Run to the Run-Ons: Senselessness Leaves You Breathless
By
Vincent Francone
12/14/2008 8:10:16 PM

Thank god for New Directions Press. The wonderful folks at ND have been bringing to these United States some of the best-written work since 1936. The list of names that have appeared under their imprint is staggeringly impressive, and the list keeps getting bigger. A recent one is Horacio Castellanos Moya, one that should, rightfully, be remembered, and one we’ll be seeing more from New Directions in the coming years, reason to celebrate. The first of his books to be translated into English, Senselessness is a brief, dense, yet somehow incredibly fluid novel (or, if you prefer, novella) that, in the tradition of (yet not at all resembling) Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw doesn’t reveal itself for what it is until its stunning conclusion.

The story is simple: an exiled writer is hired by the archdiocese of a Latin American country to edit a 1,100 page collection of testimonies from the indigenous people, survivors of a genocide inflicted upon them by their own military. He overcomes his disgust for the church and accepts the assignment. Soon the horrors of the 1,100 pages infect his daily life and permeate his nights of drinking and girl chasing. He copies lines from the tome into his notebook, which he always carries. Obsessively he begins uttering his favorite lines, which he likens to poetry, to a rather indifferent or confused collection of people—friends, acquaintances, bar patrons, bored poets, and possible assassins. Or are they? The narrator’s paranoia becomes increasingly severe, which is often extremely funny. It’s strange to write this, but for a book that features a few ghastly stories of human abuse, Senselessness is often hilarious. A sexual encounter shifts from seemingly gratuitous to riotously funny in one of the more unforgettable passages in the novel, one I’ll never forget.

The structure of the book is interesting enough to gather some deserving accolades. Castellanos Moya is fond of the run-on sentence, and while these are more than apparent, they don’t alienate. Rather, they become one of the key delights, one of the manners in which the reader gets to better occupy the thoughts of the narrator, seeing his obsessions, fears, and near mania manifest. There are only a few paragraphs in the 140+ pages and each chapter seems to introduce a new foible from this idiosyncratic character. By the time the book is finished, readers may find themselves breathless from the sheer force of the constantly flowing sentences.

In what is certainly an easy analysis of uneasy events, the book introduces its share of horrors— very real— and paranoia— very possible— and seems content to let the reader decide until the finale when all is made oddly clear. The success of Senselessness is that Castellanos Moya chooses to use genocide as a backdrop, referenced often but relegated to the background. Or so it seems. The horrors work their way into his consciousness, even as he chases women and sits in bars, and so they work their way into ours as well. Castellanos Moya avoids the pedantic but more than works in the horror.


 

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