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Book Review: Frayed Ends of Sanity


Frayed Ends of Sanity

An editor becomes a prisoner of the page in Senselessness

"We are all tainted with viral origins," William S. Burroughs once observed. "The whole quality of human consciousness, as expressed in male and female, is basically a virus mechanism." No one understands this idea better than the agitated writer-hero of Horacio Castellanos Moya's "Senselessness," who has taken on the task of editing a 1,001-page oral history of the torture and mutilation of a Latin American country's indigenous population. The man has three months to complete the task - a not unreasonable deadline, if only the sentences of the victims didn't unhinge him so.

"I am not complete in the mind" is the first sentence Moya's narrator reads. It comes from a man who watched his wife and children hacked to death by machete. This utterance soon describes the narrator's frame of mind, too. Paranoia rises up within him, clanging like an ever-louder alarm. Something is not right. People are watching him. The secret police know he is in the country. If only he could relax. Feverishly, he tries to seduce one woman after the next, but the images he reads in that day's work of editing combine with his pornographic fantasies in a hideous montage.

Moya brilliantly scripts this breakdown. His sentences bulge and seethe, coiling around the parenthetical self-justifications and self-recriminations of his increasingly frenzied narrator. Following each lapse of debauchery the man attacks the report with more empathic gusto. He is a novelist, after all, so he doesn't just tinker with style and language; he must imaginatively place himself at the center of it. He imagines being maimed and murdered; he imagines himself doing the killing and the torturing.
Like one of Kafka's feverish heroes, Moya's agonized writer responds to the stress by lashing out. Cornered, he clubs people with remembered lines from the text. No one shows enough solemn appreciation. In the context of day-to-day life these rescued words don't mean a thing. They are a virus society has quarantined in a report, and the man working on it from day to day is trying his best - and not always succeeding - to stay sane while reading it.

John Freeman is finishing a book on the tyranny of e-mail for Scribner.


By Horacio Castellanos Moya

Translated by Katherine Silver

New York: New Directions $15.95; 142 pp.

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