The Remainder

The Remainder is the debut novel of Chilean writer Alia Trabucco Zeran, first published in 2014 and translated last year by Sophie Hughes. Hughes adept translation is particularly important as the novel consists of two narratives. The main narrative (that is the longer one, which tells the story) might be described as a road trip, in which the narrator, Iquela, another young woman, Paloma, (who is also Chilean but has spent little time in the country, living instead with her parents in exile in Europe), and Felipe, (who, though not Iquela’s brother, lived with her as a child as if he were) set off for Argentina to recover the body of Paloma’s mother (Paloma was transporting the body to Chile for burial only for the plane to be grounded by an ash cloud). The second narrative, which originates with Felipe, is a much more abstract and intense affair, rendered in one long sentence in each section, and numbered from 11 to 0 as if counting down. Counting is central to these brief interludes as Felipe begins by telling us that:

“Off and on: one week there, the next nowhere to be seen, that’s how my dead began… they were scattered all over Santiago, those Sunday stiffs, weekly or bimonthly corpses which I totted up methodically, and the tally rose like foamy scum…”

The Remainder is a novel which explores Chile relationship with its past, and the dictatorship of General Pinochet in particular. Iquela’s first chapter (we assume) is set in 1988, on the night of the referendum when Pinochet was voted from power. It is here she meets the teenage Paloma for the first time as her parents have returned to Chile from exile to celebrate the result. Iquela is immediately infatuated with the slightly older Paloma:

“She didn’t even look up when I opened the door. Standing stock-still, her eyes boring into her white espadrilles, hands buried inside her faded-jean pockets and a pair of headphones covering her ears – that’s all it took, she had me.”

The infatuation is beautifully handled as Paloma encourages Iquela to smoke and drink while wandering around the house, entirely at home. The evening ends, however, with a fight between their fathers which Iquela doesn’t entirely understand, Paloma’s father calling hers a “fucking snitch.”

The novel then moves forward to Paloma’s arrival in Chile with the intention of burying her mother, presumably twenty to twenty-five years later. Iquela is still haunted by her earlier infatuation though this is tempered with an irritation that her mother expects her to drop everything to help Paloma. We see that Iquela’s relationship with her mother, Consuela, is fractious:

“My routine visits to my mother’s house were always brief, as if we’d just bumped into each other on the corner and I had something terribly important to do a few blocks away.”

Similarly, all the characters are haunted by the past: Santiago is described as “this mortuary city”; Iquela comments that “My mother’s memory functioned like a topography of the dead.” The trip to Argentina is both a way of Iquela resolving her relationship with Paloma, and, symbolically, represents a coming to terms with Chile’s past, the freeing of Iquela’s generation from the experiences of their parents. (The ash cloud which prevents the plane carrying Paloma’s mother’s body landing is also mentioned in the opening chapter: “That night it rained ash. Or perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps the grey is just the backdrop of my memory…”)

Unfortunately, this aspect of the novel did not work for me. While there is some dark humour to be found during the road trip, and we see Iquela and Paloma’s relationship develop, there is little sense that they are wrestling with anything profound. Their parents’ story, more interesting than theirs (which is perhaps part of the problem they face), is never fully revealed, almost as if Zeran is resisting writing a novel of that time. Felipe’s interjections (Felipe’s backstory also remains opaque, though we assume his parents were victims of the Pinochet regime) become increasingly repetitive, giving the impression that the number was decided before the content.

There is enough here, particularly in the opening section of the novel, to suggest Zeran’s talent, but I remain mystified by the excessive praise the novel has received. It will come as no surprise, then, that I find this a strange selection for the International Man Booker Prize, especially given the quality of And Other Stories publications last year, with both The Iliac Crest and Tentacle more deserving of a place on the long list.

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8 Responses to “The Remainder”

  1. Man Booker International Prize 2019 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán (Chile and Italy), translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes (And Other Stories) […]

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s a pity that this didn’t quite work for you, but I can understand your frustrations with the novel’s focus. Have you seen Pablo Larrain’s film ‘No’ which looks at the advertising tactics used in the 1988 referendum? If not, it’s definitely worth seeking out!

    • 1streading Says:

      I know the film you mean but I’ve never seen. I’ll definitely watch out for it.
      I think liking this was harder as it was my least favourite of the And Other Stories books I’d read.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Interesting. It seems like this year’s list is throwing up some titles that aren’t quite cutting it…

  4. Bellezza Says:

    I have this left, as one of three, before I finish reading the long list. I must say I’m not particularly interested in politics or histories of dictatorships, but perhaps this will intrigue me. As you say at the end of your post, it is a surprise how so many books in this year’s long list managed to get there especially at the exclusion of many other fine novels. I have a personal vendetta against The Years, a memoir which has won the French-American prize in NONFiction, being included. At first, I thought the judges were trying to highlight obscure books, but many of the thirteen have already won a prize in their country of origin, so that can’t be right. It is exciting, however, to be exposed to novels which are quite new to me.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, even reading a book you don’t particularly like can be rewarding.
      I can’t agree about The Years though as I think it’s a great book – whatever it is!

  5. Bellezza Says:

    So does everyone else on the Shadow Panel; I stand alone. 😊

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