Tuesday, December 11, 2012

REVIEW: Tyrant Memory, by Horacio Castellanos Moya

Tyrant Memory, by Horacio Castellanos Moya. Published 2011 by New Directions.

Tyrant Memory is a very worthwhile novel about political repression and revolution by Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya, about a brief period of time in 1944 between the ascension of Maximiliano Hernández Martínez- also known as "the Warlock"- who took power after a coup, and his downfall at the hands of a general strike. The story unfolds in the month between the coup and the strike, as Salvadoran society went into upheaval. Castellanos Moya alternates the narrative between Haydée Aragon, a wealthy woman whose husband has wound up as a political prisoner, and her son Clemen, on the run from the new regime with Jimmy, a military man thrown together with him by chance. The two men have nothing but contempt for each other, but their adventures take the form of absurdist comedy and provide a stark contrast to Haydée's growing anxiety.

Haydée's chapters are written in diary form, so we get a very immediate sense of her emotions. At the beginning she's not too worried; she's sure her husband will be home any minute and she takes every opportunity to see him, to keep him apprised of the minutiae of her life. Slowly the situation disintegrates and she finds herself in the middle of a rebellion, her hairdresser and catering appointments interspersed with secret meetings and public protests. At the same time, things go from crazy to funny and back again with Clemen and Jimmy as their adventures take them from a priest's attic to a perilous train trip and a long ordeal in a raft. Finally, things settle out and an epilogue set years later put events into a new light entirely.

Tyrant Memory is not a book that's going to leap off the shelves at most readers but if you like black comedy and political machinations, it's pretty good stuff. I like the way Castellanos Moya gets into Haydée's head, how he makes her relatively and somewhat frivolous concerns feel pressing and real, how he makes her more than a stereotype of a society wife. The chapters with Clemen and Jimmy bristle with comedy and life; I looked forward to their continuing (mis) adventures and flipped the pages eagerly to learn their fate. I'd definitely recommend the book for readers looking for something off the beaten path.

Edit: I don't think you need any background in Salvadoran history to read the book. It's quite accessible and the blurb gives you all the information you need- how one family is affected by a vicious government coup. Political repression is nothing new in the annals of history.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.


bermudaonion said...

I like the diary format but wonder if I have enough background to understand the story.

Zibilee said...

I like the sound of this and my ears pricked up at the bit of absurdism in the tale. You wrote a really great review of the book today, and though it's not my usual fare, I might have to see if I can order a copy. It sounds like a highly original tale.

Kathleen said...

This one is not jumping out at me as one I need to move up my list but I would consider giving it a try.