single-spaced pages of indigenous testimony in Senselessness comprise the true Latin American book of books. And what did it mean for the man who read it? “We all know who are the assassins!” he concludes, “a shout that fired up my passions and went wholly unnoticed.”
In any event, Erasmo Aragon is denied the chance to read his own testimony. That long-sought-for methodical summation is never delivered. Don Chente’s mother dies, and he returns to El Salvador, where he disappears. Upon hearing the news, Erasmo is plunged into an even more desperate paranoia, convinced that some awful confession is contained in that book and reawakened to the danger awaiting him in El Salvador. Suddenly, the dream of his return is a “naïve, even suicidal enthusiasm,” a death warrant he’s signed with his journalism: “What made me think that the Salvadoran military would […] forget the stacks of articles I had written against them […] during my Mexican exile?”
Although Moya’s books are far from autobiographical, he does strategically apply autobiographical touches to suggest that sense of tragic destiny so central to his vision. Like the narrator of Senselessness, Moya really did advise a human rights organization in Guatemala until 1998. In April of that year, Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, who commissioned the report on the massacred indigenous, was assassinated. Knowing this, in reading that novel, we are constantly aware of the murder, just as we can’t watch Oedipus Rex without its ending in mind. This is the grimmest sort of dramatic irony, again suggesting that every triumph, every instance of comic relief, is just another episode in an ongoing, universal tragedy.
The Dream of My Return contains several autobiographical touches, to the same ironic effect. We never learn what happens to Erasmo in El Salvador — this is, after all, the dream of his return, not its reality — but Moya himself returned to El Salvador from Mexico in 1991 to start a monthly magazine. Neither the right nor left of his intensely polarized society embraced the project, and the magazine soon folded. Bankruptcy is probably the happiest fate Erasmo can expect.
Such futility is enough to make one paranoid, and as Moya would argue, this is the only realistic response. In fact, his books suggest that paranoia might be the only moral response. Paranoia keeps a multitude of unresolved variables in play, without ever arriving at a definite narrative; every perception, as Didion wrote, is apt to dissolve into its reverse. In the bloodlands of internecine El Salvador, to be paranoid was to be exempt from ideology. In an interview with Guernica, Moya describes how reality stacked up against the political narratives of the revolutionary parties: “What we realized is that reality is more complex… There is not one true narrative… It’s when you believe that there is, believe it totally, that’s when you end up with problems.”
Erasmo echoes this sentiment: “experience had taught me […] that many realities overlap in the same time and space.” And it’s true that, despite his political journalism, Erasmo Aragon doesn’t strike the reader as an especially political man. He writes largely to make a living and says, “I had no desire to be a martyr.” Horacio Castellanos Moya, for all his political sophistication, also doesn’t seem an especially political writer. Both author and character are too intellectually nuanced, too experienced, too paranoid. In Erasmo’s case, paranoia is both his only redeeming quality and his probable unraveling, whether through alcoholism, madness, or some other pointless confrontation with aimless authority. As for Moya, paranoia is the source of his literary power and the reason why his books rank among the strangest and most incisive contemporary Latin American works brought into our language.