The Best Translated Book Award 2018: Some reflections about the fiction and poetry nominees

In advance of the announcement of this year’s BTBA finalists for fiction and poetry, I wanted to share a few thoughts about the nominated titles I have had a chance to read. I read almost half of the poetry long list and almost six of the 25 fiction titles—I say “almost” because there is a title on each side that I have not yet finished. I don’t have posted reviews for all, but I do have a few favourites going forward.

What I love about this award is that it invariably draws my attention to a few titles that I might never have encountered and, because it is based on titles released in the US, I can generally get my hands on the books that interest me. This year, because I turned my focus to poetry, the experience has been especially rewarding. Here are the books I’ve read, in whole or in part, with links to the reviews I wrote (where applicable) and some thoughts about the books read and not yet reviewed:

Fiction:

Bergeners by Tomas Espedal, translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson (Norway, Seagull Books)

I have not quite finished this book, and therefore cannot judge it fully. I am pleased to see it on the list; it’s an interesting blend of genre and so far I am enjoying it. However, as it is my first experience with Espedal, I have no context to place it against.

I Am the Brother of XX by Fleur Jaeggy, translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff (Switzerland, New Directions)

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur (India, Penguin)

 The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker (Mexico, Feminist Press)

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Two Lines Press)

Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press) Also see here.

Hands down this is my favourite title of all that I have read, a book that I absolutely adore. Above I have linked the argument in its favour that I wrote for the Three Percent site. I would have to say that this and My Heart Hemmed In are two books I really love and hope make the cut. Both, it happens, are from the same publisher, in this case Two Lines Press—a circumstance echoed on the poetry side of the equation.

*

Poetry:
Because this is where I spent most of my energies, this is where my attention will focus.

Paraguayan Sea by Wilson Bueno, translated from the Portunhol and Guarani to Frenglish and Guarani by Erin Moore (Brazil, Nightboat Books)

Raining. Winter wet pluries of southern hemispheric June in the beach town. Dense fog, tick, a sort of paste of days when the rains start to soak even gardens and streets. An evocation of fairies through the windows: all marrying winter, leurs sombreros s’embracent in an orgy of wet leaves. I swear.

I have not yet finished this most unusual book—an extended prose poem that employs a delicious blend of languages to tell a strange narrative tale. Very intriguing, it would be good to see it make the cut.

Hackers by Aase Berg, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Goransson (Sweden, Black Ocean Press)

I am
inside you
Where nobody expected
Looneysingapore
Hovered down through
The Phillipine
storm

cat-soft
toxoplasma
schizosex

Endorphoria
never kills
its host world

Of the poetry I read, this book was the least successful for me. The imagery—parasites, computer viruses, hackers, movie and pop culture references—did not resonate with me. I could admire it, the translation is slippery and solid, but I don’t feel I would be drawn back to it so readily. It is a quick read, so another visit is likely in order. But not yet.Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Ugly Duckling)

The plants in the garden
Give a first impression
Of peace
Even more so than pets
But that impression changes
As evening falls
And the garden seems to have multiplied
In the movement
Of proportions of changes
You understand
At such times I try not to look
In case someone is hiding there
As it often seems
Though in morning the garden
Will be once more
Like the slanting line on the cheeks
Of very young girls
When the light strikes them from the side

—from “Plant Upbringing”

I did not have time to review this book, but probably will write more soon. This is a magnificent collection of six early book length poems by Eleni Vakalo, presented with great attention to placement and space on the page, and intended to be read as complete pieces. One of the exciting encounters of my recent BTBA poetry excursions.

Things That Happen by Bhaskar Chakrabarti, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha (India, Seagull Books)

I am so pleased to see an Indian author in translation on each list. This collection strikes a melancholic tone and speaks to very human emotions—loneliness, loss and nostalgia. It speaks to the diversity represented by the BTBA selections.

Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun, translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham (Syria, Action Books)

If it isn’t clear from my recent review, I love this book. It is a vital collection and so very timely. I would be quite happy to see this take the award. I certainly hope it makes the short list, along with my other favourite, also from the same publisher, Action Books (in this case a joint publication with Broken Dimache Press in Europe).

Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen, translated from the Danish by Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Denmark, Action Books & Broken Dimanche Press)

You were inside me like I was a house; that does not
mean I know what’s going on inside you. A house
does not know the interior of its resident.

That is the other wall for loneliness.
To irradiate.

My x-ray/loneliness.
Your loneliness/grass.

If you are to be tortured, I must
teach you to sing: as I walked out one midsummer’s morning
it will keep them out.

You make me think, as I walked out, I must learn to sing
double with one voice,

whose song will fan in to seven voices
whose songs will each fan into seven voices
whose songs will each fan into seven voices, whose songs will

make the air solid and prevent any movement. No one can move.
No one can harm you.

I have read this book many times, my copy is exploding with marginalia and sticky notes, and in response, I wrote an experimental review that has been published at Minor Literature[s] . In the meantime, I will say it is at once spare and epic. A post-human vision that moves beyond patriarchal and matriarchal physical, social, and political dynamics—edgy, unnerving and ultimately inspiring. A challenging work, I love it as a piece of literature, and find it endlessly fascinating as a person with a bi-gendered life experience and a history of heart-stopping re-awakening (in literal terms).

So, now to see the short list…

And then I turned back: The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza

Breathing heavily, with fat drops of sweat sliding down my face and chest, I thought of how you are never more authentic than when inside your own nightmares.

I almost hesitate to write about The Iliac Crest. I feel that to tread too carelessly into the heart of this enigmatic dark fable would be risk fracturing its utterly devastating beauty. One may be best to enter its world of shifting borders where space, time, reality, fantasy, sanity, madness, identity, and gender are bent, blurred and ever so steadily unraveled without any preconceptions. Not that there is a viable bread crumb trail that could be followed to ensure Absolute Understanding. But it may be best to let the narrator be your guide, or rather to accompany him as his self-contained, apathetic existence is disturbed and distorted.

The novel is set in an undefined time, in an isolated borderland on the coast between North City and South City.  To travel in either direction requires passing through heavily policed border checkpoints. Disappearance is contagious and faith in feminism is a faded notion—sexist attitudes toward women limit their roles in society. The image is a jarring one, and an atmosphere of hopelessness and decline is prevalent, nowhere more so than in the state hospital where the narrator works as a doctor tending to the destitute, wretched, and deranged who have come there to die.

A note from the author, Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza, that opens the book provides some context. Navigating the US-Mexico border has been a constant in her life and this is reflected in the role that the idea of borders, geopolitical and otherwise, plays in this work. Many borders are challenged here, not least of which is the line between male and female. The consequences of rigid gender roles and the silencing of women’s lives and voices is a central concern in the story she has to tell. “Our bodies are keys that open only certain doors,” she says. “Our bodies speak indeed, and our bones are our ultimate testimony. Will we be betrayed by our bones?” As a reader with a gender different history myself, that question haunted me from the outset.

The narrative begins on the classic dark and stormy night, when a stranger appears seeking shelter. She introduces herself as Amparo Dávila. The narrator is instantly captivated by her striking appearance and her expansive presence. But she frightens him. Several hours later, the woman he had been expecting, a former lover referred to only as The Betrayed, arrives and immediately collapses on the threshold. Before long, the women have installed themselves in his home, disrupting his solitary life. While The Betrayed convalesces, Amparo Dávila sets up a daily routine which includes sitting down to write in a notebook. She informs him that she was once a great writer. Now she is writing about her “disappearance” and she believes he can help her.

The narrator is skeptical. He doesn’t trust his unwelcome houseguest. She claims to know truths about him that confuse and unnerve him. And as the Betrayed recovers, he is horrified to discover that they share strange language that is unlike any he has ever encountered. The more he tries to get to the truth behind the identity of The Disappeared as he comes to call the so-called writer, the more he finds himself balancing on the uncertain edge of reality. His emotions swing between desire and anger and fear. He finds himself alienated and isolated. At one point he remarks: “I felt as if I were in a parenthesis in a sentence in an unknown language.”

Certain images and expressions are repeated, like refrains that echo throughout the text, creating an incantatory quality, enhancing the increasingly unsettling mood. The clarity with which the narrator appears to begin his account is steadily eroded until he can no longer trust his own sensations. As the line between truth and lies is obfuscated, the narrative grows chillingly opaque. But the tone remains measured, the language hauntingly beautiful.

I have resisted delving too far into the sequence of events that unfold—real, remembered or imagined—because I feel this is a book best experienced without too much plot detail in advance. But I cannot resist a longer quote that captures the sheer beauty of the prose:

Hurried and intense brushes, a proximity that, out of so much fear, smelled of sweat and adrenaline. Everything, however, would return to normal with a kiss. Usually it was just that: a kiss. One. Lips together. Saliva. Time turned flesh, color. A long kiss, like an expedition. After, just after that, the separation began. The beginning. This. This walk like someone wearing shackles around their ankles, this sensation of the body against air in an age-old battle, this weariness, this desolation. What do I know about the great wings of love? The pelicans appeared again almost overhead, but much higher. I paused to watch them for a couple of minutes. Silence. Air. Time. I imagined them fleeing from their own wings and, in that moment, I raised my finger to my lips, trying to detect traces of something felt from far off in time. Yes, indeed, you turn back. And turning back achieves nothing.

I confess I finished this book breathless. Anxious even. Although I knew that Amparo Dávila, the author at the centre of the mystery, is a real woman—a Mexican writer whose own work often treads the uneasy borders between the real and the uncanny—I decided not to search her until I had finished reading the novel. I was pleased to find an article in the Paris Review online and one of her short stories in the Winter 2017 print issue. Originally published in Spanish in 2002, The Iliac Crest has helped rekindle interest in Dávila who is now in her late 80s. Christina Rivera Garza captures her spirit, but in a mesmerizing, wholly original tale that is perhaps more timely than ever.

The Illiac Crest is translated by Sarah Booker who also provides valuable insights in her Translator’s Note. The publisher is Feminist Press.

Note: Since posting this, translator Sarah Booker has kindly shared links to two other Dávila stories she has translated: “Griselda” and “The Square Patio”  The latter, in particular, has strong resonances in The Iliac Crest.

Where truth lies: A Working Woman by Elvira Navarro

When an author is lauded as a “relentless innovator” and a “meticulous explorer of the psyche’s most obscure alleyways,” it is easy to be skeptical. Those are strong endorsements, and a reader who enjoys a literary challenge knows well that a publisher’s promotional copy can be laced with hyperbole that often falls short of the mark. Yet, Spanish writer Elvira Navarro lives up to her billing with  A Working Woman, newly released from Two Lines Press, one of the most peculiar novels I have read in a long time. Its strangeness is subtle, the tone is ever so slightly off, the structure unconventional, and the narrator’s account inconsistent. The opening section is unsettling, even off-putting, but sets the groundwork for an oddly metafictional tale that unwinds (unravels?) slowly to end with a coda that places the purpose and nature of the entire preceding narrative into question.

It is an uncomfortable book. A rare and original look at the complex dynamics of female companionship, the bonds and distortions of madness, and the desire to find and define oneself, creatively and personally.

Set in Madrid, during in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, Elisia is a proofreader with one novel, an MA in Publishing and an unfinished PhD behind her. She is one of the working wounded, so to speak.  She is lucky to have a job, but it has, over time, been reduced from a series of temporary placements to uncertain independent contract work for a publisher woefully behind with payments. She has already moved from an centrally located apartment to the barrio of Aluche in the southwest part of the city. As her financial circumstances become ever more precarious, she is faced with the prospect of renting her flat’s small second bedroom. When her friend Germán sets her up with Susana she does not know what to expect:

It was twelve thirty when she arrived. She wasn’t as I’d hoped, short and plump like a Hispanic mother, but the Nordic type: tall, blond, horsey, with a complexion the colour of something like raw silk. She was squeezed into a brown coat that came down to her ankles, and had a showy beige scarf around her neck. On her head was a green hat, with a swirl on one side like a flower. Weighed down by so much wool, she could hardly move, and her cheeks briefly glowed with two, perfect rosy circles. She was a bit ridiculous, particularly due to something that seemed to have its source in her nose, which, from the instant she crossed the threshold, appeared unpleasantly alert for any smell, the nostrils flared and quivering. It was such an eloquent gesture that, if I hadn’t previously committed it myself, I would never have considered accepting her as a roommate, and nor would she have taken the tiny room.

Their strained friendship sits at the core of A Working Woman. It is a relationship that seems, for the most part, to occupy an awkward space in the apartment, and in Elisia’s troubled imagination.  She exaggerates Susana’s impressive Amazonian dimensions, and finds her elusive nature—her tendency to at once take over the shared rooms with her belongings but share little about her past or her daily life—disconcerting.

However, by the time Susana crosses Elisia’s threshold for the first time in the narrative, we have already been treated, no exposed, to a graphic portrait of the woman she was twenty years earlier when, in a period of marked mental instability, she took a gay dwarf lover to meet her particular sexual needs. The novel opens with what we are told is a story based on what Susana told Elisia about her madness. “I’ve added some of my own reactions,” she tells us, setting her own words apart in italics, “but to be honest they are very few. It goes without saying her narrative was more chaotic.” For nearly forty pages, the narrator records a bizarre tale of sexual obsession. It’s easy for a reader to wonder what they’ve signed up for. Later on, one begins to suspect, that the entire set up says more about Elisia than whoever Susana may be (or may have been). Especially as she begins to develop symptoms of mental illness herself and is forced into seeking treatment. The layers of madness and sanity overlap with metafictional questions of narrative intent.

A Working Woman is imbued with an intense restlessness and anxiety that extends beyond the characters’ own uncertainties into the world around them. The narrative excavates the raw edges of Madrid where the economic downturn has left its mark. Empty storefronts, abandoned buildings, construction projects halted midstream. Elisia’s nocturnal wanderings through the streets of her neighbourhood is refracted in the countless city maps her roommate constructs out of tiny magazine clippings. But the two women are ultimately on different trajectories in life. Their worlds collide, but their connection, mediated through Elisia’s oddly unbalanced narrative, is neither warm nor natural. It is not even clear that Susana, or at least Susana as presented, exists beyond the narrator’s literary aspirations—or her own delusions.

Confusing? Yes and no. Navarro’s language is direct and compelling. She creates vivid multidimensional physical and psychological landscapes. Her ability to evoke, through her narrator’s breakdown, the sensation of losing the ability to cling to reality is especially powerful, and one I recognize well from my own experiences:

I managed to alight from the bus—there was still no ground under my feet, and I had to support myself against the buildings. Then I sat down in a doorway and stayed there for I don’t know how long, until my sense of touch returned. It occurred to me that I was crazy. I formulated this thought ten, twenty times. Movement was painful. The lacerating rumble of traffic. The tense, high-pitched voices of friends chatting in doorways. The people walking behind me. Their breathing, their bodies, were too close. I was intolerable even to myself, wanted to tear my body to pieces.

From its unusual, attention-grabbing beginning to the curious short chapter that ends (or upends) the book, to read A Working Woman is to enter an altered hyper-reality, a place filled with strange, yet strangely recognizable, figures who leave you wondering where truth lies, and where stories within stories begin, and end.

A Working Woman by Elvira Navarro is translated by Christina MacSweeney and published by Two Lines Press.

The loose ends of memories: Before by Carmen Boullosa

The opening passage of Mexican writer Carmen Boullousa’s novel Before—the first she wrote, albeit the second to be published—is, at first blush, disorienting.

Where were we when we got to this point? Didn’t they tell you? Who could tell you if you had nobody to ask? And do you yourself remember? Particularly if you’re not here… And if I keep on? Well if I keep on perhaps you’ll show up.

A most unlikely welcome. But then our winsome young narrator is not here either. She greets us from a point beyond bodied existence, beyond a life cut short with the advent of puberty. She is lost in a realm of troubled memories, and in an attempt to find herself, to talk herself back into being, she invents a listener, one who is likewise no longer alive, to whom she can recount her recollections and, she hopes, confront the trauma that has continued to haunt her. “How would I like you to be?” she asks her conjured audience, “I’d like you to be whatever you were!”

As she revisits her past, attempting to start at the very beginning, with her own birth, memories and emotions pour forth in a jumble of childhood anecdotes crossed with her reflections about the limitations of language and the perplexity of familial relationships. Her estranged connection with her own past is palpable. She describes playing games with her older sisters, her fondness for her father, and the sense of security she feels with her grandmother. She paints vivid images of life at her Catholic girl’s school. But she speaks of her mother, whom she insists on referring to as Esther, with an odd, pained distance. And she is hypersensitive to noises, creating a “lexicon” of her own. She finds comfort in the ones that can be explained by the light of day, but fears the insistent sound of footsteps that haunt her in her dreams, that wake her in a state of panic. The steps threatens to envelop her in darkness. She seeks refuge in both practical and enchanted solutions. She feels she just barely escapes their pursuit:

I didn’t know what I could do against this persecution. When I was younger, I stayed in bed or ran to my parents’ bed to let them protect me, but Dad never let me sleep in their room, thinking my nighttime terror was “clowning,” which was the word he used to describe it. Some nights I managed to trick them and stay asleep on a rug at the foot of their bed, thinking their closeness would defend me, but when I was older, let’s say around the age of nine, I stopped having recourse to the rug; if I didn’t stay in bed waiting for the noises to hit me, I walked through the house trying to elude them.

Her memories are not orderly, they vie for her attention, and often require the insertion of backstories to give them context. This allows for an odd logic, a somewhat disjointed storytelling. Some memories bring her unexpected joy, make her feel “alive again,” while others rekindle fears and mock her loneliness, her “opacity” and “sadness.” As a ghost, her connection with her life is complicated, suspended on the cusp of womanhood. The stories she shares often take on magical overtones in the retelling. Some of this reflects the enthusiasm and imagination of childhood fantasy, but as she gets older, an ominous superstition grows. As the narrative progresses, our heroine is winding her way toward an event almost too unbearably painful to return to. As readers we know that her death awaits, but there is another heartbreaking loss that precedes it.

Underlying this fragmented account of a privileged childhood in Mexico City, is the sense that adults and children exist in separate spheres. A rotation of caregivers passes through their lives and the eldest sister takes on some of the surrogate parenting roles, while the mother and father pursue careers and social engagements. When her sisters become young women, seeming to enter overnight a world of brassieres, stockings, and nail polish, the narrator promises that she will not follow suit. She does not realize, she admits when she confesses this, that she has sealed her fate with this wish.

There is an uncanny urgency and intensity to this ghostly coming-of-age story. Boullosa’s own Catholic upbringing in the 1950s and 60s, and the early death of her mother when she was fifteen are echoed here, suggesting that it may have been as imperative for her to tell this tale as it is for her protagonist to share hers. And what better way to create a distance, a place of relative safety, than to root a narrative in the afterlife? Not that any of her narrator’s animated energy or distracted childhood logic is lost in the process. Rather, we are presented with a unique blend of curiosity and innocence, tinged with wisdom and sorrow.

A most unusual and affecting tale.

Originally released in Spanish in 1989, Before is translated by Peter Bush, with an introduction by Phillip Lopate, and published by Deep Vellum.

Into the redheaded night: From the Observatory by Julio Cortázar

Serendipity is one of the joys of bookstore browsing. Case in point, my discovery of From the Observatory, a book I’d never heard of, discovered amid a selection of Archipelago Books in a local indie bookshop. There was something in the confluence of text and images that instantly captured my imagination. I had to take it home.

Billed as perhaps the “most unconventional work” of Argentinean author Julio Cortázar, an author who was not exactly known for sticking to conventions, this slender volume is essentially a meandering essay that moves between poetic contemplation of the life cycle of the European eel and reveries inspired by the precise angles and arches of the observatories constructed by Sawai Jai Singh, in Jaipur and Dehli, during the 18th century. If that sounds like an unlikely basis for a meditative discourse, the relentless flow of dream-like imagery pulls one into a space reflected in the silvery passage of migrating eels through dark waters and in the movement of stars across the night sky—a space that opens to an exploration of the nature of humanity, morality and society. One simply has to be willing to let go and follow the unspooling sentences:

Lovely is the science, sweet the words that follow the course of the elvers [eels at this stage of their life cycle] and tell us their saga, lovely and sweet and hypnotic like the silvery terraces of Jaipur where an astronomer in his day wielded a vocabulary just as lovely and sweet to conjure the unnameable and pour it onto soothing parchments, inheritance for the species, school lesson, barbiturate for essential insomniacs, and comes the day when the elvers have entered into the deepest depths of their hydrographic copulation, planetary spermatozoa already inside the egg of the high pools, in the ponds where the rivers settle down and dream, and the winding phalluses of the vital night calm down, bed down, the black columns lose their lithe erection advancing and probing, the individuals are born of themselves, separate off from the common serpent, feel their own way and at their own risk along the dangerous edges of ponds, of life; the time begins, no one can know when, of the yellow eel, the youth of the species in its conquered territory, the finally friendly water compliantly encircling the bodies at rest there.

Punctuating this mesmerizing text is a series of photographs taken by Cortázar himself at the observatories, and converted with the assistance of Antonio Gálvez into coarse, grainy black and white images. They provide a stark, antiquated contrast to the winding, lyrical prose.

There is an inherent sensuality to the language throughout—from the detailed descriptions of the eel’s extended journey, to the imagined sentiments of an Indian prince viewing the night sky, to the predicament of man seeking to make sense of life:

Nevertheless there Lady Science and her cohorts, morality, the city, society position themselves for ambush again: barely has one reached the skin, the beautiful surface of the face and the breasts and the thighs, the revolution is a sea of wheat in the wind, a pole vault over history bought and sold, but the man who steps out in the open begins to suspect the old in the new, bumps into those who’re still seeing the ends in the means, he realizes that in this blind spot of the human bull’s eye lurks a false definition of the species, that idols persist beneath other identities, work and discipline, fervor and obedience, legislated love, education for A, B and C, free and compulsory; beneath, within, in the womb of the redheaded night, another revolution must bide its time like the eels beneath the sargassum.

We move back and forth from Jai Singh’s observatories, constructed with mathematical precision as a response to the tyranny of the stars which for centuries had dictated the fate of his lineage, declining as he measured the skies; to the masses of eels, subject to the tyranny of genetic forces, irresistibly drawn through a long fresh water migration to ultimately return, mate and die, in the waters of the ocean. Within its two primary threads, From the Observatory, invites questions about the destiny of humanity, caught between passion and logic, nature and science, dream and reality.

Thoughtful and refreshing, this short book—barely 80 pages, roughly half given over to images—is the perfect accompaniment to a hot summer afternoon.

From the Observatory is translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, and published by Archipelago Books.

“It has been wonderful to know you”: My Tender Matador by Pedro Lemebel

September, 1986—spring in Santiago and rumours that the Dictator’s days are numbered are stirring the spirits of the determined, young idealistic members of the resistance. It has been another year of blackouts, street violence and police brutality. The setting is a lower-class neighbourhood where years of unemployment have taken a toll, buildings stand in disrepair, and a certain aging princess has found a castle to call her own:

. . . the scrawny house on the corner, three stories high with a staircase like a backbone leading to the room on the rooftop. From there could be seen the city in the shadows crowned with a turbid veil of dust. It was no bigger than a dovecote with three walls and a railing that was just wide enough for the Queen of the Corner—her hands moving as if playing on a marimba—to hang the sheets, tablecloths, and underpants out to dry.

Her dilapidated dwelling is decorated in style. Boxes festooned with fabrics, ribbons and dramatic imagination stand in for the finest furniture. Our heroine, a balding, drag-queen in her forties bearing the ravages of a rough life, is at last settled. As she embroiders linens for wealthy clients, and sings along with her favourite golden oldies on the radio, she dreams of Carlos, the handsome young student she met at the local store. He had approached her to ask if he could store some boxes of books in her home. She was not the silly old fool she allowed him to think she was, but—those eyes, that virile voice—how could she say “no”? Hopelessly smitten, she swoons like a schoolgirl, and soon more boxes arrive. Before long she agrees to allow a small army of students slip up the stairway to “study” in her rooftop room.

After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Thus begins My Tender Matador by late Chilean writer, Pedro Lemebel (1952-2015). With a queerly delightful energy, this is a love story that moves quickly and takes no prisoners. The Queen offers an unlikely refuge and serves as a convenient decoy for Carlos and his fellow Marxists. Caught up in a flutter of fluctuating emotions, especially when a string of days without a word from Carlos send her swinging between anger and anxiety, she berates herself for her infatuation. Her trannie sisters tease her wildly, but express their concerns, while Carlos himself is caught off guard by his own conflicted emotions. Something in the uninhibited joy and performative enthusiasms the Queen reveals moves him like no woman ever has. As her sensitivity to the political realities of the present are heightened, he is sent into revisiting a boyhood sexual initiation.

And yet, can anything come of this flirtatious friendship?

Running as counterpoint to the Queen’s story, is a second narrative stream featuring General Pinochet presented as a hen-pecked, weary, and paranoid old man. His wife’s constant nattering runs him down:

Oh, it’s just not fair; look at all these wrinkles I’m getting on my forehead, Augusto. Look, I have almost as many as you do, and I’m much younger than you are. It must be these difficult times we are living in, all the frights and frustrations I experience at your side. No other woman would have tolerated her husband being treated by the international press as a tyrant, a dictator, a murderer. And even though it is all lies, even though all Chileans know you saved our nation, don’t tell me it hasn’t been embarrassing. Yes, as I said, it’s a nightmare to think that all those penniless Communists who consider themselves writers blow their noses at you.

His only retreat is to sink back into dreams, seeking the comfort of his childhood toys. But even his dreams betray him, shifting into nightmares. What emerges is a portrait of a vain, paranoid, brittle, and homophobic man slowly losing his hold on power.

My Tender Matador is at once highly entertaining and politically astute satire. Lemebel weaves narrative with unmarked dialogue into seamless paragraphs that facilitate playful banter, emotional discharge, and the escalation of tension:

As she rushed down the stairs trying to straighten out her few remaining clumps of hair, she knew she wouldn’t say anything to him; she wouldn’t even bring it up. Anyway, Carlos was so careless she could forgive him for anything, as long as she could see him again in the doorway, like sun rushing out from behind the clouds, to offer explanations…. The young man as beautiful as an emerald was asking for her smile. How about a cigarette? he asked with his strawberry mouth, conquering her again with those puppy-dog eyes. What, did you think I was angry? But we had such a good time. Did you enjoy it? Anyway, the next time I go away, it might be forever. Carlos lowered his voice and looked at the mysterious boxes, and a curtain of emptiness unfurled over the moment. Then something pounded its way into her sissy-boy soul. Something Carlos was telling her contained a shard of truth. A fear, a foreboding, something intangible that darkened his pretty boy smile.

The flowery imagery and campy energy is infectious. The outrageous queerness that the Queen performs with her fellow transvestites is crude, and in today’s gay community which often endeavours to downplay and reject obvious femme presentations, there is a brash coarseness that rarely extends into contemporary gay-themed literary fiction. But the Queen of the Corner is not a caricature. She is drawn from the heart. A cross-dresser himself, Lemebel knows her intimately, and her story offers a romantic comedy into which he can throw his passions and concerns and allow them to play out on the page. In his obituary for The New Yorker, author Garth Greenwall portrays Lemebel as:

…a writer who called himself a “queen” (una loca) and “a poor old faggot” (un marica pobre y viejo), and whose style and obsessions were forged on the social margins and in political opposition. Lemebel defined himself against establishments of all kinds: against Pinochet’s military dictatorship, but also against the Marxist resistance that condemned homosexuality as a bourgeois vice; against the neoliberal consensus behind Chile’s “economic miracle,” but also against the L.G.B.T. activists who Lemebel believed were making commodities of queer suffering and queer lives.

Look closely, and one can see all of these undercurrents coursing through the repartee, antics and drama of My Tender Matador.

But it is the simple human need to love and be desired that gives it its soul.

Translated by Katherine Silver, My Tender Matador is, to date, the only one of Lemebel’s novels to have been translated into English.

A methodical madness: Colonel Lágrimas by Carlos Fonseca

On a cold winter day, in a remote location high in the Pyrenees, an old man is bent over his desk intent on completing an ambitious, eccentric project. Time is against him. He is an enigma—reclusive and unknowable. And the goal of Carlos Fonseca (Suarez)’s infectious debut novel, Colonel Lágrimas, is to attempt to unravel and piece together the true identity of this strange man and the circumstances that led him to this place. But it’s no ordinary investigation and the colonel at the centre of attention is a military man only in his own imagination. He is, or rather was, a brilliant mathematician, a cryptic solver of abstract puzzles, who at the height of his fame, suddenly retreated from academia, embarking on a strange journey toward isolation and obscurity.

Our guide in this inquiry is a playful voyeur who follows the aged recluse through the course of a single day, spinning a fragmented, nonlinear narrative of anecdotes, historical asides, interruptions, and discursions. At times we are invited to observe our subject as if through a lens, sometimes zooming in to a level of pixelated hyper-reality. At other times we watch as an invisible (or unnoticed) presence, slipping into the frame to rustle around in his photographs and letters when the colonel is asleep or otherwise occupied. As readers we are complicit. Curiosity is mixed with a sense that we are invading the secret world of a man lost to the caprices of a second, doomed childhood:

Where is the border of the private? Where is the sentry to tell us when we should stop, draw a line, move no closer, and have a little respect? We imagine that at some point, when we’re getting too close, we’ll no longer see him and only the pixels of the background will be left, atmosphere with no storyline.

The pleasure of the intruder.

Much more than an exercise in intellectual and linguistic experimentation, the hero of Colonel Lágrimas is loosely based on the strange life of Alexander Grothendieck, the enigmatic German-born mathematician who played a major role in the development of modern algebraic geometry before suddenly abandoning his career in mid-stride, ultimately spending his later years in seclusion. Fonseca, who was born in Costa Rica and raised in Puerto Rico, grants his colonel a Mexican birth, a Russian Jewish mother given to painting the same volcano day after day, and anarchist father who fatally throws his lot in with the Spanish Republicans. There are crossovers and echoes with Grothendieck’s life which held its own share of mystery. But here we have a character on whom the spotlight can be dialed in much closer, even if we can never get inside his head, so to speak. In an interview published in Numéro Cinq, Fonseca describes his novel as the product of an intersection of his obsessions with the elusive German mathematician, with archives and archival novels, and with Chuck Close’s large portraits often composed of “pixels” created out of mini-paintings. Stylistically he says he sees his writing as, in some sense, a product of his origins, that is, as “the strange offspring of the Puerto Rican baroque writing, on the one hand, and Costa Rican minimalism and experimentation, on the other.”

Thus, by playing the voyeuristic detective narrator’s close observations of the colonel’s daily routine and his current effort to record the lives of three imagined alchemical divas against a collection of historical anecdotes we begin to build an image of an old man racing against time to contain an essence of a history he is trying to forget. Woven into the narrative are descriptions of faded photographs, aphorisms from his father’s notebook, and postcards from a long correspondence with Maximiliano, a Mexican who gets inextricably bound in his former hero’s eccentric archival efforts. Themes repeat, patterns form. And binding it all is the regular appearance of a doodled spiral of barbed wire and a complex algebraic equation that are assumed to be connected. Gradually, layer by layer, a picture starts to take shape.  The fragments are the pixels needed to construct a fuller portrait of the life of our solitary subject.

His is a life that crosses many of the major events of the twentieth century—the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, Vietnam—albeit a step out of time or logic, forever anachronistic. We learn that our “young colonel” rejected his past and began a lifelong pattern of slipping behind masks at an early age. He headed off, on his own, to occupied Paris, when he was ten. Within a few years he had adopted the role of an orphan. Later, having earned respect as a mathematical genius, he suddenly tosses it all to teach math in Vietnam during the war. At present, on the day we spend watching him in his absent-minded pursuits, he is engaged in writing the “autobiographies of other people,” his trio of historical divas. Or are they a means of assuaging a guilt that has driven his odd behaviour? That is not an easy question to answer.

There are two ways of approaching the colonel. You can see him from a distance, his romantic profile like a tired genius who finally surrendered to the madness of endless projects. Easy to see him in this genius-like aspect, prisoner of dementia, a captive of the memory of his traumatic childhood. More difficult though to approach him to the point of belief, to where we believe in his projects. To see him up close in his more criminal profile: no longer a genius, no longer mad, but rather a man who waited, patiently, until the day came that would strip him of his talent so he could sit down to write what he always wanted.

As a portrait of our stateless colonel is fleshed out in what is more a process of questioning, refining, and focusing possibilities—attempting to solve an individual life as an algebraic equation—it is impossible not to feel pity for this man who struggles with writer’s block, has an unknown audience waiting outside his bathroom door as he sings in the bath, is observed as he dresses up in his finest regalia, and critiqued as he performs a drunken oratory in what he can only assume is the guarded privacy of his own home. Examined as a collection of data, analyzed and psychoanalyzed in his waning days, he will not be allowed to slip quietly into obscurity.

And whether that would secretly please him or not, we will never know.

Colonel Lágrimas is translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell and published by Restless Books.