Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador
by Horacio Castellanos Moya
For many readers (and writers) like me, the novelist Thomas Bernhard stands, now some twenty years after his death, as a literary prophet, a destroyer of idols, a seer-priest of the secular-humanist world. Relentless in his criticism of his native Austria, of the hypocrisy, dogmatism, jingoism, racism, and philistinism he found in such abundance there, he revered the loner, the scholar (what he called Geistesmenschen 0r ‘spirit-people’), the eccentrically, brilliantly, mad.
Enter Edgardo Vega, expatriate professor, returning from exile in Canada to war-torn El Salvador for his mother’s funeral. When the novel opens we find him sitting with an old friend of his, following his mother’s wake, in a bar called La Lumbre, where he has been biding his time before returning for good to Montreal. The conversation, a single long paragraph, is charged with urgency, bitterness, and fury. “…I have to chat with you before I leave,” explains Vega to his friend, “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…” What follows is a dazzling tirade against his native land and its cultural self-destruction as the result of its recent civil war, a virtual apocalypse of greed and violence that laid waste to nearly everything he held dear. Writes Castellanos Moya, “With the relish of the resentful getting even, I wanted to demolish the culture and politics of San Salvador, same as Bernhard had done with Salzburg, with the pleasure of diatribe and mimicry.”
Surely he had plenty against which to rail, against which to vent his ardent spleen. The twelve year Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992), a struggle for power between the military-led government of General Carlos Humberto Romero and the FMLN (Farabundo Marti Liberation Front), was one of the most violent chapters in the history of Central America, claiming the lives of more than 75,ooo people. Wrote Reinaldo Figueredo, in his summary of the conflict for the U.N. Truth Commission, “In examining the staggering breadth of the violence that occurred in El Salvador, the Commission was moved by the senselessness of the killings, the brutality with which they were committed, the terror that they created in the people, in other words the madness, or locura, of war.”
Robert Walser once said, “You can’t confront your own country with impunity.” In the case of Castellanos Moya, he was right about that, for shortly after the novel’s publication his mother, still living in San Salvador, received a death threat from an anonymous caller. The author himself was warned never to return, as Salvadorans at large were incensed by the novel, by his unforgiving portrait of them and their country. Even friends and family were enraged by this brief, acerbic tale in which he spared nothing and no one, excoriating them for their papusas and their politics, and lambasting their language itself with his sharp and fulsome ire: “…not in vain is cerote the most repeated word in their language, they don’t have any other words in their mouths; their vocabulary is limited to this word cerote and its derivatives: ceretísimo, cerotear, cerotada.” Cerote—as you might have guessed by now—means ‘shit’.
In what was perhaps a gesture of consolation to his disgruntled compatriots, Castellanos Moya explained “…that some countries would require many more pages to complete their Revulsion…”! I guess even a back-handed compliment is better than none at all.
Peter Adam Nash