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Castellanos Moya’s most thrilling book to date, about the senselessness of tyranny.
The tyrant of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s ambitious new novel is the actual pro-Nazi mystic Maximiliano Hernández Martínez — known as the Warlock — who came to power in El Salvador in 1932. An attempted coup in April, 1944, failed, but a general strike in May finally forced him out of office. Tyrant Memory takes place during the month between the coup and the strike. Its protagonist, Haydée ...
Castellanos Moya’s most thrilling book to date, about the senselessness of tyranny.
The tyrant of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s ambitious new novel is the actual pro-Nazi mystic Maximiliano Hernández Martínez — known as the Warlock — who came to power in El Salvador in 1932. An attempted coup in April, 1944, failed, but a general strike in May finally forced him out of office. Tyrant Memory takes place during the month between the coup and the strike. Its protagonist, Haydée Aragon, is a well-off woman, whose husband is a political prisoner and whose son, Clemente, after prematurely announcing the dictator’s death over national radio during the failed coup, is forced to flee when the very much alive Warlock starts to ruthlessly hunt down his enemies. The novel moves between Haydée’s political awakening in diary entries and Clemente’s frantic and often hysterically comic efforts to escape capture. Tyrant Memory — sharp, grotesque, moving, and often hilariously funny — is an unforgettable incarnation of a coun- try’s history in the destiny of one family.
Friday, March 24
It's been a week since Pericles was arrested. I expected him to be released today, as has always occurred on previous occasions, when they let him come home after a week. But now the situation is different. Colonel Monterrosa told me as much, at noon today in his office, with a look of regret on his face because he respects Pericles: "I'm sorry, Doña Haydée, but the general's orders are final: Don Pericles will remain under arrest until further notice." I began to suspect that the general is angry or afraid about something else when, on that first day, I found out they hadn't locked him up in the room next to Colonel Monterrosa's office—he's the chief of police—but instead had taken him to one of the cells in the basement; the colonel told me he was very sorry, but the decision to deal more firmly with Pericles had come straight from the top. During his previous imprisonments, my husband could receive visits from friends authorized by the colonel, and we always ate lunch and dinner together in that room, where I'd bring the food María Elena and I had prepared. Now, Pericles is isolated, and they allow him to come up to that other room only once a day, at lunchtime, to meet me. But I suppose I shouldn't complain: Don Jorge's situation and that of other political prisoners is much worse.
After speaking with Colonel Monterrosa, I returned home and called my father-in-law to ask if he knows why Pericles isn't being released. My father-in-law told me the general has his reasons, and the best thing for me to do is bide my time. I did not insist. My father-in-law is a man of few words, loyal to his general, and Pericles's articles criticizing the government upset him greatly; every time I've ever asked him why they arrested my husband, he answers simply that acts of disobedience cannot go unpunished.
Then I called my parents' house to tell them the bad news. My mother asked me how Pericles is taking it. I told her he seemed to have been expecting it, his only remark being, "It appears the man is very frightened." My husband never calls him "the general" or "Mr. President," or "the Nazi warlock," like my father and his friends do; he simply calls him "the man." My mother asked me if Betito and I were going to come over for dinner. I said yes; the youngest is always the favorite grandchild.
Our neighbors came over for a visit this evening. The Alvarados expressed their regrets that Pericles had not been released, though they are very careful when it comes to discussing politics. Raúl is a doctor, but astronomy is his true passion; he has a telescope and whenever a special phenomenon is about to take place, which he always knows about, like a meteor shower, he invites Pericles to stay up with him to watch it. Rosita, his wife, brought me some women's magazines she got from the Neighborhood Circle, a club sponsored by the American Embassy, of which they are members—I'd like to join but Pericles does not think very highly of it.
Saturday, March 25
I find relief from my solitude writing in this diary. It's the first time since we were married that I have been separated from Pericles for more than a week. When I was a teenager I used to keep a diary, a dozen or so are stored away in my memory trunk; I used to spend days in my room reading one novel after another, lost in my own fantasy world. Then came marriage, children, responsibilities.
This morning, before my father left for his finca, we had a long conversation. I asked him if he could think of any way to pressure the general to release Pericles. He told me that in a few days the coffee-growers' association would meet with the American ambassador, and he would present Pericles's case as one more violation of freedom of the press, he said it wasn't enough for the dictator to detain Pericles's boss, Don Jorge, and to keep the Press Club closed since January, but now he has gone after the columnists. But he warned me that the Nazi warlock has gone off the deep end and doesn't listen to anybody, "not even your father-in-law," he told me. My father respects my father-in-law, even though sometimes he calls him "the cantankerous colonel," and he doesn't approve of his total obedience to the general.
At noon, I brought my husband books and tobacco. We ate in silence. I then talked to him about family matters; he told me he is weary of the lack of natural light, and the damp. I don't like his pallor or that cough of his, which is becoming chronic. He repeated that "the man" feels besieged, trusts no one, otherwise he wouldn't have consigned him to this basement cell, and wouldn't keep him locked up.
Clemen dropped by this afternoon. He's outraged that his father is still behind bars. I told him his grandfather has recommended patience, for there is nothing to be done at the moment. My eldest son is hot-blooded, imprudent; he was cursing the general, calling him "that little shitfaced dictator," saying that nobody wants him anymore, he should step down and leave the country. I suggested he show some restraint with his words. He promised he would come for lunch tomorrow, Sunday, with his wife and children.
Later in the afternoon, Carmela came by, and we had a cup of coffee on the terrace; she is still my best friend, has been ever since high school. She brought a delicious lemon pie. She was very sorry to hear that Pericles had not been released, and she warned me that there are new rumors of a coup d'état.
A short while ago, just as I was sitting down to write, my sister Cecilia called. I told her about Pericles, but we soon started talking about the cross she bears, much weightier than mine: her husband, Armando, has become an inveterate alcoholic, and every time he gets drunk he turns aggressive, violent; he has never hit her, because he's afraid of my father, but he always gets into serious trouble and ends up at that house of ill repute. They live in Santa Ana, the city where we were born and raised, where I married Pericles; it's also where my grandfather's old mansion is, which my father has turned into a coffee-processing plant.
Sunday, March 26
Patricia called from Costa Rica quite early this morning. I told her that her father was still in jail. There was a long silence. She is the most sensible of my three children, the one most like Pericles, the one who's closest to him. She asked me how her father's spirits were. I told him that his spirits aren't a problem but his cough is. She told me her husband also has a bad cold. Patricia and Mauricio were married last December first in San José; such a lovely wedding. She asked me to call her the moment Pericles is released. My poor daughter: this is the first time she has been far away when her father is in jail.
Then I went to eight o'clock Mass, as I do every Sunday. I prayed for my husband to be released soon, even though he doesn't believe in religion or want anything to do with priests—he has always respected my beliefs, as I respect his. On my way out of church, I stopped to chat with Carmela and some other friends. They invited me to accompany them to the Club, but I had several chores to do at home, particularly because María Elena has gone home to her village. One weekend a month she visits her family, at the foot of the volcano, near my father's finca.
I spent the rest of the morning making chicken with rice and a beet salad. Betito had gone to swim at the Club, and he returned a little before noon to accompany me to the Black Palace—that's what we call police headquarters. They don't let Betito come into the room where I meet with Pericles; he must remain in the waiting room. Those are the general's orders: I am the only person authorized to see my husband and only for half an hour a day. Pericles was in a very good mood: I assumed he must have had some good news, but he didn't say anything. I have been warned to never talk about politics during my visits, because the walls have ears.
Clemen, Mila, and my three grandchildren arrived punctually at one o'clock. The children are rambunctious and poorly behaved. Marianito is five years old, but he is already a little demon; the twins, Alfredito and Ilse, just turned three, and they seem headed in the same direction. Pericles quickly loses patience with them; he doesn't like how destructive, willful, and ill-mannered they are. He says that Clemen and Mila do not make the best couple. "What else could come from a union between a frivolous man and a shifty woman?" he complained angrily once when the children got into his library and tore apart several books; I told him not to talk like that. This afternoon, they started running around the house asking for their grandpapa the moment they arrived. When he is calm, Marianito is a tender, sweet child, the spitting image of Clemen at that age.
After lunch, while Mila was out on the patio watching the children play with Néron, our old dog, I asked my son what would happen to his father if he were in prison during a coup d'état. Clemen said, without hesitating, that it would be for the best, that a coup was, in fact, the speediest means for Pericles to regain his freedom. Then I asked him what would happen to his grandfather, Colonel Aragón, who has always been so loyal to the general. He answered that this would depend on the position his grandfather takes during the coup. I don't share Clemen's confidence that the best way to secure Pericles's release is a coup d'état. I'm fearful; I'd rather be with my husband if something like that happens. I don't understand very much about politics, but my son is rather rash. And the general has been ruling this country with an iron fist for twelve years.
I went to the Club this afternoon. I learned that Betito had been drinking beer with some friends from school, secretly—he's only fifteen years old. When I got home, I scolded him, I told him he should have more respect for me and not take advantage of his father's absence to do foolish things, for Pericles is very strict and would punish him on the spot; years ago he had the same kinds of problems with Clemens.
After dinner, I spoke for a long time on the phone with Mama Licha. The poor thing suffers from arthritis, which makes it difficult for her to walk. She told me that every single day she asks my father-in-law when they will release Pericles, and every single time the Colonel answers her with an irritated harrumph. My mother-in-law adores my husband, her firstborn. She asked me how Patricia is, and she complained that neither Clemente nor Betito had come to visit her in the last two weeks. Cojutepeque is about twenty-five miles away; the colonel's the governor there.
Later, my mother called to tell me they had just returned from the finca, where they had lunch with several couples, friends of theirs, including Mr. Malcom, the British commercial attaché, and his wife. I assume the men, as usual, spent their time in heated discussions about the war in Europe, then mocking the general and his wife; my father says the English simply can't understand how that Nazi warlock has been able to hold onto power, nor why the Americans make no concerted effort to remove him. My mother asked if there was any news about Pericles.
Raúl and Rosita came by for a while this evening. We listened to the radio, drank hot chocolate, and ate delicious vanilla biscuits. Raúl has his clinic, but he also teaches at the university, where, according to him, the atmosphere is quite heated and new protests are being planned against the general. Both are very worried about Chente, their eldest son and a medical student, who seems to be involved in planning the protests and refuses to accompany them to the beach for the Easter holidays.
Monday, March 27
It's strange how sometimes when I write in this diary I feel nostalgic for my adolescence. Then I remember I turned forty-three last October, i have three children and three grandchildren, and I started writing this diary as a substitute for my conversations with my husband. I needed this time alone, Pericles's long absence, to get me to open this beautiful notebook and begin to let my fountain pen glide across its bone-colored pages. I bought it nine years ago in Brussels, when we'd already moved into the house on Boulevard du Régent; in the mornings, after Pericles had left for the embassy and Clemen and Pati for school, I would roam around the city for a few hours with Betito, who at five years old was too young to go to nursery school in a foreign language. I bought this notebook at a shop near Saint Catherine's Square. I saw it in the window, I loved the design on its hard cover, and I immediately decided to buy it to write down my impressions as a stranger in that city, a fantasy I'd been harboring ever since we crossed the Atlantic by steamship. But I never wrote in it, not till now.
This morning, María Elena returned from her village later than usual; usually she's here by eight, but today it was almost eleven before she arrived. She explained that Belka, her daughter, has a terrible flu, and they had to take her to the hospital early in the morning; Belka is six years old, spirited and charming, and lives with María Elena's parents and siblings, and we only get to see her when we visit the finca; María Elena's family has always worked for my family. I asked her to finish cooking the meatballs and rice that were already on the stove while I packed the rest of the food in the basket I take to Pericles every day: a thermos of coffee, hard-boiled eggs, milk, and sweet rolls for breakfast; and ham and cheese sandwiches for dinner. What matters most is that he not have to eat that filthy food they serve at the palace.
My husband was very upset today: he found out that the general didn't have him arrested because of the article he wrote criticizing him for violating the Constitution so he could get re-elected president, but rather because somebody had told him that Pericles had agreed to join the group headed by Don Agustín Alfaro, the leader of the coffee growers and bankers who are now opposing the general, most of whom are Father's friends. I told him that was nonsense, the general knows very well that none of them agree with Pericles's ideas, which they consider communist. But gossip is gossip. And this wouldn't be the first time it's happened: a few years ago, when the War in the Pacific began, the general kept Pericles in jail for a week for no apparent reason, though subsequently we learned that someone had told him that my husband was spreading rumors about the general concocting a plan to re-supply Japanese submarines on Mizata Beach and another plan to land Japanese troops in California, and supposedly those stories had turned the government of the United states against "the man." But these accusations against my husband are groundless, the whole world knows of the general's sympathies for the Germans and the Japanese and of his plans to assist them.
When I returned home, I called my mother-in-law to tell her what Pericles had told me, hoping she would pass it on to the colonel, who has privileged access to the general. Mama Licha said she would do so without delay, she said it's unheard of that her son should be kept in jail because of a silly piece of gossip, and it's high time he be released. My father-in-law belongs to the military old guard, those who supported the general's coup d'état twelve years ago and have remained loyal to him ever since; both my husband and my mother-in-law call him "colonel," never his given name, even I stopped calling him Don Mariano, or Father, years ago, and now I also call him only colonel.
Excerpted from TYRANT MEMORY by HORACIO CASTELLANOS MOYA Copyright © 2008 by Horacio Castellanos Moya. Excerpted by permission of New Directions Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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