House of Lunatics | Review of Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horacio Castellanos Moya — Benjamin Woodard
A blistering novella that satisfies the darkness clouding
the cynical side of our souls. — Benjamin Woodard
Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador
Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Lee Klein
88 pages ($14.95)
Originally staged in 1995, multimedia artist Bill Viola’s “The Greeting” plays over a tall, vertical video screen, and functions like a painting come to life. From the left side of the frame, a visibly pregnant woman in a flowing orange dress approaches a pair of similarly dressed women chatting on a stylized city street, and as their conversation is interrupted, the group acknowledges each other and the woman in orange pulls the woman closest to the viewer in for a hug. The natural flow of the trio’s movements, in real time, takes less than thirty seconds to transpire. But in his installation, Viola slows his footage so that it spreads over ten minutes. Under these specifications, the figures crawl toward each other, and subtleties lost at normal speeds become amplified. The simple gesture of a hug opens itself up to endless nuanced observations. For example, during this embrace, the woman in orange whispers something—it’s impossible to know what—into her friend’s ear, while the woman outside of the caress peers toward the viewer, her face stressing disappointment as a slight breeze wafts her loose clothing. It is a hypnotizing display, and by the end of the sequence, Viola implies to the viewer a narrative much larger than the small moment depicted.
“The Greeting” was inspired by Jacopo Pontormo’s painting, The Visitation, yet literature enthusiasts may see a bit of writer Thomas Bernhard floating on the screen, too, for like Viola’s installation, Bernhard’s novels often cover very little present time, instead dwelling on the thoughts and memories of characters as they experience brief physical exchanges: sitting idly at a table, or walking into a remote inn. Regular readers of Numéro Cinq are no doubt familiar with the work of Bernhard (in fact, we recently ran a review of some of his short stories), yet I offer Viola’s artwork as a visual equivalent for those yet to experience one of the late Austrian’s narratives.
Bernhard, through his darkly funny, rambling, oddly italicized, tense shifting, comma splicing, yet verbally thrilling storylines (typically published as one long paragraph), cemented himself as one of the most respected and original literary figures of the 20th century, and his popularity among readers has only risen since his death in 1989. Such celebrity often lends itself to imitation, and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador is a brilliant parody of Bernhard’s stylistic tics, a slim novella that winks with fans of Bernhard while also recounting the hilarious tale of perhaps the least cheerful man in El Salvador. When originally released in 1997, though he had already published several books and worked as a professional journalist throughout Central America, Moya’s rambling story earned him death threats. Prideful residents of El Salvador, the author’s homeland, failed to find his bitter cultural critique funny and Moya avoided the country for two years. Now nearly twenty years later, Moya’s Revulsion (or, as he refers to it in an included author’s note, “the little imitation”) is seen as his signature work, and for the first time, it is available to the English-speaking world, thanks to a superb translation by author Lee Klein and publisher New Directions.
The entirety of Revulsion takes place at a bar in San Salvador between the evening hours of five and seven. The only speaker is Edgardo Vega, who has returned to El Salvador for the first time in eighteen years to bury his mother, and who has coaxed his friend Horacio Castellanos Moya to meet him for a few drinks. Over about 90 pages, Moya sits and listens to Vega’s monologue dedicated to what he really thinks about El Salvador.
As the story opens, Vega greets the fictional version of Moya with a sentence that immediately brings to mind Bernhard’s style:
Glad you could come, Moya, I had my doubts that you would come, so many people in this city don’t like this place, so many people don’t like this place at all, Moya, which is why I wasn’t sure you’d come, said Vega.
Here, Moya exaggerates Bernhard’s penchant for repetition for comedic effect, employing variations on “come” three times, the name Moya twice, and the phrase “don’t like this place” twice. Vega cannot speak with economy. He must find multiple ways to express each thought. This repetition continues as Vega tells Moya that he is the only one he feels comfortable around, and that he must vent his frustrations about El Salvador before they consume him. He says, “I have to chat with you before I leave, I have to tell you what I think about all this nastiness, there’s no one else I can relate my impressions to, the horrible thoughts I’ve had here.” Again, we see Vega rattle off variations of the same statement, and once more, Moya the author lets these repetitions string themselves together without inserting an expected period, splicing commas instead. The result is a barreling sensation, similar to that of Bernhard’s work, yet one swelling to the point of ludicrousness.
The reader learns that Moya was the only of Vega’s childhood friends to show up at the funeral. “What luck I didn’t run into any of them, except for you, of course, we have nothing in common with them, there isn’t a thing that unites me with one of them,” Vega proclaims. “We’re the exception.” From here, Vega, now a Canadian citizen, begins a verbal assault on El Salvador, which essentially consumes the rest of the text. He complains of the country’s beer (“it’s only good for inducing diarrhea”), its residents (“a putrid race”), its politicians (“so ignorant, so savagely ignorant, so obviously illiterate”) and its cities (“truly vomitous…where only truly sinister people can live”). After spending the previous two weeks living with his brother and his family, waiting to finalize paperwork for his mother, Vega has moved out and checked into a local hotel to escape the household noise:
…I want to make it clear that my brother has three televisions in his house, you wouldn’t believe it, three televisions they often turn on at the same time to different channels, a true hell this place is, Moya, I’m thankful to have left that house of lunatics this morning, they only spend their time watching television…
In condemning everything he has encountered while back in his birthplace, Vega shouts in a hyperbolic manner that, like his heavy use of repetition, mimics the diction of a Thomas Bernhard protagonist to an extreme. Take, as illustration, the narrator of Bernhard’s The Loser, who readily complains about both Austria and Switzerland about a third of the way through the novel. He calls the sights “nothing but utter tastelessness,” and claims that Switzerland is “where cretinism reigns supreme.” Recalling the city of Chur, Bernhard’s narrator notes, “the taverns…served the worst wine and the most tasteless sausage,” and “the Churians struck me as despicable in their Alpine cretinism.” When placed side by side with Moya’s Vega, these complaints feel comfortably at home, yet the major difference between a Bernhard narrator and Vega is that Bernhard’s narrators drift in and out of hyperbolic rants, whereas Vega’s entire monologue builds itself on a foundation of hyperbole. There is never a time in Revulsion where Moya lets his character slip from this mindset, for even when he shifts to rare moments of offering compliment, he speaks in an exaggerated register. Early, while acknowledging Moya’s various achievements, Vega can’t help but temper his kindness with the query, “how could it occur to you to return to live here in this shithole, to settle in a city that sucks you down more and more into its pit of filth.” Then later, after a long diatribe against local politicians (“they dedicate themselves now to a feast, an orgy, of plundering”), Vega attempts to shift gears again, only to fall back into a hyperbolic rage:
But we should hope, Moya, we don’t want to spoil our reunion thanks to these castrated politicians that each day ruin my meals, appearing on the television that my brother and his wife turn on the minute they sit down at the dining table.
Very deliberately, Moya constructs Vega to be a Bernhard character to the nth degree, and the result is a comical curmudgeon with certainly less intelligence than Bernhard’s fictional counterparts, but one who contains an overabundance of the verbal flair that lovers of Bernhard cherish in his writing.
Moya slips other nods to Bernhard in throughout Revulsion, most prominently Vega’s insistence of listening to various concertos while he and Moya sit at the bar, but perhaps the greatest tribute in the novella comes when Bernhard’s name is actually uttered by Vega himself. This occurs at the end of the story, and though divulging too much here would ruin the conclusion of Moya’s narrative, it’s safe to reveal that, after mentioning Bernhard’s name, Vega claims him as a writer nobody in San Salvador would recognize. It’s one final act of hyperbole on Vega’s part, and yet the real life controversy that surrounded Revulsion in El Salvador upon its first publication seemed to prove Vega right. Where Moya produced a biting parody, albeit one with the intention of challenging San Salvador’s culture and politics, readers saw it simply as an attack on their homeland. With death threats came the idea that Bernhard’s legacy in El Salvador was exactly as Vega claimed. Yet, knowledge of Bernhard only enhances the pleasure that is reading Moya’s Revulsion. Operating as both a parody and a darkly funny, explosive rant of a man who detests his homeland, it’s a blistering novella that satisfies the darkness clouding the cynical side of our souls.
— Benjamin Woodard
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Storychord, Corium Magazine, and Maudlin House. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his criticism and nonfiction has been featured in The Kenyon Review Online, Georgia Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter..