Translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff (Charco Press, 2019)
Ariana Harwicz was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her first novel Die, My Love (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff for Charco Press), a ferocious account of a woman rejecting stereotypes of domesticity and maternity. Feebleminded reprises similar themes, depicting non-conformist women who reject traditional relationships, wrestle with the everyday, stagger at the edge of reason, and are hurtling towards a violent climax. Harwicz is an extremely talented writer, and I was fortunate to meet her during her tour to promote Feebleminded, so shall include in my discussion some of the things I learnt there (for a full review of the launch event I attended, you can read Jackie’s write-up).
Feebleminded is a turbulent voyage that lurches from the banality of everyday country life to the abjection of monstrous and potentially murderous relationships. The blurb of Die, My Love claimed that it is not a question of whether a breaking point will be reached, but when, and how violent a form it will take, this is equally (perhaps even more?) true of Feebleminded. The narrative lunges towards a cliff edge, and pulls back only to run headlong at it again, as Harwicz describes in Hotel magazine: “There is a moment in which you think you are going to be saved, a moment of relief, and immediately after comes the moment of extreme tension where no doubt that bullet, that kiss, that caress, that sexual act, will turn into the bullet that is going to kill you.” Obsession and deliverance are blurred in Feebleminded, as are love and violence (“kissing was a steady advance, knife raised high”), all detonating in my favourite line: “I raised the machete with all my love, with all my dying heart.” Such contrasts abound: love is perversion, tenderness is violence, lucidity is madness, and the basic premise rests on the following question: could a person want something so badly they destroy it?
The narrator and her mother live in a chaotic household in the countryside, a “women’s den” from which the mother rarely emerges, and the daughter only to go to a mundane job in a clothing store or meet her lover (presumably they also occasionally go out on the kind of debauched carousal that led to the mother conceiving her daughter and the daughter meeting her lover, but the how and why of encounters are dispensed with: Harwicz resolutely omits superfluous detail). The women are constantly at loggerheads with one another but cannot exist apart; whether by choice, fate or circumstance they are bound together.
While there are similarities in subject matter between Die, My Love and Feebleminded, they are nonetheless very distinct stories. The press release description of Feebleminded as the second instalment of an “involuntary trilogy” that began with Die, My Love (and will be concluded with Precocious in 2020 or 2021) led me to spend an inordinate amount of time developing conspiracy theories about how one of the characters in Feebleminded might be an older version of the narrator of Die, My Love – but it turns out I had it all wrong. Harwicz described the trilogy as more like a musical suite, with sonatas that repeat the same refrain but each have their own separate identity, and when she read aloud this musicality became evident. Rather than the characters, the themes they represent are the connecting thread between the stories, and the deliberate absence of any character names locks them in their roles as “wife”, “husband”, “lover”, “mother-in-law” and so on, to better explore those tropes.
Common to the first two instalments of this “involuntary trilogy” are rebellious anti-heroines who represent the antithesis of a maternal instinct, and although this is mostly depicted in violent terms, we are offered sporadic glimpses of the human misery that engenders it. In Feebleminded, the narrator knows that her mother almost tried to abort her, and that she “lowered” rather than raised her, and the narrative depicts a carnal, almost cannibalistic relationship between the two women. In both books, the narrator is obsessed with a married man – one has a child, the other is expecting one – and so both are bound by obligations elsewhere. Love is all-consuming (joy “creeps up through my body like an illness”), desire is animalistic, bodies are abject and responsibility is an encumbrance: the women in Harwicz’s narrative universe are “in the prime of life and in freefall” (Die, My Love). The prose is sparse and violent, but rhythmic, viscerally poetic, and full of striking images which are rendered beautifully in the translation, such as the mother’s recognition of her failings (“I should have given you a proper education, stopped you from sticking your fingers into your shell and pulling out the slug”) and the daughter’s anticipation of meeting her lover (“Here he comes. He’s getting closer. And it’s like letting go of heavy suitcases after a long journey, watching my fingers throb”).
The dialogues in Feebleminded are also brilliantly translated: it is not always clear from the punctuation who is talking, and this is a deliberately destabilising technique – but each woman has a distinct voice, and these come across in the translation. In fact the dialogues are very funny, violence and humour colliding in the mother and daughter’s apparent ignorance of how hilarious their interactions are (look out for the mother describing an “unprepossessing” man who just might have had the nefarious intention of raping her, hacking her to bits, and leaving her dismembered body in a bin bag by the roadside, and the daughter questioning the accuracy of the mother’s exaggerated “son of uncountable whores” curse until she modifies it to the rather less excessive “son of a bitch”).
Neither Die, My Love nor Feebleminded is what you’d call an “easy read”; they challenge and subvert, revel in ambiguity, and cannot be easily categorised. But why should we want to categorise them? Writing does not have to be a product of the author’s geographical origins, or fit into neat descriptions of being “about” a particular subject. Even if both texts deal with madness (both narrators are sent away for psychological treatment: the narrator of Die, My Love is sent to a sanitorium by her husband, and in Feebleminded the narrator notes that she has only ever visited cities for medical appointments and electroshocks), they are not about “madwomen”: if these women disrupt reality and society – in their language, their passions, their abjection and their actions – then they are simply breaking through a veneer of “normality” that masks the madness and disruption of reality and society themselves. Both Die, My Love and Feebleminded are subversive, electrifying, and highly original, and the closest I could come to defining these books is that they are a sublime, savage explosion via literature of all that women are not allowed to be in reality.
Review copy of Feebleminded provided by Charco Press.