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A Dangerous Homage

By Horacio Castellanos Moya

Translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee

Ten years ago, in the summer of 1997, I was visiting Guatemala City and staying with a friend when the phone rang in the middle of the night. It was my mother calling from San Salvador: badly shaken, she said she had just received two phone calls from a threatening man who told her I was going to be murdered on account of a short novel I had just published a few weeks prior. Despite the fact that my mouth had gone bone dry from the sudden shock and the feeling that my blood pressure had gone through the roof, I managed to ask her if the caller had identified himself. She said no, he had not, but that he had made his threat in earnest. She asked me worriedly if, under the circumstances, I was still going to come home as I had planned.

The novel which aroused such wrath is called Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador. I had written it a year and a half earlier in Mexico City, as a stylistic exercise in which I attempted to imitate that great Austrian writer, as much in his style, which is rooted in cadence and repetition, as in his content, which consists largely of acerbic criticism of Austria and its culture. Like a child who delights in mischief, I had the pleasures of diatribe and imitation, enjoying every minute of writing that book—which was a cultural and political indictment of El Salvador as much as Bernhard's work was of Austria. The main character of Revulsion, a neurasthenic named Vega who is forced to return to his country after an eighteen-year absence, is appalled by everything he sees and experiences in El Salvador; he speaks about the daily lives of Salvadorians with an acid tongue, and he ridicules both their so-called "patriotism" and the military and political leadership of the country with biting sarcasm. The wife of one of my writer friends threw the book out the bathroom window of their house into the street in a fit of indignation when she read the horrible things Vega says about pupusa, the national dish of El Salvador.

Of course I didn't go home to El Salvador as planned. I called the few friends I had at international press agencies to tell them about the threat; it was scarcely mentioned in El Salvador's press, apart from a note from a columnist who said I had invented the threats to publicize my book in a pale imitation of Salman Rushdie. I continued to earn my living as a journalist in Guatemala, Mexico, and Spain. One of my colleagues suggested that the threats were related to Primera Plana, a short-lived weekly journal (indeed, it was published in 1994–95) of which I had been editor in chief and was highly critical of the political powers created by our civil war. But there's no point in speculating. El Salvador is not Austria. And in a country where leftists assassinated the country's most important poet, Roque Dalton, in 1975, for supposedly being a CIA agent, it made much more sense to stay away than to play the martyr.

It's interesting that Revulsion did not suffer the same fate. Despite the death threats and my absence, my little book was reissued every year by a small, brave Salvadorian publisher, and thanks to a bizarre twist of fate, was even adopted for classes at the public university. Soon copies of the book were sold in neighboring countries. On more than one occasion, in bars in Antigua Guatemala, San Jose, Costa Rica, and Mexico City, I met people who told me how much they'd loved the book and asked if I would consider writing a "Revulsion" about their own country, a withering Bernhard-esque critique of their own national culture. Of course I always begged off, saying that I had already acquitted myself of that duty, and stating, in all seriousness, that some countries would need far too many pages for their own "Revulsion," and I only wrote short novels.

Two years later, in the summer of 1999, I returned to San Salvador for a few days to see my family and complete some formalities. I ran into an old friend in a restaurant, a lawyer who works for an international human rights organization. "What on earth are you doing here? Do you want them to kill you?" he asked in such a way that I wasn't sure whether it was sincere alarm or black humor. Over the following days I visited a number of friends who told me that the situation had deteriorated so much in the past two years—political corruption, organized crime, gang activity, the complete loss of value for human life—that I'd have to write a sequel to Revulsion.

But by then I had other plans. Revulsion had confirmed for me the fact that certain writers earn money, others gain fame, but a few win only enemies. I had joined that last group with the publication of my first novel, The Diaspora, which addressed the corruption of the revolutionary left in El Salvador's civil war, and I was tired of my membership. But as the Swiss writer Robert Walser says, "No one indicts their own country with impunity." And so it is that, ten years later, despite having published five more novels on a variety of topics, none of which imitate another writer, and despite refusing to write the sequel that some people asked me to, for Salvadorians I am and always will be the author of Revulsion; like a stigma, my little novel and its consequences continue to dog me.

This text was included as an appendix of the definitive edition of El Asco. Thomas Bernhard en San Salvador, published by Tusquets Editores, in Barcelona, Spain, in November 2007.

An excerpt of Revulsion was included in the anthology The World through the Eyes of Writers by Words Wituout Borders, published by Anchor Books in March 2007.

Published Dec 16, 2008   Copyright 2008 Horacio Castellanos Moya

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