Archive for the ‘Ariana Harwicz’ Category


May 27, 2022

When Charco press launched in 2017 one of its first books was Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love, the opening volume of what the author has termed an ‘involuntary trilogy’. Its focus was the narrator’s often unhappy relationship with her baby. Her husband was a distant figure as she came to terms (or didn’t) with being a mother, her anger alternating with waves of desire directed at a neighbour. In the second book, Feebleminded, that desire takes centre stage – “Degenerate desire. Damaging desire. Demented desire.” It is similarly focused on a man she cannot possess, a married man who will not leave his wife. Now, in the final volume, Tender (again translated by Annie McDermott and Caroline Orloff), we return to the mother / child relationship as the narrator is torn once again between love and desire.

Her son is older, perhaps bordering on adolescence:

“But he’s grown too big, too long, he’s outstripping me.”

“The weight of his head,” she tells us, is “my first indication he’s become a man.” Despite this physical closeness, we quickly realise the narrator struggles to embrace the role of mother: in an early episode she is caught shoplifting with her son; they wake up and there’s no food in the house; a social worker has to be told he is ill to explain why he isn’t at school. He is her “little ray of sunshine” but at the same time:

“The son doesn’t make me happy, the son doesn’t fill me. I feel like a hair in a bottle of alcohol, adrift alive and dead.”

Her love for him must compete with her sexual desire, “an erection to get me through, through the Sunday, through the chores, through the chit-chat…” In one scene she follows a man in her car with her son in the back. When he stops she gets into his car:

“At no point did I remember him asleep in the back with the handbrake off.”

Only the man’s quick action saves her son’s life. Her behaviour might be described as that of an addict (at one point she says she would make a good junkie), but in her own mind she is simply too young to be ‘only’ a mother:

“…not old enough yet to crash and burn, too young to be a mole living under the pipes or spend my days picking parasites off leaves.”

The narrator lives in the countryside and animals feature throughout the novel, almost interchangeable with the characters suggesting there is something feral about the lives of the mother and child. They see a rabbit “bounding, flying, soaring before us” – it refuses the safety of the woods:

“We watched her take on the cars and escape unscathed, defying the law of the jungle.”

If we sense this is how the narrator sees herself, we can also infer the criticism implied when she talks of “cats abandoned by holidaying families.” These precarious roadside animals emphasise the narrator’s rootless existence, just as the numerous car journeys highlight her restless nature. Increasingly isolated, mother and child inhabit a nightmare landscape, “pastures of pesticides and hormones”, a landscape of deliberate harm and abandonment:

“On either side we see grimy waterlogged handbags, tin cans, dresses and summer hats floating down the stream. Sacrifices, discarded lives.”

They are furthermore trapped within their bodies. The narrator talks of her “swollen brain”, her son’s “mammal mouth”. This is perhaps best emphasised in a physical collapse caused by, in the words of the doctors, “damage from various incidents”:

“At the mercy of an artery, a spasm, a bone.”

More and more withdrawn from society, they are like criminals on the run – but what they are running from is never clear. The narrator worries for her son without her and with her; she tries to leave him behind yet is lost without him.

This is not simply a ‘bad mother’ novel however – for a start, the viewpoint is always the mother’s, never the child’s, and the mother is entirely aware of her flaws. It is driven by Harwicz’s fierce prose which punches from the page taking no prisoners. It confronts the reader with uncomfortable questions as we are brought face to face with a life lived with the chaotic power of unfiltered emotions, an animal freedom which is frightening in its intensity. Just like the narrator herself, it does not ask for our approval or condemnation.


May 1, 2019

Ariana Harwicz’s Feebleminded, the second in an “involuntary trilogy” of novels which began with Die, My Love, and will be completed by Precocious (already available in Spanish), tells a story we have heard many times before: a young woman falls in love with a married man but, whatever the strength of her feelings, he will not leave his wife. What marks Feebleminded out from previous versions of this staple drama is the way it is told (and also, it had to be said, the role of the young woman’s mother, mother and daughter relationships forming the basis of the trilogy). If Die, My Love pushed the boundaries of what we might expect in the description of Harwicz’s characters’ internal turmoil, Feebleminded has simply left the boundaries behind.

Harwicz’s central focus is her narrator’s desire: “Degenerate desire. Damaging desire. Demented desire.” This desire is so overpowering it impairs her faculties, diminishes her ability to reason, leaving her ‘feebleminded’:

“This epileptic desire, this deformed desire, a drooling lustful crip who needs two people to lift him and carry him so he can fuck on the soft mattress.”

When her lover speaks to her after sex the narrator listens “with the reverential astonishment of a feebleminded woman”, and, later, she says, “I lose everything from the neck up.” Like Sylvia Plath describing her emotional pain in terms of the Holocaust, Harwicz is unafraid to offend in pinpointing her character’s delirium. Desire is the only thing which can lift the narrator out of her dull existence:

“I quiver, I shake, my fingers are my morphine and for that brief moment everything’s fine.”

Without it she has, and perhaps is, nothing:

“A whole life spent in the gloom of a shop, the iron keyring, the fuse box, the stairs to the storeroom. The tiny bathroom. The cleaning products and polishing the shelves. A whole life.”

This is not to say she is unaware of the danger – the way in which the rawness of her feelings exposes her – and Harwicz frequently uses knife imagery to convey this point, both to describe her lover’s approach (“And kissing was a steady advance, knife raised”) and his departure (“He’s getting further away and it feels like a knife thrust in my gut”), as if to emphasise that she cannot win. Something similar exists in her relationship with her mother, with whom she talks about the “knife experiment” at one point:

“You have to test your impulses: take the knife by the handle, bring it slowly towards her chest and see for yourself that you won’t really stick it in. What a weird method, right mum? I was this close to slicing you open.”

We are given the impression that her mother (no father is mentioned; it is a household of women) has little time for her as a child (“Like when mum and grandma couldn’t find me at the campsite and I had to spend all night sleeping among the lambs”) and is relieved when she reaches puberty:

“Mum delighted when my back’s finally strapped by my very first bra and already I’m talking dirty.”

Later, her mother will show a prurient interest in the narrator’s sex life (“Surprised your mother slept around too?”) just as then narrator will think about her own conception:

“I think about my mum’s sex and the man’s screwed together, turning me into a little girl. I think about our hairy sexes inventing sons and daughters.”

Both mother and daughter are frequently portrayed as animalistic:

“Mum will be feeding on pants, munching them down one by one, her mouth never empty.”

Animals are scattered throughout the narrative, and the two characters are often (together and alone) in the woods. Early on we are told:

“We’re both in heat from the scalp down, two abandoned sows.”

All in all, Feebleminded sounds like a novel that’s ‘not for everyone’, yet many – perhaps most – will have experienced the madness of desire, and, if you haven’t, it is clearly an aspect of the human condition which should not be ignored. If that is not enough to convince you, then the novel is worth reading for the language alone, thanks in part to the incredible work of translators Annie McDermott and Caroline Orloff. Take, for example:

“The sixty minutes before I see him are beautifully sordid, like diving head-first into a ravine.”


“Falling in love is the downpour under an electrified roof.”

In fact, line after line bursts from the page in vivid, complex, terrifying images. The final volume cannot come soon enough.

Die, My Love

August 30, 2017

I was lucky enough to attend the Edinburgh launch of Charco Press, a new publisher of Latin American fiction which is based in the city. (Charco is apparently Spanish for puddle, so Scotland would seem to be the ideal location). The authors of its two launch publications, Ariana Harwicz (Die, My Love), and Gabriela Cabezon Camara (Slum Virgin), were both in attendance, as was co-founder and translator Carolina Orloff; the enthusiasm of all three (and of hosts, Golden Hare Books) was wonderful to behold, and I began reading Die, My Love (translated by Carolina and Sarah Moses) on the train home.

Die, My Love is a fierce, unsettling novel about motherhood and marriage. Its Argentinian author, Harwicz, spoke of writing the book while living in France with her husband and first child, explaining to some extent the sense of foreignness and isolation of the narrator. Further blurring the boundaries between fiction and autobiography, she confessed that when she began she did not know that she was writing a novel. The novel’s searing honesty is quickly apparent as the narrator considers the need to acquire a cake for her son’s six-month ‘birthday’:

“Whenever I look at him I think of my husband behind me, about to ejaculate on my back, but instead suddenly turning me over and coming inside me. If this hadn’t happened, if I’d closed my legs, if I’d grabbed his dick, I wouldn’t have to go to the bakery for cream cake or chocolate cake and candles, half a year already.”

Her husband remains a distant figure in the novel. His love of the night sky might suggest he is looking in the wrong direction, particularly as his wife remains uninterested in the meteorites he watches through his telescope, thinking only that she’d like to be on “any mission to outer space.” She fails to share his love of the outdoors:

“Personally, I don’t give a damn if I’m under the open sky or shut up in a trunk.”

His distance, though, is also a reflection of her own isolation: in the opening pages it is she who keeps herself apart from her husband and son, and throughout the novel she will frequently retreat to the woods. Her husband’s patience magnifies her own inadequacies:

“The most aggressive thing he’d said to me in seven years was ‘Go and get yourself checked out.’ I’d said to him ‘You’re a dead man’ during the first month of our relationship.”

Harwicz captures the constant anxiety which can accompany having a child. In the narrator’s earliest memory after giving birth she is “afraid of the harm she could cause the newborn.” She frequently thinks she hears her child crying only to find him lying silently – this too, of course, causing worry:

“Why does he sleep so much? Why doesn’t he stir?”

The novel’s honesty also extends to the narrator’s sex life, and the waves of desire which come over her. She becomes fixated on a neighbour, at one point writing in his voice (“Now I’m speaking as him”):

“I think about her and heave with desire.”

She haunts his home, where he stays with his wife and daughter, her sexual fantasies (“Such delicious luxury to have a man pressing on my guts”) finally fulfilled, though such is the intensity of the narrative that this is only the likeliest possibility rather than a certainty. Animal imagery describes their coupling:

“In one feline motion, I turn over and climb on top of him.”

It’s not uncommon for the narrator to compare herself to an animal, and real animals also occur again and again the narrative. The couple’s car hitting a stag is one example, a brief instance where the underlying violence of the voice punches through. (The stag survives and will be seen again by the narrator – “The stag used to appear at nightfall and linger between the woods and the garden” – inhabiting the same borderline between domesticity and wildness as she does.) Their dog is injured in the accident, and the narrator’s inability to cope with it whimpering in pain (she asks her husband to kill it) seems to echo her response to her child.

Die, My Love is a powerful exploration of the rage and loneliness which can accompany motherhood. Such feelings may not be universal (though many of her thoughts will have occurred to some in diluted form) but neither is it unique. The novel also questions the direction and purpose of relationships, and our roles within them, the narrator’s faltering marriage set against the marriage of her in-laws. It does all this in wild phrases which bite and cut at the consciousness of the reader: Harwicz spoke of a realist novel where the fantastic element lies in the language. Harwicz also said that writing a novel is a matter of life and death, and that is certainly how this novel feels.