Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador
Lee Klein is the recipient of a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for his translation of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, which Roberto Bolaño called Moya’s best work. In Revulsion, Moya invokes Bernhard’s most characteristic mode: the electrifying tirade. Read Klein’s essay on translating Revulsion here.
Glad you could come, Moya, I had my doubts that you’d come, so many people in this city don’t like this place, so many people don’t like this place at all, Moya, which is why I wasn’t sure you’d come, said Vega. I love coming here toward the end of the afternoon, sitting out here on the patio, sipping a couple whiskeys, listening to the music I ask Tolín to put on, said Vega, I don’t sit at the bar, over there inside, it’s hot at the bar, very hot over there inside, the patio’s better, with a drink and the jazz Tolín puts on. It’s the only place where I feel at peace in this country, the only decent place, the other pubs are filthy, abominable, filled with guys who drink beer till they burst, I cannot understand it, Moya, I can’t understand how they so eagerly drink such nasty beer, said Vega, such nasty beer, intended for animals, only good for inducing diarrhea, it’s what they drink here, what’s worse is they’re proud to drink this nasty beer, they’re capable of killing you if you tell them the beer they drink is nasty putrid water, not beer, nowhere in the world would this seriously be considered beer, Moya, you know it as well as I do, it’s a revolting liquid, still they drink it with ignorant passion, said Vega, they are so passionate about their ignorance that they drink this nastiness with pride, even with a sort of national pride, proud that they drink the best beer in the world, El Salvador’s Pilsener is the best beer in the world, not swill only good for inducing diarrhea as any healthy person would think, instead it’s the best beer in the world, this is the primary and principal characteristic of ignorance, to consider your very own swamp water the best beer in the world, they’re capable of killing you if you deride their swamp water, their nasty diarrhea-inducing swill, if you call it anything other than the best beer in the world, said Vega. I like this place, it’s nothing like those nasty pubs where they sell that nasty beer they drink with such passion, Moya, this place has its own personality, it’s decorated with some taste, although it’s called The Light, although it’s horrific at night, unbearable with the racket of rock groups, with the noise of rock groups, perversely annoying to all those in earshot thanks to these rock groups. But at this time of day I like this bar, Moya, it’s the only place where I can come, where no one bothers me, where no one hassles me, said Vega. That’s why I invited you here, Moya, The Light is the only place in San Salvador where I can drink, do nothing else for a few hours, between five and seven in the evening, for only a few hours, after seven this place becomes unbearable, the most unbearable place in existence thanks to the noise of rock groups, as unbearable as these pubs filled with guys proudly drinking their nasty beer, said Vega, but now we can talk in peace, between five and seven no one will bother us. I’ve come to this place without interruption since last week, Moya, I’ve come to The Light every day since I discovered it, between five and seven in the evening, which is why I decided to meet you here, I have to chat with you before I leave, I have to tell you what I think about all this nastiness, there’s no one else I can relate my impressions to, the horrible thoughts I’ve had here, said Vega. Since I saw you at my mother’s wake, I’ve said to myself: Moya is the only person I am going to talk to, no other friends from school showed up at the funeral, no one else thought of me, none of the people who call themselves my friends showed up when my old mother died, only you, Moya, but maybe it’s for the best, because none of my friends from school were really my friends, none returned to see me after school ended, it’s better that they didn’t show up, better that none of my old companions showed up at my mother’s wake, except you, Moya, because I hate wakes, I hate to have to receive condolences, I don’t know what to say, it bothers me when these strangers come up to hug you and act like intimate acquaintances only because your mother has died, it’d be better if they didn’t show up, I hate to have to be nice to people I don’t know, and the majority of people who give you sympathy, the majority of people who help at the wake are people you don’t know, you’ll never see them again in your life, Moya, but you have to put on a good face, a contrite and grateful face, a face that’s truly grateful for these complete strangers who have come to your mother’s wake to extend their condolences, as though in times like these what you most need is to be kind to strangers, said Vega. And when you arrived, I thought what a good guy Moya is, and it’s even better that he left so quickly, good old Moya, he left so promptly, I thought, I don’t have to deal with any old school friends, said Vega, I didn’t have to be kind to anyone, because hardly anyone attended my mother’s wake, my brother Ivo and his family, a dozen acquaintances of my mother and my brother, and me, the oldest son, who had to come as quickly as he could from Montreal, who had hoped to never return to this filthy city, said Vega. Our ex–school friends have turned out for the worst, truly revolting, what luck I didn’t run into any of them, except for you, of course, Moya, we have nothing in common, there can’t be one thing that unites me with one of them. We’re the exception, no one can maintain their lucidity after having studied 11 years with the Marist Brothers, no one can become the least bit thoughtful after enduring an education at the hands of the Marist Brothers, to have studied with the Marist Brothers is the worst thing that’s happened to me in my life, Moya, to have studied under the orders of those fat homosexuals has been my worst shame, nothing as stupid as to have graduated from the Liceo Salvadoreño, the Marist Brothers’ private school in San Salvador, the best and most prestigious Marist Brother school in El Salvador, there’s nothing as abject as the Marists who molded our spirits for some 11 years. Doesn’t seem so long, Moya? Eleven years listening to idiocies, obeying idiocies, swallowing idiocies, repeating idiocies, said Vega. Eleven years responding yes, Brother Pedro; yes, Brother Beto; yes, Brother Heliodoro; the most revolting school for submission of the spirit, that’s what we were in, Moya, which is why I don’t care if any of those characters who were our friends in the Liceo came to my mother’s wake, they underwent 11 years of spiritual domestication, 11 years of spiritual misery they wouldn’t want to remember, 11 years of spiritual castration, whoever would have showed up would only have served to remind me of the worst years of my life, said Vega. But I ordered a drink, my rant suggests I haven’t settled down yet, drink a whisky with me, let’s call Tolín, the bartender, the disc jockey, the jack of all trades at this hour, a good guy, someone I’m grateful to for minimally easing my stay in this horrible country.
Horacio Castellanos Moya is an El Salvadoran writer and journalist who has worked as the editor of news agencies, magazines, and newspapers in various countries. As a fiction writer, he was granted residencies in a program supported by the Frankfurt International Book Fair and in the City of Asylum program in Pittsburgh. He has published ten novels, five short story collections, and a book of essays. Currently he teaches creative writing and media in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Iowa.
Lee Klein’s fiction, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in Harper’s, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007, and many other sites, journals, and anthologies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is also the author of The Shimmering Go-Between, Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejection Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox, and Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World. He lives in South Philadelphia.
This piece is part of PEN’s 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Series, which features excerpts and essays from recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.
Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador is forthcoming from New Directions in July 2016.
Since 2009, the Fund’s annual contribution for grant awards has been augmented by support from Amazon.