July 2011

Christopher Merkel


The Other America

Who has ever heard of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, the facist, theosophist president of El Salvador who held office from 1931 to 1944? I certainly hadn't, not before reading Tyrant Memory by Horacio Castellanos Moya, the central action of which takes place in El Salvador during the month between an attempted coup in April 1944 and the general strike that ultimately forced Martinez out of power the following May. How many in the United States could name Martínez's successor -- or any Salvadoran president from the twentieth century, for that matter? As it goes, for as significantly involved as the United States has always been in Latin American politics, that subject tends to be poorly treated in history surveys in the United States. I'll readily admit that had it not been for the film adaptation of Evita -- and Madonna's starring role in particular -- I might never have come to learn about Juan Perón or the political situation in mid-twentieth century Argentina. And I'm nothing but grateful for the introduction. I'll take them as I can, and, honestly, the more entertaining, the better. The same goes for Martinez and Tyrant Memory, which shrewdly elucidates a dim corner of modern world history by the darkly comic wit that has come to be synonymous with its author's name. 

Tyrant Memory is the fourth of Castellanos Moya's novels to appear in English, and although it shares a generally skeptical view of Salvadoran society with the three books that came before it, it's the first that treats the subject of Salvadoran politics directly, and the only one of the four that could be called historical fiction. The bulk of the novel alternates between the diary entries of Haydée Aragon, a wealthy woman in San Salvador whose husband Pericles is a political prisoner, and a third person narrative describing the movements of her son Clemente, who after mistakenly announcing the death of the general on the radio at the outset of the 1944 coup is forced into hiding with his cousin Jimmy, a junior military officer also involved in planning the general's overthrow. Haydée's outrage at the imprisonment of her husband and her fear for the safety of her son morph her into an unlikely activist who finds herself directly involved in the events that bring about the general strike. The second part of the book takes place in 1973, a brief epilogue narrated by an artist friend of the Aragons named Chélon, the husband of Haydée's best friend Carmela, with whom Haydée meets frequently during the events described in her diary. 

Haydée vigorously dislikes "the warlock," as Martínez is variously called (sometimes also "the general" or simply "the man"), but her motivations seem to be more personal than otherwise. Martinez has been responsible for her husband's imprisonment on more than one occasion (Pericles had been the general's personal secretary for two years, after which he was appointed ambassador to Brussels, a post that he resigned to return to El Salvador and speak out against the general in the press), and, of course, the general is on the hunt for her son. As a Catholic, Haydée also disapproves of the general's dabbling in the occult. Beyond those scruples, however, she doesn't express any concrete political objections to the regime. 

Granted, her position is complicated. Pericles may be an enemy of the Martínez government, but his father, a conservative colonel, is a supporter. He's also Haydée's best chance for mitigating the violence of the regime's response to Clemente's involvement in the attempted coup. Haydée's own father is a wealthy coffee grower and opposition supporter, and her younger son Betito has been caught up in the fervor of his politically-minded classmates and is involved with them in organizing the general strike. For his part, Clemente seems to have been motivated by nothing more than playboy adventurism, his disposition toward which is demonstrated by his unflagging pursuit of whiskey and women, even as he and Jimmy are being pursued by the National Guard. Haydée, however (and understandably), thinks nothing but the best of him. Wondering over his whereabouts and his safety in the immediate aftermath of the coup, she writes: "I think there are many of us, women alone, burdened by the sorry fates of our men." 

But Haydée doesn't let that burden keep her from championing her men's causes. Police tailing her or not, she regularly visits family and friends and the other mothers and wives of the imprisoned and accused. She shows up to the prison where Pericles is being held to insist on her right of visitation. And before the strike, she also visits the salon -- twice. The casino may have burned in the coup, but Haydée can still have herself done up for her rounds, which, at the time of her first visit, include, amusingly, a series of wakes. After all, as she writes, "it's enough to have one's spirits so low they're sinking through the floor but one must, at least, keep up appearances." 

And my pointing that out isn't to imply that Haydée is necessarily apathetic or uninformed, but rather to underscore what Castellanos Moya seems to want to summarize in Tyrant Memory about Salvadoran politics during the presidency of Maximiliano Hernández Martínez: namely, that it was more or less an ancient régime-style game for the well-to-do and the socially-connected that saw the military and the oligarchy, neither completely at odds nor completely as allies, directing the fate of a country from the porches of their plantation houses and the armchairs of their social clubs.  

Relying only on the information given in the text, it's difficult to tell exactly what the warlock's political positions were. A quick Internet search, however, turns up that his government, with the support of wealthy coffee growers, brutally suppressed a peasant uprising in 1932, the communist leader of which later lent his name to the group of leftist guerilla organizations that fought the military government of El Salvador in the civil war of the 1980s. However, the Martínez government also instituted a program by which private lands were purchased for redistribution to the poor. Martínez was in power when Salvadoran women were extended the right to vote in 1939, which no doubt would have furthered the political influence and participation of the other wives and mothers with whom Haydée interacts through the course of her story. 

Readers more familiar with Salvadoran history will likely have more pointed opinions of Haydée -- be they more scathing or more sympathetic -- but, then again, those readers probably didn't read past my opening admissions of ignorance. Regardless though, Castellanos Moya's point doesn't seem to be to criticize the warlock's politics specifically but to draw attention to the muddle that was Salvadoran politics in general during the warlock's tenure. While comic against a background of violence and general unrest, that Haydée is careful to plan her shopping to make sure that she has time to purchase a new notebook before the stores close for the strike, or that the priest who out of mercy and charity harbors Clemente and Jimmy during Holy Week might be caring too much for his native house girls (Clemente has an eye for them, too) are anecdotes that seem intended to reflect the bathos that characterized the power jockeying among the elite of El Salvador during the Martínez era. Within that context, that Martínez goes on record after the coup to claim that "the wealthy are now his enemy, not those with socialist ideas" is equally as pathetically absurd. 

And what of the United States (the other America)? It's true that in April 1944 our hands were full with the war in the Pacific and with planning the invasion of Normandy. So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that general history courses in the States skip over the likes of Martínez to focus on World War II. Still, the characters in Tyrant Memory have high hopes for U.S. intervention after the coup. After all, as both Haydée and Jimmy remark at different points in the novel, the U.S. military had spent enormous sums of money training many of the young Salvadoran officers who were executed or under order of execution for their participation in the insurrection. 

That observation should be a reminder of the extent to which U.S. intervention in Latin American politics during the twentieth century was characterized by the propping up of strong militaries against the spread of communism. That much, especially as an aspect of Cold War foreign policy, should be familiar to most readers in the United States, even if they're shaky on the details. But do the politics and policies translate correctly in both directions? The communist struggle to build socialism is often cast as a global conflict, but were its historical battles fought in the same terms in every context? In Castellanos Moya's telling, the political importance of the Martínez years appears to be more involved with the will of those able to challenge systems of power than with any particular system itself. 

Haydée and the members of her circle appeal to the U.S. ambassador for assistance throughout Tyrant Memory, but it isn't until the police kill an American that he finally takes action and demands the warlock's resignation. Castellanos Moya does disclaim in his author's note that "in this book, history has been placed at the service of the novel," which raises the question of whether politics as such was very important to him at all, while also casting some doubt on the importance of the historical facts he decides to highlight. The significance of U.S. intervention in Martínez's removal, which in Tyrant Memory seems to downplay the effect of the indigenous strike, may not have been so significant in "historical truth" (the term used by the author in his note). Then again, by exonerating himself from responsibility to that truth, Castellanos Moya also allows his characters the freedom of absolute subjectivity. 

And so, not surprisingly, Castellanos Moya's effort is, ultimately, a literary one. The second part of Tyrant Memory, the part told by Chélon the painter, almost roundly refutes the assumptions of the characters in the part before it, but in so doing draws attention to the personal nature of their motivations as well as of his own (though I won't make any further description so as not to ruin the story). In the light of Chélon's story, the title of Castellanos Moya's book appears to refer more to the tyrannical nature of historical memory than to any specific memory of the tyrant Maximiliano Hernández Martínez. For the characters in Tyrant Memory, the only truth of history lies in the personal relationships that tied them to it, even as the "truth" of history insists on telling the total story otherwise.  

But even if politics were simply the device by which Castellanos Moya put his loftier observations into relief, that topic is still particularly significant to the translation of a novel like Tyrant Memory. In an interview with the Center for the Art of Translation, which she gave in 2008 after translating Moya's novel Senselessness, translator Katherine Silver acknowledges the important, politically subversive nature of bringing texts from Latin America into English in the United States: "Subversion. It's another version, a sub-version, often from a subordinate place. And in a sense that's what we do as translators. We bring something from another context and we insert it like a foreign object into an otherwise complacent and coherent belief system, and by so doing we render that belief system relative."

In Chélon's epilogue, he imagines an episode between Pericles and a Soviet journalist at an embassy party in Brussels, in which Chélon hears the Soviet journalist speaking in "perfect Castilian Spanish." Reading that section, I imagined that readers of Spanish more familiar with the Salvadoran political situation in the mid-twentieth century could hear in the mention of that perfect Castilian Spanish the subordination of El Salvador on the world political stage at the time. Whether Tyrant Memory, which Silver was translating at the time she gave her interview, was intended as a political novel or not, its appearance in English will, one hopes, disrupt the coherence of the political narrative of the twentieth century in the United States and continue to dispel the complacence that surrounds our conception of that so called "American Century." And if not, then it's still a damn fine piece of literary fiction. It might help raise awareness if Hollywood made it into a movie. People would see it for sure if Madonna got cast as Haydée.