“I don’t know what I was before; I only know that I became Argentinean abroad”
In 2002 Fernando Sdrigotti fled the economic turmoil of his home country, Argentina, and flew to Dublin where he knew a friend would put him up temporarily. The morning after his arrival in Ireland he started work washing dishes – a kitchen porter job in the canteen of an office building. He spent the next seventeen years moving countries and cities, acquiring the visas and paperwork that would enable him to apply for British citizenship.
Jolts is a collection of nine short stories that offer snapshots of the author’s experiences living in transient places. As with any memoir there are elements of fiction.
“I may be sitting in a café in London reading these words. And I may be trying to figure out what is actually real, and what made-up. Or I may be rejoicing in the uncertainty. Or aware of the fantasy, I might be rejoicing in the fabrication.”
What comes through is a picture of the life of a writer as he attempts to establish himself, and the adaptations he goes through to fit his changing circumstances. There is a great deal of alcohol and drug taking along with anger and cynicism. There is also humour, particularly in the representations of those he meets along the way. The narrator appears to possess a degree of self-assurance that I have observed in others – mainly males – and always perplexes me (that they can be so sure of themselves and their opinions). He is not, however, averse to turning criticisms on himself.
The collection opens with the titular story. This is structured as a series of brief vignettes set across several decades. They help explain why the narrator left Argentina and provide a basis for several episodes recounted in more detail in subsequent stories.
“the piece is called ‘Jolts’ and is precisely about jolts in time and space, about how some of us are more sensitive to fragments and how some of us are more fragmented than the rest, particularly on some days.”
Several of the stories are set in London where the author now lives. In Only Up Here the narrator has quit a bar job and is taking in his surroundings having spent days festering in bed. He shares a studio flat with another guy in similar circumstances. Both have experienced the high of potential change before crashing to inertia from which the narrator is now trying to extricate them.
Turkish Delight portrays a different type of acquaintance. The cash-strapped narrator accepts an invitation to Sunday lunch from a financially successful Englishman who has plans for an afternoon of mutual drinking and drug taking. High on whatever has been snorted, the narrator can suppress his concerns at feeling out of place amongst ‘beautiful people’.
Methylated Spirits is a story about shopping in Sainsburys in the week before Christmas. From the items purchased and the amount spent the reader may assume that the narrator is now doing better financially.
Barbecue and Exhumation in Victoria Park Village is a biting exposé of casual xenophobia that the characters portrayed would probably deny. One is a ‘published author’ with opinions about writers and their road to success. The guests at the barbecue talk condescendingly on many topics, trading insults as competition amongst them builds with alcohol consumption. The narrator observes this group of friends while trying to fit in.
As well as London there are stories set in Dublin, Rome, and a childhood holiday in coastal Argentina. In this latter tale, the narrator is spending a summer with a young friend’s family, to keep the boy company. The montage presented is piercing in its evocation of the ordinary experiences children must suffer at the hands of peers and those charged with their care.
The final story, Notes Towards A Return, is set in Buenos Aires towards the end of the period covered by this memoir.
“Unlike Dublin, Paris, and later London, Buenos Aires was too much for me – I couldn’t tame it, own it, call it my own. I used to spend many a weekend in Buenos Aires but I would spend this time couch surfing, mostly off my head after rock concerts, preparing a landing that never materialised. So I miss the possibility of Buenos Aires.”
The narrator does not return to his hometown, Rosario, on this visit. When friends there express disappointment he stops responding to their messages.
“Others stop replying to my fake apologies. The important part is that a heavy ballast is dropped: we should have stopped talking years ago – we have nothing in common anymore – we were victims of the Dictatorship of Nostalgia that comes with social media.”
Although each story in this collection contains an interesting plot and well developed trajectory, it is the keen observations and elucidation that provide their vigour and entertainment. The writing style and taut structure offer an acutely pertinent if wry portrayal of humanity and their treatment of incomers. Whatever truths are being conveyed about the author’s life, it is as short stories about people’s behaviour that they may be savoured. Whilst I couldn’t empathise with many of the choices made – situations beyond my experience – the first person narrative offers a window into the life of a traveller whose circumstances are more relevant than location.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.
Oooh, this sounds like my kind of thing: always drawn to stories of exile and feeling like a stranger.