Civil war up close: Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez

“Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment.”
.                                                                  MARX

 So begins Blood of the Dawn, the devastating debut novel by Peruvian author Claudia Salazar Jiménez. This slender volume that captures, at gut level, the horror of the “Time of Fear”, the years when the Shining Path insurgency was at its most intense is tightly bound to the intimate feminine experience. It is an exercise with little narrative distance—one that takes three women from very different backgrounds, closes in on their unique perspectives, backgrounds, and motivations, and weaves back and forth between their stories. When their disparate trajectories intersect, their individual fates, at least in that time and place, become shockingly similar.

In 1980, a  fringe group of Maoist terrorists stole ballot boxes and burned them in the public square of the town of Chuschi, setting off a time of fear and violence that would, over the next twenty years, leave 70,000 dead. Set primarily during the first decade of this “People’s War,” Salazar Jiménez’s novel is a bold attempt to give voice to those not often heard. On both sides of the conflict.

There is Marcela, a disillusioned, yet idealistic teacher who is seduced by the message of the Shining Path and its charismatic leaders. Abandoning her husband and young daughter, she joins the battle. Her first person account is reported from prison, where she looks back at her childhood, early adulthood and her time with the guerilla group. In the face of regular interrogation she is still defiant, still holding on to a loyalty that cannot quite be dissolved despite the atrocities she has observed, participated in and experienced. Hers is a complicated narrative that takes the reader right into the conflicted reasoning, force of conviction, and group dynamics that shape a terrorist.

The women advance, marching along the gray patio. The first of them holds a banner with the image of Comrade Leader. Honor and glory to the proletariat and the people of Peru. Hair trained under green caps. Red blouses. Aquamarine skirts to the knee. Marching in formation. Educated in the shining trenches of combat. Jail others call it; prison. All at the same pace. Give one’s life for the party and the revolution. Banners of red flags with a yellow star. Torches in hand. Rhythm. Rhythm. Rhythm. Drum one. Drum two. Drum three. The feminine ferment rising. We travel a shining path. We struggle without truce to the end.

The second character is Melanie, a young photojournalist in love with a female artist who has moved to Paris. She imagines that the conflict in the mountains holds the story she is meant to record. A city dweller, she is quite unprepared for the harsh realities she finds. Her story is told in a first person present that highlights both her passions and her naivete. She will discover that her camera is neither welcomed by the villagers she meets, nor does it provide a shield against the sights, sounds and smells that will come to permeate her very being.

The next hamlet is a cloud of smoke. It’s hard to make out anything clearly. My camera feels heavier than usual. That’s fine; its weight anchors me to reality in this spectral place. What’s left when everything is done? Nothing. Where should I go look now? What should my lens focus on?

Finally, the truly innocent victim in the situation is the Indigenous peasant woman Modesta, who will lose everything as insurgents and soldiers repeatedly cross through her village, leaving a trail of rape, torture and murder. Her account is reported in the second person—a startling powerful perspective—until, toward the end when she finds her own voice and picks up her own thread. By then we see her slowly finding a resilience and strength that is fragile and determined at once, caught in war that makes no sense to her.

Every day at exactly four in the afternoon, new words parade into your ears just like the terrorists parade every morning. That if the class, they say, that if the proletariat, they say; that if the revolution, they say, that if the people’s war, they say, are saying, say. You only nod in agreement, already tuning out. They speak of people you don’t know, a certain Marx, a certain Lenin, a certain Mao, and a certain President Leader who is boss of them all. We’re all going to be equal, they say.

The atmosphere is claustrophobic. Wound through the plaited threads of the women’s stories are episodes of unattributed stream of consciousness and short quotes from political and philosophical sources. Repetition is employed to reinforce the relentlessness of the savage violence, and the point at which the narratives of the three protagonists blur in identical experiences of excruciating violation. The anonymity of the moment is in sharp contrast to the differing paths that lead each woman to that point, and the diverging courses their lives follow afterward. In an interesting Translator’s Note, Elizabeth Bryer brings to light some of the challenges of reflecting, in English, the different voices through use of rhythm, ideological focus and cultural references as appropriate to each woman.

In the end, Blood of the Dawn comes very close to risking losing its impact with the bludgeoning effect of the brutal tableau that unfolds. Fortunately this a spare, tightly controlled work and, to its credit, one that raises more questions than it answers, even leaving its own characters uncertain. A brave debut, indeed.

Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez is translated by Elizabeth Bryer and published by Deep Vellum.

 

Voices from the margins: Mundo Cruel by Luis Negrón

There seems to be considerable debate these days about where the line should be drawn between the literary license to imagine and the appropriation of  voices of those of different genders, sexualities, cultures, ethnicities and racial identities. What was once considered acceptable is now questioned. And, although race is often considered a boundary to be respected or only be crossed with exceptional care, in a highly stratified cultures, class or caste or ethnic heritage may also come in to play. The concern is that the dominant voice will not only be given more attention, but that others risk being reduced to stereotypes and caricatures.

I recently abandoned a book that, despite some very witty and engaging writing, seemed to be freely exploiting mental illness, poverty and family dysfunction as justification for a smart-assed narrator with all the warmth of a sociopath. Anyone who has been suicidal or lost a loved one to suicide will know it is no laughing matter. The charm quickly fizzled and turned to distaste for me. Apparently the poor and mentally ill are still fair game for slapstick humour and humiliation.

However, it is entirely different when the humour, social commentary or complex stories are owned from within a community, told by its members. That is, I would argue, the importance of supporting and encouraging contributions to literature, theatre, film and the arts from marginal voices.

Cue Mundo Cruel, a series of short, sharp stories that take you into the heart of a small community peopled with eccentric, mostly queer characters—a world that Puerto Rican writer Luis Negrón knows well. It is his own:

Santurce, Puerto Rico, once known as Cangrejos, meaning Crabs, but no longer. Santurce. Blocks and blocks full of doctor’s offices and temples—Catholic, Evangelical, Mormon, Rosicrucian, Espiritista, Jewish, and yoga-ist, if that’s what you call it. The stench of sewers 24/7. Unbearable heat. Reggaeton, old school salsa, boleros, bachatas, jukeboxes, pool halls, slot machines. Topless bars, Dominican bars, gay bars. Catholic schools, beauty schools, vocational schools, and schools where you can get a professional degree in just one year and without much homework.
.                       —from the “The Vampire of Moca”

A striking array of voices and personalities pass through the stories in this slender collection, and their lives are often disturbing, filled with misfortune, dark humour and an uncanny resilience. Most of the pieces are first person narratives, often presented as monologues or one-sided conversations, and, in one instance, as a series of increasingly desperate notes  without a reply. The opening piece “The Chosen One” will challenge a few readers with its precocious young narrator, gleefully recounting his very early initiation into sexual activity with boys and men, experiences bound, as he sees it, to his “special” role within the church. Crude, unnerving, and funny this is in its way a backhanded satire on the degree of sexual abuse that can and does occur. But our young narrator refuses to see himself as the victim. His story sets the stage for the hustlers and the heartache that re-emerges in later stories, but it is not typical. Truth be told there is no “typical” here at all.

What is remarkable about this collection is the variety—each story is different in style and tone. Negrón channels a wide range of characters with compassion and affection, even those who espouse homophobic and xenophobic views, allowing each to demonstrate his or her own narrowness or generosity. The one-side conversations and observed dialogues are particularly effective in this regard, allowing us to eavesdrop, without further comment. The infectious, campy energy of “La Edwin” offers a perfect example:

Ahá! . . . Listen, changing the subject, did La Edwin call you? . . . Yes, Edwin. The one who thinks she’s a man. Honey, the one from the support group . . . That’s weird because that little queen is calling everybody . . . Yeah, her, that’s the one . . . Oh I didn’t know they called her that. You’re bad, girl, bad, bad . . . Well she called me last night, drr-unk out of her mind . . . Saying that he felt all alone, that for him it was difficult to deal with all this shit, meaning gayness . . . I let her go on . . . So she could get it out of her system. Wait a second, I’m getting another call . . . Aló, aló. Aló, aló. How weird, they hung up . . . The thing is, a man left her . . . Yeah, girl, she got involved with one of those lefty fupistas who plant bombs and want the ROTC out of the university . . . Yeah, girl, since they can’t liberate the motherland, they’re going to liberate themselves sexually.

It’s a fun little romp, but the story it tells about queer identity and sexual insecurity is serious.

Most of the stories in Mundo Cruel are quite short, or rather, as long as they need to be. None feel like they are dragged out too far, preferring to offer snapshots of life in this marginalized community. As is typical, some are stronger than others. Likely each reader will have their own favourites. For me it is the sad, but beautiful, story, “The Garden”. Set in the late 1980s, it is the account of a love affair between a young man and his older lover who is dying of AIDS. Nestito’s boyfriend, Willie, shares a house with his sister Sharon who has a longstanding, secret love affair of her own. Together the three of them make an odd, but happy family. As Willie nears the end of his life they plan a party. Another indication of Negrón’s versatility, this is by far the tenderest, most heart-wrenching piece in the collection:

I lay down next to Willie. He had recently taken a bath. He had changed with me ever since he became bedridden. For months he ignored me as at the party where we had met. I wasn’t me, I was part of a duo with Sharon. “You two this, you guys that.” I looked closely at his body and passed my hand over his chest. His armpits were tender ground for little flowers. I hugged him gently. His bones felt fragile. Body, host. Orchard fed with alien nutrients. I sought his face, kissed the dry sores, brushed away an eyelash that rested on his cheek. I looked into his eyes and found, finally, after eight months and sixteen days, desire.

Only 91 pages long, Mundo Cruel offers a wonderful introduction to a skilled, sensitive storyteller and the strange, sometimes dark little corner of the world he knows and clearly loves.

Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and published by Seven Stories, I read this book as part of the Spanish/Portuguese Literature  Month (and, to be fair, the tail end of Pride as well).

The interconnectedness of being in the world: Nocilla Dream by Agustín Fernández Mallo

One thing that struck me as I threaded my way through Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream—the first part of his three-part Nocilla Project—in this second year of the Trump presidency is that a new level of unreality has descended on this sorry globe rendering some elements of this inventive blend of fiction and nonfiction decidedly quaint, like a relic of another time. In this exercise, fragments drawn from literary, scientific and technical sources form the web or framework around which a clutch of stories featuring eccentric characters circulate. The centre point is rooted in a distinctly European-imagined American west. But this web was woven in the early/mid-2000s (the original Spanish language release was published in 2006) and now, in 2018, we’re not in in the same American, let alone global, landscape anymore. Ours is one more bizarre than any Fernández Mallo imagined.

In an interview with 3:AM Magazine, the Spanish writer—and trained physicist—explains the philosophy underlying his approach to his work, something he describes as “complex realism”:

…what I’m suggesting is that the writer must be realist, always realist, but not realist in the sense we have usually used the term in literature. If reality today is different from the reality of 30 years ago, we can’t keep describing reality in the same way as we did 30 years ago. Today we understand that reality corresponds to a model — or, even better, the sum of various models — which in science are termed “complex systems” — not complicated or difficult, that’s a different thing! This complexity is what creates that which we all know — the World — is connected in a system of networks — and I’m not referring only to the internet but also to thousands of analog networks in which we are all immersed at every instant. Until a short time ago, we knew the world in parts, whereas now we know that those parts are all connected through a system of networks with a very concrete topology.

The fundamentals that hold this project together are still every bit as valid, but the consequences of interconnectedness are just that more unnerving in light of the disturbing, current state of the United States.

Nocilla Dream unfolds over a series of 113 segments. One encounters fragments drawn from computer science, physics, literature, filmography, and more woven into a series of stories, character sketches and narratives that diverge and dovetail to form one multifaceted, strangely cohesive whole. Even the most random pieces fit somewhere into a larger zone of interconnection, in time, place, or theme. It is, in a sense, a conceptual novelistic experience. And, rather than being showy and intertexually obscure, it is a highly readable book that becomes even more engaging the further you move into it, as odd connections are made, strange eccentric characters emerge and pass through, and the assorted references and reflections begin to add up to some logic of their own.

While in many respects Nocilla Dream is groundless—that is, it exists beyond the framework of any particular story, location or collection of facts—there are some central motifs and ideas that provide a degree of orientation and link, however loosely, a disparate set of solitary or peculiar souls spread across the globe. The primary one is a desolate stretch of road with a curious attraction:

Indeed, technically its name is US Route 50. It’s in Nevada and it’s the loneliest highway in North America. Passing through semi-mountainous desert, it links Carson City and the town of Ely. A highway in which, it ought to be stressed, there is precisely nothing. Nothing. A 260-mile stretch with a brothel at either end. In conceptual terms, only one thing on this entire route vaguely calls to mind the existence of humanity: a poplar tree, the only one that found water, with hundreds of pairs of trainers hanging from its branches.

The highway with this singular feature becomes the perfect centralizing image. One that could easily fall into cliché, or worse, a nod to magic realism, but it is not. This book is at once too imaginative and too pragmatic for that. Crossing the landscape we have an assortment of characters including a  wandering ex-boxer, lovelorn prostitutes, an Argentinian architect and devotee of Borges who suffers a crisis of faith, the self-proclaimed citizens of several scattered micronations, competitive surfers, expats in China, an elderly American artist who moves to Madrid where she secludes herself in her apartment  and, because the primary locus is America after all, an illegal immigrant who hopes to disappear in a remote place. No character takes on a leading role, if you will, though some have a greater presence than others. All are essentially portraits, photographs fleshed in a little more detail than the images in the suitcase abandoned by a dedicated collector of the photographs of strangers—but not much more. Some narrative pieces are replayed, spread out in fragments and vignettes, while others pass quickly. But in the end they stack up nicely. Meaning filters through.

Reflections, observations and quotes from articles, textbooks and literary works are woven into the flow of micro-narratives, providing a conceptual backdrop against which the novel’s construction can be understood.

If there isn’t any space there isn’t any light. The world is unthinkable without light [Heraclitus said it, Einstein said it, the A-Team in Episode 237 said it, and many others besides]. And yet, inside everyone’s bodies all is darkness, zones in the Universe never touched by light – or, if touched by light, only because of illness or decomposition. It’s unsettling to think you exist because this death exists inside you, this zone of endless night. It’s unsettling to consider that the inside of a PC is more alive than you are, that in there everything’s completely lit up.

Linking and playing with images and ideas like this, Fernández Mallo suggests, arises quite naturally from his background as a poet. He is comfortable with thinking on a symbolic level and yet “these metaphors and connections or modal links must be rich in meaning, rich in symbolism, and they must say things which haven’t been said before, they must truly ‘construct reality’.” This construction is neither forced nor superfluous. There is no obligation to fill in all the missing pieces, draw all the lines. Just the opposite. Nocilla  Dream is a novel which is richer for all its abstracted, empty space.

Of course, against the backdrop of the last few weeks of erratic policy issuing forth from the Twitter account-driven agenda of the US President, this book has an extra surreal tone. Prescient or nostalgic? Only time will tell.

Nocilla Dream by Agustín Fernández Mallo is translated by Thomas Bunstead and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

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.