Tag Archives: Colombian literature

Event review: Holiday Heart book launch

It was a great honour last week to chair the virtual launch of Holiday Heart, interviewing author Margarita García Robayo and translator Charlotte Coombe for a wonderful event organised by Carolina Orloff and Jules Danskin of Charco Press. I’m writing up some of the main points into a little piece here, so that those of you who missed the event can get a flavour of what was discussed, and those of you who were there can relive it! For a limited time you can also watch the interview on Charco’s website.

Charco’s director Carolina opened the live session by talking about Margarita’s “universe”, her unique mission and way of understanding the world, her talent for making us laugh with her wry, brutal humour and making us feel uncomfortable at the same time because of the way that she portrays reality. In the interview, Margarita expanded on this idea of a “universe” by explaining that her books are all pieces of a bigger literary project: whereas Latin American literature often deals with things that the region is known for, such as political violence, she made the point that it hasn’t necessarily dealt with the particular social “strip” that she focuses on – the middle class or the “in-betweeners” in terms of class. Holiday Heart is an attempt to portray the damaged and damaging Latin American middle classes by presenting uprooted characters looking for a sense of belonging, and this is the environment in which Margarita grew up: it was not an equal society, but she believes that no-one is an innocent victim of their government. Rather, we must all look to ourselves to identify the ways in which we perpetuate this inequality.

When I asked Margarita more about her main characters (the rather unpleasant Pablo and Lucía) she responded that, controversial as it might sound, she doesn’t see Pablo and Lucía as unlikeable, or rather not as purely unlikeable. They are, she suggests, simply unsatisfied people who are over-exposed – and if we were to put such a magnifying glass over anyone, we’d find flaws we didn’t suspect they had. Lucía doesn’t think of herself as racist, but is so dissatisfied with her own life that she hasn’t even noticed her son’s behaviour (which is a mirror of her own), and it is only when he makes loud racist comments in public that she is forced to confront her own behaviour. When Holiday Heart was released in Latin America, it made people question themselves and think “Do I talk/ think like that?” – and this is where its great power and provocation lies.

While Charlie did not find it difficult to inhabit the minds and thoughts of those characters as she was translating (her feeling being that their flaws come from their insecurities – their rootlessness and how they project that onto other people), there were sections that were difficult for her to deal with as she was translating. In particular, she found the sections about black people hard to translate, as well as the sections where Pablo sexualised his student and those which discussed “brown-ness”. However, Charlie noted how important it was not to dilute these issues, and to maintain that challenge to readers: though her instinct might have been how to make certain sections more culturally sensitive, her job as a translator is to convey Margarita’s intentions. Charlie also made a particularly interesting point about how a translator has to think more about who’s reading than a writer might, constantly keeping in mind the question “who am I writing for?”

When I asked both Margarita and Charlie how it felt to have this book come out not only in a time of global crisis, but also at a moment when anti-racism movements are making international headlines, they both considered this to be a good thing: Charlie feels that seeing characters with these particular flaws forces readers to confront such prejudices instead of pretending that they don’t exist, and Margarita suggested that to read a book in a negative way because it contains characters that we don’t agree with is a very limited and sad vision of literature, and went on to insist that she will never modify or erase things just because they make people feel uncomfortable. She is presenting reality: many people who wouldn’t think they are racist are in fact racist, just as many men and women who say they’re feminist aren’t really feminist – and we often don’t recognise this until it explodes in our faces.

Margarita ended the interview with an insightful observation for translators and readers alike: the absence of empathy prevents full comprehension. If we focus only on the negative aspects of the characters, then we miss some of what she’s trying to do. This to me summed up what makes Margarita such an important contemporary writer: just as in life an absence of empathy will prevent us from understanding others and feeling connected to the world around us, so in literature this absence will prevent us from understanding what a book is doing or saying, and will prevent us from understanding the context it comes from. If we only read books in which we see our ideals reflected, we will only reinforce our own sense of innate “rightness”, and never understand the multiplicity of experience and perspective that makes up our world. I truly believe Margarita García Robayo to be not just a good writer but a great one, and am grateful that with Charlie’s translation and Charco’s mission her work can reach more readers, as it deserves to.

I will be on holiday for the next few weeks, but have prepared several posts to publish automatically while I’m offline! Here’s what you can look forward to until my return:
Review of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, Camille Laurens, tr. Willard Wood (Les Fugitives, 2020)
Review of Three Plastic Rooms, Petra Hůlová, tr. Alex Zucker (Jantar Publishing, 2017)
Review of The Passion According to Renée Vivien, tr. Kathleen McNerney and Helena Buffery (Francis Boutle Publishing, 2020)
Interview with Helena Buffery, co-translator of The Passion According to Renée Vivien

Happy reading, and have a wonderful summer!

 

Review: Margarita García Robayo, Holiday Heart

Translated from Spanish (Colombia) by Charlotte Coombe (Charco Press, 2020)

*Details of the virtual launch of Holiday Heart at the end of this post (or click here if you can’t wait) – it’s going to be fabulous – and free!*

Meet Pablo and Lucía, two extremely unlikeable protagonists whose marriage is breaking down in the wake of Pablo’s infidelity. Although this, like everything else in Margarita García Robayo’s universe, is a seemingly simple situation which belies deeper emotions and greater complexities that we are invited to scrutinise, however uncomfortable it makes us.

Just as in García Robayo’s previous collection Fish Soup, the characters in Holiday Heart always disappoint: they never do the thing you hope they will do, the thing that might redeem them. Pablo and Lucía are quite deliberately antagonistic towards one another, and towards almost everyone else around them. Even their twin children Tommy and Rosa are not spared from this: in the first few pages the twins are described as “like two organs, easily removed”, Tommy’s irritating habit of responding to all questions with an apathetic shrug is introduced, and Rosa’s yawning mouth is “wide enough to fit a clenched fist inside.” Maternal tenderness this is not: gestating twins was, according to Lucía, akin to aliens taking up residence in her body. As for Pablo, he feels excluded from Lucía’s parasitic relationship with their children, but finds an outlet for his self-pity in energetic sex with a neighbour he doesn’t even like.

So how did Lucía and Pablo make it this far? Depressingly, because they just couldn’t be bothered to do otherwise. Their relationship amounts to nothing more than an accumulation of time which has made them strangers to one another: “The first symptom is disinterest, something miniscule that then becomes normal, and then both people stop wondering why they’re still there, oozing with indifference towards one another, agreeing with what the other says as a formality: the time long gone when what they said seemed interesting. Or worth listening to.” Neither Lucía nor Pablo can move beyond where they are, even as they believe in the impermanence of everything; their relationship represents no more than “piles of dead time, which nobody has bothered to clear away.” So don’t be fooled by the deceptively romantic title: a “holiday heart” is not a summer fling, but a life-threatening illness. The Spanish title, Tiempo muerto (“dead time”) focuses on this notion of relationships as simply an accumulation of time spent together – wasted time, time that is over. The English title is the one García Robayo had originally wanted to give Tiempo muerto, and works brilliantly; not only does its artful frivolity hint that nothing is as it seems beneath the family’s facade of success and happiness, but its focus on Pablo’s condition – the single event that crystallises all of this “dead time” – shows how everything is brought to a head and the veneer cracks irreparably.

Lucía and Pablo are caught in the in-between space: they left Colombia to move to the US in pursuit of the American Dream, but its sad and sordid reality is mercilessly exposed (even the fruit is too bright and shiny to be real). They are outsiders there and now belong nowhere: they have rejected their working class origins, but have never ascended the social ladder in the way they hoped; they are stagnating in their location, in their social status, and in their marriage. Middle-aged, middle-class and mediocre, Pablo and Lucía’s most irredeemable characteristic is that they are, quite simply, racist. It’s uncomfortable at times: I winced at a particular word, which I can’t even being myself to write here. But such words exist, and are used, and if we don’t feel uncomfortable reading them then I think we need to ask ourselves why. That itself is one of García Robayo’s particular talents: she holds a mirror up to her readers, makes us ask how complicit we are in the perpetuation of these loathsome attitudes even as we denounce them. For this is not the overt and brutal racism that makes headlines; rather, this is the insidious everyday racism that allows those vile events to happen by perpetuating a status quo that needs a radical shift. It’s the perspective that is so unsettling: this is not a book that gives voice to black characters – in fact those who feature are portrayed negatively, because we see the story through the eyes of people who have already judged them. It’s disturbing, and it’s meant to disturb, because it’s all too real and recognisable. I was reminded of images in the news five years ago, of groups of Latina women holding placards stating that “the silent majority stands with Trump”. I found this perhaps even more chilling than the rallies – this man despised the “silent majority” for their race, their gender, their class – and yet they lifted him on their shoulders to become a volatile and divisive world leader. Harmful views expressed publicly can be taken down publicly; it’s the silent ones that go unnoticed, and these are the ones García Robayo tackles. The real disease is not Pablo’s “holiday heart”, but rather the transmission of these attitudes to the next generation: Rosa and Tommy are as apathetic and depraved as their parents – rejecting Lucía’s attempt to spend some time with her, Rosa doesn’t want her mother to read, but rather to die, or at least to get very sick, and Tommy screams in public that he doesn’t like black people. I cringed reading these things, but I think that’s the point.

In a recent interview, director Carolina Orloff talked about Charco’s efforts to pair authors with the right translator for their work, and nowhere was this more evident than in Fish Soup. Coombe’s connection with García Robayo’s narrative voice continues in Holiday Heart: she explores a wide range of slang both contemporary and (for purposes of characterisation) out-dated, and maintains the delicate balance of García Robayo’s prose, which switches seamlessly from the understated to the exuberant, the base to the profound. Holiday Heart is acute, provocative, concise and raw, and is a short and powerful novel about many things – time, relationships, identity, infidelity, apathy, parenthood, class, race, gender – but above all it is a warning: do not be complacent, do not accumulate “dead time”, and do not accept harmful attitudes and stereotypes just because they exist. It offers, like one of the housekeeper’s foot massages, “a combination of pleasure and revulsion”, an opportunity to look inside ourselves and think, with every reaction we have – what would Pablo and Lucía do? And then do the opposite.

Don’t miss: the (online) launch of Holiday Heart on 7th July! I’ll be talking to Margarita García Robayo and Charlotte Coombe about writing and translating this gem of a novella, and you can book your (free) virtual ticket here.

Review copy of Holiday Heart provided by Charco Press

A delightfully subversive feast: Margarita García Robayo, Fish Soup

Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe (Charco Press, 2018)

Fish Soup is one of my favourite discoveries of 2018: in it, Charco Press brings together a collection of novellas and short stories by Colombian author Margarita García Robayo, superbly translated by Charlotte Coombe. The three sections of Fish Soup are, in order of appearance, the novella “Waiting for a Hurricane”, whose narrator despises her home and is increasingly desperate to leave, the collection of short stories “Worse Things”, snapshots of disintegrating families and bodies which won the prestigious Casa de las Américas prize in 2014, and the novella “Sexual Education”, a bitingly hilarious account of sex education at a Catholic girls’ school in 1990s Colombia, which has not yet been published in Spanish.

Image taken from charcopress.com

García Robayo writes with brutal candour, creating strong female characters determined to take control of their bodies but corseted in the norms of a society they reject yet cannot escape. “Waiting for a Hurricane” is recounted by an unnamed narrator, growing up near the sea and longing to move away. She is dismissive of her family and wants something different for her own future: “I was not like them […] at the age of seven I already knew that I would leave. […] When people asked me, what do you want to be when you grow up? I’d reply: a foreigner.” This longing to be elsewhere pervades the narrative, blinding the narrator – or at least leaving her insensitive – to the way in which she is hurting the people who care about her as she pushes single-mindedly towards her goal.  She has several lovers in the course of her story: firstly, there is a mildly disturbing relationship as an adolescent with ageing raconteur fisherman Gustavo, then her first boyfriend Tony, who adores her but from whom she is implacably detached both emotionally and sexually (“I put my hands behind the back of my neck, as if I was doing sit-ups, and waited for Tony to finish”). Tony wants to marry her, but all she sees is a horizon before her, and everything becomes about escaping: “Tony had a lot of ideas about air hostesses, but I had just one: air hostesses could leave.” With this realisation, she becomes an air hostess, and is then courted by “the Captain”, who cannot give her what she wants, for though he offers a comfortable life and a fabulous apartment, “it was very beautiful, but it was still here.” Then, when she finally realises her dream of escaping, she meets Johnny (real name Juan), a larger-than-life (and married) wheeler-dealer gringo living in Miami, who eventually becomes the latest casualty in a sequence of losing people she “didn’t even care about.”

Coombe says of the first time she read “Waiting for a Hurricane” in Spanish that: “I automatically started translating in my head as I was reading. For me this is always a good sign with any book I read in another language; it means I can hear the voice, I relate to it and I am simply itching to put it into English.” This connection between translator and text is evident: the translation is pitch-perfect, and Coombe has an incredible ear for García Robayo’s characters (there are only two minor details in over 200 pages that I could even start to criticise). Coombe has embraced the outrageously crude tone of García Robayo’s writing and communicated it in all its visceral glory, not only in “Waiting for a Hurricane”, but throughout the volume. The seven short stories in “Worse Things” are peopled with characters who, as Ellen Jones notes, are “plagued by apathy and disaffection”: from the physical description of an ageing ladies’ man (“Leonardo was balding, and sweat accumulated each side of his widow’s peak, out of reach of the handkerchief he used to wipe his face every so often”) to the summing up of a suffering aunt’s unremitting averageness (“She was neither ugly nor pretty. And, as far as Ema could recall, neither was she good at anything in particular. She was utterly unremarkable”) and the relentless resignation of a morbidly obese teenager’s mother (“She thought it was better not to make things more complicated than they were; this was what life had given them, and things were fine. Relatively fine. What could be worse? So many things. There were worse things”), García Robayo’s sparing prose offers a piercing insight into characters brimming with abjection, fury, and disgust for themselves and their lives.

Sex in “Worse Things” (and throughout Fish Soup) is never tender or emotional, but savage, detached, or barely enjoyable. In some cases it is revolting even when consensual: “Leonardo plunged his fingers in and out as if he were unclogging a drain; he jerked himself off with his other hand. He came with a loud moan, and slumped forward onto Inés, smearing his own semen under him.” In others, it is a simple transaction or perfunctory act: “she went down between his legs and sucked him off like she’d never done before”. Characters are either physically repulsive or emotionally repellent, their bodily fluids grotesque and free-flowing. But this is not just to make you shudder or grimace: in the marvellous “Sky and Poplars”, García Robayo uses an abject expulsion of breastmilk to reveal one of the most harrowing experiences of the collection.

Bodily abjection and unpleasant sexual encounters lead into the final novella in the collection, “Sexual Education”, in which a group of senior year girls at a Catholic school are subjected to an abstinence programme designed to combat the proliferation of unwanted pregnancies, with the result that “we spent a good part of our final year listening to Olga Luz prattling on about the virtues of the hymen and the unspeakable dangers of semen.” Sexual acts are at no point redeemed as enjoyable or desirable: when the narrator witnesses a moment of intimacy between her friend and her boyfriend, she explains how her friend “pushed Mauricio’s head down and he went under her skirt and held her thighs open with his hands. I could hear what sounded like a dog licking something.”

Yes, it makes you squirm. But there are also moments of great hilarity, such as the way the narrator dismisses her friend Karina, who regularly converses with the Virgin Mary, when she explains that the Virgin has instructed her that as long as the hymen is “safeguarded”, the girls may make love with other parts of their body, resulting in a generation of girls with “hymen intact, ass in tatters.” This is a pitiless narrator, and no-one emerges from her observations unscathed, not even herself. In fact, she has a self-awareness that made me chuckle:  when forced to attend a party, she dresses “as if I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the party or the people there, which meant I had spent hours trying on different outfits in front of the mirror.” These adolescent concerns are offset by darker episodes such as a horrific gang rape, and showcase García Robayo’s merciless exposure of a society where women have no agency.

The narrator’s uncompromising disdain for those around her is counterbalanced by the one time that she lets herself get carried away by instinctive emotion when she sees a boy at the party, and in an instant imagines their future, sailing away together into an improbably perfect sunset. Unwittingly, she has fallen for her friend’s new boyfriend, as she discovers when the friend appears and sits down on his lap, drawing a barrier between the narrator and her projected future: “Next thing I knew, burning rocks came raining down on our boat, just a few miles off Cadiz. We exploded into a gazillion pieces that momentarily blinded me, and then vanished into thin air, like a foolish hope.” The usually sardonic narrator experiences a pang of desire and loss that, as with the narrator of “Waiting for a Hurricane”, makes our awareness of her youth painfully acute.

García Robayo’s great talent is for presenting tragedy with mordant humour, and with Coombe unafraid to replicate the crude and caustic language, the result is a rollicking, darkly funny, occasionally disturbing, and delightfully uncomfortable collection that deserves to be widely read.

Charco are offering 15% off all women in translation titles until the end of August 2018: just enter the code #WITMONTH at checkout!

Review copy provided by Charco Press.