We are very pleased to be able to present to you, in its entirety, the first chapter of Horacio Castellanos Moya's remarkable novella Senselessness, with kind permission from our friends at New Directions. This book - which will appear presently atop the Recommended sidebar, and will be given away in signed editions tomorrow - is a bleak, mordantly funny marvel. Compact but dense, it will linger in your imagination. He's been blurbed by no less than Bolano himself, and so here's an opportunity for you to judge for yourself, via Katherine Silver's fine translation. Enjoy.
I am not complete in the mind, said the sentence I highlighted with the yellow marker and even copied into my personal notebook, because this wasn’t just any old sentence, much less some wisecrack, not by any means, but rather the sentence that astonished me more than any other sentence I read that first day on the job, the sentence that most dumbfounded me during my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred almost single-spaced printed pages dropped on what would be my desk by my friend Erick so I could get some idea of the task that awaited me. I am not complete in the mind, I repeated to myself, stunned by the extent of mental perturbation experienced by this Cakchiquel man who had witnessed his family’s murder, by the fact that this indigenous man was aware of the breakdown of his own psychic apparatus as a result of having watched, albeit wounded and powerless, as soldiers of his country’s army scornfully and in cold blood chopped each of his four small children to pieces with machetes, then turned on his wife, the poor woman already in shock because she too had been forced to watch as the soldiers turned her small children into palpitating pieces of human flesh.
Nobody can be complete in the mind after having survived such an ordeal, I said to myself, morbidly mulling it over, trying to imagine what waking up must have been like for this indigenous man, whom they had left for dead among chunks of the flesh of his wife and children and who then, many years later, had the opportunity to give his testimony so that I could read it and make stylistic corrections, a testimony that began, in fact, with the sentence I am not complete in the mind that so moved me because it summed up in the most concise manner possible the mental state tens of thousands of people who have suffered experiences similar to the ones recounted by this Cakchiquel man found themselves in, and also summed up the mental state of thousands of soldiers and paramilitary men who had with relish cut to pieces their so-called compatriots, though I must admit that it’s not the same to be incomplete in the mind after watching your own children drawn and quartered as after drawing and quartering other peoples’ children, I told myself before reaching the overwhelming conclusion that it was the entire population of this country that was not complete in the mind, which led me to an even worse conclusion, even more perturbing, and this was that only somebody completely out of his mind would be willing to move to a foreign country whose population was not complete in the mind to perform a task that consisted precisely of copyediting an extensive report of one thousand one hundred pages that documents the hundreds of massacres and proves the general perturbation. I also am not complete in the mind, I then told myself, on that, my first day of work, sitting at what would be my desk for the duration, my eyes wandering aimlessly over the tall, almost bare white walls of that office I would be using for the next three months—its only furnishings being the desk, the computer, the chair I was digressing in, and a crucifix behind my back, thanks to which the walls were not completely bare. I must be much less complete in the mind than these individuals, I managed to think as I threw my head back without knocking myself off balance in the chair, wondering how long it would take me to get used to the presence of the crucifix, which I couldn’t even think of taking down because this wasn’t my office but rather the bishop’s, as my friend Erick had explained to me a few hours earlier as he was leading me toward it, even though the bishop almost never used it, preferring the one in the parish church, where he also lived, so I could use this office as long as I wanted, but not to get rid of the crucifix and replace it with something else, something to hang on the wall that would lighten my spirits, something that would have been as far removed from any and all religions as I was myself, even though at that moment and for the coming weeks I was going to find myself working there in the archbishop’s palace, situated precisely behind the cathedral, another sign that I am not complete in the mind, I said to myself with real concern, because that was the only way to explain the fact that a depraved atheist like myself had agreed to work for the perfidious Catholic Church, the only way to explain that in spite of the hearty revulsion I felt toward the Catholic Church and all other churches, no matter how small, I found myself now precisely in the archbishop’s palace facing one thousand one hundred pages of almost single-spaced text that contained the horrific stories of how the armed forces had decimated dozens of villages and their inhabitants. I am the least complete in the mind! I thought with alarm as I stood up and began to pace like a caged animal around that office whose only window facing the street was walled up so that neither the passersby nor anybody inside would succumb to temptation, I began to pace around as I would frequently do each and every one of the days I spent within those four walls, but at that moment, on the verge of going mad after realizing that I was so not complete in the mind that I had accepted and was starting a job with the church, a job that had already put me in the sights of the armed forces of this country, as if I didn’t already have enough problems with the armed forces of my own country, as if the enemies in my own country weren’t enough for me, I was about to stick my snout into somebody else’s wasps’ nest, make sure that the Catholic hands about to touch the balls of the military tiger were clean and had even gotten a manicure, because that was what my work was all about, cleaning up and giving a manicure to the Catholic hands that were piously getting ready to squeeze the tiger’s balls, I thought as I fixed my gaze on the bulky stack of one thousand one hundred pages that lay on the desk, and, momentarily stopping my pacing, increasingly in a stupor, I understood that it was not going to be easy to read, organize into volumes, and copyedit those one thousand one hundred pages in the three months my friend Erick and I had agreed on: Shit! Having agreed to edit that report in just three months proved that my problem wasn’t that I was not complete in the mind but that I was completely unhinged. All of a sudden I felt trapped in that office with those high bare walls, a victim of a conspiracy between the Church and the armed forces in a foreign country, a lamb being led to the slaughter thanks to a stupid and dangerous bout of enthusiasm that led me to trust my friend Erick when, one month earlier—as we sipped Rioja in an old Spanish bar near police headquarters—he asked me if I would be interested in copyediting the final report of the project he was involved in, a project that consisted of recovering the memories of the hundreds of survivors of and witnesses to the massacres perpetrated in the throes of the so-called armed conflict between the army and the guerrillas, if I would be interested in earning five thousand dollars for spending three months editing about five hundred pages written by well-known journalists and academics, who were turning in a text that was almost finished, I would only have to look it over, a final proofing, it was really a great gig, five thousand dollars just to put the last touches on a project that dozens and dozens of persons had participated in, beginning with the group of missionaries who had managed to record the oral testimonies of the Indians, witnesses and survivors, most of whom didn’t even speak Spanish very well and who were afraid above all else of anything that had to do with the events they had been victims of, followed by those in charge of transcribing the tapes, and ending with teams of distinguished professionals, who would classify and analyze the testimonies and who would then also write up the report, my friend Erick explained to me in detail, not very emphatically, very calmly in fact, in that conspiratorial tone so typical of him, knowing that I would never refuse such an offer, not because of the enthusiasm a good Rioja might awaken in my spirit but rather because he perceived that I was so not complete in the mind that I would accept his offer and even get excited about the idea of being involved in such a project without weighing the pros and cons or negotiating, which is just what happened.
I flung open the door, terrified, as if there were no air in that closed room and I was about to pass out in a frenzied fit of paranoia; I stood in the doorway, probably with my eyes popping out of my head if the way the two secretaries turned and looked at me was any indication, determined to leave the door open while I got used to that place and my new job even though the open door would undoubtedly affect my ability to concentrate on what I was reading. I didn’t care, I preferred any distraction, even if it interfered with my reading of those one thousand one hundred pages, to suffering new fits of paranoia provoked by such close quarters and my sick imagination set off by one not even very ingenuous sentence—just one among hundreds I would have to read in the coming weeks—which had sent me into a tizzy that could lead only to paralysis, as I confirmed now when I returned from the threshold to the chair, where I soon sat down and stared at the aforementioned sentence, I am not complete in the mind, and which I intended to skip over immediately in order to get to the one that followed without stopping to digress as I just had, to avoid the risk of getting dangerously bogged down in the job I was only just beginning, but my intention was thwarted a few seconds later by the appearance in my office of a little guy with glasses and a Mexican mustache, the guy whose office was right next to mine and whom my friend Erick had introduced me to about an hour earlier as he was leading me to my place of work, a little guy who was nobody less than the director of that entire complex of offices devoted to monitoring human rights, the second in command under the bishop, Erick explained to me as I was offering him my hand and peering at the framed and very prominently placed photographs of him standing with Pope John Paul II in one and with the president of the United States, William Clinton, in another, which immediately alerted me to the fact that I wasn’t shaking hands with any old little guy but one who had given that same hand to the pope and President Clinton, an idea that almost managed to intimidate me, given the fact that the pope and the president of the United States were the two most powerful men on the planet, and the little guy who was now entering my office had had his picture taken with both dignitaries, no minor accomplishment, so I immediately stood up and asked him solicitously what I could do for him, to which the little guy responded just as kindly as possible, asking me to please excuse the interruption, he was aware that I was facing an arduous task, he said as he pointed to the one thousand one hundred pages that lay on the desk, but taking advantage of my having opened the door to enjoy what was surely my first break, he had taken the liberty of coming to invite me on a tour of the whole building so that I could meet the rest of the staff, a tour my friend Erick, always in a rush, had omitted when he led me directly from the reception area to what would be my office, stopping only at the little guy’s office as I already mentioned, an invitation I immediately accepted and that carried me to each and every office in that building, which, truth be told, wasn’t a building so much as a colonial structure attached to the back of the cathedral with the typical layout of an archbishop’s palace: two stories of solid stone with wide corridors surrounding a square central courtyard, where we found several employees enjoying their morning break, and who, seeing me with Mynor, for this was the name of the little lay director of that institution, greeted me effusively and with some fawning, as if I were a new seminarian, while the little guy extolled my professional virtues thanks to which the report about the massacres would end up being a first-rate text, and I told myself that the good-looking girls had to be hiding somewhere, because the ones the little guy had introduced me to were not only not complete in their minds but also in their bodies, devoid of even one attractive feature, an observation I did not share with my guide and, as the days passed, I discovered to be intrinsic to that institution and not only to the extreme left, as I had always thought—that ugly women were an exclusive attribute of extreme left-wing organizations—no, now I understood that they also were [intrinsic] to Catholic organizations dedicated to monitoring human rights, a conclusion I reached later, as I said, and at no time did I share this with the guy who had posed for photographs with John Paul II and Bill Clinton, the little guy who took me all around, from one office to another, until finally he left me alone again in front of the one thousand one hundred pages awaiting me in my office, not before asking me if I’d like him to close the door, to which I responded that it would be better to leave it open as we were in the quietest corner of the palace and there wouldn’t be any annoying interferences to distract me.