Set in the month after a botched 1944 coup in El Salvador, Tyrant Memory chronicles one family's struggle to survive amid political upheaval—something with which the author is all too familiar. Horacio Castellanos Moya is an established novelist and journalist whose books, though readily available in other languages, have only been translated into English over the past few years, partly in thanks to the time he spent as writer-in-residence at the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. He still lives in exile, a condition his characters often find themselves moving toward.
At Tyrant Memory's center is Haydée, who's begun writing in a diary out of longing for conversation with her husband, Pericles, a journalist and former ambassador recently taken prisoner for criticizing "the Warlock," the dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez. Her alcoholic son, Clemente, also finds himself in grave danger when he mistakenly announces the dictator's death over the radio—an act that lands him on the not-even-close-to-dead dictator's list of traitors to be executed.
Alternating sections of Haydée's diary with chapters following Clemente and his cousin as they try to flee the country, Moya creates an interesting tension between fact and gossip. Haydée grows increasingly frustrated by this tension and the men largely responsible for it: "The men in this family are impossible: they joke about everything. Without any real information, we live off hearsay." The novel itself is an exercise in this kind of storytelling, as the reader works to figure out which rumors are true. But unlike Haydée, we're privy to Clemente's sections, which are told in the present tense and in a very distant third person. These sections sometimes read more like a script than a novel, with Moya largely leaving out setting, action and internal monologue, and they feel fast-paced and comic.
As is probably the case with any diary ever written, Haydée's journal is sometimes bogged down by details about phone calls made and neighbors entertained and pastries consumed. But her gradual struggle to accept herself as a politically engaged woman is more compelling than the antics of her coup-organizing son and nephew: they flounder around among mangroves waiting for rescue, while Haydée, no longer satisfied to sit around knitting sweaters for farm children while she waits for news of Pericles, finds herself organizing protests and pounding on the door of an ambassador's home. It's a fascinating, well-choreographed reversal of authority.
In Haydée, Moya creates a narrator who details the struggle to continue day-to-day life amid political upheaval and senseless terror. It's a bit of a disappointment that she doesn't appear in the book's final section, which takes a large leap forward in time and shows Pericles and a peripheral character, now both in their seventies, in conversation. Eager to see what had become of the narrator who carried me through one of the worst times in her family's life, I combed this section for news of Haydée in much the same way she scoured her community for news of her husband's fate. Sadly, but perhaps fittingly, she exists only in this final chapter's shadows, dealt with in just a few mentions by the voices of men who are largely absent in the novel, all while another woman—Haydée's lifelong best friend—serves their lunch of ground beef and beans, "just like Old Man Pericles liked."