March 2015

Brian Nicholson


The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated by Katherine Silver

Paranoia, in its purest form, exists with little in the real world to support it, outside the insecurities of the practitioner. The other night, trying to fall asleep, with my window cracked above the radiator whose temperature I cannot control, the patter of raindrops combined with the hiss of steam to sound to me like the whispers of my roommates, who I could only assume were talking about me; specifically, the elements of my life and character even I am not comfortable with these days. In literature, this sort of mindset finds an expression in narratives like those woven by the famously stoned Thomas Pynchon, where the yarn spinning and digression elaborates into massive conspiracies, wheels within wheels, and neither the true center nor the overall shape is ever found, and readers are left lost within the labyrinth, feeling they are en route to enlightenment.

In real-world politics, paranoia often results in a sort of mirroring: Right-wingers suspect the left of having a grand conspiracy, so they erect their own conspiracy to better pursue what they assume to be the true will of the people. I know this as it has happened in United States political history. My understanding of the politics of Latin America has things even more complicated, where a history of moves and countermoves, propaganda and counterintelligence operations, means nothing can ever be read as in any way straightforward.

The paranoia of Horacio Castellanos Moya's The Dream of My Return is rooted in a history of political unrest, but plays out as a comedy, among unlikable characters. Tension builds within the narrator's mind, only to be deflated as situations resolve in anticlimax. As high as stakes might appear to be in a moment, chaos never ensues, only an escalation of mildly embarrassing social situations created by a belief that something horrible is about to occur. An argument about Trotsky rises in tension before giving way to an anecdote about a dog of the same name. A character claims to have committed a murder on behalf of the narrator, making him feel guilt, until it is confessed that, in fact, no murder has been committed.

Reading it, I found these deflations and anticlimaxes unconvincing. I didn't see much humor in them, and thought, in my own paranoia, that this must all be going somewhere, to become some sort of thriller, either political or psychological or perhaps metaphysical. The tension builds in the back of the brain like a balloon being inflated, and when it's pricked and punctured, revealed as hot air, I remained wary that the temperature in the air was increasing. When all we have to go by, within the narrative, is the word of one character that a murder has or hasn't occurred, the possibility that a dead body could turn up on any page remains.

The book proceeds, acting like it's a comedy, although I laughed at exactly none of the jokes. The sentences are long, to detail the logic and the procession of events, but are all essentially more schematic than they are musical or image-rich, with certain phrases returned to incessantly, making clichés out of hastily chosen instincts. It is possible that the translation deadens any mania that may have existed in the original text. Alternately, this weirdly irritating blankness is intended to be read as a mask, like that worn by a slasher-movie killer, meant to produce in the reader an unnerving sense of expectation. So I read it tensely, trying to follow parts flooded with new characters and talk of politics, oblivious to the overall inconsequentiality of it all.

In the end nothing happens while the jokes keep coming, and they are always old jokes. After the climax, or rather, during the extended anticlimax, our narrator is boarding a plane and wants to hit on an attractive woman, but is interrupted by her child. It's not the author's fault that this parallels neatly with a commercial I saw during the Super Bowl, except to the extent that it is. Still, at this point, isn't paranoia an old joke? Aren't "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you" stickers effectively as ubiquitous as a tip-and-strip pen? Does that diminish the validity of the sentiment, or make the fear any easier to dismiss? A fear may amount to triviality but still suffuse a life. One can go his entire life without being murdered but still only spend his early childhood not gripped by fear of it.

Perhaps an unfunny routine says more about its speaker than one where all the jokes land, depending on the intention of what is meant to be said. Moya's work returns, often, to the theme of the dictatorship, and the toll it takes upon a citizenry. I found this book, like I often find with the works of Cesar Aira, another author New Directions is committed to publishing, very slight as an individual object, as a book unto itself. I can nonetheless see how it might function as part of a larger project, exploring the anxieties of the middle-class of an economy other than my own.

The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated by Katherine Silver
New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811223430
160 Pages