Book Review: Fate

Fate, by Jorge Consiglio (translated by Carolina Orloff and Fionn Petch) is the first of Charco Press’s 2020 publications. Set in Argentina, it features a disparate cast of characters. They each weave in and out of their often mundane day to day experiences without truly noticing how others are thinking or feeling. The author is exploring within the story how people exist – that they can only view the world through their personal lens. Concerns affecting self override empathy. Written in a fragmentary style, the character studies offer intimate details yet the language used has a detached feel. Settings are largely irrelevant except as conduits for a character’s flexuous thinking.

The book opens with a note from the author explaining how the apparent randomness of fate has such a significant impact on the course a life will take.

“When tragedy strikes, there is always someone who is spared by some tiny detail. As a result, triviality takes on monumental dimensions.”

“I imagined […] the characters would find themselves in a state of solitude, would be defined by it – yet would also fight tirelessly to make that modest leap of exceptionality and intensity.”

The first character introduced is Amer, a taxidermist specialising in museum work. His health has been adversely affected by his smoking habit so he joins a therapy group in an attempt to quit. There he meets a younger woman, Clara, who is training for a change of career. They start dating, although Amer appears to want more from Clara than she is willing to give.

As Amer and Clara are coming together, another relationship is crumbling. Karl is a German musician who left his home country and daughter to move to Buenos Aires and be with Marina, a scientific researcher. The couple now have a young son, Simón. Marina starts an affair with a colleague in an attempt to push her ‘paltry and predictable’ life into a forward trajectory.

Alternate short chapters offer snapshots of events from the points of view of Amer, Karl and Marina. They go about their days – at home and as they move through the city. They encounter others but remain engrossed in what is happening to themselves. They look to loved ones for affirmation and feel let down if this is not forthcoming, unaware that they too are failing in this respect.

“What he’d just felt – the pleasure of the sfogliatella – had faded. It had found no echo in the only person who could confirm the value of his experience.”

Karl buys Marina a birthday present and is dismayed when it is not valued as expected. He is unaware of how his son regards him, feeling anger when food cooked for the boy is not appreciated.

Marina pushes through any despondency she feels with focused determination. When she finds she cannot control every factor of the changes she orchestrates this is accepted as yet another new starting point from which decisions must be made and then dealt with.

Amer is pleased when an inheritance is finally processed but then discovers he is not sure how best to control and enjoy it. Clara shows only transient interest in plans he shares, unwilling to fit herself into the role he has unilaterally assigned her.

The writing captures how thoughts fluctuate and change direction with many threads forgotten as others take precedence. Plans change as individuals react to the unexpected actions of others. This is shown to be just one factor in the inability to control one’s future position.

By setting the story in the everyday, readers will recognise the unpredictable aspects that drive the direction life takes. It is a salutary reminder of any individual’s lasting significance.

The perfectly formed structure offers a story told in taut yet attentive prose that resonates with poignancy without demanding sympathy. The characters’ flaws add to their authenticity. It is a thought provoking and gratifying read.

Fate is published by Charco Press.

Gig Review: Ariana Harwicz in Bath

On Wednesday of this week I travelled to Bath for an unusual but very much enjoyed literary event. Hosted by Toppings Bookshop, Ariana Harwicz, author of Die My Love and Feebleminded, was there to talk about her writing and her books. These are available in English from the fabulous Charco Press who are based in Edinburgh and publish books in translation, several from South America. Born in Buenos Aires, Ariana currently lives in France and writes in Spanish. She spoke to the audience in her mother tongue and was ably translated by Carolina Orloff. Carolina is co-founder of Charco Press and co-translated both of Ariana’s books. As someone who speaks only English, I was impressed that so many in the audience appeared to understand all that was being said.

The evening opened with an introduction by Matt, one of Toppings’ booksellers, who spoke of how viscerally he had been affected reading Die My Love. Ariana then gave a reading from the original version of Feebleminded. This was followed by the same section read from the English translation by Carolina.

“if we don’t suffer there’s no passion”

“falling in love is the ultimate curse”

Matt asked a series of pertinent questions that enabled an interesting discourse on the creation of Ariana’s trilogy (the third book will be published in English next year). The following summary is produced from notes I took on the night. Some of the responses are translations of Ariana’s answers and some are additional comments from Carolina. My aim is to reflect the gist of what was said. I hope it will be of interest.

Q: What is the purpose of the trilogy?

When asked this question an author tries to go back in time. This process happens later, when the author becomes a reader of their own work. It is a deconstruction process. The more truthful answer is the writing comes from a mystery. I don’t know where it comes from.

What unites the three books is a feeling of desperation in the main character. There is a certain style, perhaps like musicians creating a triad. It is the punctuation that unites the books.

Q: How does it feel to revisit your published books that are only now coming out in English?

To write a book is a miracle. To see a translation is another miracle. It is as if I have written another book. Translation is like two people making music. It has to work together. There can be slight changes – politically, ideologically. Some authors hand over their work to a translator and don’t get involved – beyond their responsibility. I am not like that. The involvement comes from the dialectics. Writing is an act of translation.

C: Ariana was recently told her books were thought in French but written in Spanish. This was said as a criticism but she thinks it is a good thing.

Q: Has there been variation in response from Spanish and English readers?

To be here is a political act. It is expected that a Latin American author will write about certain things. I have an eight year old son who is Franco-Argentinean. All he gets from television is: sexist, stereotypical, poverty, dictatorship. I am not interested in these clichés.

It was through the English translation that Die My Love came to be translated into fifteen languages. Now it cannot be so easily pigeonholed. I write literature, not just feminist Latin American.

C: One of the biggest aims as publisher is to do away with such limitations. Charco launched with five Argentinean writers from the same generation yet all are different. It is good to break preconceptions.

A: Reactions of different readerships stems from cultural history. The Hebrew version is getting very different reactions from the English. Some regard the writing as akin to science fiction, others recognise it as realism.

C: These social constructs and clichés exist because Latin American authors are not widely read. Charco wishes to change this.

A: The true political act is to step away from expectations and write what I want.

Q: What was it about the English translation that particularly resonated?

I live in a small French village, write from the margins, produce cryptic literature. English being such a massive language it opens work up to so many readers. What I want to do is break language, undo and then remake, add new meaning. I was told when the books came out they would be impossible to translate.

The challenge of translation is to get across something of that which is broken. The translation had to be hidden, quiet, convoluted – whatever the original conveyed. To leave the bare minimum of image or colour or feeling.

I would not wish to live without writing – inventing language. It is the language that is the main character.

After a second reading, the audience were invited to ask questions.

Q: Characters are never named. Do they recur in the trilogy?

C: Ariana has a background in drama and film.

I am interested in the idea that characters have no names, that it is up to the reader to assign them. I would even prefer books to have no titles, preferring to keep things as pure as possible. There are darker elements. Each character is condoned to their role in society. It is this that defines them.

Q: The ‘mad woman’ – are they thrust into this role? Do they embrace it?

Having to name people, reducing them, creates a misunderstanding. When Die My Love came out many readers understood it was a woman suffering post partum depression. But I never thought of this pathologically. I wanted to give a wider perspective.

Q: The language moves as though alive. Does Ariana edit to achieve this?

Consider artists who paint outside, trying to find an image but the image cannot exist without surrounding sound. Feebleminded comes from an image of a female village idiot. I then saw her again on a train and realised it was not idiocy but obsession.

I also observed the relationships between mothers and daughters. I found something disturbing. There were two bodies that looked alike. What was going on there, between them?

Sound matters more than realism. I just write, uninterrupted. The language comes out.

Q: When you picture the people who love your books are you surprised that they look like me? (a young, white, male)

That they are normal? To answer I go back to my first novel. Being a foreigner is a lonely experience. I wrote for myself, out of desperation. I didn’t know it would become a novel. When I heard it was to be published I went into the forest and cried. It was a way of saving myself.

C: In Argentina the book has been adapted for the stage yet uses the same words as in the novel – it is striking.

I am interested in writing from deep solitude, sorrow, tortuous loneliness.

Matt: The power of good writers is that they evoke situations the reader has been unable to express themselves.

Indie publishers are great because they are places of discovery. And unlike some, Charco has not published a bad book.

As audience members queued to have their purchases signed by both Ariana and Carolina, I left to catch my train home. The evening offered much to consider about both the power of writing and of quality translation.

Die My Love and Feebleminded are available to buy from good bookshops such as Toppings, and direct from Charco Press.

 

Book Review: Feebleminded

Feebleminded, by Ariana Harwicz (translated by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff), is a disturbing depiction of an intense mother and daughter relationship. The younger woman is around thirty years of age and consumed by the affair she is having with a married man who lives many miles away. The older woman wants to know all the details, having once been sexually decadent and adventurous herself. Told from the point of view of the daughter, the reader is offered a stream of consciousness and ongoing reactions alongside flashbacks to a childhood that was is some ways ordinary but coloured by the mother’s similar distractions and needs.

The pair live in a remote, rural home that also housed the grandmother until her death. The picture painted is of women who seek release through alcohol and men but do not sustain conventional relationships. There is both lethargy and anger, the beauty of location fogged by fluctuations in mood and introspection.

The story is written in three parts. The first dives deep into the daughter’s thoughts and agitations as she satisfies her body’s cravings between assignations. Her lover does not contact her as often as she needs. There is desperation, a feeling of suffocation in the inanities of the everyday. The mother and daughter drink together, suffer hangovers and berate the sexual choices each has made. Happy moments from their past, those that started with innocence and childish pleasure in memory, were rarely sustained. The mother rushed her adolescent daughter into a womanhood that they could share, taking delight in knowing the details of burgeoning sexual activity. Now she watches as her daughter sinks into a lassitude of frustration over a man who lives with and loves another.

The second part sees the daughter lose her job due to her preoccupation with this man. Her mother fears destitution and blames her daughter for granting too much importance and attention to the affair. The pair argue, yet there remains mutual concern.

“I’m not a fucking ATM. Mum pulls a sorrowful face and I imagine stroking it. They always find a way to get you, these women with long, straight, clean-smelling, usually honey-coloured hair. They can say the most horrendous things, behave like utter despots, but afterwards you still want to run your fingers through the strands. How much is left, how long can we survive?”

The third part of the book sees the daughter leave their home but then discover that the man will not forsake his wife as she is pregnant, despite how he had spoken of their relations. The mother and daughter plot a terrible revenge.

The writing is dark and intense yet in places, somehow, also poetic. It is shocking in its rarely voiced, searing authenticity. The imagery is violent in its beauty, grotesque in its imaginings, yet provides sunbeams in momentary descriptions. There is care and a shared lust for life amidst the discord and blame.

Described as the second part in an ‘involuntary’ trilogy that opened with the critically acclaimed Die, My Love, this book will appeal especially to those who enjoyed the former work. It is impressively potent and tightly tempestuous. A memorable if not always comfortable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: Die, My Love

Die, My Love, by Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff), is a raw and unflinching journey through the mind of a new wife and mother whose feelings of entrapment are driving her over the edge. Her thoughts are brutal and increasingly desperate as she seeks to find a way to satiate her personal needs. The mind-numbing banality of her day to day existence is proving more than she can take. Her erratic behaviour verges on the dangerous, including for her child.

Over the course of eighteen months the woman struggles through each day in a state of rage against her circumstances. She rails against her husband’s inability to satisfy her, including sexually. She hides in woodland near their home leaving the child with his grandmother or, at times, abandoned. She screams into the void when unable to articulate her needs in a way those close to her find acceptable. She recognises that her actions are beyond the pale but cannot quell the demons stifling her from within.

The narrative exposes the grotesque in the actions of people going about their quotidian lives. Observations of the ordinary are harsh in their candour. The woman displays little moral compass as she searches for a way to survive. She cannot retain the composure needed to present herself to the world as is expected, frequently angering or embarrassing her husband and then proving incandescent at his reactions.

The woman knows that her behaviour is unacceptable and yearns to act in the way others do when confronted with the needs of family. She observes her husband with their son and ponders if they would be better off without her. She suppresses the longing she feels for the freedom this would give her. There is pent up anger towards the man she chose to share her life with for coping whilst her needs remain unmet.

Although competently written this is not a comfortable book to read. Its prose pierces the armour most people don in order to maintain the illusions of happy families. Occasional thoughts, quickly suppressed as horrific, are here given free rein. A passionate, intense and disturbing acknowledgement of the stripping of self that parenthood can bring.

Die, My Love, is published by Charco Press.