Horacio Castellanos Moya: El Asco. Thomas Bernhard en San Salvador (Revulsion – Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador)
One week after this book was first published in El Salvador, Moya was in Guatemala City, visiting a friend. He received a phone call from his mother, who told him that a man had twice phoned, threatening to kill him because of this book. He took the threat seriously and did not return to El Salvador, making his living abroad. While killing an author for his book is obviously excessive, though not unknown, it is easy to see why the book upset many Salvadorans. The sub-title is Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador. As Roberto Bolaño points out in his introduction to the reprint of this book, very few Salvadorans would have heard of Thomas Bernhard, but he does appear on this site. Bernhard is known as a first-class writer but he is also known for his vicious attacks on all things Austrians, despite the fact that he has spent all his adult life in the country. Moya said that he wished to do for El Salvador what Bernhard did for Austria and he certainly does. He starts with the title, which means something like revulsion or disgust.
The key character is Edgardo Vega and, apart from a brief preface, the entire novel consists of his rant against everything Salvadoran, while sitting in a bar talking to our author, whom he addresses as Moya. The two were apparently at school together. Vega left El Salvador nineteen years previously, before the civil war started, and has lived in Canada since then, where he works as a professor of art history at McGill University. He has never been back to El Salvador before but has now returned for his mother’s funeral. His mother had promised that he would get a share in her will if he did return for her funeral and he is now waiting to settle his mother’s affairs, primarily involving the sale of her house, with his brother. He has been staying with his brother and his brother’s family but has moved out to a hotel as he cannot stand his brother, his sister-in-law or their children. He despises their TV watching (they have three TVs), their eating, their noise and their behaviour.
While he is very harsh on his brother and his family, he is harsh on virtually everything Salvadoran, from the food (particularly pupusas, the national dish of El Salvador) to the education system (the university is, according to him, full of excrement), from the politicians to the (according to him) second-rate writers. He complains about the day out at the beach that he went on with his brother and family, the seafood being horrible, the beach disgusting. He complains about the bar crawl he did with his brother (cheap strippers and second-rate beer). There is nothing he does not complain about, no redeeming feature. He cannot wait to leave the country and get back to Canada. All the while, Moya is quietly listening to this 126 page rant, never commenting. Indeed, Bernhard would have been proud of his attack on his country and it is easy to see why his fellow-countrymen were horrified.
Apart from learning about Vega’s fifteen days in El Salvador and how horrible it has been, there is little plot to this novel but then that is the point. The only thing we do learn is that, in a couple of cases, it does seem that his invective might not have been fully justified. For instance, on the bar crawl, he suddenly notices that he has lost his Canadian passport. Canada does not have an embassy or consulate in El Salvador so he would have to go to Guatemala City to get a new passport, which would be time-consuming and expensive. As a result, he furiously searches in the bar, particularly in the toilets, where he had thrown up, giving us a detailed and very unpleasant description of the toilets. He does not find the passport. When he asks his brother’s help, the brother suggests that he might have dropped the passport in the car. He insists that that could not be the case and his brother is an idiot for thinking so. Sure enough, his brother does find the passport in the car. The book ends with Vega saying that he hates even his name and he has changed it to Thomas Bernhard! It is well written and very amusing but probably not the book to have as the representative of Salvadoran literature.
First published by Arcoiris in 1997
First English translation by New Directions Books in 2016