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!