Archive for the ‘Diamela Eltit’ Category

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.

Lost Books – Sacred Cow

August 5, 2018

One writer inevitably leads to another, and when Cristina Rivera Garza was asked what authors she might recommend to readers looking to explore Latin American literature by women, her immediate response was: “Luisa Valenzuela and Diamela Eltit continue to be a must.” Valenzula was known to me but Eltit, from Chile, was not, and a few days later I had acquired a copy of Sacred Cow, written in 1991 and translated by Amanda Hopkinson in 1995 for Serpent’s Tail (one of only four, I think, of her books available in English).

Sacred Cow is a brief, intense novel in keeping with Eltit’s declaration that, “I believe I function in a certain dramatic register, though in truth I have a great tendency and vocation for irony.” Largely written in the first person, it tells of the narrator’s relationship with two men, Manuel and Sergio. Though initially she feels little desire – “I wasn’t too bothered about sex, which seemed to me little more than an excessive if gratifying ritual” – an encounter with Manuel’s estranged wife which leads her to confess details of her previous relationship with Sergio, seems to ignite their passion:

“On heat, overheated, nothing could restrain us.”

The relationship (though not the narrator’s longing) ends when Manuel returns to his home in the South; rumours reach her that he has been detained. (Eltit remained in Chile throughout the Pinochet dictatorship, which only ended in 1990). It is then she renews her relationship with Sergio:

“I forced myself to feel continually seduced since I had to cling to something in order to efface the unleashed perversity of those times.”

Desire, which is a constant theme, is seen as an escape. Sergio’s own back story is one of desire for the teenage Francisca, whom he wants from the first moment he sees her. It is desire rather than fulfilment which is his focus as he spends a year without talking to her:

“After a year of observing her, of possessing her in every way he could imagined, he finally seemed to be moving towards the reality of speech.”

Of their present relationship, the narrator says:

“Sergio was seeking in me an image that he’d held in his head since he was more or less a child… the forgotten Francisca.”

This revelation is further complicated by the fact that the narrator may be Francisca. Her first appearance in the novel – presumably in the present – is lying in bed with her face beaten: notably the narrative moves from first to third person for this chapter. The story of her relationship with Sergio is interrupted with sections of direct speech – Francisca and an older relative – and first person asides (in brackets) describing looking after someone who is ill. Could this be what the narrator later refers to as “the time when my grandmother was dying”?

Sacred Cow, then, is a complex novel to interpret. Though largely eschewing politics, we are at one point faced with the idea that the narrator is participating in some kind of protest:

“There was a crowd of women drawing up the basis of a new constitution. Their thighs were tattooed with symbolic devices. My tattoo burned into the flesh of my thigh. At this fiesta I was initiated as a worker, rejecting the slurs and the bribes they offered me to break the forthcoming strike.”

Later, when she says, “there’s something slippery in me which that stops me taking the workers’ side” it suggests her personal desires overwhelm her political convictions. The tattoos demonstrate Eltit’s powerful use of imagery: the two most common here are blood and birds. Images rather than symbols, their use is difficult to pin down, though blood generally relates to desire and femininity, and birds frequently suggests something ominous – though at one point she says, “the image of my blood became a huge flock of birds,” no doubt to keep the reader guessing.

Sacred Cow is certainly not for the casual reader. Containing many powerful moments it is difficult to draw anything certain from it. Its refusal to be obvious, though, is perhaps its most admirable quality, and one which, in times of dictatorship, can be seen as a political act in itself.