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Poetry Beneath The 'Senselessness'

There's a bracing pessimism coursing throughout Horacio Castellanos Moya's Senselessness. Like a world-weary private investigator setting his rich client straight, the novel confronts one of the comfortable West's cherished beliefs: namely, that societies affected by mayhem will somehow, in the end, be all right. Through his speeding, stylized prose, translated by Katherine Silver, Castellanos Moya disabuses us of such hope.

Told by an opportunistic writer, presumably from El Salvador (where the author, a political exile now living in Pittsburgh, is from), Senselessness charts in a mesmerizing, darkly humorous way the boozing hack's headlong stumbles toward a well of paranoia. He's come to an unnamed country that is clearly Guatemala, hired to copy edit the oral accounts of Indians who survived the government's years-long extermination campaign. These testimonies are part of a truth and reconciliation report, the modern era's means of dealing with the culpable but powerful.

The Indians' imperfect command of Spanish gives blossom to lines of unintended poetry: "The houses they were sad because no people were inside them." As the nameless narrator roams the bars and offices of the capital, he can't help but share with his acquaintances these accidental gems.

The narrator's rapture with this "art," which he copies into a private notebook, invites danger he understands only dimly at first, but which the reader appreciates too well. By the time the peril unfurls to its true dimensions, Castellanos Moya leaves us with a question as reassuring as the sonic wallop of a car crash just down the block: At what point is it impossible, if not ridiculous, to salvage good out of evil?

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Oscar Villalon
Oscar Villalon is book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. A member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, he's also a long-time juror of the California Book Awards, sponsored by the Commonwealth Club. His writing has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review and The Believer, and his reviews have aired on KQED's The California Report. He lives with his wife and son in San Francisco.