Camanchaca – Diego Zúñiga (translated by Megan McDowell)


An even shorter review today, for an even shorter book…

Today I take a short break from the 2017 Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury duties and visit a recent release from Chile. Yesterday I reviewed the 2017 MBIP longlisted novel “Fever Dream” by Samanta Schweblin, a novel translated by Megan McDowell so let’s keep the translator theme going by looking at a book released by Coffee House Press in the USA, “Camanchaca” by Diego Zúñiga, also translated by Megan McDowell.

Another short novel Zúñiga’s work is a coming-of-age story undertaken by a young boy, traversing the country with his father;

My father’s first car was a 1971 Ford Fairlane, which my grandfather gave him with he turned fifteen.
His second was a 1985 Honda Accord, lead gray.
His third was a 1990 BMW 850i, navy blue, which he killed my Uncle Neno with.
His fourth is a Ford Ranger, smoke colored, which we are driving across the Atacama Desert. (p1)

So opens this book, a work where you learn so much from being presented with so little. From this opening quote (which is the whole opening page) we can see our narrator’s father moving into money somehow, killing his own brother (or brother-in-law) and now onto a road trip, are they escaping something?

Written in sparse open prose, the pages are filled with blank spaces, there are pauses and silences, the detached tone, invoking isolation, you are stranded with our narrator in the desert.

She told the story. In complete detail. Full of silences. (p12)

Our narrator, recalls stories from his mother, as he listens begrudgingly to worn out clichés from his father, who is attempting some connection. The protagonist interrupting any attempt at conversation by putting on his headphones, more silence on the page…

Slowly, through the stories told by his mother, “like someone putting together and taking apart a worn-out puzzle”, we begin to see some clarity, the puzzle is taking shape.

But something happened that day. It was an image that would repeat itself for years. Me dancing, no partner, in the middle of a group. (p89)

An isolated youth, the unique voice of confusion and separation from his parents, and grandparents, a young man attempting to find his own place in the world, is told in a wonderfully sparse and gnarled manner. Through “the desert fog, the camanchaca”. We piece together our narrator’s coming of age. Although sparse there are unplumbed depths here, just see the opening page quote…

Another wonderful work from South America, a region I am drawn closer and closer to as I travel the world of literature, obscure, playing with form and content, this style of novel is one that appeals very much to my tastes. Not at all formulaic, you simply do not know what the next page will bring. Like “Fever Dream” by Samanta Schweblin, this is a book you can read in a single sitting, which I did, and as soon as you have finished, you feel like turning back to the first page and starting all over again, to understand the depths a little more, explore the silences and empty spaces just a little further.

Another wonderful revelation translated by Megan McDowell, a translator whose work I have thoroughly enjoyed with all five books of hers I have read, I know that I will be looking for her name on the cover of other releases, they’ll be added to my reading lists…

Tomorrow I plan to be back with the shortlists from the 2017 Best Translated Book Award (maybe Zúñiga and McDowell will be there in 2018?) and then back to the Man Booker International Prize longlist with a review of “Judas” by Amos Oz.

Antwerp -Roberto Bolaño (tr. Natasha Wimmer)


After a post about Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream” to open the year, it is probably also appropriate to now have a look at one of Roberto Bolaño’s books, given I have lofty ambitions to make my way through all of his works, those I haven’t read before, over the coming year.

His earliest “collection” is “Antwerp”, written in 1980 but not published, originally under the title “Amberes”, until 2002.

A collection of fifty-six vignettes, a work that is commonly referred to as the only book “he wasn’t embarrassed by”, from the off this collection has a mystical, cryptic, poetic feel. It is a façade, but so is life, and Bolaño is telling us, in a clipped style, that you shouldn’t try and read too much into it;



Once photographed, life here is ended. It is almost symbolic of Hollywood. Tara has no rooms inside. It was just a façade.
– David O Selznick

The kid heads toward the house. Alley of larches. The Fronde. Necklace of tears.  Love is a mix of sentimentality and sex (Burroughs). The mansion is just a façade – dismantled, to be erected in Atlanta. 1959. Everything looks worn. Not a recent phenomenon. From a long time back, everything wrecked. And the Spaniards imitate the way you talk. The South American lilt. An alley of palms. Everything slow and asthmatic. Bored biologists watch the rain from the windows of their corporations. It’s no good singing with feeling. My darling, wherever you are: it’s too late, forget the gesture that never came. “It was just a façade.” The kid walks toward the house.

This is a work where the images of a young poet, turning his hand to fiction, splash over the page in front of you, there are unpolished gems a plenty. For example on page two Sophie Podolski makes an appearance, she also appears in “The Savage Detectives” and “Distant Star”.

“…Not to mention France, great country of devouring mouths, where one hundred faggot poets, from Villon to our beloved Sophie Podolski, have nurtured, still nurture, and will nurture with the blood of their tits ten thousand queer poets with their entourage of philenes, nymphs, butches, and sissies, lofty editors of literary magazines, great translators, petty bureaucrats, and grand diplomats of the Kingdom of Letters (see, if you must, the shameful and malicious reflections of the Tel Quel poets). And the less said the better about the faggotry of the Russian Revolution, which, if we’re to be honest, gave us just one faggot poet, a single one.” (From “The Savage Detectives” P73 Picador edition)

Soto also tried (unsuccessfully) to translate Sophie Podolski, the Belgian poet who committed suicide at the age of twenty-one,… (from “Distant Star” Page 67 Vintage edition)

Sophie Podolski was a Belgian poet, who had one published work, she suffered from schizophrenia and died, just aged twenty-one, ten days after a suicide attempt.

As each vignette unfolds, you can see this being the rich fertile soil of Bolaño’s later literature at work, here he is sowing the roots, the seedlings that will take root, be grafted, and develop into fully fledged novels, stories or poems.

Although, on the surface, it would be easy to dismiss this as experimental, for example in “I’m my own bewitchment”, there is the quote “My name is Roberto Bolaño”, “our stories are sad, sergeant, there’s no point trying to understand them.”

The images set of down the road and yet they never get anywhere, they’re simply lost, it’s hopeless, says the voice – and the hunchback asks himself, hopeless for who? The Roman bridges are our fate now, thinks the author as the images still shine, not too distant, like towns that the car gradually leaves behind. (But in this case the man isn’t moving.) “I’ve made a count of air-heads and severed heads”…”Although in eternity it’s hard to tell them apart”…I told a Jewish girl, a friend of mine, that it was sad to spend hours in a bar listening to dirty stories. Nobody tried to change the subject. Shit dripped from the sentences at breast height, so that I couldn’t stay seated, and I went up to the bar. Stories about cops chasing immigrants. Nothing shocking, really, people upset because they were out of work, etc. These are the sad stories I have to tell.

So many images that appear in Bolaño’s later works are tossed at the reader here. There are cinematic glimpses, a man ties a sheet to trees in the forest “I’m going to show a film”, the sections are peppered with “fade to black” or “on the screen”, accompanied by silence. This is a collection of cinematic images that will become Bolaño’s toolkit, or trash can, he will draw on these throughout his writing career.

Here is a mysterious poem from “The Savage Detectives”


In the novel the following explains the poem “And I asked the boys, I said, boys, what do you make of this poem? I said, boys, I’ve been looking at it for more than forty years and I’ve never understood a goddamn thing.”

In “Antwerp” here is the poem;


And the explanation? “The straight line is the sea, when it’s calm, the wavy line is the sea with waves, and the jagged line is a storm”…The straight line made me feel calm. The wavy line made me uneasy, I sensed danger but I liked the smoothness: up and down. The last line was agitation. My penis hurt, my belly hurt, etc. (sections 21 and 22 from “Antwerp”).

Another common theme is the campground reference, readers of Bolaño’s other books will know of the recurring campground, here “a campground should be the closest thing to Purgatory”. I’ll post my thoughts about Bolano’s 1993 novel “The Skating Rink” in the coming days, another very early work, where the campground is a central theme.

Another interesting dimension to this work is that it also appears as a section in the larger publication “The Unknown University” (2007), under the title “People Walking Away”. Laura Healy the translator in 2013, and there are stark differences to Natasha Wimmer’s translation of 2010. Here are a couple of examples:

The vignette “Calle Tallers” in “Antwerp” contains an extra sentence – “I saw it all from the next room through the hole, someone had drilled for that purpose.” Occasionally the tense is different “flashes” instead of “flashed”, but the inclusion of a whole sentence that adds the voyeuristic element is quite extraordinary.

Another example “Like a Waltz” in “The Unknown University” collection contains the extra sentence “like campground spiders, she moves about, weaving a web over my face.”

I will leave it to Bolaño scholars and people more au fait with Spanish, or those with access to manuscripts to figure out which is the definitive text.

A work I would suggest readers approach later in their Bolaño journey, once you’ve got a handle on the motifs, themes and recurring images, it adds another element to those features of his work, however if you were to read this as your first Bolaño escapade you would probably believe the move from poetry to fiction was blurred and it could taint your future reading of his works. Having personally read six of his novels I found this a fascinating melting pot of ideas, ones that would later take shape as a central theme, or a Mc Guffin, and it will be a book I will refer back to as I make my way through his other novels, short stories and poems.

amulet – Roberto Bolaño (translated by Chris Andrews)


Every time I read and review a book that has been around for a number of years, I am confronted with a dilemma, is my view adding anything worthwhile to the plethora of other reviews that happen to be in the public domain? Will my views sway anybody into a purchase or an avoidance? Am I just posting here to say “I read this book too”?

I personally own all of Bolaño’s novels, short story collections and poetry collections, so why I decided to pick up “amulet” is now a blur. I have some vague recollection of glancing at Wikipedia and thinking it was an early work so I’d start with it. Having a look at Wikipedia now I notice it makes no mention of “Monsieur Pain” on the main Bolaño page, so a bit of work needs to be done on that page.

“amulet” is not an early work, it was published soon after “The Savage Detectives” and contains a number of links to that work (more on them later).

A first person narration by Auxilia Lacouture, she could say she is “the mother of Mexican poetry”;

By day I busied myself at the university; by night I led a bohemian life, and slept, and gradually scattered my few belongings, leaving them in the houses and apartments of friends: my clothes, my books, my magazines, my photos. I, Remedios Varo, I, Leonora Carrington, I, Eunice Odio, I, Lilian Serpas (ah, poor Lilian Serpas, I still have to tell you about her). And my friends, of course, would eventually get tired of me and ask me to leave. I would try and make light of it and leave. I would hang my head and leave. I would give them a kiss on the cheek and say thanks and leave.

Auxilio Lacouture is locked in the bathroom of the university in 1968 whilst it is raided by the military and the police, an historical moment in Mexican history, known as “Mexico 68” and leading up to the Olympic Games in Mexico City, brought on by ideological and political clashes. The narration takes place from the bathroom as Auxillo talks of the past, the future and a little of the present.

I don’t know why I remember that afternoon. That afternoon of 1971 or 1972. And the strangest thing is that I remember it prospectively, from 1968. From my watchtower, my bloody subway carriage, from my gigantic rainy day. From the women’s bathroom on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature, the timeship from which I can observe the entire life and times of Auxilio Lacouture, such as they are.

Besides Bolaño’s style, which of course I adore, why else would I own every book he wrote (those translated into English that is), this novel has a number of interesting connections to other works. Besides the common recurring Bolaño alter ego Arturo Belano, about half way through the book we come across Ernesto San Epifanio, who had earlier appeared in “The Savage Detectives” . Of course Auxilio also appeared in “The Savage Detectives” in Part II Chapter four, a full 10 page single paragraph that is almost replicated word for word as the opening to “amulet”. The short novella a little more polished in my opinion. Back to Ernesto;

Then we walked down the Avenida Guerrero; they weren’t stepping so lightly any more, and I wasn’t feeling too enthusiastic either. Guerro, at that time of the night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or in 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.

After a long drunken night, Ernesto and Arturo “why still hadn’t turned twenty-one” travel “down that turbulent river that was and is the Avenida Guerro”, crossing the metaphorical River Styx into hell, “into the kingdom of the King of the Rent Boys”, where Arturo is going to negotiate the release of Ernesto’s “body and soul”.

Another interesting reference is, of course, (apparently Bolaño’s only reference) to 2666.

As Auxilio, locked in the bathroom, moves from time and place to time and place it is as though a dreamlike fog has descended upon her tale. Surrealist painters emerge, obscure poets, mothers of painters, promiscuous characters move in and out of the spotlight. The references to real characters are vast, unfortunately not a lot of their work is available in English.

To complete the surrealist picture, Auxilio is taken on an operating table to attend the birth of History. A reference to the permanent social change that occurred as a result of the student sacrifice and protest.

Another interesting work from one of my favourite writers, the references coming thick and fast, giving me reading lists to keep me going well beyond the grave, the mythological links, and the links to other works of his own, all part of the melting pot that is Roberto Bolaño.

Twelve Days of Messenger’s Blog – Day Eight


Today’s inclusion on my Twelve Days of Christmas countdown, comes from South America, along with central America this is where I spent most of 2016 in my reading journeys, probably because I was meant to visit Mexico and Guatemala earlier in the year and the trip was postponed indefinitely, therefore I travelled there figuratively, through the novels and poems of the region.

Every so often I come across a writer whose language personally clicks with me, a writer where every sentence just seems to seamlessly flow, where the pages easily turn and I suddenly realise I’ve been reading for hours and have finished the book!!!

This is exactly what happened when I picked up Alejandro Zambra’s short story collection “My Documents” (translated by Megan McDowell).

Here is my review from earlier in the year:

A collection of eleven short stories it opens with the title work, “My Documents” and it reads like an autobiography;

Mass was held in the gymnasium of a convent school, Master Purissima; people always talked, though, about the church building that was in the works, and it was like they were describing a dream. It took so long to build that by the time it was finished, I no longer believed in God.

“Camilo” is a story of a godson, soccer fanaticism, living in Chile under Pinochet, family bonds, maturing and forgiveness. A very moving piece indeed. Only two stories into the collection and I’m thinking that the endings are exquisite, they are powerful explosions that linger well after you’ve finished the tale.

We have wonderfully real characters, including the late night call centre worker who reads literature (as there is little else to do whilst waiting for the phone to ring) and teaches letter writing to mature aged students on the side. Or the story of a relationship told through the lifespan of a PC, in the story “Memories of a Personal Computer”. An all too realistic tale of how technology has encroached on our lives, filled with nostalgia and the past where pen and paper and unedited texts prevailed.

The personal connection came hitting home in the story “I smoked very well”, as an ex-smoker myself the angst, futility, addiction all rang true, so much so I just have to refer all my smoker or ex-smoker friends to this short story:

What for a smoker is non-fiction, for a non-smoker is fiction. That majestic story by Julio Ramón Ribeiro, for example, about the smoker who desperately jumps out the window to rescue a pack of cigarettes, and who, years later, very ill, his wife keeping a vigilant watch over him, escapes to the beach every day to unearth, with the skill of an anxious puppy, the pack of cigarettes he has hidden in the sand. Non-smokers don’t understand these stories. They think they’re exaggerated; they read them cavalierly. A smoker, on the other hand, treasures them.

The anti-hero comes to the fore in the story “Family Life”, where a house sitter tells a simple lie, has to live with the untruth and as the date of the house owner’s return comes nearer the tension increases exponentially, I found myself holding my breath as my concern for the lie-teller was becoming a reality.

As this is Spanish Literature Month, I think it is only fitting that a poem by Enrique Lihn, about Madrid, appears in the story “I Smoked Very Well”;

I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here
Old, tired, sick, and thoughtful.
The Spanish I was spawned with
Father of so many literary vices
and from which I cannot free myself
many have brought me to this city
to make me suffer what I deserve:
a soliloquy in a dead language.

A number of the stories are dedicated to well known “celebrities” including a number of writers, Natalia García, Alejandra Costamagna, Marcelo Montecinos, Álvaro Enrigue, Valeria Luiselli, Gonzalo Maier, Paula Canal, with the whole collection dedicated to Chilean long jumper Josefina Gutiérrez. These dedications revealing not only a solid nationalist streak, but also a connection to likeminded writers, even if it is just because they love a cigarette!!!

A collection of stories that are cemented in the real, and although musing on grand subjects each one becomes a reality that could well occur to the reader. A very refreshing read away from some of the convoluted plots that sometimes land on my reading desk, the smaller minutiae of daily existence celebrated with aplomb.

If you want a taste of the collection here are two of the included stories available online.

“The Most Chilean Man in the World” (under a slightly different title here)

“Camilo” appeared in The New Yorker

And an interview with Alejandro Zambra about the short story “Camilo” appeared here.

Despite a couple of typos in the text, and two disconcerting instances where sentences were duplicated, this is a masterful example of the art of the short story, engaging characters, plausible plots, realist settings and wonderful endings. Blurring autobiography, essay and fiction I found all of these stories thoroughly engaging. At times collections can be uneven, I can assure you that it is not the case here. Another writer to add to my “favourites” pile and one to search out further works


The Rest Is Silence – Carla Guelfenbein (translated by Katherine Silver)

Truth rises up from the depths and alters the orderly surface of things.
Last year I planned a full six week holiday/visit to Central America, taking in places such as Mexico and Guatemala and once my work situation changed and the bill came in, the passports were put back on mothballs and a local holiday to Kangaroo Island replaced my ambitious plans. Somehow that planning must have left a seed in my subconscious as I have been reading books from the region all year, twenty-one of the seventy-five posts I have made this year have been  from Central or south America, 28% shows a distinct leaning!!! I still have fifteen or twenty unread books on my “to be read” piles from the region so more will be forthcoming before the end of the year I am sure, there’s even a chance I’ll manage to fit one or two more in before the end of “Women In Translation Month” too.
Back to Chile for my latest read, a work nowhere near as experimental or as challenging as Diamela Eltit’s “Custody of the Eyes”  (translated by Helen Lane & Ronald Christ), more your very readable, approachable style like the last couple of works I have read from Mexico. As with “Ten Women” by Marcela Serrano (translated by Beth Fowler) which was told in ten different voices, or “Umami” by Laia Jufresa (translated by Sophie Hughes) with five narrators, “The Rest Is Silence” is narrated in three difference voices.
The novel opens with the innocent child voice of Tommy, who has been excluded from the other children’s games and is hiding under a table at a Wedding, listening, and in fact recording, adult conversations. By doing so Tommy accidentally learns that his mother did not die from an aneurysm, but rather committed suicide:
If Mama killed herself, it’s because she didn’t love me. I hold my breath and count: Ten, nine, eight, seven…I’m sure I can go back, back to before I hid under this table…six, five…the elephant would say anything to impress her friends…four, three, two…My head is spinning and I feel a thousand stabs in my belly, as if a propeller were turning round and round inside my guts. I can’t stand it anymore. I make a dash for it. I slip and fall. I bang my knees and my hands.
I’ve come to the very end of the garden, where it plunges down into the sea. The light in the sky is white. My cousins are playing ball at the top of the hill, the highest point in the garden. I sit down on the grass. I hug my knees and bury my head in my lap. I stink. I don’t know exactly when my guts exploded. Now I’m really in trouble.
Sometimes I know what it feels like to be unhappy, to wait for night-time so I can hide under the sheets, close my eyes, and escape forever to Kájef’s barge. Is that how Mama felt?
We then immediately move to the female voice of Alma, Tommy’s step mother, slowly the history of this family comes into focus. Finally the voice of Juan, Tommy’s father and Alma’s husband, takes the stage, and the grief over his first wife’s, Solidad’s, death, his young child’s heart condition and his relationship with his current wife become the dominant themes.
This is a story of a fractured family, with one character obsessed by his child’s failing heart, another about “love” and her relationship with her mother, her husband and her own child and step child and the other character wondering why everybody is so uneasy and where is his mum?
The innocent, but honest, voice of the child Tommy not only acts as a nice counterbalance to the two adult voices, who do not communicate directly with each other, but it also raises the tension in the novel. With Tommy talking to his imaginary friend or the maid Yerfa, or reviewing his illicit tape recordings, you know that the crescendo is slowly building, an explosive conclusion is a foregone conclusion.
The day’s first light is blue. The gate is open, and the outside light is on. IT wasn’t a dream. Alma came home with another man. I want to edit out that whole scene, like she does with her movies. Erase it from my memory. But when something new and important gets into my head, there’s no way to get it out of there. No matter how hard I try to forget, there are little monsters who keep reminding me it’s still there. Not long ago, I explained it to Alma and she told me that the little monsters are called your conscience. I asked her if they ever go away and she said they don’t, but we learn to live and just pretend we don’t see them. I wanted to know why I can’t do that and Alma told me that maybe I was one of those very few people who, instead of closing their eyes, confront the monsters and fight against them until they defeat them. That’s why I’ve been thinking that if I can discover ten things about Mama, everything will become clear. Why ten? Because God gave us ten commandments to live by, because we have ten fingers, because ten billion kilometres are one light year, because Yerfa says I should count to ten before I say or do anything that I might later regret.
As each voice reveals a little more of their history, and their experiences, the layers are slowly peeled back and your pre-conceived ideas are put to the test, they are simply illusions, the truth of this family is more complex than you initially thought. As the unsaid, the “silences” referred to in the title, accumulate, you can see the rift that is slowly breaking this family apart.
There are a few events that happen, especially how Tommy discovers his roots, which, to me, are too coincidental, or contrived, however these don’t detract from the overall theme, tension, or plot of the work.
As the opening quote, I chose here, says…”truth rises up from the depths and alters the orderly surface of things”…here we have three truths conveyed by three different voices, their individual truths different to the truths of the others. Confusing? It is not so when you read the book.
A pleasant read, not a challenging work by any means, and one that addresses the themes of family bonds, love, generational influence, addressing the truth and grief. Another fine addition to Women In Translation Month, one for people who are yet to dabble in such books to possibly try as a starter.

By the way Kangaroo Island is stunning, if you want remote, pristine, forests, walks along beaches, then this is a place to visit. It wasn’t my dream Central American trip, that can wait, I’ve been there through my reading choices for months now. 

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Ten Women – Marcela Serrano (translated by Beth Fowler)

Throughout my literary journey, which has lasted publicly for five years here on my blog, I have explored a number of literary styles. And my journey for the last two months has been solely based on literature originally published in Spanish and from Central or South America. I’m still in the region, this time returning to the written word from Chile, and Marcela Serrano’s “Ten Women”.
In a nutshell this book is made up of monologues of nine women who have been brought to a venue in a mini-bus specifically to address the audience of the other women present. They are all patients of Natasha, their therapist has arranged the meeting for them to talk about their lives in an open forum.
If you are after a well-crafted novel that follows a plot, then straight off the bat here, you are not going to like this one iota. And although it is probably a decent criticism of this work, that there is no plot, it does not mean that it is unreadable, poorly crafted, or even unworthy of your reading pleasure. In fact this book is highly addictive, has many layers, is moving in so many ways, and addresses numerous political, social and environmental issues specific to Chile as well as being a strong feminist mouthpiece.
From the opening, the introduction of sorts, as the women gather, aged between nineteen and seventy-five, we know that this is going to become a raw expose;
Beneath the black vest or pink blouse, wasn’t each woman endowing herself with resolve, gathering courage for the day ahead?? Their appearances today are certainly honest, there’s no interference from jobs, offices, or formalities that might pigeonhole them; the way they have come today is the way they truly are.
A few of the voices to give you a feel for what is in store here…opening is Francisca, fortysomething, successful in real estate, less so in her life in general and even less so in her relationship with her mother. Or the assured voice of Simona, well read, who comes from a privileged background, who meditates, and based on Buddhist teachings, lives in the present moment. Or Mané;
My name is Mané and I’m just as you see me. I was always the prettiest. I’m five foot eight and a half, which is tall for this country, and I weigh a hundred and thirty pounds. Even today, in spite of my age, I still keep an eye on my weight, although I’m the only one to see my body. I turned seventy-five a couple of months ago. There was barely a celebration.
I used to be gorgeous. It’s a shame I have to say it in the past tense. No one says “I am gorgeous” and even less “I will be gorgeous.” Well, that’s all I’ve got: the past. Sunset Boulevard, a movie from the fifties, reminds me of my life. That must be why I find it so moving. Starring, Gloria Swanson, it’s based on the life of Norma Desmond, a great Hollywood silent-movie actress who starred in dozens of movies, a true diva who had the world at her feet. By the time she’d aged, she wanted to return to acting and seduction but everyone had abandoned her. All the directors and producers who once sang her praises turned their backs on her. She was no use to them anymore, but this was something she refused to accept. They didn’t even answer her phone calls. She was rotting, alone and abandoned. Like me.
The personal shame of ageing, such a moving and honest voice, brilliantly captured by a writer who herself could only have been in her late fifties (at most) when she wrote this. Each of the characters have such assured voices, even if their tales are, in many cases, horrific, the characters are happy in their own skin. Throughout the pervading feeling is that Natasha, as a therapist, must be extremely successful in her work.
Natasha said that only by telling her could I take control of this story. That’s what I am doing today. In order to recover, every survivor needs to be able to take charge of her memories. We need others for that. Today I’m burdening you as witnesses. The load is heavy.
I’m worn out.
We have the brutal story of a Palestinian, Layla, exiled in Chile and her return to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, her subsequent memories, or Luisa from the country who only loved one man, a man who was taken away, at three-thirty in the morning, still in his pyjamas, a few months after the 11 September 1973 Military coup. Or the tale of a young teenage lesbian coming to terms with her sexuality, and a popular television presenter who cannot sleep without medication or face who she really is.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a gripping work, the honest, true voices of the women who are undergoing therapy, for numerous reasons, haunt you from the first page until the last. A realistic picture of life under the paternalistic rule of Pinochet, a view from so many angles. The presentation of nine monologues adds to the non-fiction meta-fiction style, even if the stories are in fact fiction, they appear almost interview like and therefore the realism of the situation rings true. The final “woman” character being Natasha, the therapist herself, her tale told by her lifelong assistant, and to me this section almost seems tacked on, a nice tidy way of rounding out the stories, how can we have the therapist calling all these women here without an explanation? Nine monologues, one third person story to round it out. A really flat way to end what would otherwise be a fine work.
There are also a few typos and the Americanisation of simple things (like Mané’s height and weight in the example above) is quite frustrating given Chile has been on the metric system since 1848 (in fact it is compulsory!). But these are just small idiosyncrasies that every 40 or fifty pages or so detract from the overall work.

All in all, this is another decent inclusion on the “Women In Translation Month” listings, another interesting work from Chile, and I still have a number of works from there on my “to be read” piles, don’t worry I will be back!!

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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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