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Three South American Novels

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Chico Buarque’s Spilt MilkMartín Adán’s The Cardboard House and Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home—by writers from Brazil, Peru and Chile—are brief narrative gems, likely to entertain you for a few hours and interest you in visiting these countries if you haven’t already done so.  All three break convention and employ innovative narrative forms, but if you are searching for magical realism and traditional plots you’d be best to look elsewhere.  I wasn’t familiar with any of these writers before I read these recent translations, but all three assert the variety of the South American fiction and a surfeit of the continent’s enormous talent.

Spilt Milk records the musings of hundred-year-old Eulálio Assumpção, on his deathbed in a public hospital, which is only one of several humiliations the man complains about.  His family was once rich and powerful, and his descendants (all the way to a great-great grandson) have little interest in what is happening to him and, further, demonstrate an obvious decline in the family’s earlier glory.  Eulálio’s sense of reality has to be questioned, especially his assumption that it’ll only be days before he can leave the hospital, taking the nurse who attends him along with him to his family estate in the country or his flat on the Copacabana.   As the novel opens, this is what he either says to the nurse or thinks—it’s never completely clear if his musings are actually spoken or simply imagined:

“When I get out of here, we’ll get married on the farm where I spent my happy childhood, over at the foot of the mountains.  You’ll wear my mother’s dress and veil, and I’m not saying this because I’m feeling sentimental, it’s not the morphine speaking.  You’ll have my family’s lace, crystal, silver, jewels and name at your disposal.  You’ll give orders to the servants, ride my late wife’s horse….”

Eulálio’s mother wasn’t very affectionate to her son; his wife, Matilde, left him for another man.  His father, formerly a Senator, introduced his son to La Corbuser and Josephine Baker, as well as prostitutes and cocaine, on a trip to Paris when the boy was only sixteen.  Later, the father was assassinated.  Repeatedly, Eulálio speaks of his family’s decline: “Today, I belong to the dregs of society.”  His daughter, his only child, admitted him to the hospital although it might be more accurate to say that she dumped him there.

Eulálio’s monologues are directed at the nurse who attends him, his doctors, as well as his daughter.  Each monologue is a chapter long and each chapter is composed of one paragraph—some three or four pages in length, others ten or twelve.  As information is repeated, and varied, Eulálio speaks of his failing memory, calling it on one occasion “a pandemonium.”  He also warns the listener/reader, “An old man’s memory can’t be trusted” and somewhat later, “Sometimes my mind gets a bit confused.”

There’s enough movement in the narrative—in the accumulation of these monologues—to provide Spilt Milk with a skeletal plot, with interesting developments and false scenes but also a sense of closure in the novel’s surprising ending.  And even though Eulálio provides a certain amount of self-reflection for the process of his storytelling—“But if with age we tend to repeat certain stories, it’s not senility, but because certain stories don’t stop happening in us until the end of our lives”—still, there’s a dramatic freshness to the entire story capable of drawing us in and reading breathlessly until the end of the final paragraph/monologue/chapter.

Martín Adán’s The Cardboard House is just as sparse in narrative details as Spilt Milk, perhaps even more so.  Manuel, the narrator, tells us very little about himself, other than his sexual interests but provides, instead, descriptive passages about activities on the streets of Lima.  “If you want to know about my life go look at the sea.”  From those passages, we are able to puzzle out a conflict of sorts, though Manuel tells us much more about his friend, Ramón, than himself. The two men were friends when they were young.

Many of the chapters are less than a page, though some are three or four.  In a two-page section of the novel, after Manuel has provided information about four girls he did not have intercourse with, he concludes with the fifth: “My fifth love was a girl with whom I sinned almost at night, almost in the sea.  The memory of her smells as she smelled, of shadows in a movie theatre, of a wet dog, of underwear, of sweets, of hot bread—overlapping odors and each on its own most disagreeable, like frosting on cakes, ginger, meringue, et cetera.  The collection of smells made of her a true temptation for a seminary student.  Dirty, dirty, dirty…My first mortal sin.”

That’s rather nice, especially the elliptical way Adán reveals the seduction of his narrator.  The author, one of Peru’s major poets, published this, his only novel, in 1928, and although it was available in English in an earlier edition some years ago, the current translation has been revised and incorporates a number of Adán’s poems.  The meaning of the title is obscure but possibly a commentary on the tenuousness of life in Lima’s poorer suburbs, full of the sounds of raw life, such as this brief passage describing public transportation: “Each sound collides with the hard air, and there is a bang.  Three in the afternoon.  And a trolley car sings its heart out with the guitar of the road to Miraflores—gray, convivial, sad, two metal strings, and around its neck, the green belt of the boulevard that churns the sea air.  Streetcar, sambo casanova.”

There are lovely lyrical passages in Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home also—but also a profound ambivalence about the past.  The story, however, is as much about sustaining a career as a writer as pirating that past (and the lives of one’s friends, lovers, and family members) in order to continue publishing.  In my mind, that is quite a difference from the innumerable novels about becoming a writer.  Moreover, Zambra ties these themes into Chile’s not too distant political turmoil, the dirty war that disposed of Salvador Allende and unleashed a reign of horror when thousands of people (many of them students) disappeared.  When the narrator is nine years old, he is asked by a neighbor (a girl slightly older than himself called Claudia) to spy on a man, named Raúl, who lives by himself in Miapú, a village in the suburbs of Santiago.  The boy understands that Raúl may be involved with some political group, but he has no idea that he has connections with the family that extend beyond that.

Fast-forward nearly twenty years—way after the turmoil in Chile has ended—when the narrator has become a successful novelist.  When he begins a sexual relationship with Claudia, he remembers that the evening when he was first aware of her existence was the night of a terrible earthquake.  Pinochet interrupted the TV program the boy was watching to make a plea for calm.  Mish mashed into these memories is his realization that “The night of the earthquake was the first time I realized that everything could collapse.”  And that collapse further leads to the man’s understanding that his profession has made him more of an observer of life than an actor.  He watches and writes, but he doesn’t necessarily participate in life.  And perhaps that is as it should be because at least one of his lovers told him—just before she walked out on him—“You told my story.”  Ergo, “You stole my story—the story of my life.”

The translations by Alison Entrekin, Katherine Silver, and Megan McDowell are fluid and timely.  And what a delight: you can read all three of these Latin American gems in a couple of evenings.

Chico Buarque: Spilt Milk

Trans. by Alison Entrekin

Grove Press, 192 pp., $23

Martín Adán: The Cardboard House

Trans. by Katherine Silver

New Directions, 127 pp., $15.95

Alejandro Zambra: Ways of Going Home

Trans. by Megan McDowell

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 139 pp., $24.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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