Book Review: Elena Knows

Elena+Knows

Elena Knows, by Claudia Piñeiro (translated by Frances Riddle), tells the story of an epic journey that takes place over the course of one day. The journey recounted is epic not in scope but in effort expended. The titular protagonist, from whose point of view the tale is told, is an elderly woman suffering from advanced Parkinson’s. Her ability to move her limbs relies on the careful timing of medication.

Opening in the morning, as Elena takes her second pill, the difficulties she faces doing a supposedly simple task such as putting one foot in front of the other are laid bare. She is sitting in her kitchen waiting for the prescribed chemicals to take effect that she may walk to the local train station, five blocks away. She must catch the ten o’clock train if she is to reach her destination.

“Today’s the day she’s going to play her last card, to try to find out who killed her daughter, to talk to the only person in the world who she thinks she can convince to help her. Because of a long-ago debt, something almost forgotten.”

Elena’s daughter, Rita, was found hanging from the church belfry. Investigators concluded she committed suicide. Elena knows this can’t be how she died as, on the day in question, it was raining. Rita harboured a fear of lightning and refused to attend church on such days after she learned of its lightning rod. Elena believes she knew her daughter better than anyone else.

Mother and daughter had a tempestuous relationship.

“They fought as if each word thrown out were the crack of a whip, leather in motion, one of them lashed out, then the other. Blistering the rival’s body with words. Neither let on that she was hurt.”

Nevertheless, now that Rita is dead Elena is grieving in her own way. Despite the many difficulties she faces, Elena mostly eschews any help offered, especially by her daughter’s boyfriend, a man Elena despises, appearing to resent that they had a relationship.

“They were two hopeless creatures, two losers in love, or not even, two lonely people who had never even entered the game, who had contented themselves with watching from the stands. As far as Elena was concerned, it would’ve been more dignified at that point for her daughter to abstain from playing altogether.”

After Elena completes the train journey she must travel a further distance to reach a house she has been to only once before, twenty years ago. She remembers directions and a front door but does not have an address. She must then confront Isabel, who lives there, and call in her debt. To continue to function Elena will need to take her third pill on the way.

Throughout the arduous journey, Elena remembers episodes with her daughter, including how disgusted Rita became by her mother’s failing body. There is no shying from detail in the depictions of a Parkinson’s sufferer. As well as difficulty controlling movement, Elena is now permanently stooped. She cannot cut her thickened toenails or remove her dentures. She leaks urine and cannot wipe herself after using the toilet. She constantly drools, including into her food, turning it to paste before she can eat it. Rita was her carer and didn’t hide how the personal tasks she was forced to carry out sickened her, as did the way her mother smelled and looked.

The denouement provides a change of pace after what was a poignant if challenging reveal of the mother-daughter relationship. It asks questions about the ownership an individual can have over their body given the effects of such issues as: illness, duty, domestic abuse. The determination Elena displays in travelling across Buenos Aires played out differently when Rita was younger. Rita herself had a lasting impact on Isabel. Their stories provide a shocking reminder of treatment women are expected to accept from those they look to for care or support, even when well intentioned.

The writing is taut and affecting, with a depth that develops slowly but lingers beyond the final page. In the Afterword, Fiona Mackintosh adds context – how the culture in Argentina, including the dogmas of the Catholic church, loom large and resist change.

I could not warm to Elena, especially when considering how she treated Rita – a doctor’s appointment is particularly traumatic. Even so, the depiction of age and infirmity cannot fail to raise pity – and fear for their own future – in any reader.

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

Book Review: Havana Year Zero

“I’ve always noticed that writers and artists are seen as unique beings with exceptional lives, as if they spent their whole time entertaining great people and talking in capital letters about profound, elevated topics. That’s OK by me, but I’m surprised that scientists aren’t equally valued. Very few people think about scientists; yet behind everything we touch, however ordinary it might be, there are hundreds of brains who worked on its creation, because science is a collective endeavour”

Havana Year Zero, by Karla Suárez (translated by Christina MacSweeney), tells a story from 1993, when Cuba was reeling from the impact of international changes – the fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the Soviet Union. At this time, Havana suffered regular power cuts and interruptions to mains water supply. Food was scarce and residents banned from many activities, including travel outside the country. The narrator, Julia, is a mathematician who gets caught up in the search for an elusive, historic document. If found, it could prove that the telephone was invented in Cuba by an Italian, Antonio Meucci. Julia initially seeks scientific recognition and national pride. Others on the trail hope for more material rewards.

Julia is looking back on this time from the future, telling a story of the friends, lovers and colleagues she worked with to try to uncover the document. Although known to each other, this group of scientists and writers retain secrets that Julia gradually discovers. The twists and turns are further complicated by the bed hopping enjoyed. When life has been shorn of many pleasures, sex proves a welcome if complicating distraction.

Julia remains close to the man who became her supervisor at university and with whom she had an affair that impacted his marriage. She refers to him in the narrative as Euclid – characters are each given a pseudonym to protect their identity, she explains. Julia first hears of the inventor, Meucci, at a dinner party where an author – she names him Leonardo – talks of writing a book on Meucci’s life and work. It turns out that Euclid is familiar with this story and knows of the existence of the document. He recruits Julia as his assistant in tracking it down.

Other variables in the problem to be solved include Ángel – an out of work man who, unusually for Havana at the time, lives alone in a spacious apartment. Julia falls in love with him – or perhaps it is his apartment – and dreams of moving in. Ángel welcomes her attentions but has unresolved issues to attend to that could thwart her plans and must be carefully navigated.

There is also Barbara, an Italian tourist visiting Cuba on the pretext of bringing Leonardo information on Meucci, promised by her colleague who is prevented from travelling. As an outsider, Barbara has valued currency and permission to purchase items the locals cannot access except through the black market. She takes her new friends out to dinner – a welcome change from their diet of rice and split peas – supplying them with decent rum and other goods regarded as luxuries.

Julia moves between Euclid, Leonardo and Ángel, trying to work out who knows what of where the document could be. She is hampered by Havana’s lack of reliable utilities – particularly that working telephones are rare. Oh, the irony.

Leonardo is eager to talk of his writing so from him Julia learns more of Meucci, as the author shares with her his research for the novel he is writing. She also learns of the final factor in the equation – Ángel’s ex-wife, Margarita, who left him to move to Brazil. The three men in the equation have a history of broken marriages and other family issues that pull on Julia’s heartstrings. She desires justice for those who have been wronged, including herself.

“My problem is that I have no family traumas. I had a happy childhood, no one abandoned me or stopped loving me.”

“growing up in that sort of environment causes real problems because it makes you too structured.”

Thus Julia sets out to help her friends and herself. New facts come to light that change the focus of her endeavours – as happens in science. At times she feels like a puppet, at others the puppeteer.

“Numbers are mental constructions that mathematicians use in an attempt to define the properties of and relationships between everything in the universe. Authors did something similar, but with words”

The structure of the book is that of a mystery, within which there are complex entanglements and much dark humour. There is a strong sense of place that offers a lesson in living with only basic amenities and supplies – in close proximity to wider family. My only quibble with the language employed is the occasional direct address to the reader – the narrator asking “Do you get me?”, “Do you see?” – which I found jarring. Aside from this, the tale remained engaging with elements of surprise that added depth.

An enjoyable tale that develops gradually but never feels slow, all detail adding to the final interweaving of threads. The author writes with skill and verve – credit to the translator. Fun but never frivolous, this was a pleasure to read.

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

Book Review: Theatre of War

Theatre of War, by Andrea Jeftanovic (translated by Frances Riddle) tells the story of an immigrant family living in South America whose lives are shadowed by the lingering effects of war. The story is narrated by Tamara, a young woman looking back at her childhood. During her early years she lived with her parents and two older siblings. When her mother and father separated she lived for periods of time with each of them. Her father appears to have suffered PTSD brought on by his own childhood experiences in the troubled Balkans. His shifting moods crater his young family, passing on lasting psychological problems to the next generation.

The story is structured as a sort of play in three acts, with each scene a memory conjured by the narrator. Characters play their parts – roles assigned by Tamara and viewed from her perspective. Thus we do not get to know the other cast members’ thoughts or feelings. They exist only in how they affected Tamara.

“We rewrite each other’s parts. We bring our characters to life.”

The story opens with the family moving house – something that happened repeatedly over several years. What possessions they acquired would be crudely packed, abandoned or sold – with little warning or explanation. There were regular periods of neglect and hunger. Tamara’s few positive memories revolve around her siblings, particularly her older sister.

The mother is remembered as screaming at the father, having an affair and then leaving. Rarely does she appear happy, making herself ill with medication until hospitalised. In one dark period she rejects Tamara entirely.

The two older siblings were born of a different father to their sister. This effects how the parents treat them at times but does not change how the three children regard each other.

The father suffers regular nightmares. In trying to protect Tamara from the causes, he instills curiosity but also a barrier to questions she feels she cannot ask. He recoils from blood, creating issues when his daughter menstruates. He comes across as doing his best for his family but with broken tools.

As the ‘play’ progresses we learn of Tamara’s sexual encounters and attempts at forging relationships. Her lack of anchor due to her troubled childhood results in drifting, avoidance, and then loss.

The tale is of Tamara and her experiences but also much more. Scenes portray her recollections but build into a powerful account of damage wrought by parents unable to provide what their child requires. As it is narrated by a grown daughter, there remain questions about reliability of memory – was a doll abandoned or sold, did the family members ever feel love or joy, what of the spaces and interactions that are not explored. Words are spoken and parts played but from Tamara’s point of view this was never enough.

“Someone hugs my neck, kisses my toes, pokes me in the abdomen. We look distractedly past one another, engrossed in our own roles.”

The writing is visceral and succinct, the tale dark and raw but told in language that is affectingly evocative. It offers a piercing reminder that the damage caused by war is not confined to immediacy or direct aftermath, and that family conflict can also destroy.

An abiding story that had me pondering how many of our relationships are acted out, and how much we can ever know of the impact we have on others – including those we love. A recommended read.

Theatre of War is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: Ramifications

Ramifications, by Daniel Saldaña París (translated by Christina MacSweeney), is a story narrated by a psychologically bedbound thirty-four year old man. He is trying to deal with pivotal events that occurred when he was ten years old by writing down his memories of the time and the effect they had on him. Set in the Educación neighbourhood of Mexico City, the boy’s life changed when his mother, Theresa, left the family home one lunchtime during the summer holidays, never to return. The boy’s father did not explain to his two children why she had left, although the elder child, fifteen year old Mariana, may have understood better. The strength of this tale is the depiction of the emotions and concerns of a ten year old boy – how the lens through which he sees his world is insular, imaginative and self-centred.

The boy’s interests include reading Choose Your Own Adventure books and he enjoys the idea that, if faced with challenges, he could become an admired hero. As his mother leaves during the school holidays, when the boy’s best friend is away from the city, he fondly imagines how he will share what has happened to cast himself as a figure to be revered by classmates. When Mariana is tasked with looking after her brother while their father is at work, the boy meets her teenage friends including Rat, a person he equates with risk and influence. He conjures impressive scenarios from the ether that he looks forward to recounting. What actually transpires is a journey that forces the boy to confront how unlike the hero of his imagination he actually is – an unmasking with negative and lasting impact.

The boy is also attempting – and failing – to create objects using origami. He becomes obsessed with symmetry and how rare it is under close observation. These distractions do not cover the damage caused by his mother’s defection. He cannot articulate, or even fully recognise, what is happening to him. It is only from his bed in the future that he will try to unpick events and how they stymied his development.

The writing style is perfectly pitched and structured to offer fascinating glimpses of a past life that may now be influenced by hindsight. The reader is made aware early in the tale of key moments, of resulting difficulties, yet there is always some new aspect to reveal. As the narrator digs deeper into the cause and effects of his parents’ actions, his ten year old self is presented in a light few writers I have read could master. It is a reminder to adults that children are not just smaller versions of themselves.

The story drew me in from the beginning but acquired impressive depth as it progressed. Its power is all the more admirable for its brevity, accomplished with no compromise to the richness of language and affect. So much of this resonated, leaving much to ponder. The denouement provided satisfying completion whilst allowing the reader to imagine beyond the final page.

It is books such as these that make me want to read more translated fiction. Another fine offering from a quality publisher that I heartily recommend.

Ramifications is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: Dead Girls

Dead Girls, by Selva Almada (translated by Annie McDermott), investigates the unresolved murders of young women in the author’s home country – Argentina. Focusing on three girls murdered in the early 1980s, it is shocking although, sadly, unsurprising.

“Being a woman meant being prey.”

The author interviewed family and friends of the deceased, adding in her own experiences of growing up in a provincial town at a time when even phones in homes were rare. With few broadcast TV channels, news was mostly local. The author found this suffocating. Nevertheless, she felt mostly safe. The society she lived in chose not to acknowledge known incidents of domestic violence. It was drummed into her that if she dressed in a certain way, spoke to strangers or stayed out late she could be raped – and it would be her fault for putting herself in that situation.

The writing style is fragmented, jumping between investigation and informed opinion on each case. Lists of other unresolved murders of women are included. Femicide is far from unusual.

“My friends and I were still alive, but we could have been Andrea, Maria Luisa or Sarita. We were just luckier.”

Almada’a personal history is interwoven with her research into the dead girls’ lives – a reimagining of their last days. She uncovers horrific tales of gangs of boys raping individual girls with impunity, and of older men paying for a young girl to have sex with. The accounts are searing and disturbing although never voyeuristic. Life is not portrayed as happy for anyone mentioned.

An interview with the brother of one of the murdered girls highlights the arrogance of men in the country. This does not lead to any sense of fulfilment – several suicides are mentioned. Certain family members chose not to meet with the author, preferring to put what happened behind them. Others agreed to a visit then appear to have rehearsed what they were willing to share.

There are elements of the narrative that I found odd – perhaps a cultural difference. The author regularly consults a psychic – as do other characters featured – and gives credence to what is said.

That aside, this is a clear-eyed and compelling account of a journalistic investigation into murders for which no one has been punished. That they are a drop in an ocean of similar cases makes for a chilling read.

Dead Girls is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: A Musical Offering

“When a child first learns to hum a melody, the child stops being music and instead becomes a receptacle for remembering it.”

A Musical Offering, by Luis Sagasti (translated by Fionn Petch), is a challenge to define. It tells numerous stories but in short vignettes that weave into and around each other – a sort of counterpoint style of writing. Its frame is music and the effect various pieces have on a variety of listeners. As with a new musical composition – however enjoyable – it is not until the finish that it may be fully considered and appreciated.

The opening chapter explains why Bach was commissioned, by a Russian Count, to compose what became known as the Goldberg Variations. In the twentieth century these gained a wider audience thanks to recordings made by Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould. The importance of the length of the silence between each variation is explored as is the circularity of the work.

The discussion segues into the story of Scheherazade. I had to look up who this character was – she is a storyteller in the collection of Middle Eastern tales brought together in One Thousand and One Nights, often known in English as the Arabian Nights.

There follows a series of reflections on lullabies, then the music of the Beatles. This is the first of several threads that weave in contemporary culture and historical figures. The work of artist, Jackson Pollock, is included.

By the end of this first chapter, the structure and style of writing had been established but I was unconvinced that the stories being told were worth pursuing. Early on certain similes and opaque suggestions had grated.

“an extraordinary harpsichordist who not only is capable of playing anything that is put in front of him but can also read a score upside down, like a rock star playing a guitar behind his back”

“the slower pace of the later version is that of someone who knows we only leave a circle before taking the first step”

I was also irritated by the assumption that the reader would recognise and understand references to people and artistic endeavours. As well as Scheherazade, I had to look up Virgil and Dantes to puzzle out their inclusion. I pondered if the author was writing for someone better read than me (whatever better read actually means).

There were, however, thoughts being shared that I enjoyed despite their sometimes tenuous conjunctions.

“Every mother carries a Noah’s Ark in her womb (after all, there are forty weeks of gestation and forty days of flood). We’ve all been the animals in the Ark before descending to the earth.”

The second chapter delves deeper into how silence is perceived and completely hooked me. The discursions teased out fascinating accounts of people’s behaviour. Revered art is depicted as merchandise – investors driving up price then storing the work in a warehouse. The tales of two of John Cage’s musical compositions – 4′ 33″ and ASLSP – are as bizarre as they are brilliant to share. It is pointed out that there is never true silence if we pay attention.

The tale of The Great Organ of Himmelheim had me checking if it was true – not that it mattered given the joy of considering why such a thing would be built.

A poignant chapter on music in a time of war again kept me fully engaged. Man is capable of such atrocity yet also beauty.

As well as sharing interesting stories, the author philosophises on wider issues. I enjoyed his thoughts on sending music into space. I also learned about the wood used by Stradivarius – why it was special. I didn’t look up if this factoid was true – by now I was engrossed in each of the digressions and interested in how they would be brought together. The denouement adds an element of circularity to all that has gone before.

After my initial concerns I was drawn into this work and thoroughly enjoyed reading each interwoven tangent. Fact and fiction may have been blended – I remain unsure – but it has been done to impressive and immersive effect.

A Musical Offering is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: Holiday Heart

“By this point, Lucía knew that her argument was falling apart, that the things she was saying were only distantly connected to what she’d read. She simply wanted to say them, and it seemed like a good opportunity to do so.”

Holiday Heart, by Margarita García Robayo (translated by Charlotte Coombe), is the story of a crumbling marriage. It opens on Miami beach where Lucía and her young children – twins, Rosa and Tomás – are watching the Fourth of July fireworks. They arrived earlier in the day to spend a fortnight at Lucía’s parents’ holiday apartment where they will be looked after by Cindy, an American of Cuban descent. Lucía and her husband, Pablo, are Columbian immigrants – educated and financially successful but hankering after an elusive satisfaction in the life they lead.

Pablo has recently suffered heart issues which brought to light his infidelities. He remains at their home in New Haven, recuperating. His actions, though, are secondary to resentments that have been bubbling to the surface for years. Pablo and Lucía goad each other with both their silences and conversation. They try to be good parents but neither of them truly enjoys being with their children.

“She wondered if giving birth to a child and just abandoning it to its fate – whether as the decision of a Spartan parent or out of necessity or tradition – would hurt less than giving birth to it only to neurotically monitor the area surrounding it every day: that diminutive, infinite space filled with dreadful and uncontrollable dangers.”

Pablo, a teacher, is writing a novel. Having read through the manuscript, Lucía accuses him of yearning for his homeland – something she regards with derision. The reader is offered snapshots of his past through interactions with his wider family. For them, making a life in America is regarded as a success in itself.

Lucía writes a column for a magazine in which she is highly critical of her husband, claiming artistic licence when Pablo complains. He feels that he lost her when the twins were born and Lucía took the reins in how they would be raised. On holiday at Miami Beach, the children have more fun with Cindy than they do with their mother. She views the friendly young woman as trashy but is jealous of her easy affinity with the youngsters, especially Rosa. Both Pablo and Lucía are critical of many aspects of demeanour they observe in other immigrants.

“His shirt is tucked in and he wears a blue suit jacket that screams cheap. Bad taste in clothes is the last sign of an impoverished background to disappear. Sometimes it never leaves. Almost all of the high school teachers are of Latino descent: they are the sons and daughters of technicians, plumbers, maids, supermarket cashiers. Getting an education, unlike their parents, doesn’t make them any less rough around the edges, if anything the contrary.”

The key lives portrayed are brimming with dissatisfaction making this a rather bleak tale to engage with. The writing style is taut and flowing but neither Pablo nor Lucía elicit sympathy – their actions appearing foolish and weak. I was left curious as to the veracity in terms of the immigrant experience: if assimilation creates a disconnect, if expectations can ever be met. Pablo ponders the life his unmarried aunt, Lety, has chosen for herself, unable to understand how she can be content when her job is running a launderette. It is, perhaps, because neither Pablo nor Lucía can find the joy in what they already have that I struggled to empathise.

A well structured and written tale but not one I especially enjoyed reading. Maybe the insular and stifling reflections of the privileged characters were not the best choice for me given current lockdown economic concerns and restrictions.

Holiday Heart 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: Resistance

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Resistance by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn).

Resistance is a fairly short novel but one that should on no account be rushed. The language and turns of phrases reward those who savour. It is a story about a family and how each are differently affected by the same experiences, both shared and inherited. The insights offered are meticulous, sympathetic and deserving of attention.

The narrator of the tale is the youngest of three siblings whose parents fled Argentina in the 1970s and settled in Brazil. The couple brought with them their infant son who they had adopted after failing to conceive. They knew little of their new-born’s background – how he came to be offered to them. They were assured it would be better this way.

Their younger two children were born after the forced migration. The children always knew their brother was adopted although it was rarely referred to. The narrator is exploring if, within his family, this difference in birth – parentage and country – had a detrimental effect.

“I’m writing […] a book about that child, my brother, about the pains and experiences of childhood, but also about persecution and resistance, about terror, torture and disappearances.”

Each chapter is short offering a vignette on childhood, a retelling of family mythology, and the narrator’s questioning of the truth behind his memories. He recognises the difficulty of expressing feelings that continue to reverberate across years during which the events will have been retold on a variety of occasions.

“They’re all disposable fictions, nothing but distortions.”

Photograph albums are viewed and an apartment in Argentina visited as the narrator attempts to reconstruct the anecdotes his parents shared.

He recalls missteps, embarrassing incidents when he said or did something he immediately regretted. Childhood experiences leave imprints that grow imprecise in recollection.

There is a careful hesitancy, a striving for authenticity, yet the prose is piercing in its power to convey with clarity the difficulties of being a child in a close knit family whose history involved conflict and deracination.

An Argentinian colleague who was disappeared by the regime is remembered by the narrator’s mother, her story thereby impacting the next generation.

“I never knew Martha Brea, her absence does not live inside me. But her absence lived in our house.”

These family stories are an aspect of a childhood that was itself loving and stable. Also remembered are later difficulties dealing with the elder brother, although these are viewed differently by their parents and perhaps by the subject himself.

“I have tried to construct the ediface of this story, on deeply buried foundations that are highly unstable.”

The narrator is drawing on the experiences of parents and other forebears in an attempt to explore how an adopted child may be impacted when raised alongside unadopted siblings.

“An attempt to forge the meanings life refuses to give us”

The narrator writes of how his brother is regarded by their family and also by the boy’s friends. He acknowledges that the family view can only be his interpretation, and is perhaps not shared by his siblings or their parents.

“Our children always transcend how we think of them.”

After spending two years pulling together his various stories and analysing his thoughts on them he concludes:

“writing about the family and reflecting so much on it isn’t the same as experiencing it, sharing its routine, inhabiting its present.”

The narrator can only view his brother through a personal lens.

As a reader it is not so much the unfolding history, interesting though it is, that affected; rather, it is the carefully considered depiction of family and their interpretations of shared memories that reverberates.

The prose is breathtaking in its power and beauty, carefully crafted and always engaging. This was a joy to read.

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