Round and round: 33 Revolutions by Canek Sánchez Guevara

The unnamed protagonist of 33 Revolutions, a stark, relentless portrait of life in Castros’ Cuba, is a divorced, black man—a misfit who chafes against the collective tedium of his existence until he is forced to decide, like so many before him, what, if anything, holds him to his wretched island nation. The revolutionary bloom is long off the Communist rose that once held his hopes and enthusiasm. With weary resignation, he shuffles off to his ministry job day after day, enjoying the few privileges afforded by the little bit of extra money sent to him from his mother overseas, but it is a hollow existence:

Duty and desire. Angrily, he bangs out his dilemma on the typewriter until the paper is perforated with periods and commas. His desire is to be alone in his office, in this city, in this country, and never to be disturbed. Monotony is expressed in a thousand ways and acquires various signs. Work, radio, new bulletins, meals, free time: I live in a scratched record, he thinks, and every day it gets a bit more scratched. Repetition puts you to sleep, and that sleepiness is also repeated; sometimes the needle jumps, a crackling is heard, the rhythm changes, then it sticks again. It always sticks again.

33Threaded through the thirty-three brief chapters of this slender novella, are two repeated refrains: the scratched record and the suffocating tropical heat. This imagery is employed so incessantly that it begins to wear a groove that could, in a longer or less deftly handled work, easily become irritating. Instead, the sheer beauty of the language lends the repetition a peculiar freshness. And that is exactly the intention. Tedium and repetition can be borne, can even seem bearable. Until one day it isn’t, and then all bets are off.

The author of 33 Revolutions, Canek Sánchez Guevara, inherited a proud and defiant spirit  from his grandfather, the famous Marxist revolutionary who fought alongside Fidel Castro. At the age of 22, he rejected the dictatorial politics of his homeland, and left for Mexico where he became a writer, graphic designer, and heavy metal guitarist. He was dedicated to writing and speaking out against Cuba’s single party system and its attendant human rights abuses until he died unexpectedly in 2015, at the age of 40. This hypnotically engaging novel allows his voice to continue on.

With a sense of absurdity that Kafka would appreciate, Sánchez Guevara creates, in his hero, a man who is aware that he stands at odds with the world around him. He finds refuge in books and an incongruous fondness for avant-garde music. He is aware that his life is paradoxical, verging on metaphysical weirdness that is both a blessing and a curse. And this painful self-knowledge does nothing to protect him from the monotony that curses his days or the vivid nightmares that haunt his sleep. He understands his reality all too well:

He looks down at the sea again and drinks straight from the bottle. Behind him, the dirty, beautiful, broken city; in front of him the abyss that suggests defeat…. We win by isolating ourselves, and in isolating ourselves we are defeated, he thinks. The wall is the sea, the screen that protects us and locks us in. There are no borders; those waters are a bulwark and a stockade, a trench and a moat, a barricade and a fence. We resist through isolation. We survive through repetition.

As this ceaseless repetition begins to weaken him, our protagonist’s disaffection grows. An undercurrent of protest starts to build within him, fueled by the oppressive heat and boredom. He had long managed to hold his distance, to stand apart from both the street corner reactionaries and the huddled gossips distorting what the rumours passed down to the masses—but this continual buffering against the insidious mechanisms of state control, starts to wear him down like, well, the needle on a scratched record.

The heat is criminal—it melts neurons, incites to violence, multiplies fertility tenfold. There isn’t a beer for miles around (or water, or a barley drink, or anything that can be bought with national currency). Nothing belongs to me, he thinks. And what about me, do I belong to anything? (The scratched record plays insistently.)

His rebellion starts passively, opting out and feigning sick, but in that act the course is turned.

He finds himself drawn to the shore. His experiences, not only of the city around him but the uncertain and desperate promise that waits beyond the waves, is mediated through the lens of his camera. The frame of the viewfinder becomes his means of contextualizing himself in the world and a focuses his hopes for a possible future elsewhere. Everyone seems to be leaving—his doctor, an old friend from school, groups of kids clinging to rafts of questionable seaworthiness. The camera with its ability to play with depth of field, becomes his tool in an attempt to tell an alternate story, take control of and document his own fate.

This brief novella hits hard. Harder perhaps in the light of Fidel Castro’s recent passing, and in the desperation of migrants risking the seas for a better life elsewhere. The anguish that comes through personal and powerful, and it is more important than ever that we stop for a moment to listen.

33 Revolutions, by Canek Sánchez Guevara is translated  by Howard Curtis and published by Europa Editions.

You say you want a revolution? The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas

DROOL: I wish we could have gone to Stanford together, Leo.

MICROPHONE: I haven’t thought about you in years.

DROOL: We could’ve spiked our Who’s Most Pedantic with courses on phenomonlogy,  econometrics, non-retrogradable rhythms.

MICROPHINE: Only what end continues, pig.

DROOL: I would’ve been happier staying in Guayaquil with you and arguing with you about everything.

MICROPHONE:  Yet another half truth.

DROOL:  I’m sorry Leo I . . .

MICROPHONE: You really think you have to confess all this to me?

DROOL:  Everything’s implicit and not implicit.

MICROPHONE: Do you feel better now?

DROOL:  Momentarily. No.

MICROPHONE: How many times do you have to re-imagine a heart-felt reunion until it replaces  the memory of our paltry reunion?

The attempt to write a review of Mauro Javier Cardenas’ debut novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States, finds me a little at a loss for words. Fortunately, Cardenas is never at a loss for words. Words tumble forth, careen across the page, distort the lines between English and Spanish, (falling entirely into Spanish for two short chapters extolling, if titles be trusted, grandmotherly advice), and, sometimes, sometimes he offers snatches of dialogue, scripted even. This is a multi-voiced celebration of language, capturing in its best moments, the complicated mess of thoughts, emotions, and memories that course through the minds of his protagonists.

revolutionariesThe beating heart of The Revolutionaries lies in nostalgia for the idealism of youth, and the loss of faith in one’s ability to be a force for change. It is, essentially, about growing up, and the inevitable sadness that entails. Yet old dreams, it seems, die more readily for those who have the least to lose; whereas they crumble in agony for those who have little to begin with, and thus the most to lose.

The central character is Antonio. Upon graduation from an exclusive Jesuit-run boy’s school in Guayaquil, he had had the good fortune to be able to leave Ecuador, to study at Stanford University. In the US, he soon fell in love with avant-garde music and flirted with the notion of becoming a pianist. By the time we meet him he is working as a database analyst, projecting a life built on myths that draw on the appeal of his Latin American exoticism. He allows others to imagine he comes from a family of great wealth, and strains his credit cards to dress the part. He is living the migrant’s life of fantasy-meets-reality and it’s taking a toll:

I drink so I can bear talking to people, Antonio wrote. I acknowledge my conversational alcoholism. The more people converse with me, the more alcohol I am bound to imbibe. My liver, that most handsome of organs, was heard gossiping to my other organs about the absurdity of my social neurosis. Thank god my kidneys stood up for me and said shut up liver, you’re drunk again.

When his childhood friend Leopoldo calls him from Ecuador to report that there has been a coup and suggest that perhaps it is finally time for them to have a horse in the political game, Antonio heads home after twelve years away. What unfolds, more than productive action moving forward, is a replay of past memories, mediated by banter between the two friends, and featuring cameo appearances by other members of their former social group. They fall into using old nicknames, and rekindle past glories and grievances. Behind it all is a deep nostalgia for a time in their lives when their faith was grounded in a belief that they could make a difference in the world. As adolescents, under the guidance and inspiration of their beloved Father Villalba, the boys would visit the ill and catechize to the poor—they harboured a sense of being chosen, and Antonio even dreamed of becoming a priest for a while.

A third friend whose story plays out against those of Antonio and Leopoldo, is Rolando. He had not enjoyed the same relative financial advantages as the others, and together with his girlfriend Eva, he is struggling to broadcast a little reactionary radio program for better or worse. Their concerns are more immediate, the risks they take are greater, and even if the effect is small, they are actually trying to do something. But their relationship is complicated by unspoken losses—Rolando’s sister’s escape to America and Eva’s brother’s disappearance and death.

This is a novel that is looking back and stumbling forward at once. Little progress is made. That is the point and that is not the point. The realities of Ecuador’s political and economic uncertainties are an ever present backdrop, one that steps forth with particular brutality toward the end in the stories of the two female characters. But all of the main male characters seem to be mired in their own pasts, for all their vain talk of revolution. What rises to the surface is a profoundly human blend of nostalgia, loss, guilt, casual racism, sexism, and masculine insecurity. But there is also humour. This book is a startlingly infectious read.

To bring the story to life, Cardenas employs a wide range of narrative techniques from the modernist to the boldly experimental–slipping in and out of perspective and style as needed to keep a strong link to the interiority of most of his key characters. One chapter which follows Antonio’s thoughts upon his return to his mother’s home in Guayaquil, consists of a single sentence extending over twenty pages. Elsewhere, too, long sentences—interrupted by asides, imagined banter, or stretches of dialogue—are common. Here Antonio, preparing to meet with Leopoldo for the first time since his return, thinks back to their teenage games (Drool and Microphone were their respective nicknames):

… although Antonio doesn’t remember the exact content of the Who’s Most Pedantic exchanges by Don Alban’s cafeteria, he does remember that their game consisted of refuting each other about everything, spoofing the pompous language of the demagogues, priests, themselves, digressing manically about reforms they would enact to transform Ecuador—external debt, what is?—Leopoldo shaking Antonio’s hand whenever he won and declaring Always Above You, my friend, and if Leopoldo were a woman, Leopoldo would have been at ease in Antonio’s life in San Francisco because all of his friends in San Francisco had been women, as opposed to his former life at San Javier, where all his friends had been teenaged boys who expressed their affection by taunting each other with homophobic insults or misogynistic interpretations of the language between husband and wife—where’s your husband, Drool?—Microphone’s at home ironing my shirts, where else?—and if Leopoldo were a woman Antonio would be able to say, I’ve missed you, Leopoldo…

The tone is decidedly different when the narrative turns from Antonio, Leopoldo and their more privileged classmates, to focus on Rolando and Eva. Here the pace is even more frantic. Their protest is immediate—on radio airwaves and street corners. With rumours that El Loco, the flamboyant former President, Abdalá Bucaram, who ruled Ecuador for less than a year in the mid-90s, might be returning, Rolando reaches out to the poor and dispossessed on his makeshift radio station:

Ladies that’s the perfect segue to our contest about what would you like to call our interim president?—Puppet of the oligarchy—Very nice Doña Aurora—Pompous pajorreal—We’re warming up folks—Bestia con terno—Keep them coming comrades—Radio Nuevo Día / la radio al día—Up next how to cook a seco de chivo without the chivo—Baah—Speaking of chivos—El Loco is said to be returning from exile in Panamá—Who’s voting for that thief?—If you tell me you’re voting for Loco I’ll go loco—Has anyone seen the mansion of this leader of the poor?—Call now!

By engaging a range of narrative voices—at the personal and the socio-political level—visions of romantic idealism meet the harsh realities of class division. The shifts in perspective and energy keep The Revolutionaries Try Again moving at sharp pace, yet for all the sensation of being in freefall, Cardenas’ novel is, in fact, a tightly orchestrated achievement. In an interview published at Electric Lit, Cardenas shares a spreadsheet tracking the characters, conversations and narrative styles employed in one scene of the book. And this attention to detail at the formative level is what makes this cacophonous work succeed. Transitions between monologue and dialogue, present and past, are so smoothly handled that the reader is swept along with the sheer literary enthusiasm. But make no mistake, this is a novel that is as enjoyable to read as it is fundamentally melancholy and devastating at its very core.

The Revolutionaries Try Again is published by Coffee House Press.

Homecoming – Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horatio Castellanos Moya

In the note appended to the 2007 re-issue of Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, author Horatio Costellanos Moya describes how a playful exercise in imitation led to very frightening death threats. Within a week of the book’s publication in 1997, his mother called to warn him against returning to El Salvador as he had planned. The immediate and hostile reaction indicates that not only was the element of satire missed, but the miserable misanthropic protagonist’s exaggerated rants were not entirely without grounds. But what angered some, impressed others, and the little book has endured, inspiring study, debate, and requests from citizens of other Central American countries for Castellanos Moya to similarly skewer their troubled nations. And now, at last, this incendiary novella is available in English from New Directions, in a no-holds-barred translation by Lee Klein.

RevulsionPresented with exuberant Bernhardian spirit, Revulsion is a relentless parody of the Austrian writer’s trademark style. The rhythms, repetition, and tone of Bernhard’s classic works are evoked along with a brutal, insistent ravaging of El Salvador and its capital city that is reminiscent, if not even more graphically emphatic, than the famous rants Bernhard routinely leveled against his own native country.

The eponymous narrator here, in a role common to many Bernhard novels, is on the receiving end of a breathless monologue recorded over the course of one single paragraph that stretches for more than 80 pages. The speaker is Edgardo Vega, a professor of art history who fled El Salvador for Montreal at the age of eighteen. Now, a further eighteen years later he has returned for the first time, to attend his mother’s funeral and ensure that her house is sold so that he can secure his claim on his share of her estate. To say there is no love lost between Vega and his native country would be an understatement.  His most prized possession is his Canadian passport, if he is proud of anything it is his successful escape from the pathetic aspirations of his middle class brother, the crime, the social decay, and the miserable dearth of anything resembling class or culture in San Salvador.

San Salvador is horrible, Moya, and the people who populate it are worse, they’re a putrid race, the war unhinged everyone, and if it was already dreadful before I took off, if it was unbearable for my first eighteen years, now it’s vomitous, Moya, a truly vomitous city where only truly sinister people can live, which is why I can’t explain why you’re here, how you can be around people who are so repulsive, around people whose greatest ambition in life is to be a sergeant; have you seen them walk, Moya?

No custom, institution or individual is left unscathed. Vega rails against his brother who owns a lock and key business, but shows no interest in books or art or anything beyond the most pedestrian popular music. He has less respect for his “ex-clothing store clerk” wife and his two “pernicious” boys who spend their time glued to the television set and have the audacity to call him Uncle Eddie. Even the old school friend with whom he is sharing a few hours at the local bar, a place he tolerates only in the quiet hours between 5:00 and 7:00 pm, is not entirely free from a measure of Vega’s contempt. The patient narrator’s literary ambitions are soundly ridiculed. In this way, Castellanos Moya is mocking himself, as he allows his ranting character to eviscerate his country.

The famished little stories about sex and violence aren’t worth it, I say this to you with affection, Moya, you’d be better off staying in journalism or another discipline; but at your age to be publishing these famished stories is a pity, said Vega, no matter how much sex and violence you put into them, there’s no way these famished little stories will transcend. Don’t waste your time, Moya, this isn’t a country of writers, it’s impossible for this country to produce writers of quality; it’s not possible for writers who are worth it to emerge in this country where no one is interested in literature, art, or any manifestation of the spirit.

As Vega’s account of the indignities to which he as thus far been subjected over the course of his return to his home town builds to a hilarious conclusion, one can feel the enthusiasm with which this exercise in imitation was created. Imagery is pushed to a vile extreme in places and, as much as humour slides through, the polemic unleashed against El Salvador is merciless. Castellanos Moya captures Bernhard’s tone and style with an almost pitch perfect delivery right down to the surprise ending. But with a protagonist who spits enough venomous spleen to make Bernhard’s most hyperbolic vitriol read like an afternoon at a Sunday school picnic, it is little wonder the satire was lost on some readers. All the same, for those who love the infectious wit and humour of the Austrian master, Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador is a wonderfully entertaining look at post-Communist El Salvador through a very dark lens.

Poets, artists and other lost souls: Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolaño

A poet can endure anything. Which amounts to saying that a human being can endure anything. But that’s not true: there are obviously limits to what a human being can endure. Really endure. A poet, on the other hand, can endure anything. We grew up with this conviction. The opening assertion is true, but that way lie ruin, madness, and death.

The individuals that populate the stories collected in Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth tend to be poets, writers, artists, and dreamers. Typically they are oddly groundless, restless beings who seem to drift through not only their own lives but through the lives of those they encounter. Most are either exiles or products of the Chilean diaspora, loosely set down or wandering between Mexico or Europe. As a result, their existences carry a ghostly aura, they are haunted by an otherness that is indefinable to themselves and obscures their relationships with others. The narrators or protagonists are unsure of their own memories, sometimes anxious and paranoid, sometimes bored and aloof–unwilling to trust, to fully engage with those around them.

eveningsIn this, my first encounter with Bolaño’s work, I found myself captivated by the misty melancholic mood, the affecting prose, and the characters, who are commonly struggling with the vagaries of what it means to be creative and to find value in life. Yet there is an underlying ambivalence, anxiety, and insecurity that lends the collection an atmosphere that can be unnerving and faintly depressing. And it can also tend to contribute to blurring of the edges of many of the stories so that a reader may, at the end, be left with a sense of appreciating the journey but losing track of the details that set many of the tales apart.

That is not to imply though that there are not stories that stand out. In my reading, my favourites were the ones that happened to strike me as especially sad, but then I read this book at the bedside of a dying parent. Sadness was the order of the day.

The title story follows a young man and his father on an ill fated holiday to Acapulco. Their days pass in relative calm, though a strain can be felt in the relationship between the two. The father wants to go out, have fun, while the son prefers more solitary outings and spends much of his time reading a book about surrealist poets and contemplating the fate of one particular poet, a minor writer who disappeared and was essentially forgotten by his peers. Father and son engage in aimless conversations that highlight their differing temperaments while the latter is haunted by a feeling of impending doom. For a time the imagined threat is held at bay:

Then the lull comes to an end, the forty-eight hours of grace in the course of which B and his father have visited various bars in Acapulco, lain on the beach and slept, eaten, even laughed, and an icy phase begins, a phase that appears to be normal but is ruled by the deities of ice (who do not, however, offer any relief from the heat that reigns in Acapulco), hours of what, in former days, when he was an adolescent perhaps, B would have called boredom, although he certainly would not use that word now, disaster he would say, a private disaster whose main effect is to drive a wedge between B and his father: part of the price they must pay for existing.

As the threat becomes real, the son’s passive reaction to all of the warnings that come his way add to a tension built on the very human ability to fail to act on one’s better instincts. Bolaño is a master at exploiting the ambivalence that erodes relationships. Again and again his characters prefer to observe rather than engage, things are left thought but unsaid until, very often, it is too late.

Another especially poignant story is ‘Mauricio (“The Eye”) Silva’. Here the narrator recounts the experiences of a fellow Chilean exile he meets in Mexico City. The Eye is described as a sensitive man, one who always tried to avoid violence, “even at the risk of being considered a coward.” He eventually finds work as a photographer and as his modest fortunes improve he develops a style of dress that sets him apart from other Chilean exiles and likely leads to the intimation that he is a homosexual–a designation received with considerable derision, even fear, by his fellow countrymen at that time.

One night the narrator encounters The Eye in a cafe. The description of his friend is striking. Bolaño’s characters seem to pay particular attention to the appearances of their friends and acquaintances, almost as if they are looking to read something lurking beneath the surface, an understanding, a message or an ulterior motive:

I sat down next to him and we talked for a while. He seemed translucent. That was the impression I had. The Eye seemed to be made of some vitreous material. His face and the glass of white coffee in front of him seemed to be exchanging signals: two incomprehensible phenomena whose paths had just crossed at that point in the vast universe, making valiant but probably vain attempts to find a common language.

On this evening, The Eye not only confirms his sexuality, but announces that he will be moving to Paris where he can live more openly and pursue the kind of photographic work he has always dreamed of. It will be years before they meet again. The narrator, now married with a child and published books to his credit, crosses paths with The Eye in Berlin and learns of the life altering, disturbing experiences his friend had in India. It seems that the man who had always tried to avoid violence has discovered, like other Latin Americans of his generation born in the 1950’s, that violence would ultimately find him, even on a distant continent.

The fourteen stories that comprise Last Evenings on Earth are imbued with a wistfulness that captures the spirit of dislocation of the exiled. But with his evocative, evenly paced prose Bolaño speaks to a borderlessness that many of us feel when we don’t fit in wherever we happen to be. It is, perhaps, the writer’s soul that responds, I don’t know. I feel at a loss to define it, in this, my first experience with his work, but I do know I will return for more.

Last Evenings on Earth is translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews and published by New Directions.

All the world’s a stage: On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes – My review for Numéro Cinq

My latest review for Numéro Cinq is now live. On the Edge by the late Rafael Chirbes has just been released in North America (New Directions) with a UK release forthcoming from Harvill Secker in July. This is an unforgiving portrait of Spain in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, through the eyes of one man who has lost everything:

On-the-edge

For the Spanish writer, Rafael Chirbes, there was no room in the creative process for an aesthetic devoid of ethics. As a documentarian of his native country, from the post-war years through the transition to democracy in the 1970’s, and on into the opening decade of the 21st century, the late author offered a defiant chronicle of the point where social, economic, and political dynamics intersect with the harsh realities of the human condition. He argued that if the artistic endeavour aims to stand at that intersection, no perspective could remain neutral:

A point of view situates you somewhere, in a location where potentialities—ways of being—battle one another. When you write, or paint, as when you read or look at something, you have to be conscious of the fact that the author wants to invite you to look where he’s looking. Your mission is to protect yourself. Know that they want to seduce you.

This advice, from a brief interview segment in A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction (Valerie Miles, Open Letter Books, 2014), should serve as fair warning before one enters into the emotional labyrinth that is Chirbes’ lauded ninth novel, On the Edge. Recently released by New Directions, in a measured yet lyrical translation by Margaret Jull Costa, this book will serve as highly anticipated introduction for English language readers, to a writer at the height of his powers: a writer who has chosen, in this instance, to stand on the rapidly shifting ground of a country in the throes of economic collapse.

Find the rest of the review here

Reality is a miracle… Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile

In a story titled “The Sea”, a couple vacationing on the Mediterranean make their way to the seashore each day where the husband joins the line of humans on the beach who sit staring at the water, mesmerized. The experience fills him with a sense of unease.

“The waves were never the same, although they may have repeated themselves in similar cycles. The meaning of the wave never went beyond being a rather comforting mystical murmur. But the sea seemed to express itself in ways superior to the wave, in whole unintelligible paragraphs and speeches, as rich in modes and forms as it was in depths and fishes. On the other hand, I understood nothing of what it said.”

thingsLike the vast sea with its hypnotic surface and hidden secrets, reality is a shimmering quantity in the hands of Spanish author Medardo Fraile. A master of the short story, he is able to distill an experience or sketch out an entire life span within a handful of pages. In this collection, Things Look Different in the Light, he breathes life into a wide variety of unforgettable characters – young or old, ordinary or eccentric. We meet weary professors, crafty spinsters, uncommunicative middle-aged couples, meek bachelors and curious children who don’t quite understand the world of adults. We even encounter inanimate objects that take on lives of their own rich with meaning and emotion, bound to and yet separate from the human with which they are associated.

Consider “A Shirt”, the simple fable of sailor who, after a single love affair, returns alone to his hometown to take up the life of a fisherman. Each day he dons the same tartan shirt until one fateful day when shirt is left behind on the line:

“At around four o’clock in the morning, with no wind to speak of, the shirt began to move. It flapped wildly about, anxious and empty, as if wanting to break free of the pegs gripping its shoulders. The flailing sleeves rose and fell, filled by the invisible lament of some terrible tragedy. They occasionally joined wrists or else stretched wide, arms spread.”

Or share the frustration of the lingerie salesman in “The Lemon Drop” who had imagined a literary career for himself and can’t quite come to terms with the place where life has left him. He wonders what happened to the scabby-kneed boy who used to go bird’s nesting and smoke on the sly:

“Now I never smoke. I used to own a pellet gun. I have big hands, like cowboys in the Wild West. And by ‘I’, I mean this person who is me. This weary fellow who walks home bent beneath the weight of his briefcase, which, one day, grabbed hold of his hand like a dog and feels equally weary.”

From the opening story about a tongue-tied man at a baby’s birthday party, set on edge by a woman he cannot bear to face, to the chillingly beautiful “Last Shout” in which a child recalls a beloved grandmother’s final months; you know you are in the presence of a gifted storyteller. He manages to adjust the focus to bring to light the details that are essential to the tale he wishes to tell. No more, no less. Simply perfect.

Born in Madrid in 1925, Fraile started his career in experimental theatre, a background that may well account for the spare, magical quality of many of his short stories. He left Spain in the 1950‘s, and although he would ultimately settle in Scotland, his work was not made available to English speaking readers until the release of this wonderful collection from Pushkin Press, translated by the renowned Margret Jull Costa, with a warm and enthusiastic introduction by Ali Smith. A fellow blogger, Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal first drew my attention to this book so I knew it was one that I wanted to read (sooner rather than alter, that is)  when it was longlisted for this year’s Best Translated Book Award. Things Look Different In the Light has progressed to the shortlist.

Medardo Fraile died in 2013.

In the window of a passing train: Faces In the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli

“All novels lack something or someone. In this novel there’s no one. No one except a ghost that I used to see sometimes in the subway.”

Faces in the Crowd, the debut novel from the young Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli, is indeed a book of ghosts. The narrator is a young wife and mother living in Mexico City. As she tries to carve out time and space to write a novel, she draws the reader into a reflective exploration of ghosts – the ghosts that haunt her present house, the ghost of a life she fell into living and working in New York City, and the ghost of Gilberto Owen, an obscure Latin American poet who lived in Harlem in the late 1920s.

And for a book of ghosts it is brilliantly, shockingly alive.

crowdThe novel opens with a deceptively simple narrative feel. Contemporary domestic life is played out against her reflections on her past life in New York City when she was younger, unencumbered and working as a translator for a small independent publisher. She catalogues the friends and lovers that drifted through her spare apartment. One day she happens to encounter the work of Gilberto Owen on a search for potential material for translation, but before long her professional interest turns into an obsession. She tries to pass off her translations of his work as translations by a better known poet, an attempt that comes dangerously close to succeeding. She rescues a dead plant from the roof of the building he once lived in. She imagines that she sees him in the subway – more than once. Finally it is clear to her that she must leave:

“In the subway, on my way home, I saw Owen for the last time. I believe he waved to me. But by then it did not matter, I’d lost my enthusiasm. Something had broken. the ghost, it was obvious, was me.”

For all the empty space in her earlier life, married life is clearly suffocating our narrator. She continually finds herself unable to breathe, struggling to focus on her writing in a large house, cluttered with toys, distracted by the demands of her children – simply referred to as “the boy” and “the baby” – and the jealous curiosity of her architect husband. As the fictionalized first person account of Owen’s life begins to assume a greater prominence within the story, her marriage starts to unravel (or perhaps she simply writes her husband into the background) while the overall narrative structure seems to disintegrate, boundaries blur. The novel within the novel becomes enmeshed with her day-to-day life, folding back on and re-envisioning the experiences recounted from her earlier life in New York. Or was that Owen’s life?

Echoing the continually reshaped game of hide and seek between mother and son running throughout this novel, Faces in the Crowd lays out a metafictional game of hide and seek. Can a horizontal novel be told vertically? How is such a story to be read? Where in translation does truth lie? And when can you play with truth? It winds up to a delightfully oblique ending. Or lack of ending – rather, an invitation to imagine, to reread.

I opened this book completely unprepared for the heart-stopping luminosity of the prose or the way that the narrative is fragmented and rebuilt to create a rich meditation on the nature of story telling. Valeria Luiselli demonstrates a maturity and confidence that belies her age without ever falling into a heavily somber tone. The translation by Christina MacSweeney maintains the lively, poetic flow of this impressive debut. I was pleasantly surprised by this intelligent and enjoyable read.

Faces in the Crowd has been longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award (BTBA).

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney                Coffee House Press, 2014