Horacio Castellanos Moya: Senselessness
Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver
Katherine Silver is the recipient of a 2007 PEN Translation Fund Grant for her translation of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness (New Directions, 2008).
I arrived at the house at 1-25 Sexta Avenida sharply at eight-thirty, exactly as I had been instructed, for Pilarica had made it clear to me that this was when the birthday party for Johnny Silverman would begin, a New York Jew and member of the team of forensic anthropologists working with the archdiocese, excavating sites where massacres had been documented to recover the bones of the victims in order to confirm the testimonies and allow the dead to be given funeral services in keeping with the rituals and traditions of the indigenous cultures, even if it was many years later and nobody was able to distinguish precisely the bones of one from the bones of another, for the army had buried so many in mass graves. I arrived at Johnny Silverman’s house at the appointed hour with no expectations other than to spend a relaxing evening, abstemious as I found myself due to the antibiotics I was taking to counteract the infection already discussed and which had been the cause of an altercation with Fátima that afternoon, for she categorically denied that either she or her boyfriend were infected with any disease and even dared insinuate that I was trying to slander her, so I proposed that she accompany me to the bishop’s office at that very moment and I would show her the sinister drop in private, an invitation she turned down with some excuse or other while she went on sweetening her coffee in the kitchen of the archbishop’s palace, ‘where we were arguing in whispers, because it simply wasn’t possible, I insisted, that the little drop appeared ‘precisely the morning after she had taken advantage of me and that it now turned out the carrier of this disease showed no symptoms whatsoever, a point that made her even more upset and led her to cut off the discussion, this wasn’t the place for that kind of conversation, she said as she left. I entered Johnny Silverman’s house and was surprised that the host himself opened the door, looking rather disheveled with a kitchen knife in his hand, and that the living room was empty as if the party had been cancelled, a suspicion I expressed at that very moment, but Johnny explained that the guests would start to arrive in a few minutes and that I was the first, besides Charlie, who was already in the kitchen helping him prepare some food, that he himself was running late because of something that had come up at work at the last minute, and he still hadn’t even taken a much-needed shower, a point I agreed with him on, based on how dirty he looked. I couldn’t help noticing all the way from the front door to the kitchen the large rooms in this beautiful colonial house and the excellent taste of its decor and furnishings, not in the same league as the apartment in the Engels Building where I spent my nights and that could by rights be considered a dump in comparison to this grandeur I still wasn’t seeing all of, an idea that led me to conclude by a series of associations that it was much more profitable to dig up Indians’ bones than edit pages bearing their testimonies, though I must admit that Pilarica had told me that this Johnny Silverman belonged to a wealthy Jewish family from New York that owned a penthouse in Manhattan as well as many other properties, which somehow might explain the difference between his house and my apartment, but not something else I would soon begin to suspect: An olive-skinned beauty with long thick black locks greeted me with the insolence of a woman who knows many desire her and the richest one possesses her after Johnny said that this was Tania, his girlfriend, and the other was Charlie, a guy with a shaved head a la Yul Brynner, who immediately unsheathed his Argentinean accent. “Sorry but I don’t remember your name,” Johnny said to me, for we had been introduced in my friend Erick’s office and had never seen each other again, but he said it as coolly as he then turned back to his culinary labors assisted by Tania and Charlie, who were sitting at the table in the spacious kitchen cutting up sausages and arranging them on platters, he said it as lightheartedly as when afterward he asked me what I would like to drink, pointing to the table the bottles were displayed on and then continuing his story about the excavations he was then carrying out on the outskirts of an abandoned military base in the Petén region, where they had found the bones of seventy-seven persons of all ages, including pregnant women and newborn babies, as Johnny specified. For always the dreams they are there still, I said as a kind of amen when Johnny finished his story, which created a certain discomfort among those present, especially the birthday boy, who perhaps thought my words were part of some foreign ritual he wasn’t familiar with. For always the dreams they are there still, I repeated, a splendid sentence that had lit up my afternoon at the archbishop’s palace, its sonority, its impeccable structure, which spread itself out into eternity without skipping over the moment, its use of the adverb to wring the neck of time, a sentence spoken in the testimony of an old indigenous woman from who knows which ethnic group and that could have been referring to the massacre whose bones the team of forensic anthropologists, of which Johnny was a member, were digging up, a sentence both luminous (due to its suggestion of possible meanings) and terrible (because it was in fact about the nightmare of terror and death). For always the dreams they are there still, I proclaimed for the third time, my eyebrows raised, on the verge of enthusiasm, so that they would understand once and for all its transcendence, so that the Argentinean shaved a la Yul Brynner would not again ask me if I wanted a drink, because I would follow up his question with the answer that I was taking antibiotics and was forbidden to drink alcohol, so that they could turn those recently dug-up bones into words, into poetry of the best kind, into something that wouldn’t fit into the pea-sized brains I suspected they had as they exchanged suspicious glances, that these guys needed me to repeat once again and with a slightly different emphasis, For always the dreams are there still, as I was willing to do, but at that moment a shrill screech rang out from the ceiling of the kitchen, the front doorbell, they said, just as the dark-skinned woman named Tania announced that she would get the door and Johnny Silverman started down the hallway to go take a shower for it really was time he did so. “Hey, that great sentence:’ Yul Brynner asked, “where did you get it?” just as a peal of laughter and the sounds of people talking reached us from the living room, as if the guests had reached an agreement to all arrive at the same time. “Impressive, man. Sounds like a line from César Vallejo’ said the Argentinean with a certainty that disconcerted me, I must admit, as if that person knew what I was thinking and I had already talked to him about it, a circumstance that from any point of view would have been impossible for it was the first time I had met that shaved guy, who, I soon found out, worked for the U.N. and was an old friend of Johnny’s from when they both lived in New York, this guy with a shaved head who very cunningly segued from his remarks about Vallejo’s poetry and its relationship to indigenous languages to a subtle interrogation about my work at the archdiocese and my friendship with Erick, all packaged neatly into his conversation with me at the kitchen table, not paying any attention to calls to join the groups in the living room, where things were picking up, as if he were placing me inside a bubble made out of his crafty questions and my inevitable answers, as if ahead of time the guy had known about the psychological problems that afflicted me and that consisted of wanting to tell everything once I’d been encouraged to start talking, down to the hairs and the smells, spill it all out to a point of satiety, compulsively, in a kind of verbal spasm, as if it were an orgiastic race that would culminate in my total abandon, until I was left without secrets, until my interlocutor knew all he wanted to know, in an exhaustive confession after which I suffered the worst possible backlash. And that’s just what happened: I explained in detail about the one thousand one hundred pages, about my relationship with my friend Erick, about the Spanish hidalgo and the little guy with the Mexican mustache, about the memorable characters who swarmed around the archbishop’s palace, like that woman dozens of times raped, or the Toledan suffering because her boyfriend had betrayed her, or the other Spanish girl who had given me an infection I was trying to combat and thus my abstinence. And then there was a click, as if some switch had been flipped, as if the enchanted bubble had popped, as if the mention of my ailment had been repulsive to the shaved Argentinean, who suddenly had an indecipherable expression on his face, an absence, that even made me feel sorry for him because perhaps I had reminded him of some similar contagion he had once contracted. It was then, in order to try to reestablish contact, even just by changing the subject, that I asked him if he was from Buenos Aires or the countryside. “I’m Uruguayan,” he said between clenched teeth, the look in his eyes so ugly that I managed only to ask where the bathroom was, stand up, and walk like a zombie past the other guests, with the sensation of falling into a dark, bottomless pit, because like a madman I had exposed my flanks to an astute enemy, who to Johnny was Charlie, but to his lover and other intimates was Jay Cee, Major Juan Carlos Medina, the soldier who was now hatching a plan with various options for annihilating me once I left the bathroom, because as long as I remained seated on the toilet with my guts tied up in knots of fear he would be getting more and more incensed by the words that had senselessly poured out of my mouth, by the fact that the Spanish girl I had been talking about so disparagingly was to all appearances Fátima, although I never mentioned her name, because nobody knew better than he that the aforementioned disease had come from his own infected penis. Paralyzed, my mind gone blank, not knowing what to do, wishing that the whole thing had been some kind of nightmare from which I would soon awake, I discovered that Johnny’s bathroom was luxury itself: the walls were covered with gorgeous tiles like in a Moorish palace, there was a wide bathtub one could frisk about in with two damsels, a large cedar wardrobe, several throw rugs, modern tools and implements probably for personal grooming, which I didn’t even know existed, mirrors of various sizes that reflected my contrite face, a French window with frosted glass. . . Then the knocks sounded on the door, imperious, urgent. “It’s occupied:’ I managed to stammer as my gut contracted, knowing that it could only be Jay Cee, who had come to make sure I hadn’t escaped and was standing by the bathroom door waiting for me to come out, where he would be able to trap me and pay me back for the horns that girl of his had perched on his head, perhaps treating me to a most humiliating beating in front of his cohorts if I came out, or dragging me out into the street with the most sinister of intentions, a possibility that sealed off my sphincter. Jay Cee banged on the door again with the same imperious urgency, which made me stand up like a shot and button up my pants, I flushed the toilet and started pacing around desperately, like a cornered rat, for that’s what I felt like, until I stopped in front of the tinted-glass window, which I opened without difficulty and through which I stepped into a corridor around an internal courtyard, dark and smelling of vegetation I could barely make out, a corridor I moved through as cautiously as possible, a shadow among the shadows searching for a place where I could hide while I put my thoughts in order, alleviate my fear and calm the agitation I was sweating out of every pore. Avoiding the large ceramic pots and a stair here or there, always hugging the walls of the corridor, watching for Jay Cee coming through the bathroom window, I reached the far end of the courtyard, where I then came to a hallway that led to another section of that colonia1mansion and down which I scampered in the hopes of finding a door that led out to the street, because the only sensible thing was for me to hightail it out of there as soon as possible, but just then I heard steps and voices coming toward me, as if the cuckolded soldier had gotten together a posse and was setting up an ambush, so I had to quickly crouch down behind a large pot and wait for my pursuer to pass by me, which didn’t happen, because none of the three guys who appeared in the hallway and entered a side door was the shaved guy I so feared, instead I recognized Johnny Silverman and my friend Erick, together with a third guy I had never seen in my life. The light they turned on in the room lit up the rear window located right next to the pot I was hiding behind, which left me in an optimal position to observe them sitting down around the table and placing a bottle of whisky on it, without them being aware of my presence thanks to the umbrageous plant growing in the pot and the darkness in the hallway, but without my being able to understand the murmurs they were conspiring in, as I soon ascertained, for the rear window allowed nothing else to filter out, just that unintelligible murmur. But even the deafest man on earth would have realized that these three men were exchanging secrets, confidential information, words forbidden to the uninitiated, which surprised me as far as my friend Erick was concerned, but which then led me to wonder what a rich New York Jew was doing digging up bones of indigenous people massacred by the army of a country where they would fry him alive for doing much less than that, and moreover what the hell was he doing conspiring with a representative of the Catholic Church, like my friend Erick, and with that other guy, who however you looked at it seemed like a military man—upright bearing, harsh expression—in fact a high-ranking officer in civilian clothes undoubtedly a half-dozen bodyguards were waiting for outside, for my intuition never led me astray, especially not about his eyes like those of a cobra about to attack, for a moment I was even afraid he had detected my presence behind that plant in the darkness. That was when the pathways in my mind came full circuit: that intelligence officer could be none other than General Octavio Pérez Mena, the torturer of the girl of the archdiocese and the slayer of Indians, whose picture I had never seen because the sly fox knew how to remain invisible, living in the shadows was his specialty and the press couldn’t get hold of him even in their dreams. Horrified I wanted to get away from there so as not to witness a conspiracy that could cost me my life, but I had nowhere to retreat, for surely that Jay Cee was already snooping around the courtyard and any moment would come walking down this corridor, so it was better for me to remain quietly in my hiding place, alert to the shadows behind me and the cabal behind the glass, because if the shaved man with horns appeared I could in a flash burst into the room, where my friend Erick would defend me, where I could explain to him that due to a misunderstanding that guy wanted to trounce me, so those three would never suspect there’d been an eavesdropper at the rear window nor could Jay Cee act upon his rage. Speculating about the possible subject of their deliberations I was, trying to guess what their lips they were saying, when I felt behind me a presence, so close I didn’t dare move a muscle, so devilishly close I could feel its breath upon my neck, as if the shaved one had knelt down stealthily behind me so he also could peak through the same window, so he could enjoy simultaneously the cabal behind the glass and the terror he was inspiring in me; in the face of this terror the testimony I’d corrected that afternoon popped into my head, There are moments I have fear and even I start to shout, which was exactly the one thing I wanted to do at that moment and the last thing I could do, out of fear begin to shout. But eternal seconds passed without there being a sign or a word, until there sounded in my ear that typical canine snuffle requesting attention or affection, which made me very cautiously turn my head to see a mastiff puppy, friendly, with a split lip, as if he had a harelip, easer to play right then and there, probably the poor thing wasn’t allowed inside where the guests were dancing, and once he knew he had my attention he started frisking about, frisking up and down the hallway, barking playfully, which immediately raised the alarm for the trio conspiring in the room, which gave me no choice but to quickly return to the hallway and escape through the shadows, not caring if I fell into the claws of the shaved Argentinean, for I was much more afraid of being trapped by General Octavio Pérez Mena, who would proceed to interrogate me mercilessly about why I was spying on them, using his most expeditious method of beating me to soften me up, then taking me to his macabre abattoir, but thank God the mastiff caught the scent of his owner, because his loud playful barks continued down the hallway as I moved toward the bathroom window I had climbed through, which was now closed, which meant I had to continue straight until I got to the living room full of guests, which I stumbled my way through to prevent the aforementioned general from running up behind me without my noticing, right on my heels. I was trying to get to the front door when I unexpectedly bumped into the shaved one and Fátima—damn!—that was all I needed, stuck between a rock and a hard place, the merciless slayer at my heels and the cuckold and his girlfriend in front of me. “Where did you go?” she asked, with the innocence of a young lady at her first holy communion, while I awaited a trouncing by the shaved one. “You already met Charlie,” she continued as I tried to make my way out. “What the hell is going on with you? Man, you look like you’ve seen a ghost:” she said, taking me by the arm as I turned around so as not to see the face of the shaved one who was hugging her. “Too bad Jay Cee couldn’t make it. I would have loved for you to meet him:” I heard her say, and then she explained that Charlie was one of Jay Cee’s best friends, a compatriot and colleague, she specified, without her explanation managing to detain me from fleeing into the street.
Copyright © 2008 by Horacio Castellanos Moya and Katherine Silver; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing. All rights reserved.