The London Magazine
The Personal becomes Public
Humiliation, Paulina Flores, trans. Megan McDowell, Oneworld, 272pp,
2019, £12.99 (paperback)
An Apartment on Uranus, Paul B. Preciado, trans. Charlotte Mandell,
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 280pp, 2020, £12.99 (paperback)
Something remarkable shared by Paulina Flores’s Humiliation and Paul B. Preciado’s An Apartment on Uranus is their formal success. Not just coherence on a larger scale, such as any collection of stories or essays must establish to succeed, but, on a smaller scale, coherence as stand-alone pieces that depart from the structural norms of that which we consider successful stories and essays. Preciado’s short missives – written between March 2013 and January 2018 as articles for, mainly, the French paper Libération – should feel both slight and imploring; they are deeply personal, narrow in field-of-view, and imperative in mood. But Preciado’s aptitude to connect the systems of our world, his honesty, and his ability with languages of differing registers mean that the personal becomes communal, the narrow panoramic, and the imperative compelling. So too Flores’s stories set themselves up for a fall: they have the breadth of canvas commonplace to diffuse bildungsromans masquerading as stories, and a reliance on the life-defining moments of youth that should turn the pieces tired. But, again, such is her eye for human experience, and her linguistic veracity, that these stories instead reveal a monumental voice of Chilean literature.
‘Aunt Nana’, the central story in Flores’s collection, is a prime example. It opens with a convincing, present-tense account of a young girl’s displeasure as her Aunt Nana moves in, displacing the family maid, Sonia. The girl’s remorse at her hostile reception follows, and then an incisive exploration of the subsequent bond between girl and aunt, with razor-sharp study of the small, domestic moments which shape family histories. It builds to a poignant moment, on the eve of the girl running away from home, and a knowing embrace between the two in which Aunt Nana’s gaze says: ‘This has been my life, and I understand that not everyone can be
grateful’. It’s an obvious place to leave things, but Flores instead takes us to Aunt Nana’s funeral for a couple of pages of the girl, now a woman, reflecting on her life. Such a manoeuvre should unravel the pacing and shape of the story, but Flores’s touch means that, instead, it simply takes a step back for one final run-up, closing with another punching line: ‘Back then I ridiculously faced down the world, sure I could defeat it and emerge unscathed’.
Like all the stories in Humiliation, ‘Aunt Nana’ avoids express political or social commentary, and instead structures narrative around the personal. But, also like the other stories surrounding it, ‘Aunt Nana’ quietly reveals the determination the socio-political makes on the personal. These are stories of deprived Chilean worlds; ‘Aunt Nana’ is one of many in the collection backdropped by deprivation, and one of several that feature unemployed fathers. We realise that, rather than personal strife, it is communal strife that makes the story move. When the girl’s mother tells her that Aunt Nana is moving in, there’s a seeming non-sequitur: ‘You remember your dad lost his job, right?’, ‘Well… Go say goodbye to Sonia’. These youth-shaping moments are forged invariably from the stipulations of poverty.
The collection’s title story, which also features an unemployed father, is perhaps the finest. ‘Humiliation’ won the Roberto Bolaño Prize for its depiction of two girls following their father to job interviews. It is Flores at her most compelling: a true-to-life characterisation of a childhood inflected by the forced maturity of social and economic pressure. Such inflections are revealed by linguistic turns: Simona may be pictured ‘with a fluorescent highlighter, cutting […] out carefully and gluing […] onto a white page’, but it is revealed that the pieces she is cutting and sticking are job ads for her father. She does this, she says, ‘to contribute’ – a phrase so perfunctory and adult in its context that the imminent, shame-driven coming-of-age that will arrive is held in it. Simona is attentive to language, looking up in dictionaries the words her parents use in fights, finding a vocabulary flatly to express unease as Flores does. It is through such attention to language that knowing despair is delivered, point-blank, in youthful words: ‘There would be no french fries that afternoon’.
If Flores’s words are pitch-perfect, it is because Megan McDowell’s are too. We Anglo readers owe much to Humiliation’s translator: Flores makes a line about french fries devastating through tonal subtlty; McDowell
delivers the tone into English, consummately. A line from ‘Teresa’ – an enigmatic story that unravels an encounter between a disillusioned millennial called Claudia (or sometimes Theresa), a man named Bruno, and an unnamed ‘little girl’ who might be his daughter – is indicative: ‘her belly swaying with straightforward delight, like the naturally sensual curvature of any plant stem’. It’s an arresting image that owes something to its incongruous construction – a construction, one senses, that signposts a translator at the height of their craft.
‘Teresa’, like ‘Humiliation’, has a much tighter canvas than ‘Aunt Nana’. It also, however, has an interest in the intergenerational that expands its line of sight beyond the small geography and short timeframe it traverses. Disillusioned millennials are Flores’s stock-in-trade, but poignancy, humour and terror – with which this collection is unassumingly packed – emerge in their encounters with older and younger generations – in revealing that which changes in the Chilean societies she renders, and that which remains. ‘Teresa’ closes with one such encounter, after Claudia has left Bruno naked and asleep in his room, and walked into the room in which the little girl is watching TV: ‘Then she took the little girl’s hand, and together, in a matter of seconds, they were out the apartment door’. From what, and to what, each are walking is unclear; a sense of two generationally separate experiences having the possibility of either converging or diverging is evident.
The forms of ‘Teresa’ and ‘Humiliation’ work, as do other taught pieces like ‘Laika’ – a jarring, disturbing, but powerfully wrought story about desire between two young people of indeterminate age (but with the girl certainly, uncomfortably, younger than the boy). But whilst ‘Aunt Nana’ is notable for the success of its set-to-fail ending, there are other endings that do, ultimately, fail. ‘Talcahuano’, which starts as another piece of compelling storytelling (of a group of boys plotting a raid on church band equipment, practicing at being ‘ninjas’ in preparation), and turns to the arresting (as we realise such preparation is only facilitated by financial strife, familial fracture, and lack of care they furnish, and becomes useful not for horseplay but when the narrator needs to run for help after his destitute father drinks bleach), loses all its gathered force when the subsequent years of his life are condensed into one paragraph of resignation. ‘Last Vacation’ does the same, with the fateful words ‘During the years that came later’ – something
of a death-toll for a short story. These are rare slips, however, and are far outweighed by the formal, linguistic, and affective virtues of the collection.
There is one story that does sustain the enigmatic bildungsroman it writes. ‘Lucky Me’ is a long twin-narrative piece that approaches being a novella. One narrative traces the story of a girl who is introduced to humiliation when her friend’s mother moves in as the family maid; the other follows a woman ill-at-ease with the world, whose insomnia is assuaged by availing her room to two older neighbours and listening to – sometimes watching – them have sex. The convergence is long-delayed. ‘Lucky Me’ is an utterance of all that is good in Humiliation: a story of growing up amidst unemployment and malcontent, of joy, of shame. Again, it’s also a remarkable bit of form: a long short story coherent on its own, and that makes the wider collection all the more coherent by its presence.
Like Humiliation, An Apartment on Uranus confounds formal presumption. We’d presume that Preciado’s sixty-seven 1,500-word articles would be coherent in the stand-alone, even if a little light (broadly, they’re not), but that their collection into a book spanning five years of writing would threaten to be more documentary than revelatory. Instead, they form a compelling narrative of Preciado’s own gender transition alongside the development of his critical theory against shifting political, social and theoretic contexts. The result is a personally compelling, critically significant piece of literature.
There are some exceptional pieces in Apartment. ‘Women’s Right to (Sex) Work’ moves from the mid eighteenth-century criminalisation of wet-nursing to explore how ‘women’s fluids, organs and bodily practices have become the object of a process which is being confirmed today with the criminalisation of sex work’. It’s an enthralling argument. ‘Love in the Anthropocene’ is a quietly charged piece on the relevancies of human, nonhuman companionship to intersectional radical practices, which is made exceptional in being a short, mass-readership bit of Donna Haraway, which Haraway – as wonderful as she is – could never be.
Likewise, there are some pieces in Apartment that don’t compel. ‘Candy Crush Rehab’ is an entry that, whilst making neat points about the relationships between technology, addiction and capitalism, loses its force in being a slightly obvious effort to make a neat point about them. ‘Necromodernity’ is 262 words in a row that start ‘necro-’. Again, it doesn’t
quite come off. Knowing Preciado’s wider work, one can intuit something of an argument in these 262 words. But this doesn’t feel like radical linguistic or formal play: it feels – and this too has value – like an emotive release couched in a critical discourse that informs a personal once.
These less-compelling pieces – amidst so many tauter ones attesting to a remarkably industrious, consistently prescient half-decade of writing – aren’t just “understandable”, though. Apartment testifies not only to Preciado’s personal journey of crossings, but to that of his critical and commentary practice related to that transition, and the backgrounds, geographic or geopolitical, in which they occur: these articles are forthcoming, and always feel convincingly imperative for being so.
It’s demonstrated in Preciado’s introduction, in which he discusses his search for a new name during transition. He notes that, in May 2014 – when Zapatista Army of National Liberation leader Subcomandante Marcos changed his name to Subcomanadante Galeano, and Preciado took the name Marcos in an attempt to ‘de-privatise my old name, to collectivise my face’ – his decision was ‘denounced’ by Latinx activists as ‘a colonialist gesture’. He is forthcoming in admission: ‘There was a colonial arrogance, personal vanity, in my action’. ‘Marcos Forever’, the Libération article in which Preciado discusses this, is candidly maintained in Apartment. Therein, laid bare is the crisis of personal development as it relates to broader landscapes: the chronology in which these sixty-seven pieces are collected reveals how truths – personal and public – are neither conceptually or personally worked-out from the get-go; the value of the few less-compelling pieces exists here, throwing the finest missives into sharper contrast.
‘Marcos Forever’ means that pieces like ‘In the Arms of the Rodina Mat’ and ‘Destruction Was My Beatriz’ are all the more forceful, worldrealigning, and vital. In the former, at a passport desk in a Kiev airport, Paul B. Preciado must speak his own dead-name, Beatriz, and say ‘I am a woman’ in order to compel a border-control officer that this is (legally) the case, despite hours earlier saying ‘I am a man’ to curators who mispronoun him, and moments later ‘the scene chang[ing] utterance’ when a taxi driver calls him ‘sir’. In the latter, Preciado’s long legal wait for his ‘new name’ comes to an end, and he is included in the ‘births’ list in the Burgos daily papers on 16 November 2016 (where his mother learns the news). Like
Flores at her best, these moments are revelatory in their strangeness, sublime and awful at once.
Throughout Apartment, Preciado has an aptitude for turning broad conceptual points and highly technical discourse into visceral and affective narratives. Excellent literature, particularly non-fiction, often vibrates on several frequencies – speaking at once from and to multiple cultural domains. Preciado is notable in not just paralleling the high and low, personal and public, specialised and mass, but taking force from the moments in which they converge. Though ‘Candy Crush Rehab’ is a weaker piece, it has one such moment: ‘Chastity, idiocy and disinterestedness are the conditions for the globalisation of dependence’.
‘The South Does Not Exist’, a study on the mythologies of the Global North and South, is full of these convergences. ‘The South is a political fiction constructed by colonial prejudice […], an invention of modern colonial cartography’, becomes ‘The South is […] the effect of relationships between power, knowledge and space’, becomes ‘The South is the skin and the uterus. Oil and coffee. Meat and gold’, becomes ‘The South is a place where extraction will be organised and rubbish will be dumped’, becomes a characteristically compelling imperative: ‘You yourself, you have a South. Turn your head. Hack the vertical axis. Consume the map’. These shifts between thought and feel rely on Preciado’s fervent language; in turn, their success in the English relies on Charlotte Mansell’s excellent translation, and her capacity to know, to cross, and to rename the language Preciado uses.
Now, we come to Preciado’s introduction, which, in further formal convention, is one of the finest pieces in the book. It is an extraordinary meeting of ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultural reference; of wide-view historic import on the present; of personal positionality in the public. Preciado considers the planet Uranus, and Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’s conception of Uranism – a way of understanding a ‘third sex’, and the (natural, legal and social) rights of those who ‘love differently’. If Flores subtly reveals the political in the personal, Preciado does so with candour, but with no less success. There’s a powerful line that sums things up well: ‘Take the trouble to administer the necessary doses of knowledge to yourself, as many as your taste for risk allows you’.
Flores and Preciado’s works are distinct, but they touch each other;
indeed, the ways in which individuals are touched by constellations of the same global systems is a point both writers make. Humiliation and An Apartment on Uranus are remarkable books, their constituent parts as compelling as the collections they construct. Both mourn, but both imagine; they mark the arresting moments of personal and global development, and hope at a brighter, hard-won, humane future arises from them.