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Book Review by Roslyn Fuller: Tyrant Memory By Horacio Castellanos Moya (New Directions)

Last update - Thursday, June 16, 2011, 11:34 By Metro Éireann

I’m nearly always impressed by the quality of work brought out by New Directions, and this book was no exception.


Set in 1944 in an El Salvador governed by the overtly fascist and occultly obsessed military dictator Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez (who incidentally actually existed and moreover fancied himself to be a warlock), Tyrant Memory tells the story of Haydee, an affluent, respectable woman whose equally respectable husband Pericles has been incarcerated – albeit in a very respectful manner – for political criticism.

While Pericles is being held in his usual cushy cell, a coup is attempted by the couple’s party-animal son Clemente, and the wwarlock’s gloves come off. Clemente is sentenced to death in absentia, Pericles is transferred to a “real jail” and Haydee, who is not herself ‘political’, has to cope with the fall-out.

That being said, Tyrant Memory isn’t nearly as dark as the title and subject matter would suggest. Haydee is surrounded by a host of vibrant and resilient family and friends, whose lives of relative comfort evoke the grande bourgeoisie “decent people” society that she inhabits; a society where even in times of personal or political crisis there are still such things as moral standards and proper conduct. It’s an extremely appealing world, both exotic and restrained.

The literary style is no less interesting, with sharp divisions between the dignified voice of Haydee recording events in her diary and the bawdy Clemente’s attempts to leave El Salvador, narrated playwright style. It’s truly innovative writing which the accomplished Moya carries off with ease, while simultaneously managing to let the serious, yet politically recalcitrant, Pericles dominate the work, despite his near total absence from any of the events recorded. Both he and Haydee are absolutely credible, as is the storyline, which avoids a thousand revolutionary cliches to end in a realistic manner.

Not only is this book a truly interesting insight into the history of a tiny nation known for little more than its infamous 1970s right-wing death squads, it is also an outstanding literary achievement that effortlessly combines intelligence with subtle sophistication. Highly recommended reading.


Roslyn Fuller is the author of political thriller ISAK. More information about the Canadian, her work and the Irish Writers’ Exchange can be found at




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