Custody of the Eyes – Diamela Eltit (translated by Helen Lane & Ronald Christ)

There is a scholarly body of work that explores Daimela Eltit’s work, and I feel humbled, and a little under pressure, when attempting to add anything to revelations about her writing.

I have seen her work classified as “experimental fiction” in a number of places, “risk taking”, even “highly experimental”, so how do you review such writing? Let’s start with an excerpt from “Custody of the Eyes” (translated by Helen Lane & Ronald Christ);
Mama and I are always together in the house. We love each other sometimes in tremendous harmony. Harmony. I look at Mama to relieve my hunger. Mama’s tom-tom heart wants to write some crappy pages (a piece of arm, breast, a tooth, my shoulder/ I can’t stop myself now, I can’t hold back/ fingernail, shoulder, it’s really consistent/ my hand, my finger/ it doesn’t hurt me/it hasn’t hurt me for years/ it’s not true that it hurts/ a throb in the eyelid). She only thinks it, doesn’t write it. Mama and I are together in the house in every sense. I exist only in a pile of papers.
This is taken from the opening section of the book, “BAAAM”, narrated by a child who is holed up in a tiny room with his mother. The second section, “Dusk to Dawn”, is a collection of letters, written by the child’s mother to the father of the unnamed child, this makes up the substantial part of the book. The final section, “BRRRR”, is again narrated by the child,
As a reader you only see one side of the letter writing, although you get a sense of response and time movement as the “issues” being addressed or defended cumulate. The child’s school expulsion, wild horselaugh, and play are early subjects along with the bitter cold and the search for food. As the isolation deepens, the homeless who freeze on the doorstep, the constant surveillance (from the father letter writer, the neighbours, the mother-in-law) becomes clearer;
The real conflict we face rests with the neighbors and their conglomeration of intolerances. Now, thanks to them, the city I travel through, in a few hours and out of necessity, seems to me an unreal space, a place open onto the operatic, the theatrical. A Remnant of such proportions that I can predict its imminent liberation into anarchy. This upheaval is wholly attributable to the neighbors. They try to establish laws whose origin nobody knows for sure, though it’s obvious they contrive this attack solely to increase the goods accumulating in their houses. But I caution you with express clarity that these laws are debated in the midst of indescribable conformity and allude to such abuses that I can’t tell whether or not they occur only in their minds. I feel that the neighbors want to perform a theater piece in which the role of enemy is awarded to those citizens who don’t submit to the extreme rigidity of their statutes.
A highly political work, full of metaphor and symbolism, referring to the political situation under the dictatorship of Pinochet. Sheltering the homeless is considered a crime, collusion with the proletariat a sin, the homeless [are] a threat to civil order, [they] “destroy the order respectable people have taken to build up.” The eyes, surveillance (not only featured in the title) are constantly reappearing;
Ah, listen: in the streets they’ve set up the government for the section forbidden to the people. My neighbor goes through the forbidden section of the streets and, at this very moment, I observe him from my window. He approaches, limping in the midst of this relative darkness. The darkness that envelopes him seems only to outline the marked shape of his deformity. My neighbor observes the movement on the streets stealthily, hidden, as if he had seen more than his eyes can resist. Then he withdraws and closes his eyes for a long time.
As pointed out in numerous other reviews and studies, Diamela Eltit’s works are not only political but also feminist, exploring the role of the mother in a patriarchal society, the Chilean military patriarchy and the mother being the core of social advancement, development.
But your intention has been to deprive me of all that’s mine, leaving your orders deposited in my blind brain.
There is nothing secret about my passing through the city. I go and come according to material necessities essential to caring for your son.
You tell me that I’ve placed myself outside the law and what you don’t tell me is that you’ve placed me within reach of your law. You say, as well, that after the unacceptable incidents I have been involved in, your son and I are already talking the filthy language of the streets and the neighbors have reached the conclusion that we waste the whole day and night.
The placement of the child’s narration at the end of the novel shows his advancement, taking the role of “carer”, the passing of the baton from the mother to the child, and with no spoilers, you’ll have to read this yourself to see if they defeat the bitter cold.
The work touches on so many subjects, experimental of course commenting on the art of writing, or maybe the futility of such;
Only writing can endure, since voices and their sounds, inevitably, empty into silence and can be easily stilled, misinterpreted, omitted, forgotten. I write you now solely to forestall the shame that some day could lead me into shielding myself with silence.
In an interview with Bomb Magazine in 2001 Diamela Eltit spoke of “space” in her works, this novel exploring restricted space, a small room, and the freedom of the streets, even if just searching for food,
I find it aesthetically and politically stimulating to work, think, and exist mentally in spaces that are, in a manner of speaking, not “officialized” by the dominant culture. Of course I am thinking of movable places that shift, mutate, and revert back to themselves. In general, official culture softens artistic production and creates a domesticated subject, a sensible literature, and a well-mannered intellectual who functions successfully and comfortably—but whose success is necessarily anodyne—within the dominant system of the moment. In my case, there is a kind of “un-positioning” that is not really part of a deliberate program but which comes about little by little; it is a torsion or distortion that impedes the literature that I frequent from becoming normalized or centralized.
A very interesting and enlightening interview that will give you a feel for Diamela Eltit’s work. More here

A challenging work, one where the language slowly seeps into you, the repetitive prose poetry style that is bursting with metaphor and imagery, you slowly become “in custody” yourself, locked into the world where the matriarchy is responsible for your survival. Difficult? Yes. But another revelation from Chile, and a book that works on so many levels, one that will surely haunt me for a while to come.

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