Book Review: Yesterday

yesterday

Yesterday, by Juan Emar (translated by Megan McDowell), tells the story of a day in the narrator’s life – the one before the day on which he is writing down what happened. It opens with the man and his wife rising at dawn that they may attend the beheading of Malleco, condemned by the church for spreading details of the secret of love – for the benefit of his fellow citizens. Tickets to Malleco’s execution are hard to come by, the macabre spectacle proving popular. Much of this first chapter is about how Malleco came to be sentenced to removal of his head. The remainder of the book focuses more keenly on the narrator’s activities and musings.

After Malleco’s gory death, the man and his wife visit the local zoo. This is one of the more surreal chapters. Monkeys sing and the couple join in; observed from the top of a tree, an ostrich swallows a lioness. If there are metaphors to be gleaned they remained opaque to this reader on first perusal.

Following lunch at a restaurant the narrator decides to visit a painter friend, Rub√©n de Loa, who works only with the colour green. I enjoyed this chapter for how it presented the conceits of art appreciation. There were still plenty of oddities in what was recounted – such as repeated silences of exactly fifteen minutes after which the same nondescript phrases would be uttered. Eventually the visitors study de Loa’s work, the narrator interpreting it based on his past experiences and finding a reflection of his life and philosophies therein. Before such thoughts can cause offence, they leave.

Next stop is a waiting room in which a pot-bellied man sits. The narrator ruminates on how the world changes as one’s mind wanders and time passes. Unable to find the serenity he seeks, he looks elsewhere but is still over-stimulated by minutiae. Exhausted by the direction his thoughts take him, the couple leave.

After a dinner taken at the same restaurant as earlier in the day, they visit the man’s family. Here they become embroiled in a foolish bet set up before they arrived. This leads the man to reflect on the causes of fear and the madness it may lead to – that it’s all in your head but still powerful.

“it is one thing to say that the dead can do nothing to me, directly, personally; it’s another thing, a very different thing, to say that I can do nothing to myself at night, when I am surrounded by the dead.”

“Why not be equally afraid when faced with that chair or that hat?”

I found the ponderings in this chapter of more interest than those woven around the pot-bellied man – although this did offer somewhat depressing nuggets on an individual’s wider value to society.

On leaving the family home, the couple walk through a rain shower before seeking shelter in a tavern. Here the narrator has an epiphany while urinating.

They make their way to their flat where the man, requesting solitude, reflects repeatedly on his day to a point verging on mania.

The detailed digressions, repetitions, observations and considerations wrapped around the bones of a plot set out here reminded me at times of the writing of Simon Okotie. The abstract nature of many of the musings brought to mind a literary Picasso. The wife, a companion throughout the day, remains an undefined shadow by the narrator’s side. There are passing references to: a disgust for all things gelatinous, war and death, a past lover. These appear influential yet remain unexplained. It is a reminder that however much of a day is recorded, there is always more happening – details sidelined.

In the introduction, Alejandro Zambra writes of the author, ‘it’s almost absurd to present Emar as a forgotten writer, since he has never been, so to speak, sufficiently remembered.’ There is much in this book to chew over and I know of many readers who will likely enjoy the challenge. I found it best to read a chapter at a time before pausing to digest and colour with my own interpretation.

An interesting exploration of what constitutes a personal reality that will likely benefit from rereading.

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

Book Review: Yesterday

Yesterday, by Felicia Yap, is set in an alternative, contemporary world where memory is limited to the previous day (monos) or the day before that (duos). In order to function adults are required to keep diaries where they write down significant thoughts and events. If not written down and subsequently learnt, there can be no recollection of actions or feelings.

Duos consider themselves superior and hold the majority of the powerful and lucrative positions. Intermarriage between monos and duos is rare and frowned upon. As well as the perceived intellectual superiority, few duos are willing to risk creating a mono child.

Mark and Claire Evans defied this popular prejudice resulting in Mark, a duo from a wealthy family, being disinherited. Now a successful author and aspiring politician, he is risking his twenty year marriage to his mono wife by indulging in an affair. When his mistress is found dead in a nearby river he becomes a suspect in a potential murder investigation. The police must gather evidence quickly before ‘live’ memories are lost. People choose what they write in their diaries so the records will always be skewed and incomplete.

Chapters narrate events from a variety of points of view. Sophia has recently been released from a mental asylum after seventeen years and now seeks revenge on those she blames for her incarceration. Claire suffers from depression, is appalled by her husband’s behaviour, but does not believe he is a killer. Mark is fighting to salvage the career of his dreams but has much to hide, especially from his wife. Hans, the detective investigating the murder, has access to the dead woman’s diary but struggles to accept that what he is reading could be true.

To enjoy this story it is necessary to suspend belief, as is of course the case for many fictional tales. There have been a number of thrillers written recently which deal with the memory loss of a protagonist who then suffers manipulation from supposed loved ones. This story involves an entire population of amnesiacs. Readers must accept that the likes of doctors have somehow found a way to qualify and do their jobs in this environment, that it is possible to make certain facts integral to being.

Aspects of the plot brought to mind The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (Fay Weldon). I also enjoyed the occasional news report or excerpt from official guidelines which helped to put into context this society’s habitual limitations.

The tight prose skips along apace. The issue of memory is fundamental Рhow each person curates their experiences and subsequently presents them, how identity is shaped. Initially I found the characters lacking in depth in a way that reminded me of my first impressions of Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro). As the story progressed this was shown to be fitting. The population are forced to rely on the veracity of their own written words to work out who and what they are. I pondered if this is so very different to more common forms of memory curation.

Although it took me some time to fully engage, the story developed into a thought provoking tale. Issues explored would make it an ideal choice for a book group. This was an enjoyable read.

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