A review of


by Horacio Castellanos Moya

Central question: Will a devastating human-rights report drive its paranoid proofreader over the edge?
Format: 142 pp., paperback; Size: 8" x 5"; Price: $15.95; Publisher: New Directions; Editor: Barbara Epler; Book design: Rodrigo Corral; Translated by: Katherine Silver; Things the narrator hates: homosexual priests, vegetarians, the smell of boots, marimba music; Author born in: Honduras; Raised in: El Salvador; Worked as reporter in: El Salvador and Mexico; Now teaches in: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Original title in Spanish: Insensatez; Representative sentence: “All of a sudden I felt trapped in that office with those high bare walls, a victim of a conspiracy between the Church and the armed forces in a foreign country, a lamb being led to the slaughter….”

In 1998, a Guatemalan bishop was poised to release a thick report accusing his own government of all but genocide in the “scorched earth” campaigns of the early 1980s. Since then, a number of Guatemalan authors have imagined exiles returning to confront the bloody past. Horacio Castellanos Moya, a Salvadoran journalist who now lives in Pittsburgh, tells a narrower story in his intemperate seventh novel, Senselessness. In a thinly veiled version of Guatemala, he imagines just such a report driving its jittery proofreader insane.

The result is like Kafka on amphetamines. “I was about to stick my snout into someone else’s wasps’ nest, make sure that the Catholic hands about to touch the balls of the military tiger were clean and had even gotten a manicure,” the proofreader tells us shortly after agreeing to correct the 1,100-page report. He is right to be concerned, but his paranoia soon takes on a life of its own. Walking down a busy street in broad daylight, he suspects that covert forces are planning to knife him because he knows too much. When church officials stop him from reading a sensitive chapter on a military hit squad, he assumes they are conspiring with the government to kill him.

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—Jascha Hoffman

Jascha Hoffman writes for Nature and the New York Times. He lives in Brooklyn.

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