Book review: Feebleminded by Ariana Harwicz (trans. Annie McDermott & Carolina Orloff)

Silvia Rothlisberger

Feebleminded is narrated with an intense and fragmented prose characteristic of Ariana Harwicz (Argentina, 1977). It is the second book of what Harwicz calls an “involuntary trilogy” where she explores motherhood, how it affects the characters psychically, and how it sways their desires. Divided in three parts and with only 117 pages Feebleminded is a bold and superb short novel that confronts the impossible parameters society has set for women.

In the book, a woman in her late 20s lives with her toxic and alcoholic mother. They are more like two best friends than mother and daughter. Their house is a creepy place with wigs hanging up and mice in jars of formaldehyde. We learn about the daughter’s neglected childhood through feverish memories unveiled in conversations and internal monologues. Memories as far in the past as when she was conceived (“the guy comes inside my mum looking skyward and so it all begins”), or from one night when she was in her mother’s womb and the mum threw dice to decide if she’d get rid of the unknown creature inside her.

The pace of the novel is like a staccato: short punchy sentences where there is an intensity, a heaviness; only with short sentences can this roller-coaster of a book be bearable. We follow the story through dialogues where you don’t know if it’s the mother or the daughter talking. Other times the dialogue is internal. We feel their madness, their constant delirium in each phrase, or as the daughter says: “I’m not crazy, just possessed”.

The daughter is in a relationship with a married man who leaves her because his wife is pregnant. She feels angry — “it was the other common bitch who got him”, she thinks. She wishes for the baby to be born dead, or to be a Siamese twin stuck to a dog. But when her mum learns about this, she has a more sinister plan of revenge.

The two women are marginalised, they are maladaptive, they are happy in a very disturbing way. They have relationships with impossible men. They fantasise about men coming to their house to rape them. They drink whisky, talk about sex and masturbate in an insatiable way. From the opening paragraph —each chapter is one long paragraph— when we are getting to know them: “sitting on my clit I invent a life for myself in the clouds. I quiver, I shake, my fingers are my morphine and for that brief moment everything’s fine”.

They are verbally and physically violent to each other. Sometimes the daughter wishes for a different life. “If I could only have started a new chapter elsewhere… say bye to mum without fearing the crack of a fired arrow”. Yet, they are inseparable. At the end of part I, the mother has left and the daughter is searching for her. At the end of part II, it is the daughter who leaves the mother.  But they both return. At times they are tired of life, but most times they can’t get enough of it. At the end of part III they are crawling on hands and knees, covered in blood: “let it all explode, let it all turn to dust, says mother, still wanting more.”

Translated into English by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff, from its original in Spanish La Debil Mental, reading this book is an intense deranged tension that only a writer like Ariana Harwicz, who wants to transgress with her work, can achieve.

Harwicz’s main characters – at least in this trilogy – are women searching for who they are in a world that is telling them how they should be. The first book of this trilogy Die, My Love is similarly a sharp book about a marginalised woman who lives with her husband and unwanted baby. It was nominated for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, and for the Republic of Consciousness Prize, placing Ariana Harwicz at the forefront of the so-called new Argentinian fiction.

* I’ll be talking with Ariana Harwicz and Gabriela Cabezón Cámara in an online event on 3 June 2020 7pm (UK time), Find out more HERE!

Book review: Faces in the crowd by Valeria Luiselli

Valeria Luiselli’s first novel published in 2012 (Spanish tittle Los Ingravidos) takes its English title from the poem In a Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound. The poem is featured in the book and becomes part of the story as the different narrators in the book start to recognise faces in New York’s metro.

Three stories in three different times are delivered in fragmented paragraphs. Each paragraph jumps from one story to the other in a very skilful way.

Story 1: The narrator -a woman who lives in Mexico City with her husband and two children – is writing a book about the time when she lived in New York, before being a wife or a mum.

Story 2: The book the woman is writing becomes part of the narrative and it is about her time in New York working as a literary translator and researcher for a small publishing house, the people she knew and how she became obsessed with the Mexican poet Gilberto Owen who lived in New York between 1928 and 1930.

Story 3: Then we start reading paragraphs were the narrator is the poet Gilberto Owen himself and his time in New York. How he was friend of Federico Garcia Lorca (who lived in New York at that time too).

The three stories are interwoven in such a way that even though each paragraph changes in time, location and narrator you never feel at lost while reading it.

Faces in the crowd is also about the literary scene from the Spanish-speaking diaspora in New York from the time when Gilberto Owen and Garcia Lorca lived there. At least the literary scene imagined by the author Valeria Luiselli as there is no real account of the two poets meeting at the time in New York.

(When I started reading it I couldn’t stop so finished it in one sitting)!



Book Review – Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve stories after Cervantes and Shakespeare

By Silvia Rothlisberger

12 authors and translators come together to create this anthology of short stories inspired by Cervantes and Shakespeare.

2016 is the year of the 400th Anniversary of the death of the two most influential authors in the Spanish and English speaking languages: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and William Shakespeare. The anthology is a celebration of this coincidence: 12 short stories, six of them written by English-speaking authors on the subject of Miguel de Cervantes and the other six about Shakespeare by Spanish-speaking authors.

I discovered this books while checking the line-up of this year’s Hay Festival at Wales. Usually, the line-up of literary festivals in the UK leave me disappointed with the lack of Latin American authors invited. So, I was quite surprised when I saw three authors in this year’s programme: Valeria Luiselli and Yuri Herrera, both from Mexico, and Juan Gabriel Vázquez from Colombia. Their presence in the line-up is precisely due to Lunatics, Lovers and Poets which was commissioned by Hay Festival itself in partnership with the publisher And Other Stories.

This book is a celebration of the two authors’ legacy and of collaborations among contemporary authors and translators. The six stories from Spanish-speaking authors were originally written in Spanish and translated into English by six different literary translators. In a similar process, all twelve stories are published in Spanish by the publisher Galaxia Gutenberg.

Don Quixote dominated four of the six Anglophone authors: Ben Okri, Kamila Shamsie, Hisham Matar, and Rhidian Brook used The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha as their inspiration. It was great to see Don Quixote become a Nigerian legend in Ben Okri’s Don Quixote and the Ambiguity of Reading and a storyteller from Pakistan in Kamila Shamsie’s Mir Aslam of Kolachi. Deborah Levy and Nell Leyshon, on the other hand, drew upon Cervantes’ short story The Lawyer of Glass (El Licenciado Vidriera) – both of them great stories that encouraged me to look for the original short story by Cervantes, which I hadn’t read before.

The Spanish-speaking authors, having so much material to choose from, each used different angles and plays of The Bard’s. Juan Gabriel Vásquez in his usual historical-fiction genre makes a parallel between the killing of Julius Caesar and the killing of a Colombian politician under drug-lord Pablo Escobar’s orders.  Yuri Herrera brings  Coriolanus to modern-time Mexico where corruption reigns among politicians and corporations. Valeria Luiselli’s witty short story about a family of actors working in a historical re-enactment company of western cowboys is located in Shakespeare, New Mexico.  Soledad Puértolas’s story evokes a longing for youth triggered by a chance encounter between two  old friends who were united in the first place by their love for Shakespeare.

The introduction is written by Salman Rushdie who calls Shakespeare and Cervantes the two fathers of modern literature. The stories in this book are filled with possibilities and imagination. Reading it was also an opportunity to read authors who I’d heard of before but had never got around to reading any of their work.

And Other Stories is an independent not-for-profit publisher that works with translators to bring international books to the English language. It is partly funded by subscribers who pay a subscription fee in exchange for books that will be printed throughout the year.

Another reason to keep an eye on this small publishing house: Earlier this year author Kamila Shamsie, whose short story Mir Aslam of Kolachi is featured in this anthology, challenged publishers to only publish female authors for a full year, to raise awareness of the gender imbalance in the publishing sector. And Other Stories accepted the challenge and in 2018 they will only publish books written by women.