Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horacio Castellanos Moya

Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador BY Horacio Castellanos Moya. New Directions. . $14.

There’s something daunting about the subtitle of Revulsion: Thomas Bernard in San Salvador by Horacio Castellanos Moya and translated from Spanish by Lee Klein. For one thing, it presumes familiarity with the influential, congenitally grave Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. For another, it’s a mouthful. One thing it isn’t, though, is false advertising: Revulsion, Moya’s fifth book to be translated into English, is indeed a work of imitation—a tribute and a parody as well as an original voice. The book describes the “intellectual and spiritual misery” of 1990s San Salvador, the capital of a densely populated republic saddled with a corrupt, apprehensive infrastructure in the wake of a civil war. If Revulsion presents a puzzle to its English readers, it was received by its initial public as an affront. Revulsion garnered its author death threats from his countrymen and necessitated Moya’s exile. In a note to the new edition, he writes, “Thanks to their work, some writers earn money, others obtain fame, and some writers only make enemies.”

Even in the U.S., Bernhard is an odd target for pastiche; not quite obscure, but still something of a passcode between aficionados for whom Bernhard is instantly recognizable for his recursive and disgruntled prose, which returns to certain fixations and phrases in the manner of a behavioral tic—1983’s The Loser, to name one example, is a solid block of text broken up only by the redundant attribution “I thought” every two or so lines—swaddling every person and thing it touches in disgust. “We may know for decades that someone close to us is a ridiculous person,” Bernhard writes in Woodcutters,

but it’s only after a lapse of decades that we suddenly see it, I thought, sitting in the wing chair, just as I’m suddenly seeing it now with absolute clarity, that Auersberger (the so-called successor of Webern) is a ridiculous person. And just as Auersberger, who’s continually drunk, is ridiculous in his own way, and probably always has been, I thought sitting in the wing chair, so too his wife is ridiculous and always has been. You used to be in love with these ridiculous people, I told myself as I sat in the wing chair, head over heels in love with these ridiculous, low, vicious people…

And so it goes in this refrain, a litany of offenses taken by a recumbent narrator. To read a line of Bernhard is to read the entirety of Bernhard, which is dismissive only if you disagree with his contention that a perfect style is preferable to the contaminations of the world.

Revulsion proceeds, in a breakneck screed that runs the entirety of its eighty-three pages, in the same digressively belligerent mode. It is a monologue delivered to Moya by a schoolmate named Edgardo Vega who has since expatriated to Canada and only briefly returned to San Salvador for his mother’s funeral. Vega disparages the country’s cretinous public, his “bottom-dwelling race,” his venal family, Moya’s own “famished stories,” the foulness of the local beer (“nasty putrid water”), the criminality of its police and taxi drivers. The novel’s climax, insomuch as it has one, comes when Vega recovers his lost Canadian passport, without which he would be condemned to the “puddles of urine and vomit” and “asphyxiating masses” of Central America, and flips it open to reveal that he has even disowned his name, the last thing tying him to his native country, and actually become Thomas Bernhard, “a name I took from an Austrian writer I admire and who surely neither you nor the other simulators in this infamous place would recognize.” Bernhard was accused of being a Nestbeshmutzer, or nest-dirtier, in postwar Salzburg, whereas Vega has flown the coop:

The people of this country are fighting against knowledge and intellectual curiosity, Moya, I’m completely sure that this country is out of sync with time and the world, it only existed when it was a bloodbath, it only existed thanks to the thousands who were assassinated, thanks to the criminal capacity of the military and the communists, beyond this criminal capacity, the people of this country have no possibility of demonstrating their existence in the world, said Vega.

It is a nearly perfect ventriloquism. Moreover, by converting Bernhard into a genre that can be accented to malign any hometown and its population of fakes and ignoramuses, Moya elevates hate to an international language (he mentions, with amusement, that he still receives requests from fans throughout the world begging him to debase their cultures). Moya also manages what many young writers aspire to: the courage to transgress the norms that govern polite conversation and speak in defiance of taboo; to break with the part of his identity that binds him to a nation, a family, and a home and facilitates entry into the writerly fraternity.

In Moya’s case, it was not a clean break. The books he has written since Revulsion accelerated his departure from El Salvador are obsessed with the kind of paeans to national character enduring in the shadow of war that this novel purports to disown. They are even civically responsible. Tyrant Memory recounts the quixotic valor of the families who opposed the bloody presidency of General Hernández Martínez, whom they overthrew in a 1944 coup; Senselessness is narrated by an editor tasked by the Catholic Church with editing a manuscript that details the massacre of indigenous peoples by the military; while The She-Devil in the Mirror mocks the Salvadoran upper class, it is how individuals resist lawlessness that interests Moya most. All these novels are written in a kind of inspired prattle clearly descended from Bernhard. Senselessness and She-Devil are both long monologues. Tyrant Memory is largely epistolary, but the speakers in each push against Bernhard’s tetchy passivity, protesting injustice, hypocrisy, and intolerance rather than marinating in them. The Dream of My Return in particular seems a sort of stylistic sequel to Revulsion (complete with an armchair reminiscent of the one from Woodcutters), narrated by a neurotic toying with the idea of actually returning to his hated home country.

All this casts some doubt on Moya’s stated goal of demolishing “the culture and politics of San Salvador, same as Bernhard had done with Salzburg.” Bernhard never left Austria, as though he needed to subsist on spite or risk quashing his inspiration, but Moya has lived in Mexico and the US since Revulsion’s publication. Bernhard’s narrators appear to speak for him, but Moya put his invective in the mouth of an ingrate who berates Moya for his continued residency in a country where “stupidity cuts the heart of things in half” because it can’t see in shades of gray. This is where Moya reveals himself, in an ambivalent tint of gray that only masquerades as Bernhard’s solid black. It’s not us that Moya is trying to convince in Revulsion, but himself, as he accomplishes the difficult task of separating himself from a national and familial lineage that comes across, despite protestations to the contrary, as a painful love.

JW McCormack's work has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Tin House, N1FR, Publisher's Weekly and Conjunctions, where he is a senior editor. He teaches at Columbia University.