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A Sequel to “Senselessness”: Fiction and Genocide in Guatemala
(Image: New Directions)

A Sequel to “Senselessness”: Fiction and Genocide in Guatemala

(Image: New Directions)

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Horacio Castellanos Moya’s extraordinary novel, “Senselessness,” could almost be said to be predictive of the overturning of former Guatemalan dictator’s Efrain Rios Montt’s conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Eleven days after former Guatemalan dictator’s Efrain Rios Montt’s conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity on May 20, the country’s top court overturned the ruling and ordered the trial be moved back to the middle of proceedings.

The case had set a historic precedent – handing down the first guilty verdict for genocide in Latin America – and presented a significant victory for indigenous groups. But in a region that continues to reject the narratives of victims and privilege the experiences of the elite – who in Rios Montt’s case actively and aggressively lobbied on his behalf – how could anyone expect justice to hand down verdicts with Nuremberg-style expediency for Guatemala’s “silent holocaust?”

Given the porous nature of juridical verdicts in the region, the most provocative and only long-standing testament to Central America’s bloody contemporary history will likely be regional literature dealing with civil wars, genocide, impunity, privilege and invisibility. Among these is Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness, a fictional account of an anonymous writer tasked by the human rights office of the Catholic Church, in a nameless Meso-american country, with editing 1,100 pages of victim testimony.

The book’s subject matter is not far removed from reality. On April 24, 1998, the Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI) project released a one-thousand page report titled “Guatemala:Nunca Mas” in Guatemala City. Spearheaded by Bishop Juan Gerardi, the report unsparingly presented statements from thousands of victims’ testimony of the atrocities committed by the Guatemalan Army during the country’s 30-year civil war. Two days later, Bishop Gerardi was found bludgeoned to death in his garage.

However, the book deals less with historical fact and more with entangling the reader in a voyeuristic contract with the main character as he pores over 420 stories of government-sanctioned sadism and attempts to maintain a modicum of sanity in his life: going out to bars, seducing girls and copying down the most “poetic” fragments of victim testimony in his notebook. Throughout, grisly accounts captured in the report of torture, rape, mutilation and genocide are juxtaposed against the anonymous writer’s slow descent into obsession, sexual violence, paranoia and madness.

At 140 pages, Senselessness weaves a shiv-like narrative of the twisted melee of memory and language in a post-civil war Mesoamerican country – short, sharp, and brutally effective. The reader becomes criminally complicit, delighting in a potential pay off from the atrocities perpetuated on our regional Others (the indigenous) as much as we become exposed targets who may get dragged into the night by an unseen paramilitary force for our burgeoning leftist sympathies, never to be heard from again.

For these reasons, Moya’s book can come as a shock for readers seeking Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s whimsical portrayal of life in Latin America. In an interview with Guernica, Moya bluntly identifies “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.”

The magic-less reality he refers to is Central America’s recent history, when the region was erupting in civil wars. From 1960 to 1996, 200,000 people lost their lives in a bloody civil war in Guatemala, the majority indigenous people of Mayan descent at the hands of the Guatemalan military. Yet the horrific, and bloody atrocities committed by soldiers were less widely acknowledged than the events happening in neighboring El Salvador or Nicaragua.

Senselessness doesn’t outright identify any of these countries as the site for the book’s unfolding events (although the record clearly shows it’s Guatemala). Senselessness’ logic in creating an anonymous main character and place, not vested in national identity to broaden identifiability, is flawless, but also speaks to deeper, more unsettling points.

The anonymous nature of the country and writer are testament to the Central American region’s permanent invisibility, where we don’t exist until we are turned sensationalist news feature – by virtue of the past, which never leaves us, or by virtue of the present, in which the past takes its stranglehold.

The recent turn in the Efrain Rios Montt trial is not hard to see in Senselessness’ logical conclusion, which leaves the reader with a chilling message: In Guatemala, two months of testimony of mass rapes, the slaughter of innocent women and children, torture, enforced starvation and other horrors committed by government troops, as well as the murder of at least 1,771 members of the indigenous Maya Ixil population, will not be enough if the interests of an elite few are perceived to be threatened.

Throughout Central America, too many are desperate to forget, unwilling to remember, ultimately powerless to confront a complicit elite. For one moment, some believed that Guatemala’s challenge to its elite in a nonfictional, juridical context would finally end a region’s entrenched position within a discourse of violence that is often self-perpetuated. Thus far, it seems that for now, we will only be able ever to pass fair judgments in the realm of fiction.