He Sees Through Left and Right

The Dream of My Return

by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver
New Directions, 136 pp., $15.95 (paper)
Horacio Castellanos Moya, 2015
Gunter Gluecklich/Iaif/Redux
Horacio Castellanos Moya, 2015

How to place the savage fictions of Horacio Castellanos Moya? Now fifty-seven, Castellanos Moya is a stellar fixture in the still-running second boom in Latin American literature, whose leading artist is the late Roberto Bolaño. The booms (the first, in the Sixties and Seventies, and the second, late Eighties and ongoing) are porous constructs with writers like Mario Vargas Llosa and Luisa Valenzuela starring in both of them. Compared to the works of Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Julio Cortázar, to mention just the best-known names, the works of the second boom are bleaker, a little less operatic, and differ more among themselves—but perhaps the most different among them are those of Horacio Castellanos Moya.

A main thing that sets Castellanos Moya apart is his intense concentration on his home country of El Salvador and the US-sponsored counterinsurgency wars and terror afflicting that region in the 1970s.* His eleven novels and five collections of short stories descend directly or indirectly from the enormities of this time and place. He goes over the same ground from different angles, reuses characters at varying stages of their fates, follows entire families, all with an eye to the damage done to these—mostly—peripheral players in the tragedy of El Salvador. Moya’s instinct for the jocular also demarcates his work: he captures the noir absurdities that arise in the most mordant or unlikely settings. His latest novel, The Dream of My Return, presents in compact and indelible form his tricks, his daring, his disgust, his humor.

Erasmo Aragon, a Salvadoran exile in his forties, the narrator of The Dream of My Return, has been working as a journalist in Mexico City for the last five years. He is married and has a young daughter. It’s 1992 and the civil war in El Salvador is ending. A peace treaty is imminent. He has a month to complete the preparations for his return. He ought to be happy. However, he is suffering from obscure pains in his liver, and his regular doctor, a homeopath, has abruptly and permanently returned to Spain.

Erasmo finds another doctor, one Don Chente, an odd duck. This doctor first treats his pain with acupuncture, but decides that a cure will require therapy by hypnosis. He proposes various contradictory etiologies for Erasmo’s distress. One of them is this:

When humans took shelter in caves and were forced to live a sedentary life, they discovered that they did not like to defecate or urinate where they slept…. This was also the first time a human being experienced the emotion we now call anxiety, which consists of having to choose between two options: either he satisfies his instinct to empty himself wherever he happens to be, which means he’d have excrement next to his bed,…or…elsewhere…. Anxiety and bowel control are closely related…. This is…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.