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.