Posts Tagged ‘Eva Baltasar’

Permafrost

May 23, 2021

Eva Baltasar’s Permafrost (translated by Julia Sanches) is the story of a woman on the edge:

“After a while, you’ll find that the edge gives you room to live, vertical as ever, brushing up against the void.”

The ‘void’ in this case is death; the narrator describes her life as a “cry for death” and frequently contemplates ending it all:

“I used to spend hours peering over the guardrail of the roof terrace.”

In a novel which finds humour in the most unlikely places, suicide is no exception. At one point the narrator claims that “a successful suicide, these days, is heroic,” before raging against safety precautions and “unscrupulous people certified in first aid.” One attempt is stalled by the Perspex cap on the razor’s blades.

Where this despair comes from is never entirely clear, though it is partially rooted in being persuaded against studying art by her parents, something which has become an ever-present regret: she powerfully compares it to an abortion, “the residual sadness of a life unlived.” The narrator is a lesbian, but it is not her sexuality which cause her distress. The novel contains the story of her awakening sexuality which I found both convincing and engaging. She fantasises about her classmates but assumes that this is simply a stage in her development:

“I knew for sure that I would have to mature before I acquired a taste for sex with boys.”

She is, however, highly sexed, even from a young age, masturbating daily, and sex continues to be important to her:

“Sex distances me from death, though it doesn’t bring me closer to life.”

It is closeness, above all, which she finds difficult. The novel cleverly cuts between scenes non-chronologically, so her relationships are not presented as a progression. This puts side by side the fierce passion of physical intimacy with the fear of emotional intimacy. When one girlfriend suggests they get married, she tells her there is another woman even though she is quite happy in the relationship. Lying in this way becomes second nature to her:

“Lies are the ancient logs over which my life glides.”

Despite this she, when asked by her sister, she describes being with a woman in positive and inventive ways. In one she draws on shared memories of watching The Great Escape, where the tunnel comes up short of the woods:

“Being with a woman is like sticking your head out of the tunnel and discovering that you’ve actually dug through these last few metres.”

Her sister provides a contrast from the novel’s beginning – “My sister claims she is happy!” She is married with a child, and announces that another child is on the way during the course of the novel. Her sister appears to be embracing life in the same way the narrator seems to be attempting to escape it: for example, living rent free in her Aunt’s flat, and then (briefly) getting a job as an au pair in Scotland. These decisions seem designed to avoid permanence, just as she rejects relationships when they threaten to put down roots. The is the permafrost she refers to, a hopelessness which causes her to discount anything which looks towards the future. Only occasionally does she feel any hope at all:

“Doubt: the rift through which the world’s heat slips in, in a brazen violation of the permafrost.”

The narrator’s path seems set, but the novel takes an unexpected turn when her sister’s daughter, Claudia, becomes blind and the narrator spends time with her in hospital. Whether it is because she is a child or because she cannot see her, she feels “she is the only person I can be honest with.” This does not alter the fact, however, that “as soon as Claudia gets her sight back, I’m done.”

Permafrost has one final twist before the end, but this is a novel to be read for character rather than plot. It’s a novel which makes you consider the different lives women might live, how they are perceived from the outside, and how it feels to live them. It’s filled with a fierce destructive energy. It takes no prisoners. It’s unexpectedly warm.