Archive for the ‘Selva Almada’ Category

Dead Girls

September 6, 2020

“As a girl I sensed that there wasn’t really anywhere I was safe,” Selva Almada tells us in her introduction to Dead Girls, her second book from Charco Press, translated, on this occasion, by Annie McDermott. Dead Girls is not a novel; instead it is part investigation, part memoir, as Almada explores the deep-rooted, misogynistic violence of her home country, focusing in particular of the nineteen eighties. Each of the girl’s stories is unique, yet all are killed suddenly, inexplicably:

“I didn’t know a woman could be killed for being a woman.”

The youngest victim, Maria Luisa Quevedo, is only fifteen. As with all the girls, her adult life started early, and she was working as a servant, starting around seven and finishing at three. On one particular day, presumably the last in her short life, she leaves work and is never seen alive again:

“Neither witnesses nor the police investigation could ever determine what happened or where the girl was between three o’clock on Thursday December 8th, 1983, when she left work, and the morning of Sunday the 11th, when her body was found.”

Sarita Mundin is twenty when she is murdered in 1988. As with Maria, her childhood ended prematurely; she, too, worked as a cleaner from a young age, and was married and pregnant at sixteen:

“She was too pretty for her husband to send out as a maid again, all that beauty going to waste in a haze of cleaning products. So he sent her out as a prostitute.”

She now lives in a house paid for by her married lover, Dady Olivero, with her son, fourteen-year-old (pregnant) sister, and mother. The rumour is that “her relationship with this man, more than ten years her senior and with a family of his own, was petering out.” He is the last person to be seen with her, and later the prime suspect in her murder.

Andrea Danne is perhaps the strangest case of all. There is no disappearance: she is simply found dead one morning, stabbed in her bed, though this doesn’t stop the scene quickly becoming crowded:

“A murder in the privacy of a family home which had the same exposure as a death by the roadside.”

Her sister immediate suspects Andrea’s boyfriend – not for any reason other than the man closest to her being the most likely culprit – but his reaction at the sight of her body persuades her otherwise.

Almada’s aim is not to solve these murders, not one of which led to a conviction, but to understand the pattern. She uses the skills of an investigative journalist – reading the police reports, speaking to the relatives – but also those of a novelist, in recreating their stories and rescuing them from anonymity. At one point she describes her task as follows:

“Maybe this is your mission: to gather the bones of these girls, piece them together, give them a voice and let them run, free and unfettered, wherever they have to go.”

As well investigating the deaths of the three girls, Almada also looks back on her own life, and in particular, her childhood and adolescence in the 1980s. In this way there are two streams of discovery: that of the adult Almada today writing her book; and that of the teenage Almada slowly discovering what the world can be like for women:

“I don’t remember a specific conversation about violence against women, or any particular warnings from my mother on the subject. But the topic was always there.”

She includes stories of relatives who have been threatened or assaulted by men, and her own experience of vulnerability when hitch-hiking. All this makes for a depressing portrait of a society where violence against women is normalised, by women as well as men, “discussing situations like these in whispers.” Not only does Almada eschew easy answers, she does not seek answers at all. The crimes remains unsolved, and so too the origins of violence – sociological, psychological – remain unexplored. Almada’s focus remains entirely on the victims – whether they died, survived or resisted. This gives the book a powerful emotional punch, though one that may make some readers flinch. Much like Yuri Herrera’s A Silent Fury, Dead Girls gives a voice to the voiceless, and, similarly, we should be careful not to dismiss its injustice as belonging entirely to a different time or place: teenage girls may not be routinely murdered but the threat of male violence remains. Almada’s book is as much a warning as a reminder.

The Wind That Lays Waste

July 3, 2019

Selva Almada’s debut novel, The Wind That Lays Waste, now translated by Chris Andrews, could be described as dramatic in its intensity if that word had not become corrupted with connotations beyond its reference to the stage. With its affordable cast of four characters (each as important as any other), its single setting, and the action taking place over a few hours, it would be easily experienced in a theatre. Of course, the thunderstorm towards which the action builds might lack the three dimensions of the imagination, and moments of back story would have to be redeployed, but the novel’s greatest strengths would remain intact: the constricted, at times claustrophobic, setting which enhances themes of freedom and escape, the dialogue full with nuance and depth, and the shifting slow burn of character development.

The idea that those characters will come to reflect on the directions their lives are taking is immediately created by the artificial pause in the literal journey of two of them, the Reverend Pearson and his teenage daughter, Elena, when their car breaks down and they are forced to stop for repairs. The mechanic, Gringo Brauer, also has the care of a teenage child, his assistant, nicknamed Tapioca. This is the first of a number of ways in which the men mirror each other. Tapioca is left with the mechanic aged nine by a woman who claims Brauer is the father:

“Tapioca nodded, still watching the truck, which had climbed up into the road now, with his mother inside, taking her away forever.”

A similar scene is repeated in reverse when Pearson drives off with Elena leaving her mother behind:

“Leni’s last image of her mother is from the rear window of the car…. Her mother is left standing there, beside the suitcase. She covers her face with her hands. She’s crying.”

This immediately marks the two men, and the two teenagers, as both similar and different. In the Reverend’s case, it is his religion which most separates him from Brauer, as seen to comic effect when he begins to say grace before a meal they are about to share together:

“‘Let us give thanks,’ said the Reverend.
Tapioca and the Gringo froze, their food-laden forks halfway between plate and mouth.”

Brauer is quietly dismissive of Pearson’s views:

“We make our own destinies, that’s what I believe. We know why we do what we do.”

As Pearson attempts to convert Tapioca, however, he grows irritated:

“I know him like the palm of my hand. And believe me, he doesn’t need any Jesus Christ. And he doesn’t need some John the Baptist like you to come along with your snake-oil spiel and tell him about the end of the world and all that crap.”

Religion is also coming between Pearson and his daughter:

“‘Ah, my girl, Jesus has blessed me,’ he said and patted her on the cheek.
This meant that he was very glad to have her with him, thought Leni, but he could never say it straight out: he always had to get Jesus in there, between them.”

Almada clearly conveys her love for her father, but one tempered with resentment:

“Her childhood was very recent, but her memory of it was empty. Thanks to her father, the Reverend Pearson, and his holy mission, all she could remember was the inside of the same old car, crummy rooms in hundreds of indistinguishable hotels, the features of dozens of children she never spent long enough with to miss when the time came to move on, and a mother whose face she could hardly recall.”

Later she says she has never seen a photograph of herself as a little girl. While Tapioca’s life appears to be one of stasis and Leni’s one of movement, it feels static to her. Her only escape is to listen to music on her Walkman (she has promised her father only to play religious music in order to be allowed this one expression of individuality).

Things come to a head when Pearson insists that Tapioca should go with him, telling Brauer, “You don’t realise how special that boy is; there’s a treasure in him… You have no idea of the destiny awaiting that boy.” In this there are echoes of his own childhood, when he was taken by his mother, who was not a particularly religious woman, to be baptised by a preacher. Though he has since converted others, he believes the boy to be exceptional in his innocence.

However, this is not really a novel about religion, but about relationships: the longstanding relationships between the fathers and their children, and the new relationships developing in this moment, with the potential to change lives. It is beautifully judged and entirely free of cliché. As the characters grow closer, in that way we can believe we know others after only a few hours together, so too the reader comes to feel their presence in the room, as if they might look up and find them there.