'Tyrant Memory' An Incandescent Exploration of Death

"Tyrant Memory" by Horacio Castellanos Moya (New Directions)

Shimwoo Lee

"Tyrant Memory" is available now.

Old Man Pericles, the wisest character in Horacio Castellanos Moya’s latest novel “Tyrant Memory,” has a cigar in one hand, a glass of whiskey in the other. “The difference, Chélon, is that you believe there’s something beyond this, an afterlife, that’s why you can forgive. I don’t,” he mutters to the epilogue’s narrator.

Forgiveness and the afterlife—these are two things that might bring a semblance of peace to the closing pages of a novel ravaged by death and betrayal. But it is the collective memory of El Salvador in its years of despotism, and individual memories of personal hurts and betrayals, which prohibit forgiveness and peace. Indeed the epigraph, an extract from Canetti’s “House of Flies,” implores: “Would it be better if nothing remained of our lives, nothing at all? If death meant our instant obliteration in the minds of all who have had images of us?”

“Tyrant Memory,” translated by Katherine Silver, is a novel of revolution: of curfews, firing squads, illicit meetings, and ecstatic bravado in moments of hope and success. But it isn’t a novel about the romance of revolution, or the success of idealistic youth as they successfully depose the Nazi-warlock known as “the man.” Its bravado thinly veils a tangle of corruption which has spread so deep that members of the failed military coup are as perverse as the regime they tried to topple.

The novel takes place in the last few months of the militant regime of Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, who was the presidentof El Salvador from 1931 until 1944. It opens with the military coup of 1944, following its rise and fall, and spans the weeks before the eventual deposition of “the warlock” with a city-wide strike in San Salvador. The book follows the revolution through the eyes of Haydée, a wealthy socialite and wife to a political prisoner, whose motives are perhaps the purest in the book: she is simply a mother and wife attempting to protect her family. Interspersed with Haydée’s journal entries are sequences of narrative related by two fugitives from the failed coup. This component is more crudely painted than Haydée’s diary, and initially seems out of place. However, its protagonists—who are as comic as they are grotesque—glaringly highlight the ambiguity of the failed coup: the most pressing, violent demands of the “heroic insurgents” are for alcohol and cigarettes rather than peace and justice.

It is, however, in the epilogue that Castellanos Moya’s latest novel acquires its multidimensionality. Told from the perspective of a peripheral character, the closing pages swing between memory and the present day of 1973—nearly 40 years after the president’s fall. The section centers on Pericles as he confronts his own impending death. His and Chélon’s meditations on death and man’s absolute end provides a nostalgic, Heideggerian culmination to a novel in which death has been treated entirely as a form of political action rather than a personal experience.

In Haydée’s diary, murders and death are ubiquitious; every few pages the number of fatalities multiplies. However, as is the case in moments of human depravity, she is no longer able to conceive of the death of the individual. Each death becomes either a number, or a cog in the deposition of “the man.” This is the case for Haydee’s narrative, strikingly immediate in its tenseand its snappy sentence structure, which moves from death to death in much the same way as Haydée herself rotates through a vibrant social calendar of lunches and parties. Thus the epilogue succeeds in upending this state of affairs: Pericles’ personal crisis in the face of his own absolute end reflects back upon the many deaths during the revolutionary period. Here, the horror is actualized in a way that its mere telling in Haydée’s diary never achieves.

Despite the novel’s title, the story is largely devoid of memory or fragments of the past: Haydée’s diary is composed entirely of her present. Thus, the reader is thrown into the tumultuous streets of San Salvador. Haydée’s narrative, which lurches from event to event, is bedecked in characters and names we barely have the time to process before being flung urgently onwards. It is effective. The reader is left just as overwhelmed and confused as Haydée.

Herein lies one of the novel’s flaws. Haydée’s section, urgent, vibrant and wrenchingly poignant at times, can founder in painful clichés as Haydée struggles to convey emotions almost alien in their extremity. “Our hearts in our mouths;” “A day from hell;” such phraseology can appear trite in the face of the horrifying events described. However, Haydée’s narrative includes a handful of sentences so poetic it is easy to ignore moments of cliché: “The city felt dismal, as if the wind were fear, blowing through the streets.”

This poetic clarity is perhaps most keenly felt in the epilogue about Pericles and the artist Chélon, which indulges in imaginative diversions for the first time. This section pulls the creases of the novel together. Nevertheless it is the deepest flaw of the novel that this poetic discourse and philosophical enquiry into death only comes at its conclusion. It feels clumsily attached, and the reader is left wishing it had appeared earlier, so that one might read the other sections of the novel with Chélon’s insights at the forefront of one’s thoughts.

Castellanos Moya’s novel addresses the success of communal uprising, and the perversity of the human condition. It does so with wit, black humour and creativity—although its methods are crude at times. Throughout, the novel seeks a method of dealing with death as a component of the human condition: Haydée’s religious faith; Chélon’s occultist leanings; and Pericles’ cynical acceptance of “no return.” It does not succeed in proffering any concrete resolution; rather, “Tyrant Memory” serves as a testament to the endurance of human action, to the knowledge that regardless of death itself, our actions are permanent and will remain—in the memory.

—Staff writer Sarah L. Hopkinson can be reached at shopkinson@college.harvard.edu.

Tags