Chile’s blood­shed re­vis­ited

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - SARAH GIL­MARTIN

Se­cond-gen­er­a­tion guilt and trauma is a sub­ject most as­so­ci­ated with Ger­man lit­er­a­ture. Bernard Schlink’s novel The Reader went on to be­come an in­ter­na­tional best­seller (and movie) for its com­pelling treat­ment of how the coun­try’s Nazi past af­fected the present. Zerán’s book doesn’t have quite the same im­pact. The po­lit­i­cal fades in favour of ex­plor­ing the trou­bled in­te­ri­ors of two char­ac­ters, Iquela and Felipe. A third – a Ger­man girl called Paloma – briefly comes to life from the per­spec­tive of the nar­ra­tors but her more in­ter­est­ing story is side­lined for lengthy stream-of-con­scious­ness pas­sages that veer from vir­tu­osic to mun­dane.

In a no­table trans­la­tion by So­phie Hughes, Zerán’s lyri­cism and eye for de­tail shine on the page. The open­ing chap­ters are par­tic­u­larly grip­ping, doc­u­ment­ing Iquela’s com­ing of age which co­in­cides with the end of the regime. One mem­o­rable evening plays out against the vote that saw Pinochet ousted. As the adults cel­e­brate in the back­ground, Iquela tries to over­come her nerves, “the shy­ness that had left me with next to no fin­ger­nails”, to im­press the more worldly Paloma. The girls knock back the adults’ wine, mov­ing on to the medicine cabi­net in Iquela’s mother’s bath­room.

It is a clever scene that sets up the novel’s trou­bled re­la­tion­ship be­tween Iquela and her mother Con­suela, known as Clau­dia in her ac­tivist past. Years later, the wo­man is still far more Clau­dia than Con­suela, a fact that her daugh­ter re­lates with a bit­ter acu­ity: “My rou­tine vis­its to my mother’s house were al­ways brief, as if we’d just bumped into each other on the corner and I had some­thing ter­ri­bly im­por­tant to do a few blocks away.”

The mother lays the bur­den of the past on her daugh­ter – “I want you to know that I do all this for you” – and is painted as the kind of wo­man un­in­ter­ested in any­thing but her past glo­ries and the sound of her own voice. Des­per­ate to es­cape from a never-end­ing din­ner one evening, Iquela ex­plains, “Each of my mother’s words was worth a hun­dred, a thou­sand reg­u­lar ones, and killed me quicker. Per­haps that’s why I’d learnt an­other lan­guage: to buy my­self more time.”

A pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with lan­guage and trans­la­tion, the way in which we in­ter­pret things, sat­u­rates the novel. It man­i­fests in the ar­rival of Paloma, who has de­cided to fly from Ger­many to bury her re­cently de­ceased mother, In­grid, back in Chile. Both Paloma and Iquela’s par­ents were rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in the Pinochet era, though their fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory re­mains frus­trat­ingly opaque.

In­stead Zerán fo­cuses on the present in a sto­ry­line that is orig­i­nal and macabre but ul­ti­mately un­der­de­vel­oped. Paloma lands in Chile as an ash cloud cov­ers its cap­i­tal city, a fit­ting metaphor for the coun­try’s past: “Out­side it was rain­ing ash. Once again, San­ti­ago had been stained grey.” In­grid’s body is di­verted to Ar­gentina. What en­sues is a road trip of sorts, as the two girls, ac­com­pa­nied by Iquela’s adopted brother Felipe, make the jour­ney in a hearse.

The book’s prob­lem lies with Felipe, whose story is told in al­ter­nat­ing chap­ters and never re­veals it­self. Ini­tially in­trigu­ing, and stylis­ti­cally im­pres­sive as it spins a sin­gle sen­tence into a chap­ter, the char­ac­ter’s ob­ses­sion with death and gore be­comes repet­i­tive in later sec­tions. Far more in­ter­est­ing is the dy­namic be­tween Iquela and Paloma, re­call­ing the dis­turbed fe­male re­la­tion­ships in Mar­garet At­wood’s Cat’s Eye. Their story gets lost amid Felipe’s rant­ings and his “work” sub­tract­ing the dead he sees all over the coun­try.

Zerán was born in Chile in 1983. She was a Ful­bright scholar and re­cently com­pleted her PhD at UCL. The Re­main­der was cho­sen by El País as one of its top 10 de­but nov­els of 2015. There is plenty to com­mend in the book’s in­ten­tions, and in its ele­giac am­bi­tions. Fus­ing the per­sonal and the po­lit­i­cal, Zerán aims to cap­ture the legacy of Chile’s blood­shed. Plot is­sues aside, the fal­lacy of the “few drops”, even decades later, is cer­tainly clear.

Alia Trabucco Zerán: com­mend­able in­ten­tions, ele­giac am­bi­tions

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