Books The Dream of My ReturnHoracio Castellanos Moya was born in Honduras (1957), grew up in El Salvador, went into exile in Mexico and now teaches at University of Iowa, Iowa City.  The Dream of My Return (2013) in Katherine Silver’s terrific translation (2015) is the fifth of his novels to appear in English.  And what a droll commentator on an over-wrought life!  A Salvadoran Everyman caught between cuckoldry and civil war, his courage failing at every turn.

We meet the narrator on his way to visit Don Chente Alvarado after his own homeopath, Dr. Molins, has returned to Barcelona.  He is concerned about,

“…a serious liver disorder, if not something worse .. and I had to confess, I’d been overdoing it with the vodka tonics, anxious as I was about all kinds of problems that were swarming in on me left, right and center.”

Don Chente, it turns out, is not only a regular allopathic doctor but a skilled hypnotist and acupuncturist, both of which come in to play while treating the illness pressing on the narrator.  Included, no extra charge, is an analysis of childhood anxiety over toilet training and how that affects his adult decision-making.

We are cleverly informed about his life as he explains to us what he is withholding from his doctor — that, for example, his wife had confessed to him that she had had an affair with a “two-bit actor.”

“Her revelation was quite a blow to my self esteem and could have led me to react in several different ways, but I opted for the role of the understanding and affectionate partner….

Needing a distraction from the acupuncture needle proposed to go into his big toe – in order to treat the pain in his liver — he imagines the scene when his wife and the actor meet,  “grabbing her splendid ass … she licking his chest, moaning with lust, and going down on her knees.”  The needle replaces his anxious imagination with actual pain.

As an additional remedy, the doctor suggests hypnosis. When he comes back the next week, still pain free, he confesses to the doctor what we already know, that his relationship with his partner has collapsed “because of the entrance on stage of a two-bit actor she’d had an affair with”

“…and I had the impression that he lifted his eyes slightly as if to look for horns on my head.”

In another extended revelation to us, but not to his doctor, we learn his partner is pregnant. She, in her tears insisted the infidelity was “only twice. ”  He, the horns growing,  his self-esteem raging,

“When was the last time you fucked your actor” I asked with consummate scorn. “We always used a condom,” she mumbled. “So whose is it?” I asked, my mind stuck on the word always that she had uttered so naturally and which led me to infer that those two lewd mornings she had sold me on were nothing but cheap consolation for a poor cuckold and that I’d never know how many times she had actually given herself to the two-bit actor.”

Naturally, the doctor wants to get to the deeper issues, say being raised by a domineering mother and grandfather. The narrator, unconvinced of the utility of self revelation to cure his liver pain, can’t quite reveal his earliest memory of his father being shot in the back.  Since he has no idea of what he has said under hypnosis, however, the dread of what the doctor does know, whirls his paranoia into a delicious froth.

He  finds a friend, Mr. Rabbit,  to plot the actor’s demise, and so repair the damage to his virility.

…even though I’d never killed anybody and lacked the necessary experience to carry out such an act, at that moment I felt elated at the prospect of killing the man who had cuckolded me, my elation increasing by leaps and bounds … I spent Saturday in a bizarre, almost jubilant state of mind … as if I was finally going to be capable of carrying out an act that would consolidate my masculinity on many different levels; as if by liquidating the person who had dared offend me in the gravest possible way I would be fulfilling a manifest destiny that would give me access to a different level of consciousness and personal realization…

One thing leads to another and apparently it is done, Mr. Rabbit taking matters into his own hands:  warm silencer, smell of gun smoke.

“What the fuck have you done!? Paranoia comes on with a vengeance   “…a hell I never thought I’d fall into and hadn’t the slightest idea of how to get out of.”

Adding more serious notes are his plans to return to El Salvador with the promise of a truce in the murderous civil war which had led to his exile in Mexico.

Katherine Silver is a much awarded translator of Spanish to English and is familiar with Castellanos’ language and style.  She carries us along in a magical world of language and setting, transposed from a different world almost without our noticing, even while it’s clear this isn’t a North American story.  Only once or twice did I notice anything to disrupt the flow of language.   ” …as if I were about to keel over,” seemed a little too marked as North  American colloquial, for example. Similarly, “disgruntled.” This problem of markedness and register is a constant challenge for translators:  if the original language is understood as not standard Spanish but a local variation, what to do?  Choose an English analogy — West Texas, Mississippi– and run with it?  Smooth out the dialect and indicate by other means the non-standard language? Create a plausible, but non-existent, regional speech in English?  It’s always one of the most interesting, often most exhausting, part of translation.  Silver is a master.

A different problem appears in the sentence cited above, not of dialect choice but a confusing image that didn’t  sell itself in English as it might have.

… those two lewd mornings she had sold me on were nothing but cheap consolation for a poor cuckold and that I’d never know how many times she had actually given herself to the two-bit actor.”

The problem is there are two attributions here: his feelings, her intentions.  I don’t know what the Spanish was, but the offering here made me slow down to puzzle out what was meant; how were the two lewd mornings a consolation? In what sense were they “sold,” and how were they “cheap?” It does make sense, of course. We are all aware of the ploy of confessing to a small sin to avoid paying for a larger one,  but also included is the idea that declaring only “two mornings” is not only for her benefit, but for his, that she is acting out of sympathy for a “poor cuckold,” and thereby increasing his burden of shame.  But how to make it more lucent?

I’ve tried four or five variations from the English, each more tangled than Silver’s.  Perhaps reading the Spanish would ignite a light for me, perhaps not.  In the end, in any judgment of a difficult piece of work — translating, couture, fine tile-work–  it’s the whole that impresses us, not a dropped stitch here or there, or a tile not quite matched to the others.  The Dream of My Return is a wonderful read.  From what I hear, his earlier Senselessness, [also translated by Silver] is even more intriguing as a work of fiction, and more topical to the plight of El Salvador, so make it a week-long two-fer!