Just as Mathias Enard’s Zone was eligible for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize despite having been published in the US in 2010, so Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd has made it onto the Best Translated Book Award shortlist on the strength of its US publication date though its first appearance in English was in 2012 thanks to Granta and translator Christian MacSweeney. It may be a short novel, but it tells a number of stories which come to inhabit each other in the process of the telling.
It begins with two narratives from the author’s life running parallel: one from her past recounting her life in New York working for a publisher; the other set in her present, now married, with two small children to look after, and attempting to write the novel we are reading. In the latter she focuses on the difficulties of finding time and space:
“A silent novel, so as not to wake the children.”
“Novels,” she argues, “need a sustained breath.” Her children, she says, don’t let her breath: “Everything I write is – has to be – in short bursts. I’m short of breath.” This is exactly the format the novel takes with short sections, rarely over a page, moving from one narrative to the other or presenting sequential scenes. The apparently autobiographical nature of the writing is also challenged in the present day commentary, particularly via the husband’s questions:
“My husband is angry. Through my own carelessness, he’s read some more of these pages. He asks how much is fiction and how much fact.”
The fictionalising of facts is also at the centre of the New York narrative as the author attempts to interest the publisher, White, in the minor Mexican poet Gilberto Owen by linking him to one of White’s favourite poets, Joseph Zvorsky:
“White had an affinity for Zvorsky…it occurred to me that this could be my means of convincing White about the importance of Gilberto Owen.”
She tells White that she has discovered translations of Owen’s poems by Zvorsky: “It was the most unlikely of all possible lies about Owen, and White never believed it, but he decided to go along with me.” Owen becomes an ever more prominent character in the novel, firstly through the author’s post-it notes of her research, and then when he becomes a further voice in the first person narrative. We know, however, that parts of the life Luiselli gives Owen are fictional – including his friendships with not only Zvorsky but Federico Garcia Lorca (based entirely on their proximity at the time).
Luiselli’s intention is not simply to tell these stories but to convince us that they co-exist. The origin of the novel’s title lies in Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
We are told that the poem was inspired by Pound glimpsing the face of dead friend in the crowd at a Metro station. This leads to Luiselli using both ghosts and the subway as recurring motifs throughout the novel. The author tells her son she is writing a “ghost story” and later describes herself as a “literary ghostwriter.” Owen is later called a ghost by a blind man he meets:
“You’re a ghost, Mr Owen, isn’t that so?”
He goes on to say he knows because he can see him. The author herself is greeted in New York with the question, “Are you the ghost that lives up here?” and, in the present, her son regards their apartment as haunted. This talk of ghosts is literary rather than supernatural, though:
“I once read in a book by Saul Below that the difference between being alive and being dead is just a matter of viewpoint.”
Ghosts are characters drawn from the past, but also those fading from their present: obscure poets, struggling authors. The subway becomes a reservoir of ghosts, an underworld of the dead hoping to return to the surface. Owen sees both Pound and the author on his travels there:
“The woman appeared most often in those moments when two trains on parallel tracks are travelling at almost the same speed for a few instants and you can see other people go past as if you were watching the frames of a celluloid reel.”
As the novel nears its end the author becomes more and more isolated, as if she were less and less present in the world as Owen’s character grows stronger. The novel’s conclusion seems created by the novel’s conclusion.
Faces in the Crowd manages to be both serious and playful (surely the decision to feature an obscure poet is a nod towards Bolano, who is also name-checked in the novel). It announces the presence of a fascinating new writer. Luckily, those of us in the UK don’t have to wait to see what she will do next: her second novel, The Story of my Teeth, has just been published.