Winter 2016 KR OnlineReview |

Escaping from History: Horacio Castellanos Moya’s The Dream of My Return and Édouard Levé’s Newspaper

The Dream of My Return. By Horacio Castellanos Moya. Translated by Katherine Silver. New York, NY: New Directions, 2015. 131 pages. $15.95.

Newspaper. By Édouard Levé. Translated by Jan Steyn and Caitlin Dolan-Leach. London: Dalkey Archive Press, 2015. 124 pages. $13.95.
(Click on cover images to purchase)

Erasmo—the exiled, manic Salvadoran newspaperman who narrates The Dream of My Return, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s latest novel to be translated into English—has long been bothered by an insistent internal voice demanding he abandon his life in Mexico City and return home to San Salvador, despite the certain danger of the civil war. Erasmo was eleven when the military government of El Salvador assassinated his communist-leaning father; the boy was raised by his conservative maternal grandmother, Lena, who hated his father and anyone liberal or communist.

The exile that has given Erasmo the necessary physical distance to pursue a stable life has also brought on the unruly, suffocating desire for the country where he believes, with righteous certainty, he can start a new life. Erasmo’s plight—and Moya’s novel—is an absurdist nightmare; escape from history is the impossible dream.

When civil war began eight years after his father’s assassination, the United States-backed military regime murdered Erasmo’s cousin, Albertico. Erasmo moved to Costa Rica and then to Mexico City, where he lives with Eva—a woman he won’t allow himself to love—and their daughter, Evita. Now, in 1991, he has finally allowed himself to court the certainly irrational desire to return to El Salvador before the war has even officially ended: “Where had I drummed up such naïve, even suicidal enthusiasm that allowed me to disguise the dream of my return not only as a stimulating adventure but also as my first step toward changing my life for the better?” Erasmo, a journalist, doesn’t believe his own story. He’s going and he can’t explain why.

Moya, who lives in exile in Iowa City, writes with intense wit and bravado about Salvadorans who drift into darkness and have to find their way out. Katherine Silver, who expertly captures Erasmo’s madness, has translated four of Moya’s eleven novels into English. All of them explore El Salvador’s particular web of pathologies: ideological paralysis, assassination, coup, corruption, revolution, civil war, and tyranny.

These same historical themes dominate Newspaper, the second novel written by the French photographer and writer Édouard Levé in 2004, and the fourth to be translated into English. (The other three are: Oeuvres (2002), a list of possible conceptual art projects, Autoportrait (2005), a single paragraph of self-analysis and observation, and Suicide (2008), a eulogy for a friend who took his own life that Levé presented to his publisher ten days before killing himself.) In Newspaper, Levé presents a day’s paper—news, international, business, sports, culture, even television listings—stripped of proper names and nouns. The result, in Jan Steyn and Caitlin Dolan-Leach’s immaculate rendering, sounds like this:

The people from sixteen poor countries from the same region are participating in a large-scale initiative. This operation is aimed at training local military forces to contain an imaginary influx of refugees within designated zones, as a part of a peacekeeping operation led by a wealthy and powerful nation on another continent.

By stretching journalism’s imagined objectivity to the point of distortion—in the opposite direction from Moya’s intimate view of a particular place, geography, and time—Levé means to reveal what is left once the facts are removed. Does a universal truth appear? This experiment in paring down, reminiscent of the stark films of Robert Bresson, indeed throws the human condition into sharp relief. There are wealthy nations and there are poor; the wealthy can’t stop meddling in the lives of poor; for good or ill, it’s all the same. Individuals, blinded by myth and superstition, tend to act against their own interest; governments are as destructive as nature.

“A country divided in two by the violence of the last war is today attempting to resolve conflict between its two enemy sides,” reads a news item. “A foreign superpower’s president, who supports one of these factions, has found himself in a difficult position by speaking out against the other, which he considers to be part of the so-called ‘axis of evil.’ . . . His comments have swept away years of delicate diplomatic work.” Here is a familiar enough story. Do we really need all the details to understand it?

The historian in us should answer most certainly, yes. The “years of delicate diplomatic work,” fraught as it must have been with intrigue and danger, ought never to be glossed over or forgotten. Moya, who has spent a half a life in exile processing the damage of a civil war promulgated by a foreign superpower, might hold himself up as proof.

On the other hand, the distance of exile, like the distancing effect of Levé’s stripped-down journal, suggests absurdity. “High-speed trains are once again running late,” reads a “society” item, revealing Levé’s characteristic sly humor. Nationalism, animal husbandry, ideology, religious ceremony, and conceptual art—Levé was a willing self-mocker and a witty prose stylist—all seem rather absurd if you gaze at the world from a wry distance. And so in “Other News,” we learn that a large nation has loaned its tiny adversary a religious relic: “the mummified toe of one of their shared prophets.” The loan of the toe, which had been found originally in the smaller, receiving nation, along with a “meticulously conserved single tooth, worshipped in the Temple of the Tooth,” is hoped to begin a process of reconciliation between the two nations.

A small nation, Sri Lanka, does, in fact, carefully maintain the Buddhist Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. In the 1990s, tension had grown between Sri Lanka and India because of the Tamil revolt. Perhaps India offered a toe as a peace offering, but Levé isn’t trying to make a specific point about South Asian political power or religious tradition. Rather, by forbidding the reader access to particular markers of culture and identity, he’s removed a distraction, and now we can better observe how incessantly we load inanimate objects with meaning.

Newspaper isn’t a direct act of political commentary. Yet when specifics are blurred or elided, a politicized portrait of power emerges. Large hegemonic systems and institutions—“the army,” “the corporation,” and “the government”—dominate the reader’s experience, while individual people and groups, made lifeless for lack of identity, are diminished. Everyone seems powerless against the machine. “An electrical appliances manufacturer has announced its plans to restructure and fire thousands of factory workers,” a “Business” section item reads: “The plan will be put into effect three months from now.”

Reading Newspaper inspires a powerful sense of helplessness in the face of man-made and environmental systems that seem beyond control. “A forty-eight-year-old man and his nineteen-year-old nephew have attacked a police station with grenades,” reads a report in Levé’s “Other News” section.

When interrogated, the man expressed to investigators his “boundless hatred” for the police station, where he had been held in custody for two years earlier as a murder suspect following his wife’s death. After his acquittal, his request for reparations fell on deaf ears, so he decided to take justice into his own hands.

Levé gives the reader enough to imagine the man’s desperation, the fury mounting in prison, the badgering of the nephew until he agreed to join, but the literary question of how a man snaps isn’t quite Levé’s interest. His reader, unlike Moya’s, will have to invent this character’s madness. The view offered is simply too distant. The particularities don’t matter. This is certainly one of the author’s points—that the newspaper affords only a glance. The melancholic power of the book comes from this distance—the forty-eight-year-old man is an anybody, a type, a part—and thus so are you, reader. But a memorable novel needs more.

The conventional novelist of psychological realism will create vivid, lifelike characters so that the reader, through her own subjective lens, will form an attachment. We might see Levé trying to achieve a similar effect, of a universal human experience for the reader, through the quite the opposite method: a hyper-objective voice. “I dream of an objective prose,” he wrote the year after Newspaper, in the novel Autoportrait, “but there is no such thing.” We sense his disappointment or, again, his humor, perhaps poking fun at novelistic pandering. Yet this conceptual experiment ultimately does not sustain the reader’s interest precisely because there isn’t enough lifelike detail to consistently engage her imagination.

In contrast, both Moya and the character of Erasmo are overwhelmed by specific circumstances: the political and social history of twentieth century El Salvador and the country’s relationship with both the Catholic Church and the United States, among other entities. But Moya shows us that the facts that matter most are perhaps those missed by the journalist Erasmo (a point that might have resonated with Levé), who can’t seem to reconcile himself to the history of the past twenty years. He doesn’t trust the communist version of events much more than the right wing’s, and he learns that even his own memory is unreliable. And anyway, to chase slippery facts is to miss the point of a broken heart. “Little by little,” he observes, falling further into madness, “I became aware of the deep disdain that dwelled in my heart, not only for my father and my father’s family, but also for my mother, and that all this poison had been injected into my entrails by my maternal grandmother, Lena, who had appointed herself sole custodian of my affection and admiration.”

In Katherine Silver’s translation, Erasmo is so breathless and overcharged the sentences feel like they have no beginning and no end. Each declaration leads to another and to another until a portrait emerges of a broken, confused man. Moya, with this tour of the heart’s landscape, does what Levé can’t do, without the gristle of circumstance: translate the particular into the universal.

One night Erasmo drops by his uncle Muñecón’s apartment in Mexico City because he knows he’ll get some brandy, enough to escape the pain of Eva’s nagging. But is that really why he’s there? Who knows, he can’t say. He’s lost control of his actions. There with Muñecón is Mario Varela, a communist from the old days. The conversation turns to the murder of Albertico, Muñecón’s son. Varela reminds Muñecón of the viciousness of the right-wing murderers. Varela’s insistent words bring back the war and terror and the hard lines of political ideology that Erasmo wants to forget—he still dreams of reconciliation. Time and geography collapse in the apartment. As the past closes in, Erasmo experiences “a kind of distancing whereby I could contemplate the scene in slow motion,”

as if I were standing behind myself, with myself included in the picture, which made me not feel fully part of what was going on even though I knew I was part of it.

Moya allows the reader to see Erasmo as Erasmo sees himself: a desperate man trapped by history, racked by guilt and shame, especially at having become a journalist instead of a revolutionary. Levé will later inject the strictly personal into Autoportrait, but in Newspaper he also hints at his own guilt and shame. Only twice in the novel does Levé undermine his objective formula, by naming (instead of substituting labels or descriptive terms) two dominant global institutions, the World Trade Organization and the Catholic Church. This is likely a political point. The W.T.O. and the Vatican want us to think they wield transcendent forms of power. But perhaps with the Catholic Church, Levé wants to say even more. After reporting on the busting of a pedophilia ring in a “small city,” in another news article, Levé notes that “the Catholic Church is in the grips of a large-scale pedophilia scandal.” Levé attended a Catholic high school notorious for sexual abuse; in Autoportrait, he describes witnessing and disrupting such abuse while on school trip. For victims of priest sexual abuse and their peers, there has been no more humiliating institution than the Catholic Church.

What might be Levé’s point? Train the readers’ eyes on the far landscape and then trip him up on “Catholic Church” in the foreground, clear and sharp as a blade? Or did these words appear in Levé’s writing even as he tried, insistently, to push them away? If this is the case, then Levé’s dream of an “objective prose” is the impossible dream of escape. To escape, as Moya in exile knows, means playing into the hands of history. But to escape from the escape, as Erasmo desires above all, is to deny everything but the foolish heart. Whether it makes any objective sense for him to return to his homeland is hardly the point. The El Salvador of his dreams, like Levé’s “objective prose,” doesn’t exist.

Nathaniel Popkin is author of the forthcoming novel The Year of the Return (2019, Open Books) and five other books of fiction and non-fiction. He is co-editor (with Stephanie Feldman) of the anthology Who Will Speak for America? (2018, Temple University Press) and reviews editor of Cleaver Magazine. He is writer of the 2018 documentary film Sisters in Freedom.
Nathaniel Popkin is author of the forthcoming novel The Year of the Return (2019, Open Books) and five other books of fiction and non-fiction. He is co-editor (with Stephanie Feldman) of the anthology Who Will Speak for America? (2018, Temple University Press) and reviews editor of Cleaver Magazine. He is writer of the 2018 documentary film Sisters in Freedom.