This superb novel, skilfully translated by Sophie Hughes, tells the story of three young people whose lives have been shaped by their parents’ political activism during the Pinochet era in Chile. Narrated alternately by Iquela and Felipe, the action starts when Paloma returns to Chile from Berlin with the body of her mother, Ingrid, to bury her in Santiago. Due to the ash cloud which had just descended on Chile ( from the Calbuco volcano? ), the plane carrying her mother’s body has been diverted to Mendoza in Argentina. They decide the only way to repatriate Ingrid is to set off themselves over the Cordillera into Argentina to recover the body and there follows a crazy road trip in a hearse called The General, involving some hallucinogenic experiences and a measure of macabre humour.
The narratives of both Iquela and Felipe are interwoven with flashbacks and memories of their parents and their upbringing which go some way to explaining their present situations. In fact the novel really starts with a party at Iquela’s house on 5th October 1988, ( a historic moment in Chile when 56% of the population voted in a referendum against Pinochet’s attempt to prolong his power ), where there is some argument between the fathers of Iquela and Paloma. The scene is described from the point of view of a child, and consequently hazy, and subsequent recollections of both Iquela and Felipe are similarly snatched memories which the reader tries to make sense of to understand the main characters. What becomes clear is that Felipe was orphaned and brought up partly by his grandmother outside Santiago, in Chinquihue, and then by Consuelo, Iquela’s mother, in Santiago. Iquela’s father has also died and she lives in Santiago, separately from her mother, but in an intensely dependent relationship with her.
The macabre tone of the novel is underpinned by Felipe’s obsessional drive to count down the bodies he comes across all over Santiago. He finds them on street corners, in squares, on park benches and is trying to square the number of dead and the number of graves, saying How will I work out how many are born and how many remain? How can I reconcile the death toll with the actual sum of the dead? His sense of urgency is conveyed brilliantly in stream of consciousness style, excellently rendered in translation, so that we just go along with him, not worrying too much whether this is magical realism or psychosis, though the recollections of his behaviour as a child increasingly suggest a manic, if not disturbed personality.
Iquela’s narrative is more down to earth, more grounded in reality, though she too has problems beyond her relationship with her mother. We learn that she self harmed as a child with her only friend as a way of feeling something, of escaping numbness after her father’s death from cancer. We see Paloma through her eyes- the older girl at the party in 1988 who stole her mother’s cigarettes and pills, now returning to bury her mother. The novel’s engagement with language is partly explored through Iquela’s frequent comments on Paloma’s Spanish, her floppy R’s, her guttural voice, her inability to use euphemisms in Spanish. I was intrigued by both Iquela and Felipe’s concerns to emphasise Paloma’s difference from them – he refers to her as the German and they both laugh at her peninsular Spanish. ( The contrast between Chilean and Peninsular Spanish cleverly rendered by the translator as a contrast between American and British English).
The preoccupation with language in the novel extends to linguistic jokes on multiple meanings and associations-of words like asylum, key, remains and remainders, potions and poisons. There are recurrent motifs-of birds, bones and plants. The theme of choking is visited in several forms- the pronunciation of Paloma’s S’s, Iquela’s feeling of words getting stuck in her throat, even the thin air of the high Andes at Los Penitentes producing the sensation of being unable to breathe. And throughout the novel references to the sticky heat of Santiago and the layer of ash contribute to the feeling of oppression and suffocation.
As I’m writing this I’m aware that it all sounds fairly bleak. But that’s not the whole picture. Along with the macabre there is a youthful crazy energy as the threesome head off in the hearse, get drunk, have sex and take drugs. Still, they are damaged by the experiences of their upbringing and the legacy of their parents’ political activism and what I enjoyed is the writer’s skill in bringing this psychological damage out through language. From the riff on the mutations of the word remainder to Felipe’s final flight of fancy we’re given a window onto the protagonists’ state of mind- and thanks to Sophie Hughes’s brilliant translation and the publishers And Other Stories this is available to us now in English.