ALTHOUGH HE COVERED his country’s civil war as a journalist and has spent periods in exile, the Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya has denied that he writes “political novels.” But his fiction is deeply concerned with the machinations of politics and, in particular, the deleterious effects of political violence. And it dresses down its grisly subjects with a raucous, biting style.
In Senselessnes, the person hired to edit an 1,100-page report investigating human rights abuses becomes enchanted by the beauty of the document’s language. He also becomes deeply paranoid, seeing threats to his safety at every turn. In Dances with Snakes, Eduardo Sosa, an unemployed man with a useless liberal arts degree, kills—without forethought or feeling—a mysterious drifter, and then assumes his identity. Sosa discovers four talking snakes in the drifter’s car and embarks with them upon a killing spree around San Salvador that sends the country’s ruling establishment into hysterics, eventually leading to the bombing of a poor section of the city.
It is one of the virtues of Castellanos Moya’s work that these stories are not simply farces. The paranoia that he produces in his characters is both amusing and highly credible, straddling the boundary between satire and the absurd. It is also socially useful: as the translator and critic Natasha Wimmer has written, Castellanos Moya has “redeemed paranoia as a positive indicator of rot.”
In this body of work, Tyrant Memory, originally published in Spanish in 2008 and recently translated into English by Katherine Silver, stands apart. It is a novel explicitly concerned with politics, but there is nothing farcical about it, and it contains little humor or irony. Instead, it is a strange thing from this otherwise mischievous author: a historical novel that at times seems wistful for an era when the lines of political conflicts were more visibly drawn.
Most of Tyrant Memory takes place in El Salvador between April and May of 1944, when Maximiliano Hernández Martínez ruled the country. A committed fascist, Hernández was also an occultist. In a line that Castellanos Moya borrows for his novel, Hernández once declared that “it is worse to kill an ant than a man because the man will reincarnate and the ant will not.” Although we never see Hernández in Tyrant Memory, Castellanos Moya leans heavily on the president’s reputation as a manipulative, eccentric despot: The “Nazi warlock,” as the president is here called, “has made a hodgepodge, to suit his needs, of many Eastern doctrines. … [he] is a theosophist, he holds séances, he believes invisible witch doctors, and he demands that his close circle of friends call him ‘maestro.’”
Tyrant Memory is mostly told in sections alternating between Haydée Aragon, a forty-three-year-old wealthy society woman whose husband, Pericles, is in jail for criticizing the president, and Aragon’s son Clemente, who participated in the failed coup of April 1944 and is now on the run. Haydée comes from a prosperous family, and between her family and Pericles’s, they are well connected to the ruling elite. Her father-in-law, for example, is a taciturn old colonel, part of “the military old guard, those who supported the general’s coup d’etat twelve years ago and have remained loyal to him ever since.” With Pericles in prison and Clemente fleeing for his life, Haydée gingerly steps into the political fray, working with other upper-class women, some of them recently made widows, on a growing protest movement.
Haydée’s chapters are told through her diary, and much of her time is concerned with trying to visit her husband in prison. A former military man, Pericles became a journalist and later supported the warlock. His family connections brought him into the president’s inner circle, where he acted as his private secretary, and he later was named ambassador to Belgium. Eventually he left the government and he and his family were temporarily forced into exile in Mexico. The few lines he utters tend towards gnomic bits of counsel, such as, “one must never tell priests names because priests are also men, and men can never keep secrets.” But like the warlock, Pericles is mostly absent from the story.
In its early pages, Tyrant Memory seems to promise a kind of Malraux-style spectacle of political intrigue, with conspirators, spies, rebels, and loyalists trying to upend or preserve the status quo. In the aftermath of the failed coup, when Clemente, a radio host, escapes from San Salvador with his cousin Jimmy, an air force officer, we are treated to some tense scenes in the attic of a priest’s home. But Clemente’s chapters become bogged down by a peculiar problem: Clemente himself. This would-be revolutionary is terribly annoying. While Jimmy is savvy, brave, and attuned to the threat of danger, Clemente can only talk about his insatiable need for alcohol or badger Jimmy. By the third or fourth such chapter, Clemente’s selfishness and generally unbearable nature have been hammered home so forcefully that he sucks the oxygen out of every scene in which he appears. The Haydée chapters are an improvement, but they feel cloistered, the perspective keenly narrow. Written in her diary, Haydée’s narrative appears in the form of journal entries, rather than fully fledged scenes, and so we rarely emerge from her inner monologue into the violent dynamism of El Salvador’s interregnum.
Castellanos Moya’s work is known for its unaffected, plain language—a defensible aesthetic choice except for when the text lapses into cliché, as it sometimes does in Silver’s translation. After a hard day, Haydée “felt like something the cat dragged in”; later she is “chomping at the bit.” These lapses rankle in a novel that, despite taking place mostly within a single month, seems curiously languid. Since we know from history that the president will be booted out of office soon enough, the intervening events must make a strong claim on the reader’s interest, by means of character or by means of language. But Clemente is intolerable, Pericles and the president mostly unseen, and Haydée, while appealing, is not allowed to emerge as much more than a tortured matron. And if one looks to the language, disappointment also follows. Unlike Dances with Snakes and Senselessness, in which Castellanos Moya’s clipped prose helps to create a sense of frantic delirium, the writing in Tyrant Memory retards an already sluggish plot.
Tyrant Memory is certainly not a bad book, but it often feels like a banal one, too willing to confine itself to a limited view of a fascinating period in a country’s political history. Rare are moments like the one when Haydée reflects on an important moment in 1932. Pericles was then the president’s secretary, and he had spent a night overseeing the executions of some captured rebels. At dawn, he went to report to the president, whom he found with “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.”
These are the sorts of vignettes that define character and that, in this case, propel a president far down the path towards monstrosity. In a long epilogue set in 1973, Castellanos Moya returns to this sensibility and to this particular anecdote, this time told by Chelon, a lifelong friend of Pericles. As they totter towards the grave, the old revolutionaries revisit their past and tell us the fates of some of the book’s characters after 1944. This scene, full of fine detail, brings us closer to the protagonists than any of the preceding 230 pages. Still, the power of this section relies too heavily on nostalgia—a potent narcotic to be sure, yet one that wears off quickly, as we are asked to mourn people we never really knew.
Jacob Silverman is a writer in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Tablet, and many other publications.