Horacio Castellanos Moya has written that his first memory is of a bomb exploding on his grandparents' porch in Honduras when he was three years old. At the age of four he was brought to El Salvador, where he was raised amid the tensions that eventually erupted in a twelve-year civil war. The first year of that war, 1979, was also the year Castellanos Moya went into exile. In 1991 he returned to El Salvador and then promptly exited again in 1997 when his book-length diatribe against the Salvadorian nation, El asco, Thomas Bernhard en El Salvador, led to book burnings and death threats.
The key elements in this sketch of Castellanos Moya's life—a life saturated by volatile politics from the very first moment, and a love/hate desire to return to one's adopted nation—are what underlie his latest novel, The Dream of My Return. They are joined by a third element, which is present in all of Castellanos Moya's best fiction: the impenetrable depths of the repressed subconscious.
It is the early '90s, and journalist, abusive husband, alcoholic, and paranoid Erasmo Aragon is returning to San Salvador from exile in Mexico City. The disastrous civil war is finally ending, and it now seems safe to resume his political journalism. But first he would like to deal with the mounting pain in his liver. He enlists the services of Don Chente, who instead of breaking out the tools of Western medicine delivers a parable about how prehistoric humans discovered anxiety when they began repressing their urge to piss and shit. Won over by this screwball Freud-lite, Erasmo consents to further appointments involving acupuncture and hypnosis.
Predictably, no sooner is Erasmo seduced by this crypto-homeopath than he is disgorging humiliating secrets from the safety of a somnambulist’s trance. Or is he? It is here that Castellanos Moya makes the first of many careful elisions on which this novel turns: unaware of anything he has said, Erasmo awakens from his trance just in time to see Don Chente penning one last thought in his elegant notebook, and then slamming it shut. We are as much in the dark as is Castellanos Moya's narrator.
The good doctor promises to reveal all in due time, but before he can do that he absconds to El Salvador to conduct the affairs of his recently deceased mother, leaving Erasmo in the lurch. All of the seeming progress he had made in the last few weeks halts. He soon turns back to his fellow exiles—a violent, damaged, hard-living lot—and unsurprisingly his liver again erupts. What’s worse, Erasmo develops the suspicion that Chente, who may have all his secrets, is a double agent. Has the idea of a safe and welcoming El Salvador merely been a foolish seduction? Has Chente proven to be the same?
The descent into paranoia always happens like clockwork in a Castellanos Moya novel. Starting from a place of relative security, his narrators are on the verge of transcending their traumatic history, and then—boom. Step by step they are embroiled back into a movable feast of political intrigues and age-old arguments. What distinguishes The Dream of My Return from other Castellanos Moya novels, like Senselessness or She-Devil in the Mirror, is how he plays here with the myth of repression. Erasmo is seduced into believing that Don Chente's promise to tap his subconscious can bring about a cure, yet we can never quite be sure if this is a red herring or the skeleton key to our narrator's life. From the very first pages, this promise takes on an almost archetypal power, dominating the shape of this novel.
But then Don Chente leaves and The Dream of My Return abruptly shifts. From the perils of memory it becomes a story of exiles still enmeshed in a past that continues to live within them. Politics shows itself to be a realm with its own unique memory problems, as seen when a friend of Erasmo's relates a story from the Sandinista revolution in Honduras. Rather than grant the defeated enemy the mercy that the Sandinista cause espouses, a hardened commando instead chooses to ruthlessly murder captured enemy agents. The rationale is simple: to let them live would only be to sow the next counter-revolution. This is the fundamental problem of memory in society: what to do with those who come from a different place and want different things than the people in power? The Salvadorian exiles in The Dream of My Return feel this problem most acutely, for it is precisely their memories that make them dangerous quantities that neither go back home nor find peace in their adopted homes.
In Castellanos Moya’s fiction, what is personal is always also political, and vice versa. When it comes to Erasmo's debilitating anxiety, he does not know where to draw the line between his political memories and his personal ones. Indeed, were he to try to draw it, this line would be as convoluted as the folds of the human brain, hence his susceptibility to the fear that Don Chente is both a doctor and a spy. It makes perfect sense, after all: what better interrogation room is there than a therapist’s study? Erasmo’s fear might seem ridiculous in many novels, but it arrives with the inevitability of truth in this one.
Despite his memory-based problems, Erasmo does manage to finally send himself home, and it is here that Castellanos Moya concludes The Dream of My Return on a note of suitable ambiguity. In the airport, about to return to El Salvador, circumstances once again ratchet up Erasmo’s paranoia to fever pitch, even while his attention is absorbed by a gorgeous woman's perfect ass. It is the perfect ending. Erasmo has once again been denied that crucial bit of information that would seemingly either quiet all his doubts or confirm his worst fears, and his solace is an instance of egregious transference: he will pour out his deranged mind upon a caring, utterly feminine maternal figure.
Perhaps the return Erasmo longs for is not a return to El Salvador but to those unrecallable three years before the bombing on his grandfather's porch started the tape recording his time on Earth. It is a fantasy familiar to the anxious and the overwhelmed: that safe place free from the compromises and doubts one accumulates as memory becomes identity. But while Erasmo longs for something free from taint, his fellow exiles choose a different way to resolve this question. One is a ruthless murderer who continues to traffic in illegal weapons in Mexico; another is a bellowing jerk who is casually regarded as a madman. They completely eschew the sensitivity that is a prerequisite for those who, like Erasmo, will partake in the Freudian myth. Castellanos Moya rightly leaves them as sketched-in characters who play their bit and move on. Brutalized and lacking the capacity for introspection that would open them to the ameliorative power of psychoanalysis, they are poor subjects for a first-person psychological novel. Only Erasmo's far more intricate and conflicted Freudianism is suitable to conduct us through a novel’s-worth of reflections.
What is impressive about The Dream of My Return is how it manages to have it both ways: to treat the Freudian psyche like the cheap myth it is, but to also show that when push comes to shove, we will rely on it because we need it. What we require are ways of organizing our mind's holdings, of explaining why one thought makes our heart pump with terror, while another leaves us cool and calm. The repressed psyche gives us a powerful and versatile framework to do just that, but we are right to be skeptical of it.
What we also need are ways of explaining our origins. Judging by his interviews, his fiction, and his life's trajectory, it is clear that Castellanos Moya has as little use for his adopted El Salvador as does Erasmo; yet for both, the place they come from is an indispensible piece of a life. An exile feels this more than most, and so the exile story lends itself to an exploration of the maladies that arise when that narrative is filled with lacunae. For Castellanos Moya these maladies are paranoia and anxiety, long his thematic specialties as a novelist, and the lacunae are the repressed memories and political secrets we cannot have. The Dream of My Return, translated beautifully by Castellanos Moya veteran Katherine Silver, is yet another satisfying variation on this theme, the book in which the author travels furthest into the Freudian psyche and in which he puts this dominant myth of our times to the harshest tests.