Flight or write

Pub date July 1, 2008
WriterAri Messer
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

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"The moment one learns English, complications set in," wrote Spanish ex-pat Felipe Alfau, in English, beginning his 1948 novel Chromos (first published in 1990). Learning English, he wrote, "far from increasing [one’s] understanding of life, if this were possible, only renders it hopelessly muddled and obscure." While this might be true of learning any new language — one starts to see how words simply refer to other words — we might say the same about literature. Are those of us who look to books for salvation making the simple needlessly complex? Orhan Pamuk claims that writing novels is just an "excuse to wrap myself up in new personas." Gregory Corso wrote of our relationship to books: "I, as though tipping a pitcher of milk / pour secrecy upon the dying page." Though not especially positive, both descriptions are sensual and alluring.

Katherine Silver’s thrilling translation of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness (New Directions, 142 pages, $15.95), the first English appearance of any of the Salvadoran exile’s eight novels, brings out the physical effects of a different type of reading: the translation of human tragedy into words, and then back into life. It begins with the incantatory phrase, "I am not complete in the mind." The sentence comes from a report of transcribed Indian testimonies of survivors of a massacre in an unnamed country that resembles Guatemala. The alcoholic, sardonic, surprisingly compassionate narrator is editing this report as a freelance gig for the Catholic Church.

On the phone from her home in Berkeley, Silver admitted that when an editor first showed her 2004’s Insentatez (Tusquets Editores) at the Guadalajara International Book Fair, she was put off by the subject matter: "I looked at it very quickly and said, I don’t like violence. Then I read it on the airplane and said, ‘I want to do this.’ It’s not really about violence. It’s all ultimately about the intimacy of language and writing."

Despite being plagued by increasingly violent fantasies ("For I am not a total stranger to magical realism," the narrator says to explain a particularly brutal one in which a brain is split in half), he is finally brought back to earth not by the truths of the report but by a paranoid (and in the end, realistic) attention to the relationship of the report to the outside world. One sexual fantasy’s effect is simply to "stabilize" his mood. Later, overwhelmed with isolation, he goes outside to "howl like a sick animal under the star-studded sky." After this release, he is able to see the real danger approaching in the shadows.

Senselessness builds so seamlessly to an arresting finale that you will immediately read it again, attentive to how the language of the report infests the narrator’s language. Silver was lucky, she said, to be working with such a "careful" writer. "A translator is a very close reader," she said. "It’s kind of like looking at a book through a magnifying glass. But I never had to second-guess him. He wears well." As a result, the moment one starts reading Senselessness, complications set in — complications we cannot live without.