The Yogini by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

Tilted Axis, July 2019, 200 pp

Tilted Axis, July 2019, 200 pp

At the center of Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s The Yogini, translated from the Bangla by Arunava Sinha, is fate. A short preface to the novel explains the complexity of the word, ‘niyoti’ in the original. ‘Destiny’ has an unfortunate Disney connotation nowadays, yet ‘fate’ does not capture it fully either:

In India, though, nioti – or niyati in Sanskrit – can be unpacked to mean a lot more. The etymology provides a literal meaning of being led or carried, which can of course be interpreted as an absence of agency – the anguish about which drives this novel. […] In its earthly manifestation for human beings, niyoti/niyati is a constraining factor for the individual but still not real, only illusory.

The individual here is Homi, an urban married woman working in a successful Kolkatan TV company. She is progressively preoccupied by a vision of a hermit, who she sees lurking in the unlikeliest of places. Having dinner at a restaurant with his husband, she looks out the window and sees it once again – depicted with undertones of horror. I’m quoting this particular instance mainly to show Sinha’s great translation:

Thick streams of water rolled down the glass, and the red and yellow lights of the cars outside merged with the anarchic currents of liquid, appearing as smudged dabs of colour on a translucent canvas. Homi gazed at the wall, forgetting even to blink. Suddenly a pair of covetous eyes materialised through the water and the light beams, eyes that she had seen barely half an hour ago. Homi was unable to speak.

The hermit, who is either a real or imagined manifestation of fate, is described in sexually grotesque terms. He “stared at her with ghoulish desire in his eyes.” He haunts her as she has sex with her husband. Distressed by her inner struggle, she visits a palmist, who has more positive news for her: “You are your own fate”:

As I said, the influence that most people exert is missing from your life, madam. You consider no one close or distant, good or evil. You love no one, but nor do you respect or hate them. You simply don’t acknowledge the existence of others. You are the only person in your world.

Homi embarks on a journey against a predetermined future, and the story proceeds into different episodes depicting her attempts at living unchained by fate, including a trip to the holy city of Benares (Varanasi). There, outside Kolkata’s highly industrialized urban milieu, it seems Homi may after all find some peace of mind. However, it must be stated that I am not clear at all on geographical or cultural details here – let it be shamefully admitted that this is, if my memory serves, the first novel I have read by a Bengali author.

The Yogini hooks by its latent strangeness, balancing finely somewhere between reality and delusion. Labelling it as magical realism, however, would undermine a metaphoric interpretation of the hermit, which I would argue to stand for Homi’s emerging emancipation of pure female sexuality, unlimited by any specific partner she has along the way and unconstrained by the institution of marriage. But labelling it as a tale of female liberation would undermine it too. It is one of those novels that do not explain everything but rather welcomes different interpretations – a fine feature in a novel if you ask me.

Evolution by Eileen Myles

Grove Press, September 2018, 240 pp

Grove Press, September 2018, 240 pp

Diving into a collection like Evolution, having no previous experience of Eileen Myles’ vast oeuvre of modern poetry, may seem like a daunting task. But she writes swiftly, with ease, of everyday events. Her lines are strikingly short, often consisting of merely a word or two. They are sentences cut short; they ask to focus on each of the words, one at a time. At more than 200 pages, the effect is vertiginous, and it is easy to lose focus unless you’re equipped with some extra patience. I’m taking a random example here, ‘May 26’:

I keep
to tiny
gestures
sweet
William
dazzling orange
sky. My my
my my dying
new york.

Judging from a purely standalone perspective, as if I had read an anonymized manuscript of Evolution, the collection unfortunately doesn’t make a huge impression on me. The banality of everyday life, in my view, only rarely gets heightened here. Ultimately, I find myself much more in awe of the legacy of Eileen Myles and the important voice she’s been in the LTBTQ community for decades. For that, I’m curious to see whether Evolution is only a mishap in an otherwise impressive back catalogue – or if I simply do not get her poetry!

Mac’s Problem by Enrique Vila-Matas

New Directions (US), April 2019, 211 pp

New Directions (US), April 2019, 211 pp

At the confluence of literary criticism and the novel, Enrique Vila-Matas’ Mac’s Problem is a story of an unemployed 60-year-old aspiring writer. Seemingly a diary (Mac refuses to call it a novel), we follow his attempt to rewrite a short story collection written three decades a go by a now-famous acquaintance of his. As Mac rereads the collection, he realizes the stories mirror his own life in various ways.

Vila-Matas’ extensive literary career becomes apparent through Mac, in good and bad: it’s interesting to read Mac’s thoughts on a wide variety of authors including more recent names such as Alejandro Zambra and Samanta Schweblin, but it is also a little too evident that it is Vila-Matas speaking, not his narrator who has allegedly spent his life as a construction worker.

After a promising, lively start, Mac’s Problem soon dives into rather overwrought metatextual trickery that tests his readers’ patience. It is at times gruesome to follow Mac / Vila-Matas paraphrasing or quoting from an imaginary collection of short stories and muse what he would change to make his version better. On the other hand, Vila-Matas is often funny and clever, and the novel is superbly co-translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes, no small feat.

Feebleminded by Ariana Harwicz

Charco Press, May 2019, 117 pp

Charco Press, May 2019, 117 pp

In her follow-up to Die, My Love, Ariana Harwicz is just as brutal and intense as before. Co-translated by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff (who is also the wonderful director and editor of Charco Press), Feebleminded is a visceral account of a mother-daughter relationship in an unspecified village, and it follows the daughter’s complicated affair with a married man. It is a story full of sex and violence, saturated with alcohol, and written in nebulous but often poetic and associative language, as the very first lines of the novel reveal:

I come from nowhere. The world is a cave, a stone heart crushing you, a horizontal vertigo. The world is a moon slashed by black whips, by arrows and gunfire. How far must I dig before striking disdain, before my days burn. I could have been born with white eyes like the forest of stark pines, and yet I’m woken by volcanic ash on the garden clover. And yet my mother’s pulling out clumps of hair and throwing them on the fire.

It has been a peculiar couple of weeks in my reading life. I’ve been drawn toward some rather belligerent and grotesque reads – and reviewing them very favorably. Just recently, the Danish author Bjørn Rasmussen impressed me with The Skin Is the Elastic Covering that Encases the Entire Body, and I’m currently under the spell of David Keenan’s raucous For the Good Times, set amidst the unbearably violent conditions during the Troubles. But it’s not the violence itself that does it; there’s nothing fun in that. (I’m very much a pacifist who said no to compulsory military service.) It’s the ability of the author to evoke something more against the backdrop of utterly vain human tendencies to harm each other, and I think there’s a place in literature for examinations of such conditions. There’s violence everywhere around us in real life, anyway. Putting it into words may help to untie a knot or two, be it on a personal or social level.

I’m happy that Feebleminded didn’t let me down, because I couldn’t properly connect with Die, My Love. Although pleased for its Man Booker International nomination in 2017, which it surely deserved, I remember having the feeling that the author was pouring more and more disturbing scenarios on top of the reader as the novel progressed in a deliberate attempt to shock. Moreover, I might have been reading too many narratives of unredeemable, evil men, so that the book was simply too much at the time. However, with Feebleminded, I don’t get the feeling that Harwicz is doing this for mere shocks or creating cardboard men for the reader to despise. This feels full-fledged and balanced – if balanced is a word you can use to describe a story so dizzying and twisted.

One of the absolute strengths of the novel (as was of its precursor) is the format the story is presented in. It’s a joy for someone like me who’s always interested in the different ways that form can serve substance, and Harwicz’s style of writing in short chapters without any paragraph breaks or inverted commas that would indicate dialogue – ultimately resulting in a vertiginous feeling when you’re not sure anymore which character is talking – fits and intensifies the story just the right way. Each short chapter is one long cacophonous scream, maintaining its power due to its brevity. One could argue that the fervor is also the novel’s weakness, and I’m not even sure I will remember the plot for very long. But whether it matters that you remember the plot of a book or don’t is a question for another day. I’m fine with the feeling, the images, and the emotions this short little novel evoked in me.

The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada

Charco Press, July 2019, 114 pp

Charco Press, July 2019, 114 pp

Once again, he felt that he was an arrow burning with the flame of Christ. And the bow that is drawn to shoot that arrow as far as possible, straight to the spot where the flame will ignite a raging fire. And the wind that spreads the fire that will lay waste to the world with the love of Jesus. 

The Wind That Lays Waste, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, is Selva Almada’s first work to appear in English despite her success in Argentinian and more broadly Latin American literary scene for more than a decade, starting with a poetry collection published back in 2003. Here she is finally, thanks to Charco Press in the UK and Greywolf Press in the US, and it won’t be the last time the English-speaking world hears from her: her 2014 non-fiction book Chicos muertas, which revolves around Argentinian femicides in the 1980s, will appear in translation next year.

As the author has been proclaimed as one of the most influential feminist intellectuals of the region, The Wind That Lays Waste may come as a surprise in the way it seems not to take sides with this or that, and belongs more to the tradition of novels where each character is presented ambiguously in third person. In fact, the only one who is preaching here is literally a charismatic evangelical preacher called Pearson, whose car breaks down in the middle of rural Argentina. Together with his teenage daughter Leni, he discovers the workshop of a mechanic called Brauer (an atheist much to Pearson’s headache) and his assistant boy Tapioca, who, it turns out, is much more open to faith than his mentor. The dynamic relationship between these four characters during one day is what the novel presents on the surface, with occasional analepses to each character’s history.

It is a slow-paced story yet a quick read, seemingly simple. It puzzled me upon finishing, not sure what I was supposed to take away with me. In retrospect, I realize it is a rather intricately built novel: a subtle murmur (characters get to know each other) before the culmination in a bang (characters in conflict). A storm ensues. While Lear famously raged against the elements of nature 400 years ago, Pearson and Brauer rage against one another; it is always a curious setup when the natural world is brought to mirror the feelings and fallacies of humans. As Almada’s novel demonstrates, the tradition is still well alive. If nothing more, it gives the novel an increasingly drama-like atmosphere. I could easily visualize this adapted onstage. In this respect, the novel actually reminds me of another recent Charco publication, The German Room by Carla Maliandi, who in fact is a theatre director in Argentina as well as a writer.

It then occurs to me that The Wind That Lays Waste is a rather impressive study of characters: Almada puts different kinds of people into a tiny space and sees what happens, without judgment. Although, below the surface, I can sense a critique of the potential danger that charismatic male leaders pose to women. In one of the most striking and unpredicted paragraphs of the novel, we witness one of Pearson’s sermons: 

He reaches out at random and grasps the wrist of a woman who is crying and shaking like a leaf. Although the woman feels that her limbs are not responding, the Reverend takes hold of her and sweeps her up like a leaf in the wind. He places her at the front of the stage. The woman is sixty years old; her stomach is bulging as if she were pregnant. The Reverend kneels in front of her. He rests his face against her belly. Now, for the first time, he stops speaking. His mouth opens. The woman can feel the open mouth, the Reverend’s teeth biting the fabric of her dress. The Reverend writhes. The little bones of his spine move like a snake under his shirt. The woman can’t stop crying. Her tears are mixed with snot and drool. She opens her arms; her flesh sags. The woman cries out and all the others cry with her. The Reverend stands up and turns toward the congregation. His face is red and sweaty, and there is something caught between his teeth. It is slimy and black. He spits it out: a scrap of fabric that reeks of the Devil. 

With such vivid passages as the above (as well as the quote that I started the review with), I am prone to rate The Wind That Lays Waste nothing but favorably: dynamic, subtly crafted, and ambiguous is a recipe that tends to work for me.

Oh, and as I am typing this review, the rain starts to fall outside and I can hear the low rumble of thunder.

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power by Stephen Greenblatt

Bodley Head, May 2018, 212 pp

Bodley Head, May 2018, 212 pp

“From the early 1590s, at the beginning of his career, all the way through to its end, Shakespeare grappled again and again with a deeply unsettling question: how is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant?” Stephen Greenblatt, the renowned Shakespeare scholar commonly associated with the New Historicist branch of literary criticism, begins his newest book on the Bard with a sentence that has clear reference to the current political climate in the US. And so, in the acknowledgments in the back of the book, he writes:

Not so very long ago, though it feels like a century has passed, I sat in a verdant garden in Sardinia and expressed my growing apprehensions about the possible outcome of an upcoming election. My historian friend Bernhard Jussen asked me what I was doing about it. “What can I do?” I asked. “You can write something,” he said. And so I did.

What Greenblatt is essentially doing in Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power is a reading of various Shakespeare’s plays with an eye on the ways that tyrants come to power and then maintain it. The history plays offer an obviously fertile ground for Greenblatt’s analysis, and in his chapter on Richard III, for instance, he says the following about the notorious king, but quite knowingly refers to his modern-day counterpart:

He has always had wealth; he was born into it and makes ample use of it. But though he enjoys having what money can get him, it is not what most excites him. What excites him is the joy of domination. He is a bully. Easily enraged, he strikes out at anyone who stands in his way. He enjoys seeing others cringe, tremble, or wince with pain. He is gifted at detecting weakness and deft at mockery and insult. These skills attract followers who are drawn to the same cruel delight, even if they cannot have it to his unmatched degree. Though they know that he is dangerous, the followers help him advance to his goal, which is the possession of supreme power. … He know that those he grabs hate him.

Greenblatt is persuasive, and it is hard not to agree with his more or less explicit sentiments, but from a purely informational basis Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power leaves a somewhat mild aftertaste – not that Greenblatt isn’t erudite, quite the opposite, but as patriarchy and Shakespeare is quite a studied combination in academia already, I couldn’t but be a little disappointed in, for example, the small number of secondary sources provided. It might give the impression that what Greenblatt is doing here is completely novel, while in truth it has decades old tradition in various books and journal articles. But for a non-academic reader, who has preferably read at least a handful of Shakespeare’s plays, Greenblatt’s intention overrides the book’s deficiencies. Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power offers a timely evaluation of the art of power and the power of art, in an age when a production of Julius Caesar in New York may be interrupted by a rightwing protester.

Trick by Domenico Starnone

Europa Editions, March 2018, 191 pp

Europa Editions, March 2018, 191 pp

Domenico Starnone’s Trick, translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri, is an exquisitely written tug of war between light and dark, old and young, brooding and play. Set in the confines of a Neapolitan apartment, where the 75-year-old illustrator Daniele looks after his 4-year-old grandson Mario, whose parents are away attending a conference, the novel packs a lot of ideas into the small space: Daniele’s ghosts of his past manifest in the nooks and crannies of the house in a story that occasionally verges on the Gothic, mirroring his current work as an illustrator of Henry James’ short story “The Jolly Corner.”                                

What immediately strikes me is Starnone’s concise way of writing. There is an ease to the language, presumably thanks to Lahiri’s translation too, that plays into the novel’s general sense of deceptive simplicity. In a way, the novel tricks the reader into a seemingly straightforward narrative, yet a lot is bubbling underneath, surfacing only later when glimpses of Daniele’s internal monologue are revealed to the reader. What does not necessarily come apparent in the translation is the story’s rich tonal register, of which I had no idea while reading but which Lahiri notes in her illuminating albeit a little hyperbolic introduction (which should be considered more as an afterword than an introduction, I think). Neapolitan dialect underpins one of the novel’s main tensions, as Daniele reconfigures his identity when entering the city of his childhood, having lived his adult life in Milan.

Essentially a miniature drama of ideas, it’s amusing to witness how the tension between the young child and his grandfather unfold in a short period of time. Simple dialogue with the child meets internal reflection, like here where Daniele contrasts himself against the laughing Mario:

Even the delighted violence that gurgled from that wide-open mouth, exposing its tiny teeth, disturbed me. I envied the reckless hilarity on his face and in his throat. I didn’t know if I’d ever laughed like that, certainly I had no memory of it. There was such force in the way he laughed at what was at once vapid and essential. He was laughing at trivial words used to describe his father’s body, and it was a laughter – I thought – unclouded by anguish. I wandered around the room. I glanced, distracted, at his drawings on the walls, all stick figures and green grass and indecipherable scrawls.

It is a captivating story all in all, yet not one that engenders lots of personal feelings in me as a reader. Nonetheless, where the novel lacks in my personal relatability, it’s still constructed admirably and paced well. The appendix of the novel relies quite heavily on James’ rather obscure short story that I (and many others, I suppose) haven’t read, which, for me, meant that I couldn’t quite connect with the last pages of the novel. But maybe that’s exactly why it’s called an appendix: the actual novel does not presuppose any knowledge of James. Although Trick is intertextual, it comes across not as the author’s self-indulgence in one his favorite authors, but as love of literature.

Thirteen Months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun

Comma Press, May 2019, 72 pp

Comma Press, May 2019, 72 pp

Rania Mamoun’s Thirteen Months of Sunrise, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, is a tiny but rather marvelous short story collection that demonstrates the strength of Sudanese literature and leaves me wanting for some more. It’s not like the English-speaking world has had too many books coming from Sudan, right? In fact, this is said to be the first English translation of a full collection by a Sudanese female author.

The first half of the collection navigates the private sphere of strong emotions – there’s longing, despair, and betrayal – yet Mamoun’s beautiful, figurative language has a humane, life-affirming effect. She writes extremely succinctly – “A Week of Love”, at mere two pages, is a prime example – and this economy of language, combined with rich imagery, brings about a very poetic quality to the text. Mamoun can also be very sensual and tactile, like in “Passing”, where the narrator’s longing for her father is depicted as an overwhelming sensation filling all space and her body:

Your scent opens channels of memory, it invades me without warning, like armies of ants stinging me fiercely, chaotically: on my eyes, my skin, in my pores, my blood, even my ears, as they pick up the vibrations of your voice drawing closer. I’m flooded with memories: I feel the warmth of your embrace; the warmth of the bed where as a child I slept beside you instead of Mother; you coming home from your errands, me sticking to you like glue. Mother tried to separate me from you, but I didn’t listen. ‘He’s going on a trip tomorrow,’ she’d tell me, and I’d say: ‘But he’ll come back.’ 

Toward the end of the collection the focus shifts slowly from the inner to the outer. In “A Woman Asleep on Her Bundle”, the private female interior is contrasted against the public sphere of the city, as citizens speculate about an allegedly mad woman carrying a bundle with her, stroking it tenderly. Similarly, “Cities and Other Cities” is set in the confines of a bus where the narrator, surrounded by strangers, is worried about killing a fly and smearing public property. In the semi-surreal final story, “Stray Steps”, the private and the public collide: “In that moment I couldn’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy”.

While the collection stands on its own as a very enjoyable piece of fiction, it also broadened my geographical horizon: Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea all feature in the titular story, sending me off into the wonders of Wikipedia for a good while in order to learn at least some basics of the eastern coast of Africa, an area of which I know embarrassingly little about. As Nigerian and Kenian authors are increasingly popular in the Western world thanks to the advantage of a common tongue, the literatures of Arabic-speaking nations are only slowly surfacing in the Western literary radar, although still in the periphery. Recommended, and it’s very much readable in one sitting.

Ash before Oak by Jeremy Cooper

Fitzcarraldo Editions, April 2019, 532 pp

Fitzcarraldo Editions, April 2019, 532 pp

Jeremy Cooper’s Ash before Oak consists of hundreds of short diary entries, in which the narrator recounts what he sees around him in nature while living secluded in Somerset countryside in the early 2000s. Writing is mainly a therapeutic tool for him, an attempt to cope with his increasingly and alarmingly serious depression. He is, in fact, very aware of what he’s writing and is often self-degrading whenever he catches himself trying to write poetically and not truthfully about his surroundings:

10 August
With neat observations I make myself seem rational and urbane.

Far from true.

I’m vulnerable, sinking several times each day into sharp anxiety. Threatened by the tiny everyday.

Can’t begin to write what it actually feels like – even writing that I can’t do so is soberly expressed, declining the desperation that washes through me.


This honesty and the unpolished prose (with several “errors” in grammar and whatnot) brings about a rather touching and striking narrative, a distinctive style that is effective because it’s so realistic.

Another aspect I really liked here was tracking down the passing of time. The narrator writes on an almost daily basis, but occasionally there are long gaps in the entries, which fed my imagination just the right way as I started to speculate what was going on in the silence of these unwritten periods. Some of these silences are very effective plot-wise, when we hear only later what drastic events have occurred meanwhile. 

It is a long, repetitive novel, mostly in good, but somewhere around the 400-page mark I did experience some fatigue. I think it is essentially a novel to be read in small chunks; otherwise the short entries won’t make an impact. It is, after all, an almost day-to-day journal, and flipping through somebody else’s life too fast makes no sense really. I would also like to stress, like I almost always do with Fitzcarraldo novels, that don’t be daunted by the number of pages: there is a lot of white space in the book as new entries always start on a new page and most entries are just a few sentences long. 

Somewhere in the 3.5 – 4 star territory for me. Certainly an interesting addition to Fitzcarraldo’s nature-themed spring catalogue together with Animalia by Jean-Baptiste del Amo (my favorite book of 2019 so far) and Surrender by Joanna Pocock (on my to-read list).

Lost Property by Laura Beatty

Atlantic Books, May 2019, 272 pp

Atlantic Books, May 2019, 272 pp

Could I time this review any better considering last night’s elections? In what resembles more a fictional travelogue than a traditional novel, Laura Beatty’s narrator is perplexed by her homeland and embarks on a roadtrip through Europe in an attempt to understand her altered, indifferent Britain. Together with her common law husband, they drive across the continent and along the way encounter various historical figures from poets to philosophers. Lost Property has a sense of the fantastic, as Gabriele d’Annunzio, Ariosto, Joan of Arc, and Herodotus – to name only a few – join the couple’s entourage as actual characters of the story, in constant dialogue with each other. 

Beatty’s novel is essentially a meditation on Europe, a re-evaluation of the continent from a British perspective (post-Brexit), drawing on the long history of European arts. This focus on cultural references brings about a rather slow-moving narrative in good and bad: Beatty is clearly erudite, but personally I felt a little bogged down by the loads of information. On the upside, the novel contains some beautiful descriptions of the landscapes of countries you don’t often see in British novels, like Serbia and Bulgaria. In a way, the novel is a timely homage to Europe during these turbulent times, but I’m not completely sure if it makes the most alluring story. 

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

Sandstone Press, June 2018, 243 pp

Sandstone Press, June 2018, 243 pp

But the one text she had found truly memorable and compelling was the passage she had memorized without even really understanding what it meant. Something about spirits or souls that were perfectly round once upon a time but had been split apart. For as long as they were separated they would search out their other half until they found it. That is how she imagined love: a meeting of spirit-twins.

Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth, taps into the age-old theme of love by traversing several generations of an Omani family in the gradually changing society. It deals with slavery, religion, gendered roles, travel, but above all with love, which is the one thing that hasn’t quite changed over the course of centuries. Into her novel, Alharthi has woven excerpts from classic Arabic literature in which love appears as something consisting of two halves, often in celestial proportions. Asma, the book-enthusiast sister of Mayya and Khawla (all three are important characters in the novel), reads a passage from one of the old books, a passage which she has memorized in childhood:

Some of those who fancy themselves philosophers claim that God, Mighty is He, created every soul in the shape of a ball. And then He split every one of these spheres into two, and apportioned to each and every human body one half.

What made Celestial Bodies an intriguing read for me was the way it’s unabashedly a story from another culture, faithfully translated into English with only a brief introduction. There’s a character who appeals to God all soliloquy-style right on page 5, and the idea of slaves brought from Africa is not as distant as it might be in the European context today (not to belittle how much there is still modern slavery all over the world). On the other hand, the story is relevant and relatable in the Western context (hence the Man Booker International nomination) because with a theme as universal as love you are evidently dealing with the general human condition.

By focusing on these planetary metaphors of love, I’m talking about a rather tiny section of the novel. There is a big cast of characters with varying life experiences and interests. At least one character bluntly rejects all the talk of “poetry, flowers, the moon, nights of conversations, stars… – this isnt big on rationality.” There is no grand narrative pull, so adjust your reading goggles that way and enjoy as Alharthi paints an interesting picture of (mostly high-class) Omani life through these 240 pages or so. The thread I personally enjoyed following the most was indeed the search for soul union. Near the end of the novel, Asma, right before her wedding procession, may finally find what she has been looking for:

She looked the mirror-figure in the eye, and both of them shivered. It was the thought that she was about to join the other half of her, the self which had been separated from her self ever since earliest creation.

I’m drawn to this theme because it coincides with a book I’m reading for research very slowly, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s massive Spheres trilogy, where he charts, among other things, the ways human life has been depicted in images of spheres – i.e. round spaces that collide and coalesce – in art. It’s a fascinating book that enriched my reading of Celestial Bodies.

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán

And Other Stories, October 2018, 193 pp

And Other Stories, October 2018, 193 pp

The premise of Chilean author Alia Trabucco Zerán’s debut novel The Remainder, translated into English by Sophie Hughes, feels similar to other Latin American novels I’ve read recently, as it follows the aftermath of tumultuous political events through the experiences of a younger generation. Resistance by Julián Fuks comes to my mind first, a beautifully written novel set in Argentina and Brazil. The Remainder, on the other hand, is set in Santiago, Chile, covered in a layer of gray volcanic ash. The story follows a trio of characters, Felipe, Iquela, and Paloma, driving a hearse to Argentina in order to recover the body of Paloma’s mother, who is to be buried (“repatriated”) in Chile. The plane carrying the mother’s body from Germany to Chile had never made it to the destination, the volcanic ash having disrupted the flight and hence landing in Argentina. Solution: a road trip through the cordillera in search of the mother’s lost remains.

It’s a rather impressive novel that has that ‘something’ in it that makes me want to revisit scenes in order to make sense of the finely structured whole, as well as to appreciate the language in Hughes’ great translation. The chapters alternate between two narrators: Felipe’s chapters are numbered in decreasing order, beginning with chapter 11 and ending with chapter 0, which simply reflects his increasingly psychotic tendency to subtract all the dead bodies he sees around him (real or not). Iquela’s chapters are named “( )”, referring to her disposition to use brackets in the narration, where, ostensibly, we hear her innermost thoughts. I also saw an interpretation on GR (I think Paul said it) according to which the brackets represent the absence in her life after the traumatic events experienced by her parents who were militants during the Pinochet regime.

And trauma is definitely something these characters share. Felipe narrates in continuous sentences with full stops only at the end of each chapter, creating a sense of urgency and restlessness. I couldn’t help thinking about one of the most famous characters in English literature suffering from PTSD: Septimus Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, who similarly maintains deluded and increasingly dangerous notions about the reality around him, albeit in central London. 

It’s a very fine read altogether, and I’m happy to see it shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019. It’s a novel I could envision myself reading again at some point: it’s full-fledged and subtly layered. I find it somewhat similar to Valeria Luiselli’s recent novel Lost Children Archive, which I admittedly liked even more.