As regular visitors to this blog would know, I enjoy literature which pushes the boundaries, makes me think hard, questions me, and this can be in a number of ways. Format, style, language, art or content, all shaping the work in front of me. I can categorically state that through reading works from the Best Translated Book Award longlists, for the past couple of years, I have come across a number of works which really push the boundaries, some have not been to my liking, however anything which challenges the norm I am more than willing to give it a try.
“Faces in the Crowd” is one such work, a stunning debut by Valeria Luiselli, not your normal novel by any stretch of the imagination, and if you’ve read any reviews or comments on this work, surely you would have heard the “debut” comments, with this year’s Best Translated Book Award judges praising it “for the exceptional promise it demonstrates as a debut novel”. Possibly means my review will be clichéd.
To be 100% honest I don’t know how to review this work, it is written in small bite like chunks and starts with our writer writing. As she works as a Spanish/English translator, she delves into obscure South American writer’s works to find the next Bolano, explains to her husband that what she is writing is fiction, has “the boy” (her son) christen their ghost “Without” and that’s possibly the first 15 pages!!!
I go back to writing the novel whenever I’m not busy with the children. I know I need to generate a structure full of holes so that I can always find a place for myself on the page, inhabit it; I have to remember never to put in more than is necessary, never overlay, never furnish or adorn. Open doors, windows. Raise walls and demolish them.
As a reader you feel implicit in the story unfolding, and as our writer slowly becomes the writer she is translating, or inventing, the novel moves towards his life experiences in the 1930’s. Broken marriages, children, literature, falsehoods and of course ghosts are all to the fore here.
Novels need a sustained breath. That’s what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is – has to be – in short bursts. I’m short of breath.
As our “short bursts” start to form a whole wall that is then demolished in front of us, we begin to see a work of art appearing and disappearing in front of our eyes. An imagined world, an imagined work, deployed in short breaths.
In One Thousand and One Nights the narrator strings together a series of tales to put off the day of her death. Perhaps a similar but reverse mechanism would work for this story, this death. The narrator discovers that while she is stringing the tale, the mesh of her immediate reality wears thin and breaks. The fibre of fiction begins to modify reality and not vice versa, as it should be. Neither of the two can be sacrificed. The only remedy, the only way to save all the planes of the story, is to close one curtain and open another: lower one blind so you can unbutton your blouse: unwrite a story in one file and construct a different plot in another. Change the characters’ names, remember that everything is or should be fiction. Write what really did happen and what did not. At the end of each day’s work, separate paragraphs, copy, paste, save; leave only one of the files open so the husband reads it and sates his curiosity to the full. The novel, the other one, is called Philadelphia.
If you are after your standard narrative structure and a start, middle, end then you should possibly avoid this one, however you are at this blog, so you possibly prefer something which will challenge you, therefore jump at this. Veleria Luiselli, born in Mexico City in 1983 (yes 1983!!!) surely a future star if she can pull off a debut like this and get a publisher to believe in her boundaries and then to have the work translated into English, followed up by a “runners-up” commendation at the Best Translated Book Awards and surely there will be more accolades to follow.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, nor spoil the journey the reader takes whilst being involved with this work, therefore it is a struggle to write a review – maybe I should raise the walls and demolish them???
The prose is lyrical, poetic in places, simple and stripped back to reveal the core of our writer’s journey. Put simply, if you want to try something different, but something that won’t disappoint then give this work a workout.