With a newly-elected leftist government in El Salvador, exiled Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya is optimistic about the future of a country that once responded to his novels with death threats.
One night in the summer of 1997—a week after the publication of his third novel, Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador—Horacio Castellanos Moya’s mother received a midnight phone call: “We’re going to kill your son.”
The message was a wake-up call not just for Castellanos Moya’s mother, but also for a writer who, like many of his peers, had hoped the conclusion of his country’s civil war might usher in a new era of dialogue and peace. In twelve years of violence, from 1980 to 1992, armed conflict between leftist guerrillas, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), and an arch-conservative party of merchants and military men, Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA), had nearly beaten the nation’s collective head into a coma: right-wing death squads raped nuns and gunned downed priests in their pulpits; college students dropped their books so they could shoot at each other with automatic rifles; revolutionary leaders, in a paroxysm of passion and confusion, executed the country’s beloved revolutionary poet, Roque Dalton; the tortured bodies of peasants who’d supported the wrong side appeared regularly on rural roads. Seventy-five thousand graves were dug during those twelve years.
Despite the signing of peace accords in 1992, in the years following the civil war many more bodies were still to be buried—a result of soaring poverty, rampant crime, and gang violence, one of the most corrupt military and police forces in the world, and politicians who still seemed trapped in a state-of-siege mentality. Receiving threatening phone calls in the years after the war, says Castellanos Moya, “did not make you special.”
Born in 1957 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Castellanos Moya moved to San Salvador at the age of four and lived there until 1979, when he left to attend York University in Toronto. On a visit home to his mother in 1980, he got his first real taste of the violence of war. In downtown San Salvador one day, he recalls, he found himself at a demonstration of unarmed students and workers. He watched the massive procession from the sidewalk. Suddenly, snipers—government “security” officers—appeared on rooftops and opened fire on the marchers. At least twenty-one people were killed. Like many in the crowd, Castellanos Moya ran. He left El Salvador that March and did not go back to Canada to resume his studies. Instead, he traveled to Costa Rica and Mexico, where he found work as a journalist, writing sympathetically about the student and worker organizations that had joined forces to form the FMLN in the wake of the January massacre. But soon, as he supported the guerrillas and their rebellion from afar, he became disillusioned by violent in-fighting within the party and what he describes as its gradual “Stalinization.” In 1991, he returned to El Salvador to start a magazine, hoping to take advantage of the new space for dialogue he imagined would be opened by the end of the civil war. The right hated the publication, the left wanted nothing to do with it, he says. The magazine eventually folded.
In nine novels, written in rented rooms and friends’ apartments as he worked as a journalist abroad, Castellanos Moya has voiced the sense of loss and frustration felt by an entire generation of Latin Americans in the aftermath of the revolutionary conflicts of the nineteen eighties. From Senselessness, a twisted and poetic descent into one man’s confrontation with the recent history of genocide in Central America (published in English by New Directions last May), to The She-Devil in the Mirror, which follows the murder of a high-society Salvadoreña into the shadowy corners of political power (to be published in English this September, also by New Directions), to Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, in which the Thomas Bernhard-esque main character, Edgardo Vega, returns to El Salvador after eighteen years to deliver a 119-page diatribe against his country of birth—Castellanos Moya has captured the disappointment of post-war El Salvador. “Human stupidity has no limits, particularly in this country,” says Vega, in an especially vitriolic section of Revulsion, in which the founder of ARENA is a “criminal psychopath killer of archbishops turned into a heroic forefather,” FMLN politicians are “rats that traded their preaching about justice for any crumbs that fell from the table of the rich,” and the national university is a “turd expelled from the rectum of the militaries and the communists.”
It was lines like these, in fact, that so enraged some Salvadorans they took to the nation’s op-ed pages and demanded the book be banned. They threw the novel out windows and into fires and onto trash heaps. They called up Castellanos Moya’s mother and told her they would kill her son. They convinced the author, finally, that in El Salvador there could be neither saviors nor critics. Nothing, Castellanos Moya thought, would ever change. And so once again he left the country, this time for good.
But this March 16, in an historic presidential election, something did change in El Salvador. Led by former journalist Mauricio Funes—a man who wears sleek sport coats in place of olive combat fatigues and who has commented on other nations’ civil wars as a wildly popular CNN en Español host, but has never fought in one himself—the FMLN accomplished what they were never able to do with guns: take power from ARENA. Now, Funes and the FMLN will inherit a country in which the terror of war has been replaced by the terror of constant crime, where gangs and political death squads slay civilians on the streets of San Salvador regularly, and the implementation of free-market policies like CAFTA have done little to bolster a national economy that provides less than half of the country’s population with adequate food or shelter. Will the party be able to save the country this time? What has changed since the civil war? What will the future hold for El Salvador?
I spoke with the acclaimed author by telephone the night after the election, from his apartment in Pittsburgh, where he’s lived since 2006 as part of a city-sponsored “Writer-In-Exile” program. When I called, he answered in a jovial voice that seemed at odds with the glowering author photos adorning the backs of his books. He was on a long-distance call with his mother in El Salvador, he said, could he call me back in twenty minutes? When I spoke with him later, he apologized and explained that even after twelve years of her son living in exile, “She still worries when the phone rings late at night.”
—Wes Enzinna for Guernica
Guernica: What was your mother’s reaction to the elections?
Horacio Castellanos Moya: Oh, she doesn’t care about politics.
Guernica: What was your reaction?
Horacio Castellanos Moya: I think the fact that ARENA accepted the results is incredible. I mean, wow. I was shocked they accepted defeat so easily.
Guernica: You were worried they might stage a coup, you mean? Or try to rig the results?
Horacio Castellanos Moya: Yes, it would not have surprised me. I mean, you’ve got to remember the history of ARENA. They’ve ruled the country for the past twenty years. The party was created by the core group of people responsible for creating the death squads; it was a kind of fascist party from the beginning. Of course, it’s changed a lot, they’ve brought in new faces, a lot of younger people, technicians, newer politicians with different ways of thinking… They’ve evolved a lot, but there is a kind of ideological element in the party that is still very fascist… I mean, have you heard their anthem? [Singing] El Salvador will be the tomb where the Reds meet their end!… I mean, that’s their anthem to this day.
Guernica: And what about the FMLN? They’re not exactly “reds” anymore, are they?
Horacio Castellanos Moya: Well, no. You have to remember that the FMLN was originally created as a kind of defensive organization. Any time there was an opposition party that wanted to fight for power through democratic means, the military destroyed this party, their leaders were tortured, their leaders were killed. This was the story in the thirties, in the forties, in the fifties and sixties. So it was very natural that in the seventies, after so many decades of not having any possibility of participation or winning an election, it was very normal when the new movement decided, okay, here there is no democratic way, the only way is to take weapons against these guys, because these guys only understand the language of weapons.
Guernica: But you were eventually disillusioned with the FMLN. How did that happen?
Horacio Castellanos Moya: The killing! ARENA, of course, was responsible for a lot more violence on the whole, but the FMLN committed their share, too. They were a guerilla army. And of course, you start to read… I started to learn about the history of the communism and all the killing of Stalin and how this system didn’t work… but, at the same time, you see that inside the FMLN, they had all these crises in their own ranks. In 1983, with what happened between [Ana Melinda] Montes and [Salvador Cayetano] Carpio [in January of that year, these two high-level FMLN commanders were killed in a bizarre murder/suicide after a doctrinal dispute within the party], I say, fuck, these guys are crazy. So that’s when I thought, wow, this is very easy to just to get the same kind of shit that you are criticizing of your enemy.
Guernica: And what about Roque Dalton? Were you aware of who he was before he was murdered? You had read his poetry already?
Horacio Castellanos Moya: Yes, of course. I mean the big contradiction for the Salvadoran writer of the seventies and eighties was the fact of belonging to the left and knowing that the left had—well, “the left” is a really general way of saying it—the left had an armed organization that had killed Dalton in a very horrible way, without any common sense around the killing, just passion and rivalry.
Guernica: And how has the FMLN changed between then and now?
Horacio Castellanos Moya: Well, the FMLN was created as a socialist organization, to build socialism—and by and large, the idea of socialism was defeated when the Soviet Union collapsed. It was a boon. Not only for them, it was a problem for all of the Latin American left. Their political identity, to say the least, was in crisis. Besides that, the FMLN has had so many factions, so many splits, and people have defected. For a long time, the party was controlled by a group of leaders that, for me, represented the worst creation of the old communist ideology, in the sense that these leaders were educated in the time of Brezhnev and they represented that old Stalinism. So I think the fact that in this election, the FMLN had the intelligence and the audacity of proposing Funes as their candidate, that could only happen because the old communists have died out. It’s a renovation of the party, a new attitude, a new openness. They are becoming a much more modern, contemporary leftist party. Now they are a lot more like Lula [da Silva] in Brazil or [Michelle] Bachelet in Chile, for example, than like Castro.
Guernica: Does this mean they’ve given up their effort to really change Salvadoran society, to redistribute wealth in some substantial way, for example? I was just listening to Funes’s acceptance speech and was surprised to hear him invoking liberation theology, talking about how the country was going to follow the “preferential option for the poor.”
Horacio Castellanos Moya: I don’t think there is going to be any attempt to redistribute wealth, no. The liberation theology stuff, I think, is just rhetoric. Of course, a big challenge for Funes is going to be with his own party, with the old guard members who are still committed to some of the revolutionary ideals of the civil war. But I think now they are a minority. What we’ll probably see instead is that [the FMLN] will actually try to tax the rich in the country. This is the big challenge for many societies that have been ruled by rightwing parties, fiscal reform, tax reform, because in those societies, rich people don’t pay taxes… I don’t know if you remember a couple years ago when all the Salvadoran banks were sold to international banks? They didn’t pay a single cent in taxes, because all the assets of the Salvadoran banks were registered as the property of entities in these little islands in the Caribbean. That’s the idea of “nation” these people have.
Guernica: What about Revulsion? What prompted you to write it? And why did you think Thomas Bernhard would be a suitable voice for describing these things about El Salvador, all these things you were frustrated with?
We tried to do things in a new way, but political forces on the left and the right didn’t want to have anything to do with us. They just wanted to share the cake.
Horacio Castellanos Moya: This was the thing with Revulsion. I didn’t do any planning, just one day, the last day of 1995, it was six o’clock and I was just in a very bad mood, expecting to go to a New Year’s Eve party, and I was in Mexico at that moment and this kind of, this frustration that we were talking about, I started to write and at the time I had been reading Thomas Bernhard, and his voice had infected me, had infected my mind, so I thought, I’ll get it all out. So I wrote that book, in three weeks or something like that, and then I put it in my drawer. Three years later it was published. But I was not thinking about it; it wasn’t that I decided, “Bernhard is the voice for El Salvador!”
Guernica: But Vega’s criticisms of the country are so vivid, they’re sort of maniacally specific. I mean, it seems like they must have come easy to you as you were writing the book.
Horacio Castellanos Moya: Okay, well, when I was writing, I suddenly discovered not only that I had all these ideas in my head, but I discovered I had this character through whom I could tell all the biased prejudices, all the phobias, that I heard in El Salvador. This character is a kind of cocktail of every complaint I’ve ever had or heard about El Salvador. But people think that because of that book that I don’t like pupusas [a thick corn tortilla snack popular in El Salvador, which Vega describes as tasting like feces]. I like pupusas. Or they think I don’t eat chuco de canchas. I love chuco de canchas.
Guernica: What about your disappointment in the failure of the revolutionary promises of the eighties, especially your disappointment over the relationship between, I don’t know what you’d call it, the cultural and political left? I mean, that’s a theme in El asco [Revulsion], and in lots of your other books too, especially your first one [La diáspora, which tells the story of a group of young exiled Salvadoran intellectuals living in Mexico City].
Horacio Castellanos Moya: Yes, that is a great concern. For me and for others, we thought that the creation of new political movements, new political institutions, would open up the possibility of having democracy after the civil war. And at the same time, we thought this meant there was going to lead to a creation of cultural institutions that were going to create a new kind of society, right? We thought we could do that; we started a newspaper [Primera Plana, which ran from 1994-1995]. But after a few years, we discovered that Salvadoran society was just exhausted, there was nothing new in a cultural way. We tried to do things in a new way, but the political forces, on the left and the right, they ignored us, they didn’t want to have anything to do with us. They just wanted to share the cake. So all the things we thought about how peoples’ consciousnesses might be changed, well, it wasn’t true, not only in El Salvador, but everywhere—it doesn’t happen like that in society. I think we were very naïve. So that’s the frustration.
Guernica: That seems to be a core experience of your generation of Latin American writers… I’m thinking of Élmer Mendoza or Rafael Menjívar Ochoa, who seem to have similar experiences of political disenchantment or exile. And Roberto Bolaño, too, of course. You were friends with Bolaño, right?
The Latin American writers of my generation are much closer to American writers in the sense of how we understand the world and what we talk about, than we are to magical realism.
Horacio Castellanos Moya: Yes, a little bit. We exchanged letters. He said some very nice things about my books. Of course, his books are incredible.
Guernica: Would you say that you feel like part of a particular generation of Latin American writers? And what are the primary concerns of your generation?
Horacio Castellanos Moya: Yes, I think that I am part of that generation of Latin American writers who still had a kind of political approach to our societies, we supported the forces of change in those societies. For us, we wanted to create a new kind of society but politics were just a little bit of that, politics was just a little part. We were very disappointed that the political revolutions didn’t mean that, well, they didn’t mean the total change of society we wanted, they didn’t mean the change of peoples’ mentalities. After all these political conflicts ended, we said, why? What was all this for?
Guernica: How do you respond to that in literary terms?
Horacio Castellanos Moya: Well, that’s the big challenge, I don’t know. Everyone tries to do their own work on that. It just happens to you, you have to have your own way…
Guernica: But what about in specific ways? I mean, specific attempts to deal with the new political realities, or the loss of old political ideas, in formal terms—for instance, the turn in recent years away from testimonio literature, or the turn away from magical realism? How were these shifts an attempt to deal with the failure of revolutionary politics, or how did they come out of your experience of disillusionment, how were they formal responses?
Horacio Castellanos Moya: That was very important. In terms of magical realism, I think that the Latin American writers of my generation, we are much closer to American writers in the sense of how we understand the world and what we talk about, than we are to magical realism. The universe or the world that García Márquez describes, for me it’s like he’s talking about Africa or Persia. I’m much closer to literature that has to do with Los Angeles or some other American city than I am to Macondo. I mean, what does our reality have to do with magical realism? Our reality has not been magical.
But testimonio literature [the most famous example of which is probably I, Rigoberta Menchú, an autobiography written by the indigenous Guatemalan guerrilla, Rigoberta Menchú], of course, was a very important genre of the seventies and eighties. But for my generation of writers, we thought that testimonio had become a kind of new church, a new genre, that you were supposed to write if you were political, and you were supposed to believe in the truth of these novels, the literal truth… Why? Because the backbone of testimonio is historical truth. You know, “I was the victim, and I suffered that, and you have to hear me, and once you hear me, you will accept or adopt my political position, and my story is the truth.” And what was our reaction? We rejected all this. We rejected this type of narrative.
Guernica: But what was the problem you saw with it? Did you think there was some connection between this type of writing, this claim to truth-telling and the way it was being used, and the way revolutionary politics were done in the eighties, the way parties put forth their own narratives, revolutionary parties trying to sell you, trying to convince you, with their ideology? Did they seem like they were trying to tell the same types of narratives?
Horacio Castellanos Moya: Yes. Exactly. What we realized was 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.
In fiction, you deal with each character as a human being, you value them because of their particular motivations and passions, and not just because of ideology.
Guernica: And this, for you, was a new problem in literature, right? I mean, at this time, there was plenty of suspicion about the truth-telling narratives that were represented by something like testimonio, and maybe by modernism in general, and yet you weren’t trying to not do it in an apolitical fashion, or removed from immediate political concerns, in the way that the American postmodernists like maybe Barth or Coover or whoever were doing it. So you were trying to respond in your work to the problems created by the crisis in modernism and realism, but also trying to do it with some of the immediate political concerns still intact?
Horacio Castellanos Moya: That’s the challenge for me, yes, because what I’m trying to say in my work is, we have this kind of society, we have these kinds of political problems, with this kind of deep injustice, this is the kind of society we have. And I’m going to create fiction based on this kind of society, but who are the goods and who are the bads, it doesn’t depend on which party they belong to… In fiction, you deal with each character as a human being, you value them because of their particular motivations and passions, and not just because of ideology. Testimonio wanted to assign value to people based on their ideology. The value of testimonio is based on ideology. And it was the same with revolutionary politics. Both were ways of understanding reality and there was a problem with the way we interpreted reality in our literature, and the way we interpreted reality with our politics, and the way we interpreted reality in our heads… They were all connected.
Guernica: And so does Funes’s election in some way represent a break with this old way of understanding things, a break with the old ideologies? Is there some correspondence there, between what’s happened in the literature and what’s happened in politics?
Horacio Castellanos Moya: Well, maybe. Salvadoran society has experienced two different historical periods in the last thirty years. Twelve years of civil war, and then eighteen years of post-war malaise—I don’t know exactly what you’d call it—but not democracy. Remember, ARENA was created in order to fight communism, not to create democracy. And the FMLN was formed to make socialism, not to create democracy. Funes is, I suppose, a sort of compromise—he’s trying to open a new kind of stage of history, maybe doing away with ideology. He represents, I hope, a new way of looking at things. A new way, maybe, of being plural. But you’ve got to take into account that, in this election, 51 percent voted for Funes, but 49 percent voted against him. So we shouldn’t overestimate how much things have changed.
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One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.