Horacio Castellanos Moya, Tyrant Memory

The fourth novel from El Salvador’s Horacio Castellanos Moya to be translated into English takes a small-scale look at a very big-picture event: the final days of the reign of real-life Salvadoran dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, in these pages nicknamed the Warlock. In April 1944 there was a failed military coup; the next month, a successful general strike all across the Salvadoran capital. Tyrant Memory takes place in the interim, as one family struggles to predict, affect, and finally understand what their country will look like once the smoke has cleared.

Most of the novel is told through the diary entries of one Haydée Aragon, whose husband, a former secretary to the Warlock turned political journalist, has been surreptitiously thrown in jail. In lieu of other options, Haydée decides to write down everything that happens each day—a mix of government rumours, accounts of meetings with friends and activists, and passing thoughts and fancies.

On the other end of things is her son Clemente. He’s on the run from the vengeful Salvadoran national guard, having prematurely announced over the radio that the coup was successful and the Warlock dead. Accordingly, much of Clemente’s sections are told though frantic, paranoid dialogue.

Despite this appealing structure, though, not to mention Moya’s expertise in voice and tone, Tyrant Memory is surprisingly inert. Haydée is a bland narrator, occupying a grey middle ground between political firebrand and naive housewife. Unlike Moya’s earlier novel The She-Devil in the Mirror, where the reckless gossip of a female outsider was precisely the point, here such third-hand testimony just feels vague and unconvincing. Clemente’s sections fare better—particularly the one in which he and his cousin board a train, dressed up like priests, using long-winded religious ceremony to trick the guards into not checking their papers. (As soon as they look away, Clemente drops the calm façade in order to punch an annoying hobo in the stomach.)

It’s also more than a little cruel to tease us with a villain as deliciously overblown as Martínez—“he holds séances, he believes in invisible witch doctors, and he demands that his close circle of friends call him ‘maestro’”—only to keep him perpetually off-page. He never speaks, or is even seen in the flesh. From such a remove, Martínez could easily be just your garden-variety megalomaniac, and that’s no good at all.

If your nickname is the Warlock, we’re going to need to see at least a magic wand or two.

Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. New Directions, 288 pp, $18.50, paperback

(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, July 14, 2011)

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