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The Ghost of San Salvador: A Q&A with Horacio Castellanos Moya

A Q&A with Horacio Castellanos Moya


Monday, December 14, 2009

By Nate Martin

San Salvador is the home of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s literary imagination, and although he left El Salvador’s capital city long ago, its concrete tentacles often stretch a surreal length and reach the author’s mind, regardless of where in the world he happens to be.

San Salvador is as much a character in Dance With Snakes and The She-Devil in the Mirror as the humans who inhabit the two books, published in English this fall by Biblioasis and New Directions, respectively. The city is the subject and/or setting of most of Moya’s 14 books of fiction, including La diaspora (1988), his first novel and winner of a Salvadoran National Novel Award; El asco: Thomas Bernhard en El Salvador (1997), which resulted in death threats that prompted Moya to exile himself from El Salvador; and three of his most recent novels — Donde no estén ustedes (2003), Desmoronamiento (2006) and Tirana memoria (2008) — which, as a trilogy, chronicle a family through generations of San Salvador’s history.

Dance With Snakes, published in Spanish in 1997, follows a young sociologist who assumes the identity of a beggar, and with the help of a cadre of talking snakes embarks upon a giddy spree of terror that paralyzes San Salvador. The She-Devil in the Mirror, published in Spanish in 2000, is the rambling first-person account of a wealthy young Salvadoreña who describes her efforts to solve her friend’s murder and, in doing so, the unraveling of her own psyche. Both are dark and comic, at turns violent and oddly erotic, and encapsulate portions of Salvadoran society for Moya to berate in disgust, and obliquely revere at a distance.

Moya was born in Honduras in 1957 but grew up in El Salvador, which he left for good in 1997. Before his exile he lived in Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico and Spain, and afterward in Germany and the United States. His only other book available in English is Senselessness, published by New Directions in 2008.

STOP SMILING spoke with Moya via Skype in September, while the author was in Tokyo.

Stop Smiling: In Dance With Snakes, a young sociologist meets a homeless man, and there’s this kind of fantastical element with snakes that can talk, but then all of a sudden you’re up at the national political level, where people are saying these snake attacks are an attempt to destabilize the government. Do you feel like that’s a natural progression of your brain — to move toward the political?

Horacio Castellanos Moya: [laughs] That’s funny. In that period of my life, I was deeply involved in political journalism, so it was very natural that everything went that way. And by that time I was under a lot of pressure, because I wrote this book after I had a big failure as a journalist. I was the editor-in-chief of a weekly newspaper — the first weekly newspaper in El Salvador after the civil war. But after a year and a half we couldn’t go on because we had a lot of political problems and financial problems. We were trying to do a new kind of journalism in El Salvador, and it was impossible at that time. We were trying to be in the middle in a society where there was no middle ground. And three or four months later, I wrote Dance With Snakes, and that was a kind of amazing experience, because there was not a plan for that story. It was as if suddenly I discovered a hard disk in my brain and I wrote it in two or three weeks.

SS: It’s interesting that you wrote it in such a short time because of how neatly it cycles back to where it started. Was that story based upon anything? A folk tale, or some sort of real-life event?

HCM: No, not at all. It’s like I said, at the beginning I was starting to write a short story, and I wrote 10 pages, and those 10 pages are the first 10 pages of the book. I was dealing with the sociologist who is unemployed and trying to become a friend of this beggar in order to discover what is inside the Chevrolet. I wrote these 10 pages, and then stopped and said, “Wow, what is this? Where am I going?” And suddenly — it sounds very commonplace — but it was like a dream. It was like a nightmare. I had a nightmare and I discovered, “Oh, inside the car, there are serpents. Snakes,” and I just sat down to write it. I did a lot of editing in order to get the language I wanted, in order to get this speed in the language, the short sentences. But the story was like it was already built inside my brain.


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