A few years ago, Horacio Castellanos Moya published “Bolaño Inc.,” an essay in Guernica taking issue with his friend Roberto Bolaño’s overnight canonization in the English-speaking world. Half a century ago, Castellanos Moya argues, after García Márquez won the Nobel Prize, American publishers glommed onto magical realism, a genre that perpetuated Anglo American stereotypes about the primitivism of Latin American culture. Likewise, contemporary American publishers have created the “Bolaño myth,” which perpetuates similar stereotypes about Latin American writers. Attuned to the way white imperial culture projects its fantasies onto Latin America, even when American readers venerate Latin American writers, Castellanos Moya argues that in the United States, the literary establishment has appropriated Bolaño’s myth for its own purposes.
The Dream of My Return, Castellanos Moya’s third title to appear in English from New Directions (translated by Katherine Silver), takes up the theme of exile, chronicling the ways in which brutality becomes commonplace, and bystanders become complicit in horror. Deceptively brisk, and narrated in claustrophobic prose, the novel serves as a devastating corrective to the romanticism the “Bolaño myth” celebrates. Packed with poisonous observations about the hypocrisy of players on both ends of the political spectrum, it’s a slender tour-de-force: a rich, complex, beautifully crafted act of ventriloquism whose brevity belies its range.
When the novel begins, exiled Salvadoran journalist Erasmo Aragón, whose biography resembles the author’s (born in Honduras, raised in El Salvador, living in exile in Mexico City, where Castellanos Moya lived for 10 years), seeks treatment for what might be a painful ulcer, or perhaps a liver disorder. At least he thinks it’s his liver, he tells his doctor, Don Chente Alvarado:
And then I told him that I’d been having pain precisely here—pressing on my liver—for about a week, that the pain was constant, which made me fear a serious liver disorder, if not something worse, because a decade earlier some cursed amoebas had infested that organ, which was then further weakened by the poison I ingested to eradicate them, and, moreover, in the last few weeks, I had to confess, I’d been overdoing it with the vodka tonics, anxious as I was about all kind of problems that were swarming in on me left, right, and center.
Several digressions on the narrator’s experience with homeopathic medicine follow: each step forward occasions a leap back into its protagonist’s history, so the action becomes psychological. Aragón excavates the recesses of his psyche—to what end, he isn’t sure. Ostensibly he plans to return to San Salvador, to take part in a vague “journalism project,” “which [he is] very excited about, because the negotiations between the government and the guerillas were making steady progress, and peace could be glimpsed on the not-too-distant horizon.” The novel comments only obliquely on that dream of peace, suggesting the horizon might be more distant than it seems.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the doctor declares Erasmo’s difficulties psychological. Each subsequent visit provides the opportunity for Aragòn to narrate a few more episodes from his past, and after each visit, he worries what he might have revealed in the course of his hypnosis treatments. Like most of the characters in the book, Aragón has survived political terror, and he fears his complicity in something monstrous:
It was at that instant, while I was enjoying the slow passage of time before taking that final sip, carried away by another association my mind had made with no help from my will, that I suddenly felt the impact, or rather, received the blow that pushed me into the black hole I so greatly feared: what if the crime I couldn’t remember was the murder of my little nursery school classmate whose head I had bashed in with the little wooden block? What if this was the death that was buried in my memory, the one I had wiped out through who knows what mechanisms and that now, because of the hypnosis sessions, was trying to come out into the open?
As he acknowledges when Don Chente urges him to write his life story, one cannot trust one’s memory. Not only does Aragón not know what he’s hiding, he doesn’t know whether he’s hiding anything at all.
Erasmo falls apart, to comic effect. Things at home are even worse than he’s let on to Chente, as Erasmo’s wife, Eva, has been having an affair with a “two-bit actor,” Antolín. In one of the sharpest episodes in the book, Erasmo’s friend Mr. Rabbit—“a man who, during his long tenure as a militant revolutionary, had liquidated a number of subjects”—takes it upon himself to eliminate Antolín as a favor to Erasmo. Or perhaps Mr. Rabbit only pretends to eliminate Antolín, as a practical joke—at first, it’s hard to tell. Besides being laugh-out-loud funny, the episode shows Aragón’s fear of violence and the ease with which he becomes complicit in it. Mr. Rabbit knows Aragón better than he knows himself: “‘I fired into a flower pot on the landing,’ he said, now doubled over in laughter at the sight of me so totally perplexed… ‘Still want to break his neck?’ he asked, unable to stop laughing.” Aragón hardly seems prepared for the reality of violence, a fact that makes him sympathetic. For all his pettiness, he is a moral character. Yet his ambivalence is part of his problem.
By now, anyone with a reasonable grasp of history understands the United States’ involvement in right-wing terror in El Salvador and throughout Central and South America. Yet for Aragón, the horror at the heart of the novel hits much closer to home, for the memory he finally dredges up from the murk of his unconscious mind reveals revolutionaries whose methods hardly differ from the state’s, and it demonstrates the extent to which Aragón romanticizes these men of action:
It was, of course, that image—like a postcard and just as romantic—that impressed me because Tamba had been the two things I could never be: a composer of progressive rock music and a guerrilla, two ideals from my tender youth that he had managed to embody and I hadn’t at all, though perhaps fortunately, I reconsidered as I made myself more comfortable on the bed: thanks to the fact I was not a rock musician turned guerrilla leader, I could now think about this, because if I had been those things, my fate would have been similar to that of the comrade with the nickname of the killer ape.
Is Aragón experiencing survivor’s guilt, or a midlife crisis? For all the moral force the novel’s climactic condemnation of leftist violence carries, we have to wonder where that leaves Aragón. As a journalist, he’s more observer than participant, and while he disdains politics, he also romanticizes his fallen comrades.
It’s hard to say what to make of Aragón’s dream of return. Is he excited about his journalistic project (he doesn’t say much about it), or is that a pretext to abandon his family, as his wife claims? Betrayed by people on both ends of the political spectrum, Aragón seems to feel as though nothing remains for him but self-indulgence, or so the novel’s damning final line implies. Yet his romanticism seems pretty weak-kneed—and certainly easy, from the distance exile affords him. In a beautifully accomplished reversal, Eva’s voice resonates more loudly than Aragón’s singular first-person does when the reader turns the final page, casting most of what Castellanos Moya’s protagonist has told us over the course of the book in a different light. By the time you put the book down, it’s hard not to wonder if real courage wouldn’t consist of Aragón staying in Mexico City and dealing with the wreckage of his life, as opposed to running toward some uncertain end in San Salvador, in a slow fade worthy of those same countercultural heroes that Castellanos Moya, in his essay, excoriates American readers for wanting to see Roberto Bolaño emulate.
Readers who prefer discrete scenes and a clear sense of advancing action might find themselves bogging down in Castellanos Moya’s prose. I’m also curious about one or two details of the translation. “It sounds strange that I hadn’t, until that moment, been particularly concerned about what I’d told my doctor,” Aragón announces a third of the way through the book, yet for several chapters, he’s been agonizing over exactly that problem. Yet the manic intensity of Castellanos Moya’s prose yields the same pleasure as Thomas Bernhard’s, a clear influence (one of Castellanos Moya’s other books is called Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador), and the shift at the end of the narrative recalls the shift at the end of Imre Kertész’s Kaddish for a Child Not Born, a similarly brief novel that likewise manages to wrest affirmation from negation, and in which a cerebral first-person narrator grapples with the legacy of political terror.
If it seems unfair to consider The Dream of My Return through the lens of “Bolaño Inc.,” consider the fact an Infrarealist poet makes a brief appearance in the middle of the novel. Of course, Castellanos Moya is having fun. But the novel’s final scene recalls rugged individualists from Huck Finn to Hud—or as Castellanos Moya might have it, from the Che Guevera of Hollywood’s The Motorcycle Diaries to Jim Morrison. And despite the fact that Castellanos Moya (like Bolaño) invites us to confound his protagonist with his authorial persona, I suspect there’s a great deal of psychic distance between Erasmo Aragón and his creator. Thus does the novel resonate with charged ambiguity, for just as we feel the tragedy of Aragón’s inability to work out his problems on the home front, we appreciate the inevitability of him running away, recognizing as we do the impossibility of his walking a middle path. That we should root for him to self-destruct perhaps indicates our complicity in his fall—and that’s as it should be. Castellanos Moya has the grace to imply that there might, after all, be a better way.