Archive for August, 2022

The Performance

August 24, 2022

Claudia Petrucci’s debut novel The Performance, translated by Anne Milano Appel, begins with her protagonist (though not narrator), Giorgia, working in a supermarket. We quickly realise that Giorgia, even in such a relatively straight forward job, has her difficulties to navigate when she becomes absorbed in the distress of a young girl who tells her mother she doesn’t want to go to dancing lessons:

“Giorgia is unable to hold back her thoughts, it’s always been like that. She knows that normal people don’t function the same way.”

Even later, as she chats with the other workers in the locker room, “in some deeper part of herself she is the unknown child and she feels sad.” Her story is narrated by her boyfriend, Filippo, who works in a coffee shop – their existence is so ordinary it feels deliberate, and, indeed, it seems that Giorgia is in a sense hiding, but from what lies within her rather than from any external threat. She recites a nursery rhyme to herself to keep it at bay.

We discover that Giorgia was once an actor when she bumps into an old friend, theatre director Mauro, who tells her that three years ago she asked to take a break but now “the break is over.” He can see that she is changed:

“I remember it well your face, it’s not this one. You look like you’re holding your breath.”

Who the ‘real’ Giorgia is, and who gets to decide, is at the heart of the novel.  Mauro tells her that he has a part “only you can do” and soon she is back rehearsing. The world of the theatre is new to Filippo, who met Giorgia after she had left – he knows only that she became “too stressed” and “had a breakdown.” Rehearsals go well and it is only a moment before the first performance that Filippo suspects something may be wrong:

“Suddenly, I perceive a jarring edge. An anomaly that diverges from Giorgia’s words and flares in her eyes.”

If this sounds enough for a novel on its own, it is simply the prelude to Performance. As the novel proper begins, we find Giorgia in a clinic having suffered another breakdown:

“On her best days she stares at the sky the whole time.”

She has been there a number of weeks with only Filippo visiting her, but now Mauro begins to join him and they become friends. To pass the time, Mauro reads to Giorgia from Twelfth Night, and, over time, begins to suspect that she is adopting the habits of Olivia:

“It’s the first major production we staged together… She’s performing her role.”

Filippo also notices “she treats me, too, as if I were part of the script, a walk-on,” and we discover how her performance of Peter Pan ended: “Just long enough for her to go off-stage and attempt to fly out the window.” From this point on the two men decide that the best way to help Giorgia is to write a script where she is ‘herself’ – Filippo will provide the memories and Mauro will dramatize them:

“We’ll proceed in reverse, from the particulars to the whole, and from there work on constructing the character.”

While the premise may be far-fetched, it makes for gripping reading, as well as allowing Petrucci to examine the way in which men attempt to control women. This applies in the world of theatre – where Mauro is well known for sleeping with his students – and can be seen in the way Filippo – initially reluctant – moves from attempting to reconstruct Giorgia’s character to ‘improving’ it. Petrucci cleverly uses Filippo to narrate the story – Giorgia with her fluctuating character clearly could not – as another way of demonstrating his attempt to control his girlfriend. It also leaves the reader uncertain over Mauro’s motives – is he simply helping Filippo recover Giorgia or does he have his own agenda?

The Performance is a compelling psychological thriller which demonstrates the lengths men will go to in order to control women while, at the same time, questioning the very nature of character. Petrucci keeps the reader guessing until the final pages using Giorgia’s condition to raise a number of ethical questions which apply to relationships of all kinds.

The Leash and the Ball

August 18, 2022

Rodaan Al Galidi left Iraq for the Netherlands in 1998 when he was in his twenties. He fictionalised his experience in Two Blankets, Three Sheets which tells the story of Samir and the nine years he spends in a Dutch asylum centre. Now, in The Leash and the Ball (the title, as with the previous volume – two blankets and three sheets are what he is given when he arrives at the centre – has a meaning that becomes clear during reading) Samir’s journey continues. Both volumes have been translated by Jonathan Reeder, and this second novel highlights the difficulties of life outside the centre. It is written with humour and bemusement, and with an eye for the cultural differences that continue to puzzle the protagonist.

Samir’s plan when he is finally released from the asylum centre is to go to the south of Spain, but he soon discovers that, before that, he must pass his citizenship exam to gain Dutch nationality:

“It was like going to the doctor for a sniffle and finding out I had some awful disease.”

As he will throughout the novel, he has to rely on the kindness of others, particularly other refugees. He begins by calling everyone whose number he has – only for them all, with a mysterious unanimity, to claim they are in Turkey – until he gets to a name he no longer recognises – Calvin – and he finally receives the offer of a place to stay. Calvin stays in a small village with the Van der Weerde family – even as he arrives it is obvious Samir still has a lot to learn as he waves at an old man watching them through his window. When Calvin tells him not to, he wonders whether they have had a falling out, but, as Calvin tells him:

“Of course not, but the Hollanders don’t like people seeing them sitting in their living rooms.”

The novel is full of such observations, allowing the European reader to see themselves (in the words of Robert Burns) as others see us. Some are simply amusing, but others might make us think more deeply, for example when Danielle Van der Weerde comes to Samir to ask if he needs anything, her expression reminds him of the staff in the centre:

“A Dutch’s person’s face at their workplace is not necessarily their own face, but their uniform.”

It is when he meets the daughter, Leda, that he decides to stay:

“She was the anchor that kept me fixed to the village seabed.”

Samir and Leda grow close – partly through her dog, Diesel, who befriends Samir – as he survives by doing odd jobs around the village. Samir falls in love with Leda but, though clearly fond of him, she is reluctant to commit, a reluctance that is not simply down to their different backgrounds:

“She’s unbound by the world around her, but imprisoned within herself, I thought.”

This is partly due to her own background – for example, Samir discovers she has a different father to her siblings, a one-night stand that resulted in pregnancy. She has also suffered as a result of a previous relationship. Despite this, Galidi demonstrates that affection came overcome – at least until another woman in the village interferes.

The novel, like Samir, does not settle in the village. For a while he lives in a student flat, surprised by both their untidiness and drunkenness:

“Why did they bring the prettiest girls home with them only to puke together?”

At the same time, he works rounding up chickens in a factory farm – exactly the kind of unpleasant, low-paid job we might associate with immigrants:

“The shed was hell, the feathers were fire, and the chickens were the sinners and the pain.”

He is told to collect five in each hand before shoving them into a crate, a task that at first seems impossible. When he gets back to his room he is “stinking and covered in feathers.” Later he lives in a flat which was assigned years ago to a refugee who has since left the country. Now the flat is used by any immigrants who need a place to stay under the pretence its legal occupant is still there:

“Sometimes I really wanted to open the curtains, but this wasn’t possible. What would the neighbour’s think if they saw all these men in Zakaiya’s house?”

The Leash and the Ball (its title comes from the habit Samir develops of carrying these items around with him to make it seem like he has a dog and so win instant acceptance from the Dutch) is best seen as a picaresque novel. With its various settings and changing cast of characters, the focus is very much on Samir’s adventures and misadventures. Despite what might be seen as its serious subject matter, his story is told in a humorous, entertaining manner, without ever feeling glib or satirical. Samir as a narrator is both innocent and perceptive, and readers will learn as much about themselves as they do about him.

This World Does Not Belong to Us

August 14, 2022

This World Does Not Belong to Us is the debut novel of Ecuadorian writer Natalia Garcia Freire, originally published in 2019 and now translated by Victor Meadowcroft. The story begins like an eerie western with the arrival of two strangers, Eloy and Felisberto, whom the narrator, Lucas’, father greets like old friends:

“You didn’t seem frightened by those tangled beards, long and filthy, the heavy black clothing, nor by the men’s resemblance to a pair of bison with hollows in place of eyes.”

Lucas is immediately unsettled by the men, as are his mother and the four servants, Esther, Noah, Mara and Sarai – “a wave of fear was passing over all of us” – but the father becomes a “submissive, docile and credulous host” slowly withdrawing from his wife and son. The men repel Lucas, their “great dirty boots splattered mud as they went” and Eloy’s foot “covered in scabs, some of which clung to his sock.” They bring violence with them returning with a dead deer on the first morning, and letting the cows loose on Lucas’ mother’s garden, an incident that affects her fragile mental health. Lucas is increasingly ignored:

“I felt like a stranger, wandering through the house but visible to no-one, Father.”

What the strangers want, or what their relationship is with the father is never clear, an ambiguity which only adds to the sense of menace. Nor is the story told in linear fashion: the arrival of the two men may be the catalyst, but the novel begins with Lucas’ return after his father’s death:

“I’ve come home, but have not yet dared go in. They’re still there.”

While revenge would seem to be the most obvious motive for his return, Freire introduces a further twist by having him declare, when he finds himself in front of Felisberto:

“I wanted to humiliate myself, wanted to kiss his hand, gigantic and hairy, to be his servant, the most loyal in the world, the kind who, upon realising that the one they see is despicable, force themselves to love him even more.”

From the very first page, where he describes his father surrounded by “slugs, camel spiders, earthworms, ants, beetles and woodlice,” we understand that Lucas has an unusual relationship with insects (in fact, with the UK edition, this is made clear from the cover). When his mother is taken away to an asylum, Lucas retreats to a cave where “if you kept very still and quiet, you could see how spiders and scorpions filed out of the cracks.” He soon grows to worshipping the insects, “aware that they were more powerful than I was.” One day Esther finds him and tells him:

“God will lay your lifeless body before the lifeless bodies of your idols.”

The insects do, indeed, represent death (the novel’s original title was Our Dead Skin). When Lucas returns, he is even further removed from the human world, from which he feels he has been expelled as Satan was expelled from Heaven; in the same way, he will create his own kingdom:

“I will have an altar crowned with butterflies and larvae; I’ll forever kiss the beetles, pray before all spiders and march with scorpions, for this house belongs to them.”

In saying this he is saying the house belongs to death, but if we think therefore that he has come to kill Eloy and Felisberto we will be mistaken. Despite the sense of inevitability, Freire succeeds in developing an ending that is not what might suspect.

This World Does Not Belong to Us is a terrifying, nightmarish novel – at one point Lucas wonders if his father has simply trapped them in his own nightmare. It is infused with a sense of dread which embodies itself in the physical present pf the men and then in Lucas himself. As its English title suggests, it reveals to the reader how little we matter, and that life is simply death in waiting.

The Bitch

August 10, 2022

Colombian author Pilar Quintana’s first novel to be translated into English (by Lisa Dillman), The Bitch, opens with a dead dog. Damaris takes one of the orphaned puppies – the only bitch in the litter – from this scene of death, our first indication of the merciless world into which the animal has been born. If we were still uncertain, Damaris worries, as she takes the pup home, how her husband Rogelio will react – “He didn’t like dogs and only kept them so they’d bark and protect the property.” She remembers him slicing off the tail of one of their dogs with a machete when a wound became infected. In contrast, Damaris nurtures the puppy, which she calls Chirli, feeding her bread soaked in milk and carrying her around in her bra.

These small details, as with much in the novel, are more significant than they first appear. Damaris, now is her late thirties, has been married since eighteen but unable to have a child. In that time, she and Rogelio have tried various different Indigenous remedies, but nothing has worked. The failure of the most recent attempt has driven a wedge between them:

“One night, on the pretext he was snoring and keeping her awake, Damaris moved to the other room and never came back.”

‘Chirli’, we discover, was the name Damaris had planned to give to her daughter.

If her childless state continues to be a regret for Damaris, it is not her only one. In a matter-of-fact style Quintana reveals the difficulties of Damaris’ childhood, which begin with her conception, her mother falling pregnant to a soldier who quickly abandons her. She, in turn, abandons the child, as she has to work as a live-in maid to earn money, and Damaris is left with a relative, Tio Eliecer. There she befriends the son of a family who have a holiday home nearby, Nicolasito, but he is killed when he is washed out to sea:

“Damaris tried to stop him, explained that it was dangerous, told him that the rocks were slippery and the sea treacherous.”

Still, she blames herself for his death – and is blamed by Tio Eliecer who lashes her every day until the body is found. We also see here the class distinctions which Quintana subtly illustrates, yet leaves unremarked, throughout the novel. Even Nicolasito’s refusal to head Damaris’ warnings hints at a sense of class superiority. After Nicolasito is washed away, Damaris must make her way through the jungle alone to raise the alarm:

“…a jungle that seemed denser and darker than ever. The treetops above her formed a solid canopy, and the roots below snarled together. Her feet sank into the dead leaves carpeting the ground and got buried in the mud…”

This is the first of a number of terrifying jungle journeys which Quintana will describe, the next being when Chirli goes missing and Damaris goes into the jungle to search for her. If anything, the description is even more disturbing – “Things brushed against her, things that were rough, prickly, hairy…” Living on the edge of jungle insinuates a constant threat into Damaris’ life. Not only that, but years later Damaris now finds herself and Rogelio living as caretakers to the house where Nicolasito lived, and where his room has been preserved:

“Senora Elvira had special-ordered his bed and wardrobe from the best carpenter in town and painted it bright colours herself. The curtains and bedding she’d brought from Bogota: a matching set with Jungle Book motifs. They were a little faded now and had a few holes…”

The Jungle Book reference is ironic as no child can survive in the jungle which is a place of death. One reason Damaris and Rogelio become caretakers is that their predecessor is found shot dead in the jungle (suicide? a hunting accident?), his resting place identified by the vultures gathering above.

Damaris’ relationship with Chirli is at the centre of the novel. Like her relationship with Rogelio, it fluctuates, perhaps even more violently. The dog takes to leaving for days at a time (as does Rogelio who works on a boat) and then returning, filthy and often injured. It has pups of its own, but is not a good mother. The story is told on the surface, but the dog reveals the depths of Damaris’ character. Its complexity is such that the ending is both unexpected and inevitable. In the end it is human nature which The Bitch strips naked and displays.

The Twilight Zone

August 5, 2022

Like her earlier novel, Space Invaders, Nona Fernandez’s The Twilight Zone (also translated by Natasha Wimmer) borrows its title from popular culture and uses it as a starting point to examine the years of dictatorship her home country, Chile, suffered between 1973 and 1990. Its starting point is not the television series of the early sixties, but an article in a magazine in the mid-eighties in which a member of the armed forces confesses to his part in the torture and murder of opponents of the regime:

“His face was on the cover… and over the picture was a headline in white letters: I TORTURED PEOPLE… The man gave a full account of his time as an intelligence agent, from his service as a young conscript in the air force to the moment he went to the magazine to tell his story.”

The narrator – we assume Fernandez herself (she was born in 1971) – reads the story as a teenager; she even comments on the man’s likeness to her science teacher. It is she who is transported “into some parallel reality:”

“A disturbing universe that we sensed lay hidden somewhere out there, beyond the bounds of school and home, where everything obeyed a logic governed by captivity and rats.”

Two further encounters follow: firstly, when she is writing a television show which features a character based on the man; and secondly when she is working on a script for a documentary in which he is interviewed. We begin to understand what she means when she says that, in a dream, she “inherited the man I am imagining,” presumably the same dream about which she asks him in a letter that is entirely made up of questions:

“Will we ever escape this dream? Will we ever emerge and give the world the bad news about what we were capable of doing?”

What is impressive is how Fernandez turns this admittedly dramatic confession and the chance encounters which follow into a novel. She does this using the tools of the novelist, taking the incidents described in the confession and reimagining them, while continuing to tell her own story. For example, she links the morning routine in the household of the first victims she describes to that in her own:

“On the 29 March 1976, at 7.30 am, the same time my son and his father leave the house each day, Jose and Maria Teresa left to take their children to school.”

This domestic scene is transformed when Jose is captured on the bus under the pretence he is being arrested for robbery. His family cannot say what happens next, but “the man who tortured people”, as he is frequently referred to even though his name is known, can, that he was likely “handcuffed, blindfolded, and then shot and killed…”

“…they then cut off his fingers at the first joint to make identification more difficult, and they tied stones to his feet with wire and threw him in the river.”

One of the most affecting stories Fernandez tells is of the Flores brothers – all three are arrested, and all three are eventually released. Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, one of the brothers, Carol, has agreed to work for the intelligence service as long as his brothers are left alone: “The Flores were freed from danger in return for Carol’s soul.” In this way, Fernandez demonstrates the choices which ordinary people faced, and, once again, humanises the individuals who, as she shows at one point, are often little more than a photograph of remembrance.  Yet, despite this, Fernandez avoids the novel becoming simply a collection of painful and upsetting stories. Those stories are there, but surrounded by other elements – not only Fernandez’s own life, but the life of the man who tortured people, who exists in a twilight zone of culpability and redemption, both haunted by his past and a ghost himself:

“That’s how I imagine the man who tortured people: as one of the characters in those books I read as a girl. A man beset by ghosts, by the smell of death.”

The Twilight Zone is not the only touchstone for understanding – in this section (The Ghost Zone) Fernandez also calls on A Christmas Carol. These references work because they also relate to Fernandez’s life as a child and adolescent growing up during the dictatorship. Rather than being simply accusatory, the novel feels like an attempt to understand the experience of those who were tortured and killed, of their loved ones, of the man who tortured people, and of Chile itself. Something of the teenage girl reading the magazine remains in the narrative.

The novel ends with a timeline of the dictatorship written out as free verse with the repeated refrain, “Family members of the disappeared light candles at the cathedral.” But a coda reminds us that at the centre of this is the relationship between the novelist and her informer, and it is this relationship which raises it above its worthiness as a witness to suffering to something very special indeed.

Never Did the Fire

August 1, 2022

That Chilean writer Diamela Eltit is highly regarded was demonstrated in 2007 when writers and critics were asked to choose the 100 best novels in Spanish in the last 25 years, and three of her books were included. At the same time, only three of her novels had ever been translated into English: two of those selected above (The Fourth World and Custody of the Eyes) and Sacred Cow. Now we can add a fourth with Daniel Hahn’s translation of Jamás el fuego nunca, Never Did the Fire. (If you want to read more about the process of the translation you can do so in Hahn’s Catching Fire). Eltit was part of a group of artists which opposed Pinochet’s dictatorship – Colectivo Acciones de Arte (CADA) – and the repercussions of that time continue to feature in her work. The political, however, is deeply interwoven with the personal. As Olivia Casa points, out Eltit’s work often makes “visible the relationship between the personal and the political.”

“In Maipú, from 1980, Eltit carried out a series of actions to this end. She cut and burned her arms and legs in a brothel, read excerpts from her then-unfinished novel Lumpérica (E. Luminata) that narrated her actions, and washed the building’s front steps.”

The narrator of Never Did the Fire is an old woman suffering the repercussions of a life of political opposition under dictatorship. In a setting which could have been lifted from Beckett, her existence now is largely proscribed to the bed she shares with the man who also shares her past – her political activism, a child. They are both entangled with and irritated by each other. He insists on wearing his trousers in bed (a throwback to when a sudden escape might be needed?) which scratch her. He weighs on her like the past:

“At one specific point in the night I felt contaminated by our weight. That moment of the night weighed on me and I knew it was you, I knew it was your weight collapsing on top of the night.”

He is sick and frail: “He’s dying, dying, I thought. We thought it together, said it together, he is dying.” But, as this demonstrates, they are also intrinsically part of each other – “I think or we think,” she tells us, “I don’t know anymore.” Eltit does not leave the horror of ageing in the abstract. The woman works as a carer, cleaning the old and infirm, and this job is described in meticulous detail:

“I squeeze and squeeze the sponge I’ve used to clean her crotch, until I’ve made sure that, down the drain, amid a circle of water, the last remains of the shit that were still left around her genitals is slipping away.”

It feels a long way from the life they were fighting for, and perhaps also represents the kind of unpleasantness that we put out of our minds, as Chile, and other countries who have suffered repression, often do with the past.

If the man and the woman remain together it is because they are united not only by habit but by two betrayals, one political, one personal. In the first, she betrays him, siding with other members of the cell (a word which will be used ambiguously throughout) against him: “I was in agreement with the dominant group… that was the day, the hour, the moment when your defeat was written.” However, there is also personal anguish in their past, a dead child: the question “why didn’t we take him to hospital?” is repeated throughout. Given the way Eltit mixes the personal and political, the physical and the abstract, it not implausible to suggest that the child also represents their political aims, the future they hoped for. This is suggested in the way the word ‘cell’ is used throughout – a body is made up of cells and a cell is made up of bodies:

“…that agility you demanded of the cell which, if it was not up to your expectations, we would have to re-make with other bodies that were hungry and energetic.”

Whatever the exact circumstances (and they become less clear towards the end of the novel as we are offered alternative versions of the child’s death), we know that the woman blames an inability to seek medical help due to the secrecy of the cell. Eltit shows us the political and the personal intersecting to tragic effect here but, rather than suggesting one should trump the other, emphasises that they cannot be separated.

Never Did the Fire is not an easy novel – nor is it meant to be. It challenges the reader – and it sometimes feels like part of that challenge is not looking away. It’s ending may even suggest some hope, but, above all else, what it tells us is that we simply carry on. While the experience of reading it may be far from enjoyable, it is also unforgettable; it burns with life and will burn its way into your memory.