Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Senselessness: An extract

An extract from the first chapter of Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated by Katherine Silver.

I AM NOT COMPLETE IN THE MIND, said the sentence I highlighted with the yellow marker and even copied into my personal notebook, because this wasn't just any old sentence, much less some wisecrack, not by any means, but rather the sentence that astonished me more than any other sentence I read that first day on the job, the sentence that most dumbfounded me during my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred almost single-spaced printed pages placed on what would be my desk by my friend Erick so I could get some idea of the task that awaited me. lam not complete in the mind, I repeated to myself, stunned by the extent of mental perturbation experienced by this Cakchiquel man who had witnessed his family's murder, by the fact that this indigenous man was aware of the breakdown of his own psychic apparatus as a result of having watched, albeit wounded and powerless, as soldiers of his country's army scornfully and in cold blood chopped each of his four small children to pieces with machetes, then turned on his wife, the poor woman already in shock because she too had been forced to watch as the soldiers turned her small children into palpitating pieces of human flesh. Nobody can be complete in the mind after having survived such an ordeal, I said to myself, morbidly mulling it over, trying to imagine what waking up must have been like for this indigenous man, whom they had left for dead among chunks of the flesh of his wife and children and who then, many years later, had the opportunity to give his testimony so that I could read it and make stylistic corrections, a testimony that began, in fact, with the sentence I am not complete in the mind that so moved me because it summed up in the most concise manner possible the mental state tens of thousands of people who have suffered experiences similar to the ones recounted by this Cakchiquel man found themselves in, and also summed up the mental state of thousands of soldiers and paramilitary men who had with relish cut to pieces their so-called compatriots, though I must admit that it's not the same to be incomplete in the mind after watching your own children drawn and quartered as after drawing and quartering other peoples' children, I told myself before reaching the overwhelming conclusion that it was the entire population of this country that was not complete in the mind, which led me to an even worse conclusion, even more perturbing, and this was that only somebody completely out of his mind would be willing to move to a foreign country whose population was not complete in the mind to perform a task that consisted precisely of copyediting an extensive report of one thousand one hundred pages that documents the hundreds of massacres and proves the general perturbation. I am also not complete in the mind, I then told myself on that, my first day of work, sitting at what would be my desk for the duration, my eyes wandering aimlessly over the tall almost bare white walls of that office I would be using for the next three months-its only furnishings were the desk, the computer, the chair I was digressing in, and a crucifix behind my back, thanks to which the walls were not completely bare. I must be much less complete in the mind than all of them, I managed to think as I threw my head back without knocking myself off balance in the chair, wondering how long it would take me to get used to the presence of the crucifix, which I couldn't even consider taking down because this wasn't my office but rather the bishop's, as my friend Erick had explained to me a few hours earlier as he was leading me toward it, even though the bishop almost never used it, preferring the one in the parish church, where he also lived, so I could use this office as long as I wanted, but I wouldn't be able to get rid of the crucifix and replace it with something else, something to hang on the wall that would lighten my spirits, something that would have been as far removed from any and all religions as I was myself, even though at that moment and for the coming weeks I would find myself working there in the archbishop's palace, situated precisely behind the cathedral, another sign that I am not complete in the mind, I said to myself with real concern, because that was the only way to explain the fact that a depraved atheist like myself had agreed to work for the perfidious Catholic Church, the onlyway to explain that in spite of the hearty revulsion I felt toward the Catholic Church and all other churches, no matter how small, I found myself now precisely in the archbishop's palace facing one thousand one hundred pages of almost single-spaced text that contained the horrific stories of how the armed forces had decimated dozens of villages and their inhabitants. I am the least complete in the mind! I thought with alarm as I stood up and began to pace like a caged animal around that office whose only window facing the street was walled up so that neither the passersby nor anybody inside would succumb to temptation, I began to pace around as I would frequently do each and every one of the days I spent within those four walls, but at that moment, on the verge of going mad after realizing that I was so not complete in the mind that I had accepted and was starting a job with the church, a job that had already put me in the sights of the armed forces of this country, as if I didn't already have enough problems with the armed forces of my own country, as if the enemies in my own country weren't enough for me, I was about to stick my snout into somebody else's wasps' nest, make sure that the Catholic hands about to touch the balls of the military tiger were clean and had even gotten a manicure, because that was what my work was all about, cleaning up and giving a manicure to the Catholic hands that were piously getting ready to squeeze the tiger's balls, I thought as I fixed my gaze on the bulky stack of one thousand one hundred pages that lay on the desk, and, momentarily stopping my pacing, increasingly in a stupor, I understood that it was not going to be easy to read, organize, and copyedit those one thousand one hundred pages in the three months my friend Erick and I had agreed on: Shit! Having agreed to edit that report in just three months proved that my problem wasn't that I was not complete in the mind but that I was completely unhinged. All of a sudden I felt trapped in that office with those high bare walls, a victim of a conspiracy between the Church and the armed forces in aforeign country, a lamb being led to the slaughter thanks to a stupid and dangerous bout of enthusiasm that made me trust my friend Erick when, one month earlier-as we sipped Rioja in an old Spanish bar near police headquarters-he asked me if I would be interested in copyediting the final report of the project he was involved in, a project that consisted of recovering the memories of the hundreds of survivors of and witnesses to the massacres perpetrated in the throes of the so-called armed conflict between the army and the guerrillas, if I would be interested in earning five thousand dollars for spending three months editing about five hundred pages written by well-known journalists and academics, who were turning in a text that was almost finished, I would only have to look it over, a final proofing, it was really a great gig, five thousand dollars just to put the final touches on a project that dozens and dozens of people had participated in, beginning with the group of missionaries who had managed to record the oral testimonies of the Indians, witnesses and survivors, most of whom didn't even speak Spanish very well and who were afraid above all else of anything that had to do with the events they had been victims of, followed by those in charge of transcribing the tapes, and ending with teams of distinguished professionals, who would classify and analyze the testimonies and who would then also write up the report, my friend Erick explained to me in detail, not very emphatically, very calmly in fact, in that conspiratorial tone so typical of him, knowing that I would never refuse such an offer, not because of the enthusiasm a good Rioja might awaken in my spirit but rather because he perceived that I was so not complete in the mind that I would accept his offer and even get excited about the idea of being involved in such a project without weighing the pros and cons or negotiating, which is just what happened.

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