Like a Buster Keaton Movie or a Time Bomb

Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Revulsion is an early exercise of an interesting writer

About six months ago, writing in the New York Review of Books, Norman Rush wrapped up his appraisal of The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya with a quiet imperative: “Five novels as well as five collections of short stories by Horacio Castellanos Moya have not yet been translated into English. They should be.”

Mr. Rush’s figures are already out of date — slightly, and happily. Available for the first time in English (translated by Lee Klein) but originally published in 1997, Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador was Castellanos Moya’s breakthrough in the Spanish-speaking world.

Revulsion is a pastiche, written in the style of the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard, one of the most important German-language writers of the postwar era. Bernhard’s books include Correction and Extinction, novels that seem to have been written by someone whose mind is as agile as his mouth is foaming. His work is largely a response to Austria’s complicity with the atrocities of Nazism, just as Castellanos Moya’s work is largely a response to the atrocities of the Salvadoran Civil War.

Revulsion, which channels the ranting Austrian author’s famous hatred of his homeland, earned Castellanos Moya accolades as well as death threats. And in El Salvador, saying you’ll kill a writer is a serious matter; the specter of Roque Dalton, a highly regarded Salvadoran poet as well as a leftist revolutionary who was assassinated by his (probably paranoid) allies, haunts Revulsion. Edgardo Vega, the narrator, describes the murder as “proof that the disgrace in which these people live contaminates even their best minds with ideological fanaticism.” This serves as a fair summation of Vega’s indictment of El Salvador as a whole.

Vega, at the novel’s beginning, tells “Moya” that he has returned to San Salvador for his mother’s funeral. Vega’s prized possession is his Canadian passport, and he has spent nearly two decades abroad. He hates El Salvador; his body rejects it like a failed organ transplant (Vega’s gastrointestinal maladies are a reliable source of humor throughout the book). One of the only places he can tolerate is his favorite bar, “the only place in San Salvador,” he says,

where I can drink and do nothing else for a couple of hours, between five and seven in the evening, for only a couple of hours, after seven this place becomes unbearable, it’s the most unbearable place in existence thanks to rock groups…

Vega meets “Moya” here and rants at him for the full two hours, denouncing El Salvador and railing against the Salvadorans, who he sees as ignoramuses (“human stupidity has no limits, particularly in this country”) with a predisposition toward violence (“they were the most sinister people I’ve ever seen in my life, Moya, four psychopaths with crime and torture stamped on their faces…”). Though Vega reserves special scorn for his family, especially his brother, everything about El Salvador disgusts him, even pupusas, the beloved national dish:

[T]hese people have dull palates, Moya, only someone with a totally dull palate would consider those repugnant fatty tortillas stuffed with chicharrón somehow edible, said Vega, someone like me with a healthy palate must endlessly refuse to eat such greasy nastiness, I once refused in such a way that my brother suddenly understood I wasn’t joking, I wasn’t going to eat those repugnant pupusas and perhaps this was the first altercation we had, in Balboa Park he began to reproach my ingratitude and what he called my lack of patriotism. You can imagine, Moya, as if I considered patriotism a virtue, as I I weren’t completely sure that patriotism is one of many stupidities invented by politicians, as if patriotism had anything to do with these fatty tortillas stuffed with chicharrón that always destroy my intestines, that exacerbate my nervous colitis, said Vega.

In the manner of Bernhard, Revulsion consists of one unbroken paragraph, sentences that all run together; it’s a madman’s soliloquy, interrupted only by the occasional “said Vega,” a daub of authorial distance.

You’ve got to get yourself out of here Moya, set sail, relocate to a country that exists, it’s the only way you’ll write something worthwhile, instead of your famished little stories they publish and applaud you for, that’s good for nothing, Moya, pure provincial groveling, you need to write something worth it, and here you won’t do it, I’m sure. I’ve already told you: this place is at odds with art and any manifestation of the spirit; its only vocation is commerce and business, which is why everyone wants to be a business administrator, to better manage their commercial and business dealings, this is why everyone bows at the feet of the military, because they learned to be effective businessmen and establish business connections with them from the beginning thanks to the war, said Vega.

Vega talks in loops, repeating variations of the same phrase. (He must be quoted at length to give any sense of the style.) One of the consequences of a rant is that it often makes the ranter look as bad as what he’s ranting against. Vega spends as much time bemoaning El Salvador’s lack of refinement and good taste as he does their death squads. His indictment of his country becomes, in part, an indictment of himself.

The brutality of the Salvadoran civil war (Castellanos Moya’s first memory is of a bomb exploding on his grandfather’s porch) fuels Revulsion’s outflowing of paranoia and disgust. But literature should not be so simple; Castellanos Moya has called Revulsion a “shock, a discharge of frustration,” but also “an exercise in style.” Revulsion is quite funny, actually, in a dark, droll way. In confronting tragedy, Castellanos Moya wrote toward comedy. Towing the line between horror and laughter is where he most like Thomas Bernhard. The final twenty pages or so, where Vega describes a night where he goes to “get fucked up” with his brother and his brother’s friend and subsequently loses his passport, is a slapstick pièce de résistance.

Where Revulsion is least like a Bernhard novel is its lyrical energy, but you can’t fault an imitator for failing to live up to the imitated; a copy of something is always diminished, a little. The novel is perhaps not a perfect pastiche, then, at least in translation (as I know barely enough Spanish to order in restaurants, and zero German, I can only compare translations). Revulsion is is an early exercise of an interesting writer. Castellanos Moya completists won’t want to miss it, and neither will Bernhard-heads, but those unfamiliar with either writer might be better served by one of their great novels, such as The Dream of My Return or Extinction.

Having said that, weighing in under 90 pages, Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador is too short — and too funny, and too weird, and too angry — to be a waste of time.

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