Posts Tagged ‘margrita garcia robayo’

Holiday Heart

July 3, 2020

The title of Margarita Garcia Robayo’s novel, Holiday Heart, her second release in English translated by Charlotte Coombe after the stories of Fish Soup, is not that of the original Spanish (Tiempo Muerto – Dead Time), but it is the title Robayo wanted. Its apparent light-heartedness provides an ironic contrast both with its meaning (it is used to describe a heart disease which afflicts those who over-indulge on holiday) and the novel’s exposure of a marriage in crisis. It is also used in the novel in the sense of the heart being on holiday, that is, absent, a metaphor that might apply to both of its main characters, Pablo and Lucia.

Pablo and Lucia have been married for nineteen years, and it is soon clear that, over that time, they have drifted apart. As Lucia thinks to herself:

“The really bizarre thing is to look at the other person and wonder who they are, what they’re doing there next to you, when it was that their facial features changed so much.”

Pablo sees the origin of this slow separation with the birth of their children, the twins Tomas and Rosa:

“You excluded me from the pregnancy like a cat with toxoplasmosis.”

He describes his wife as the most intelligent person he knows, and goes onto say:

“Before giving birth, she’d been both the most intelligent and the kindest person he knew.”

This has increasingly driven Pablo into the arms of other women. The novel sees him drunkenly fuck a neighbour, Elisa, at a barbecue (“Did he like Elisa? Not in the slightest.”) before falling down in the street. The students he teaches have written a letter of complaint about his teaching, attendance and personal hygiene. And the novel he has been writing for two years has yet to elicit a positive response from anyone.

“He felt lost and he felt old. A sad old man.”

He has developed a friendship with one of his students, Kelly Jane, who he tells anyone who will listen, he has ‘not touched’, as if that will provide redemption for his other actions. This friendship simply seems to be a safe, undemanding space for him:

“The time he spent with Kelly Jane was comfortable.”

The novel is written in an anarchic, non-chronological style, juxtaposing events before and after Pablo’s heart problems, in a way that initially makes the reader sympathetic towards Lucia, though it soon becomes clear that she, too, has her faults. She has little patience with anyone, including her two children:

“After giving birth she morphed into a person with two increasingly heavy appendages.”

She is both reliant on her parents’ maid, Cindy, to look after them, and resentful:

“Cindy seems hell-bent on subjecting her children to a frenzy of non-stop, noisy vulgarity.”

We discover that she writes a column for Elle in which she describes her family life, featuring increasingly unflattering pictures of Pablo (“Pablo was deeply hurt by it, treating it as the height of injustice”). Whereas Pablo acts out his frustrations, Lucia contains them:

“She goes to such great lengths not to show her family what she is really thinking that it exhausts her.”

Holiday Heart, however, is about more than a disintegrating marriage. Robayo also tackles issues of nationality, immigration and race. Though Pablo and Lucia live in America, Pablo stills holds onto his Chilean nationality. Lucia on the other hand, when the children ask her where she is from, replies, “From here, from our house.”

“Lucia was transplanted like a tree never given time to put down any roots.”

The complexity of this issue is reflected in comments by the children: Rosa asking, “Why don’t Venezuelans live in Venezuela?” and Tomas declaring on the beach, “I don’t like black people.” Both Pablo and Lucia have their own forms of racism. When Pablo’s boss comes over to tell him he’s fired he thinks to himself, “Born Latino, but gringo to the core,” going on to assert:

“Being brown isn’t an advantage… Being black gets you further.”

Meanwhile, when Lucia first meets American sports star David Rodriguez, she is dismissive of his inability to understand Spanish (“Third generation Dominicans in the United States”). Back in his hotel room, she thinks of him as a “black pig”, but when he rapes her it’s unclear if this narrative stereotyping is an ironic commentary on her own stereotyping.

Holiday Heart, like Fish Soup, can be uncomfortable reading at times, not only for the queasy racism on show, but in the way it more generally fillets Pablo and Lucia’s lives, exposing their often unprincipled, excuse-ridden existence. There is often some dark humour in this, though that may well depend on how close it hits to home. What is not in doubt is that it once again demonstrates that Robayo is a fearless writer who refuses to look away.

Fish Soup

June 11, 2018

Fish Soup, the Columbian writer Margarita Garcia Robayo’s first appearance in English, is a pungent blend of two novellas and a collection of short stories beautifully translated by Charlotte Coombe. As the title suggests, ‘beauty’ may not be the first word readers reach for when her work is discussed; instead her stories are more likely to attract adjectives such as ‘honest’ (the characters are poor) and ‘raw’ (the characters have sex). Hers is a poetry of exhaustion and desire, in which characters cling to each other but do not love.

The first novella, ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’, is full of tired, desperate hope, its narrator dreaming only of escape:

“At first you hope everything you’re waiting for will arrive one day on a boat; then you realise nothing’s going to arrive and you’ll have to go looking for it instead.”

Even her sex life is predicated on escape. Her attraction to local fisherman Gustavo stems not only from her first encounter with him as a young girl (“he stroked me down there”) but the possibility that he might be Italian and his stories of travel:

“That’s why I left. First to Peru then to Ecuador and so on up, until I reached the Caribbean, where you turn left to carry on north.”

Making love to her first boyfriend, Tony, she imagines “he was Gustavo and we were in Venice.” As they have sex on the beach she stares at the sky, eventually she becomes an air hostess in her dream of escape:

“Tony had a lot of ideas about air hostesses, but I had just one: air hostesses could leave.”

Air hostesses also come back, however, “doomed to come and go, come and go, and that was the same as never leaving.” Her attempts to scam US residency, sleeping with the Captain in the hope of becoming pregnant, are fruitless (he’s sterile). The story is suffused with sad reminders of her failure, from her picture of a possible life with Tony (“we’ll always be here, waiting for a hurricane to come”) to a letter from a long lost friend: “She presumed I had probably moved.”

Robayo’s characters are always tired and often sick, yet they rarely give up without a fight. Ines, in ‘Like a Pariah’, dying of cancer, telling her son she’s “perfectly alright,” neglecting her regime of vitamins and exercises in favour of alcohol and parties. Titi in ‘Worse Things’, his obesity “progressive and, by that point, uncontrollable,” escapes his room and lies gazing up at the clouds. The violent dreams of Aldo Villafora in ‘Fish Soup’, show him raging against the dying of the light. Often sex is used as an anchor to life, complex and uncertain, rarely loving.

Ines finds herself drunk and molested:

“Leonardo plunged his fingers in and out as if he were unclogging a drain: he jerked himself off with his other hand.”

In Villafora’s dreams his wife is “violently penetrated” by a sailor, “lost in an expression of pleasure that Villafora had never seen her make.” In ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ the narrator returns again and again to the man who abused her as a child. Robayo seems determined to challenge our views of sex, its use and abuse. ‘Something We Never Were’ sets out directly to explore the limits and limitations of a relationship:

“When Salvador asked Eileen to be his girlfriend, she said no. She was having none of that boyfriend and girlfriend crap; what she was interested in was questioning certain paradigms.”

The second novella, ‘Sexual Education’, explores its topic through the eyes of adolescents, contrasting the education they receive in their Catholic girls’ school with their experience outside. The story focuses not on their relationships with boys, but on how these affect relationships among themselves. It’s also the funniest story in the book: for their teacher’s outlining of the dangers of desire (“In girls, just like in other fauna, moisture attracts all sorts of nasties”); for its unerotic descriptions of sex (“…she pushed Mauricio’s head down and he went under her skirt and held her thighs open with his hands. I could hear what sounded like a dog licking something.”); and for the girl who believes the Virgin talks to her (and tells her anal sex is allowed).

Fish Soup is invigorating, animating, and possibly emetic. It reeks of despair but leaves an after-taste of hope, as fresh and as old as the sea. Charco Press continues to deliver the writers we need.