Tag Archives: Latin American literature

Destruction or redemption? The Wind That Lays Waste, Selva Almada

Translated from the Spanish (Argentina) by Chris Andrews

It’s new Charco book time, which is always something to get excited about: I have yet to read a dud book from Charco, and the newest release, The Wind That Lays Waste, is everything I’ve come to expect from them – original, evocative, memorable, and (quite simply) a really good read. I also want to take a moment to mention what a beautiful artefact this book is: Charco’s visual identity is modern, streamlined, and instantly recognisable, and their books are as much a pleasure to hold and behold as they are to read.

This latest offering is a superb addition to the Charco catalogue; it is Selva Almada’s debut novel, and it is an eerily atmospheric account of the extraordinary events in an ordinary day. While the some of the quotes on the press release hint at traditions of magical realism, I think this does The Wind That Lays Waste a disservice, as it rather draws a veil over how original the story itself is. Where it does “fit” with a literary tradition is in the focus on the everyday, small events that have enormous consequences. The narrative revolves around four characters from two generations, who form a range of unlikely pairings. On the one hand, we have itinerant evangelist Reverend Pearson travelling across the Argentine countryside “burning with the flame of Christ’s love” and dragging his teenage daughter Leni along with him. Their relationship is strained: the righteous preacher is incapable of understanding his daughter and her need for affection from a flesh-and-blood father rather than a divine one, and there is delicious authorial irony in comments such as “Leni kept quiet. They always ended up doing what her father wanted, or, as he saw it, what God expected of them.” However, this relationship is not one-dimensional: Leni is similarly unable to see her father as a person, viewing only his flaws and the way in which he embarrasses her or irritates her with his insistence on every detail of their life – such as being stranded in the middle of the plains – being part of God’s plan (“Leni thought that if one fine day the good Lord actually came down from the Kingdom of Heaven to attend to the Reverend’s mechanical mishaps, her father would be more stunned than anyone”). Nonetheless, even Leni is eternally – if reluctantly – mesmerised by Reverend Pearson’s charismatic preaching, and wishes their relationship could be different (“This meant that he was very glad to have her with him, thought Leni, but he could never say it like that, straight out; he always had to get Jesus in there, between them”).

When the Reverend’s car breaks down on a journey across the Argentine countryside, they end up at the garage and home of “the Gringo” Brauer, a man who has “no time for lofty thoughts”, and his assistant, Tapioca, a “pure soul, still a little rough around the edges.” The four characters are forced together on a public holiday, unable to leave the remote garage, and tensions rise as a storm gathers across the dusty plains. The storm is an unabashed metaphor, but it works spectacularly well: Brauer comments that “the wind is changing”, a storm approaching, and at the same time his tranquil life with Tapioca is disrupted and turned upside down as the Reverend spreads the “wind that lays waste”, intent on saving Tapioca’s soul and claiming him for Christ: “he felt that he was an arrow burning with the flame of Christ. And the bow that is drawn to shoot that arrow as far as possible, straight to the spot where the flame will ignite a raging fire. And the wind that spreads the fire will lay waste to the world with the love of Jesus.” The Reverend is both the arrow and the wind that fans the flames, and as the flames lick higher so the heat and intensity of the day burns as the storm approaches. The storm is necessary, inevitable (“Every crack in the earth was crying out for rain”), and yet this wind that lays waste will not spare the Reverend himself, as he risks saving Tapioca only to lose Leni.

If the metaphors and pairings of characters recur through the narrative, so too do the stories of abandonment: there are echoes in the backstories of cars driving off in a cloud of dust, a lone figure left on the plain behind them, and these stories are tied up with the characters’ sense of identity: even the good Reverend’s self-presentation is based on a lie that covers up his own abandonment of his wife. Indeed, there are no mothers in the present in this story; they have been left behind or they have driven off onto the horizon. The Reverend’s own mother (who was also abandoned, this time in her pregnancy by the Reverend’s American father) appears in flashbacks, largely to explain his rebirth and spiritual calling, which comes from a place of great fear and ends with his role as peripatetic evangelist. The ending is particularly enigmatic and open to interpretation: repetition and parallels abound in The Wind That Lays Waste, but nothing is fixed: there is no “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong”, “tainted” and “pure”. Stereotypes are dismantled and opposites blurred in this quietly powerful and superbly crafted tale of idealism and righteousness, destruction and redemption.

Review copy of The Wind That Lays Waste provided by Charco Press

The dark side of the planetary brain, or how a sacred anemone saves the world: Rita Indiana, Tentacle

Translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas (And Other Stories, 2018)

Tentacle was the final book released by And Other Stories in the Year of Publishing Women, and it smashed all of my expectations: a psychedelic voodoo Caribbean Genesis story collides with science fiction and eco-criticism in a furious explosion of colour and poetry, presided over by a sacred anemone. If you want to put a label on it, then Tentacle is probably best described as “experimental fiction”, but this doesn’t even begin to do it justice: it is both historical and contemporary, spiritual and pragmatic, science fiction and art – in short, as uncategorizable as it is exceptional.

Image taken from www.andotherstories.org

In a dystopian mid 21st-century Dominican Republic, an ecological crisis has turned the sea to sludge and killed most ocean life. We are in a time of advanced technology, when headsets function as a virtual-reality version of the internet, and yet humanity has regressed to some of its basest impulses; a modern-day plague is sweeping across the Caribbean, and affluent members of society are brutal in protecting themselves from contamination: “Recognizing the virus in the black man, the security mechanism in the tower releases a lethal gas and simultaneously informs the neighbours, who will now avoid the building’s entrance until the automatic collectors patrolling the streets and avenues pick up the body and disintegrate it.” In this post-apocalyptic world where the plague-ridden poor are simply a nuisance for the rich to exterminate, we meet Acilde, androgynous maid to famous psychic Esther Escudero. Picking her way through the pollution and social inequality, Acilde has been plucked from a life of “suck[ing] dicks at El Mirador” because the anemone had foretold that she would be the one to save the world; Acilde thus inadvertently holds the key to future survival, and is part of a prophecy that must be fulfilled. In order to realise her destiny she must become a man, by way of a futuristic sex change far removed from any modern-day medical procedure (carried out with the help of the aforementioned sacred anemone, a contraband artefact protected by Escudero’s henchman), and then travel in time to save her home. Past, present and future lives bleed into one another as characters from the future experience past lives as 16th-century buccaneers or 20th-century artists: time, history, and legacy are simultaneously distorted and clarified, and the protagonists tormented and consoled, by the power of the anemone.

Writing from the near future allows Indiana to make a social comment that never seems moralistic, and which is all the more persuasive for being framed as retrospective. The abandonment of the plague sufferers is reminiscent of current dialogues about refugees and borders, as well as a desensitization towards tragedy that Indiana adroitly reminds us is, in itself, a modern “plague.” The recent past is neatly condensed by the description of Acilde’s room in Esther Escudero’s house as “one of those typical rooms found in Santo Domingo’s twentieth-century apartments, from when everybody had a servant who lived with them and, for a salary well below minimum wage, cleaned, cooked, washed, watched the kids, and attended to the clandestine sexual requirements of the man of the house,” and the Trujillo regime (though unnamed) is described from the future as one that “the foreign press – still – did not dare call a dictatorship.” This didactic comment does not feel forced, as it is all in the context of an environmental disaster that has not (or not yet) happened in real life (there are early references to “the day of the tidal wave” that wiped out half the population). Yet though this may seem futuristic, in a recent interview Indiana stated that this future Caribbean where capitalism and colonialism have brought on humanitarian crises “exists in the present,” and that in viewing it from the future, she offers her readers a “‘safe’ place from which to view them” – and it is undoubtedly one of Tentacle’s great accomplishments that concealed in its futuristic, fictional context is a very contemporary, very real message.

There were ways in which the crux of the story reminded me of Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve, but that is not to say that there is anything derivative about Tentacle. Indiana produces a written text with oral qualities, meticulously and thoughtfully constructed but managing to seem effortlessly spontaneous. She draws together religion and voodoo, and reflects the culture of her country while defying tradition: Indiana’s influences and intertexts are multiple and eclectic, as are the possible readings of Tentacle. For all its riotous science-fiction qualities, Tentacle offers a number of social critiques, such as this one on race: “‘Black,’ he heard himself say as he breathed smoke out of his mouth. A small word swollen over time by other meanings, all of them hateful. Every time somebody said it to mean poor, dirty, inferior or criminal, the word grew; it must have been about to burst, and when it finally did, it would once again mean what it meant in the beginning: a color.” It is with reflections like this that Indiana weaves a narrative that is both deeply rooted in the traditions of her country and universally recognisable, and the translation by Achy Obejas – at once lyrical and volatile, evocative and explosive – communicates all the wisdom, energy, and artistic range of Indiana’s work.

The final page – which I’m not going to quote from, or talk about in too much detail, as I want you to enjoy it for yourself if you’re going to read Tentacle – is, in comparison to the rest of the book, quiet, tender, and calm. This is no paradox or accident – Indiana concludes her whirlwind of a story with the quiet at the eye of the storm, as all the worlds, bodies and times collapse in on one another and end together; it is a final page I have read over and over. Tentacle is explosive, innovative, steeped in history but defying tradition, unless it is the tradition that “In the Caribbean we live on the dark side of the planetary brain.” This is an urgent, electric novel, and I highly recommend that you try stepping over to this particular “dark side.”

 

“No matter where I go I’m still broken”: a tale of displacement and becoming. Carla Maliandi, The German Room

Translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle (Charco Press, 2018)

The German Room is the final release of 2018 from Charco Press, and what a year it’s been for them: A Man Booker International longlisting (for Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love, translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff), a win at the Creative Edinburgh Awards in the ‘Start-Up Award’ category, five new books (including one of my favourite books of the year, Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup, translated by Charlotte Coombe), and the celebration of their first anniversary in business. Charco Press is, without doubt, one of my favourite discoveries of 2018 – I love their attitude, their vision, and their commitment, and I have yet to read a book from them that I didn’t like. So in some ways I was almost fearful to start The German Room – I received a review copy and all I could think was “I hope it’s as good as I want it to be.” So… was it?

Image from charcopress.com

The German Room is a tale of escape and “becoming”, of nostalgia and displacement, and its central premise is particularly thought-provoking: if you flee your life because it becomes intolerable, what are you fleeing towards? And will your problems follow you there? I hesitate to call this a coming-of-age story, because I think it’s more of a reflection on the modern condition: we have infinite possibilities of where to go if we want to get away, but what on earth are we going to do when we get there? As the unnamed narrator reflects early on in her story, “even if I crossed the whole world looking for a place to feel at home, I wouldn’t belong anywhere.” Though this raises universal questions of displacement and self, the particular catalyst for the narrator’s sudden departure from her hometown of Buenos Aires is a rancorous break-up. Telling no-one that she is going away, she boards a plane to Heidelberg, the German town her parents fled to in an escape from the dictatorship in Argentina three decades earlier, and where she spent several years of her childhood. Yet a return to a place where she was once happy does not necessarily mean a return to happiness, and she finds herself adrift there, lacking purpose but yet not actively seeking it either. She takes a room in a university hall of residence, and enjoys the anonymity there: no-one knows who she is or why she is there (they all assume she is a student), and she doesn’t even have a home to keep clean – this is as much as anything an escape from adulthood and a return to a simpler time. Yet very adult concerns lie in wait for her there: an unlikely friendship with a fragile international student, a reluctant co-dependent friendship with the only other Argentine in the residence, a fleeting sexual encounter with a student she barely even likes, the pressure from the hall’s warden to enrol on a course or lose her right to remain in her room, and an increasingly sinister relationship with a Japanese woman in a state of grief. As if this ensemble cast of unlikely acquaintances didn’t provide enough intrigue, she also collides with Mario, a professor who, as a young man, lived in refuge with her family (an encounter which brings up past memories and offers a poignant insight into the traumatic consequences of a life spent in hiding), becomes sexually obsessed with the man  Mario loves, and discovers that she is pregnant – possibly by her former boyfriend, possibly by a rather vapid friend with whom she had a one-night stand when her relationship broke down.

Frances Riddle has translated this book extremely well: there is nothing in the English that seems awkward or out of place. There are things that must have been difficult to translate (Miguel Javier, for example, is “the Tucumano”, referring to the region of Argentina that he comes from; though “the Tucumano” might not be recognisable out of context in English, there seems to me no other way of describing him, since simply referring to him by name would erase the socio-cultural references which are so important to his characterisation and the power dynamics of his relationship with the narrator). I also greatly appreciated Riddle’s translation of Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s Slum Virgin (Charco Press, 2017), and imagine that Charco’s Spanish-language texts are in safe hands with her.

Carla Maliandi’s debut novel meets the level of quality I’ve come to expect from Charco books: in particular, I find it quite an achievement to write a narrator who in many ways is quite unlikeable, and yet make her sympathetic. I was quite surprised that I didn’t find myself getting irritated with the narrator or finding her introspection tedious: the character is written in such a way that she seems aware of the potentially self-indulgent nature of her own train of thought, and just stops short of being grating. Perhaps the other thing that saves this from being too navel-gazing is the overlap of the present-day personal story and a more universal past history: when asked why she wants to be in Heidelberg, the narrator replies that “I don’t know, maybe all my life I’ve idealised my childhood here, maybe I remembered this city as a place where time passed in a different way. Here, we hoped that everything would get better so that we could go back, and in the meantime, we were in limbo, far away, happy.” Heidelberg was once a place where her family sought refuge until things got better at home, and she is attempting to repeat this experience, even though she is unsure what she’s really doing “in this conservative storybook city, in this repulsively perfect country.”

It seems that what the narrator is seeking above all is anonymity, even invisibility: she likes living in the residence because “being there is like not being anywhere, it’s being alone but surrounded by a lot of people, having everything without owning anything, and being able to pass unnoticed.” Passing unnoticed will, she thinks, allow her the time to decide what she is going to do with her “life in shambles”, but even this desire remains unfulfilled, primarily because of her encounters with two particular characters and their families. Firstly, Miguel Javier (“the Tucumano”) wants to spend time with her because she represents for him some kind of anchor connecting him to his homeland, and she ends up being dragged into his sister Marta Paula’s life back home, a life of drudgery and self-sacrifice where Marta Paula’s only outlet is to visit Feli, a psychic who begins to destabilise and threaten all of their lives. Then there is Shanice, a Japanese student whose brash happiness is nothing more than “a horrible sadness disguised with bright colours and screeching music”, who wants to befriend the narrator in order to feel useful, and whose mother ends up coming to stay in Heidelberg and attaching herself to the narrator like a vampire. The narrator’s initial desire for solitude is both disrupted and reversed by this motley crew of companions, leading her to realise that there is no simple solution to her need for flight. Ultimately, the narrator’s plan for escape seems doomed to fail: as she notes herself, “simply returning to your childhood home is not much better than having no plan at all.” Her pregnancy pulls her back to the very place and people she had wanted to forget, and her prospects in Heidelberg are limited. The overlaps between past and present are particularly affecting here: having lived the happiest of childhood exiles in Heidelberg out of political necessity, her adult return to the place where she felt safe only destabilises her further, and in her encounters with Mario she begins to realise quite how severe the circumstances really were when she was a child. Now carrying a child herself, and reluctant to commit to motherhood, she seems to be seeking above all a solution to her rootlessness – a solution that is not neatly packaged and offered to us.

The narrative ends ambiguously, in a scene that is almost mystical: this was the only part I wasn’t quite sure about. I don’t want to give away the ending so I shan’t discuss it in detail here, but it certainly didn’t detract from my appreciation of the novel as a whole. In fact, I was entirely swept away by The German Room: at the end of each chapter I kept telling myself “just one more”, and ended up racing through it in a day. 2018 is definitely ending on a high note for Charco Press.

The German Room is released on 22 November 2018; you can order a copy here.

Review copy provided by Charco Press.