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book review

Pasha MallaMichelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

In 2009, Guernica magazine published a contrarian take on Roberto Bolano's posthumous success by his acquaintance and contemporary Horacio Castellanos Moya. The two authors shared similar histories, having fled repressive political regimes (Moya from El Salvador, Bolano from Chile) to exile in Mexico, and both were later published in the United States by New Directions. The Chilean, however, had become an international sensation – the "Kurt Cobain of Latin American literature," according to one particularly inane hype-piece – while Moya's elite status among Spanish-language readers hadn't translated along with his books.

Sour grapes aside, the missive offered a sharp analysis of how Bolano – an alleged drunk and rabble-rouser – has been packaged for an American market. In Moya's estimation, the main achievement of that allegorical "morality tale" of hard, dangerous living in need of a stabilizing force was "to confirm [the] worst paternalistic prejudices about Latin America." Though one could argue that good writers deserve as broad an audience as possible, regardless how such a thing is fostered, the sad irony of Bolano's radicalism being co-opted as a brand offers a morality tale in itself.

That the piece was a response to Roberto Bolano's replacement of Gabriel Garcia Marquez as the anglophone reader's sole touchstone for Spanish-language literature makes it a little perverse to bring up here, in a review of Horacio Castellanos Moya's new novel. But if, as the article (titled "Bolano, Inc.") suggests, the author of The Savage Detectives and 2666 was less revolutionary than merely "a non-conformist," then we might consider Horacio Castellanos Moya similarly, and The Dream of My Return as a work of resistance – or at least one of deliberate contradiction.

This, the fifth of Moya's novels to appear in English (in another terrific translation by Katherine Silver), continually feints in one direction, toward one type of story, only to veer off in another. Every expectation established both by and for its protagonist, the journalist-in-exile Erasmo Aragon, is not just undermined, but abandoned: the liver pain that sends him to his GP, who has been replaced by a sort of mystic Freudian, Dr. Don Chente, results not in a diagnosis of disease but the pretext for hypnosis – which in turn, rather than cracking open the subconscious, becomes a source of anxiety for the secrets Aragon might have spilled while "under," including an act of murder.

Of course Aragon isn't sure if he's ever killed anyone, and if there's a thematic resonance to all these twists and turns it's tied to his shifty, unreliable memory. Don Chente is convinced that some lost key lurks in the forgotten past – "You refuse to remember almost anything, that's the problem," the physician-cum-hypnotist explains, "but the fact that you don't want to remember is eroding your personality from underneath" – and he encourages his patient, for the sake of therapy, to "write the story of [his] life." But Aragon is skeptical: "It wouldn't have been possible," he tells himself. "Because if I was doubting the veracity of my first memory, how unimaginably difficult it would be to slog through every incident I'd experienced in my life."

Moya's characters tend to be paranoiacs losing their grips on reality. ("I am not complete in the mind," begins Senselessness, while the narrator of She-Devil in the Mirror confesses, "There's something wrong with my head.") For Erasmo Aragon, the forces of disruption are more external and explicit: The trauma of being forced from his homeland aside, his marriage is falling apart, his health is failing, and he spends his days getting drunk on vodka. Yet, amid all this, going back to El Salvador provides not just an anchor, but a source of hope, representing as it does some return to normalcy and a reclamation of selfhood.

It's tempting to read into this a common narrative of exile – the manic, nostalgic pining for home – and to conflate that experience with Moya's own personal history. Both character and creator, after all, worked as journalists in San Salvador and fled to Mexico amid political turmoil, and Aragon's dubious "first memory," of being rescued from a bombsite by his grandmother at three years old, is also the author's. But Moya has suggested that he is no more inspired by exile than any writer – or person – might be: "The real issue is that we, the human race, are in exile on this insignificant planet lost in the farthest corner of a small galaxy where no one cares about us. … Of course all my writing is shaped by this experience of exile."

So, again, the reader hits an interpretive dead end. If this sounds frustrating, I've been doing a poor job of explaining myself: The Dream of My Return is thrillingly labyrinthine in its manoeuvres between and away from accepted narratives, ratcheting into something like a pot-boiling mystery abandoned before its resolution – perhaps even before its climax. One of the roles of fiction, after all, is to offer alternatives to the tropes of the dominant culture, and it's invigorating to encounter a novel that, in both form and content, resists both the facile categorizations of the market and the formulaic obedience of more simplistic books.

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