about Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya

Sometimes it’s really the quantity, not the quality, that gives a text it’s power. Particularly if you have to read it very carefully or work with it in some way. My first encounter with that was when I got an odd research assignment in high school – to go to the freshman class and let them answer a very simple questionnaire; let them write down all negative words they could think of about men and all the negative words they could think of about women, in separate columns.

I’ve never been sensitive to curse words, at least not out of context, and I felt the assignment was terribly boring and pointless. Until at some point, while going through those endless questionnaires, the quantity started to kick in and I started to connect to the words differently, started thinking; where does that word come from, what is the original meaning behind it – and why do sixteen-year-old boys know them all?

That assignment was obviously child’s play compared to the assignment the main protagonist of Senselessness encounters; to proofread an 1100-page report on a genocide committed on aboriginals in an unnamed Central American country, easily identifiable as Guatemala. The text of the report is certainly spellbinding – bot according to all who’ve read it and considering the quotes that the proof-reader notes down and shares with us.

Those stories are harrowing – yet we mostly experience the effect it has on him, the proof-reader. How he ends up cowed behind a desk at his office after an imaginary knife-fight, how he becomes ever more paranoid, often by misunderstanding, even if it’s not like he doesn’t have a good reason to be paranoid.

At one point he fantasizes about a possible novel based on the report, something he’s quick to dismiss – he’s no novelist. Yet this highlights his need to enter the story, get more involved, but also his fear of more involvement. And fear is usually his driving force, like when he realizes that one of the main victims in the report actually works in the same building and when he’s asked if he wants an introduction he declines, he avoids the real sorrows, avoids looking the victims he reads about in the eyes.

This is a novel about distance, the distance to other people, the distance from ourselves and the things we’re working on. Sometimes this distance is necessary – or at least we tell ourselves that. The main protagonist is so distant to himself we never learn where he’s from and don’t really fathom his backstory well, his reason for leaving his country sounds like a half-truth at best.

At the same time, he’s both a ladies man and terrible with women – in the sense he seems to charm all the ladies he desires, but then always messes it up since he’s unable to connect to them when they become all too real human beings, like himself.

Everyday cowardice and genocide

The main protagonist has a lot in common with the leading character of recent Swedish comedy The Square, both are seemingly self-confident ladies’ men that nevertheless draw endless trouble through their everyday cowardice. His position is only different, reading a report that sounds like the modern-day equivalent of Las Casas’ A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.

Still, the story itself is rather about most of us – those of us who only ever encounter history from a distance or from a screen. We meet the people who lived it, walk down historical streets long after the history was written, read the news, see the “Based on a true story” films and read the books. Yet most of us don’t really live through big historical events – yet we keep trying to put those events into a personal context, find the connection to our time, our origins, our position. We can be proof-readers, we can read the report, teach it, analyse it, judge it – but we’re not in it.

Essentially this is a book about what our work has to do with the world. How we participate, all those small connections. It also takes a North-European headlong into events on a continent our newspapers are usually rather quiet about – and then in one chapter that takes place in Germany shows us how exotic the north can be to the south.

The novel is very well written and, in many ways, a very powerful read – yet the protagonist is it’s main weakness. At some point you stop feeling a connection to him, perhaps because he’s too much of a selfish coward. Most of his actions in the novel are easily understandable though, on their own. We can all be terribly selfish and self-indulgent at times – like in both his romantic encounters – and we also often imagine all the worst possible scenarios. Yet most of us are not like that all the time. Selfishness is mixed with compassion and paranoia with moments of clarity.

I can’t help but feel that a more complex protagonist would have told us more about the broken society the novel describes and the hell it’s been through. The distance the wimpish proof-reader creates from the events itself means we don’t really have to deal with the atrocities. Except that might really be the point – to show us what alibies we use ourselves. Moya in a way slyly passes the responsibility on to the reader. This is not really about how to write about genocide, it’s about how to read about genocide.

Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson

P.S.: This text refers to the Icelandic translation by Hermann Stefánsson. Katherine Silver translated the novel into English, but I haven‘t read that version.