An Interview with Horacio Castellanos Moya
Moya is the author of nine novels and five books of short stories that have made him an important literary figure in the Spanish-speaking world. His novels have been translated into French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Hebrew and Serbian, and, in the last two years, have begun to appear in English. New Directions published Senselessness in 2008 and She-Devil in the Mirror in 2009. This fall Biblioasis is publishing Dance with Snakes.
This interview, conducted in Spanish by email between the author, in Tokyo, and the interviewer, in Berlin, took place in August 2009.
You worked as a journalist during the civil war in El Salvador, at a time when you were still very young. Had you already started writing short stories at that time? Did the experience influence your early works of fiction?
I started to write short stories at the end of 1978, if I remember correctly, when the civil war hadn’t yet started, although it was looming on the horizon. Some of these stories were published for the first time in 1980, in a magazine called Alcaraván that was published in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Later, I put them together in the book ¿Qué signo es usted, niña Berta? (“What’s Your Sign, Little Berta?”). I wasn’t yet working in journalism, nor did I have any intention of becoming a journalist. I considered myself a poet who wrote short stories. I’m not one of those cases of the journalist who becomes a writer of fiction, but rather the reverse. I came to journalism later, as a way of surviving. Of course this experience influenced the works of fiction that came later: first, negatively, because journalism is an absorbing profession that didn’t leave me time to write literature; second, in a natural way, because some of my characters are journalists, or are connected to the world of journalism.
Your first novel, La Diáspora (“Diaspora”) refers to a notorious case of murder between revolutionary comrades. The novel ran against the tide of an era of revolutionary solidarity when people didn’t talk about internal quarrels. Does literature for you have the duty or need to transgress against or confront accepted ideas or ideologies?
Literature is an excellent instrument for questioning and transgressing against accepted ideas, as long as it does so on the basis of specifics. The challenge for the writer of fiction is this: to submit ideas to the pressure of the inherent laws of the narrative text. Anything else is propaganda, regardless of from where or against whom it’s written.
You lived in Mexico City, I believe, from 1981 to 1991. Who were the writers you met during that period? What importance did they have for your literary development?
Although you won’t believe it, I didn’t meet any Mexican writers during this time. I was involved in the world of journalism and the little literary life I participated in was with Latin American writers living in exile in Mexico, not with Mexican writers. I met Mexican writers later, during my second stay in Mexico, between the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2003. Then I got to know friends such as Sergio González Rodríguez, Juan Villoro, Elmer Mendoza, Mauricio Montiel, Guillermo Fadanelli, among various others.
Dance with Snakes, the novel that Biblioasis is publishing this fall, first appeared in El Salvador in 1996. What was the context -- literary and/or historical -- of the composition of this novel?
I wrote that novel during the months of September and October 1995, in Mexico City. I had just come back from El Salvador, where a very ambitious journalistic project, the weekly newspaper Primera Plana, of which I was editor-in-chief, had failed. We went broke in July of that year. My mood was dark and defeated. Writing Dance with Snakes was cathartic, liberating. A couple of months later I wrote El asco (“Revulsion”).
As you’ve mentioned, journalists appear in your novels on various occasions. In Dance with Snakes, the journalist is a young woman. Was this a way of trying to dismantle some of the literary stereotypes associated with the figure of the journalist?
That novel was written in a very compulsive way, as if the story had already been saved on a hard disk in my head. The truth is that I didn’t set out to dismantle any stereotypes with the character of Rita Mena, but rather that she was the right person to continue the plot development. I constructed a cocktail of a character on the basis of two women reporters and a female designer who had worked with me on the newspaper, and I rushed ahead.
There’s a great diversity of first-person narrative voices in your novels. I’m thinking of the expatriate who hates his country in El asco, the high-society lady in She-Devil in the Mirror, or the voice of the murderous ex-soldier in El arma en el hombre (“The Weapon in the Man”). What do you consider to be the key to creating a convincing first-person narrative voice -- especially when the character’s personal circumstances are distant from those of the author?
The key to creating a convincing narrative voice? It’s very difficult to prescribe a formula. Each author takes his own road, and there’s a lot of mystery to it. In my case, the voice has to ring in my head in an autonomous way, without connections to my ego and my vision of the world. It’s as though I’d ceased to be myself and become the voice that is narrating, in the mind from which it emerges.
At times you, Robert Bolaño, Rodrigo Rey Rosa and a few others have been identified as writers who explore the legacy of the violence of the 1980s -- a theme that’s very present, for example, in Senselessness. Do you see shared aesthetic concerns among your generation of writers, or merely a few thematic concerns which at times resemble each other?
More the latter: we share a few thematic concerns which at times resemble each other because we’re from the same continent during the same historical period. It’s a question of natural empathies in writers of a single generation, without premeditation or design.
You have a reputation as a writer of short, ironic novels. Nevertheless, your most recent novel, Tirana memoria (“Memory the Tyrant”), is longer and the action takes place over several decades. There are also characters and families who appear in several of your novels. Is there a Balzacian impulse to portray an entire society that coexists with the minimalism of some of your works?
To speak of a Balzacian impulse is excessive. Certainly, some characters and families appear in several of my novels, but more strongly than the ambition to portray an entire society, what I’m expressing are a writer’s fixations, compulsions, obsessions. In that sense, my impulse would be more “Salingeresque” (I’m thinking of the Glass family), to give it a name, and distant from the omnipotent ambition of a Balzac.
In recent years you’ve lived in such different cities as Frankfurt, Pittsburgh and Tokyo. Have these experiences in other countries -- together with your earlier experiences in Canada, Mexico and Guatemala -- had an influence on your vision of yourself as a writer?
Of course: living in other cultures has influenced my vision of myself as a writer and my vision of the world and of my contemporaneity. When seen from far away, certain things become relative or minor, almost insignificant, or they lose most of their meaning; and the writer’s obsessions, which I mentioned earlier, take on another dimension. Distance has helped me to understand that I am a writer in the Spanish language, that that’s what defines me, more than the petty details or the misery of the peripheral little country where I happen to have been born. Although that misery is very important too.