[In translation, this 2014 novel was shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize in 2019. I read it in three sections of a few chapters each, and wrote about each section before reading on.]
29 April 2019
I’m trying to think when I last read a book as bleak as this. Not the book I’ve just finished reading, Lincoln in the Bardo, in which the grieving President keeps opening the coffin of his dead son and, invisible all around him, the dead in the cemetery try to help both him and the restless soul of the boy. By comparison, that was hardly bleak at all. There’s real hope of redemption—and there is love…. I’m hoping there will be some redemption in this one too, because so far the living characters, outnumbered by the dead just as poor old Lincoln is in the ‘Bardo’, are having a terrible time of it. And if there’s any love here, I haven’t found it yet.
The dead. The opening chapter (of eleven, numbered in reverse for reasons that are only slowly becoming clear) is narrated by an unnamed character who is counting them, the dead, as he sees them around. Is he like the boy in The Sixth Sense, able to see them while other people see nothing? Is this a universe in which the dead really do walk, or in which there’s no easy way of telling who is alive or dead? It isn’t a new idea—I remember reading Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo (1955), and quickly realising that in Latin American fiction such a state of affairs is normal…. But I’m not sure that this is what the character is seeing. What’s with the numbers—‘three thousand and something’—and why would he want to count backwards?
This is a Chilean novel, and a different number in the second (unnumbered) chapter—a date, in fact—begins to set a time-frame. Iquela, the narrator of the chapters that alternate with the backward-numbered ones, remembers 5th October 1988 when she was an awkward adolescent in Santiago. It’s the most significant single date in Chile since the coup of 1973, the day when the plebiscite forced on the dictatorship by international pressure finally began to bring its rule to an end. ‘Remember this date!’ her mother nags her, and she does… but not with joy. How can there be joy after her whole life has been spent in fear? We might not know any details about that in this early chapter, but we do know that the young Iquela is a troubled soul. This first chapter of hers opens with a dark uncertainty that already seems normal in this universe: ‘That night it rained ash. Or perhaps it didn’t. perhaps the grey is just the backdrop of my memory and the rain I recall was, quite simply, rain.’ Bleak…
…and then she’s off and away into her description of the toe-curlingly awkward evening as the plebiscite votes are counted. She is having to spend time with Paloma, the gum-chewing, Walkman-fixated daughter of her parents’ old friends Hans and Ingrid, who left Chile in a hurry and seem to have settled in Berlin…. And, meanwhile, things aren’t going swimmingly with the adults either. We begin to realise now, and later chapters confirm it, that they are all loaded down with baggage. We discover later that Iquela’s parents, deliberately or otherwise, did not escape at the time of the coup as agreed with their friends… and, meanwhile, Hans, who must have been a German ex-pat in Chile, calls Iquela’s father ‘the grass.’ Before the end of the evening, at least one punch has been thrown…. What’s going on? And why do Iquela’s parents have two names?
A Chilean audience would be reading this very differently… but that’s all right. This novel, as is made clear in Iquela’s opening paragraph, is about memory and forgetting—but it’s also a novel about translations, versions of events that change how they might be presented. So here I am, a British reader, engaging with this very South American, very Spanish book in a version that is itself a translation. And it goes further than that for us English readers. The doughty translator, Sophie Hughes, has to deal with conversations in which Paloma’s Spanish, very creaky in Iquela’s first chapter but much better in later ones when they are grown up, is subjected to rigorous testing. Her mother Ingrid might have been Chilean—she’s just died, perhaps inevitably, and Paloma has brought her body to Chile to be buried—but Paloma has honed her Spanish in Europe. Felipe—he’s the counter of the dead—checks her Spanish out, and Sophie Hughes has to find English equivalents: ‘What’s a sports shoe?’ / ‘A sneaker.’ / ‘No, it’s a trainer!’ and so on. As Felipe is leaving the flat on a whim, as he often does in the middle of the night, he can’t help one last jab: ‘Tomaytoe, tomahtoe….’ It’s a joke, but it isn’t only a joke. I didn’t even mention that in adult life, Iquela is—guess. She tells Paloma her job is to translate advertisements and third-rate TV scripts for a living and—who knows?—her downbeat, self-effacing résumé might even be true.
It’s Iquela we’re with most—her chapters are longer than Felipe’s—and she’s the one whose life is most troublingly recognisable. There must be something universal about family unhappiness—Tolstoy didn’t always get it right—although the details are specific to the times she grew up in, the part her parents played in the failed resistance, and the appalling legacy of fear and self-justification this has left her mother with. There are enough clues for us to understand that the mother, or father or both were guilty of a great betrayal. Why else would their so-called friends call Iquela’s father a grass? Why had they been able to live in safety throughout the dictatorship? Why have they been given new names—an honour they share with the dead?
The clues start in that awful party of the night of 5th October. The whole chapter is a superb set piece, as Iquela’s gauche attempts to find favour with Paloma—she takes the messed-up behaviour of this daughter of exiles to be the essence of cool—is matched step for step by her mother’s attempts to ingratiate herself with their former friends. Iquela tries the Walkman, a cigarette she finds disgusting, and a handful of her mother’s happy pills. Her mother tries forced jollity, endless wine and strained pleading: ‘Some things are better left unsaid.’ Her father, ‘crestfallen’ by Hans’s tirade—‘Fucking grass. Squealer … Son of a bitch’—can do nothing to prevent the punch that lands at just the moment when Iquela succumbs to a coughing fit following a kiss she never expected from her mixed-up ex-pat visitor.
In her next chapter, she fast-forwards some years. (How many?) She’s having a hard time with some mistake-strewn English she’s having to translate—put it right or leave it gauchely wrong?—when there’s a phone call. She knows her mother’s routines—her father’s dead now—so she knows it can’t be her. Except it is, and it’s to tell her she, Iquela, is to be on taxi duty next day, picking Paloma up from the airport. I mention the details—the thankless translation work, the equally thankless way she has to be at her mother’s beck and call—because they form the texture of her life. I can think of only one other writer in recent years who has portrayed a mother so perfectly able to make her daughter’s life miserable. In The Green Road by Anne Enright, I remember how Rosaleen, the mother, spends her time blaming her grown-up children for every last painstakingly listed component of her own unhappiness. Different story. Same story.
If there are any fulfilling relationships in Iquela’s life we don’t hear about them. The flat she lives in seems to be shared with Felipe, and I’ll come back to him. Otherwise the only telephone calls she gets are from her mother, and she details her everyday strategies for delaying her visits and stretching out her journey-times despite only living ‘eight-and-a-half blocks’ away. And Zerán is good at showing us, through Iquela’s descriptions, how a by-product of her mother’s own neuroses is a determination to make her daughter feel bad about her own life. It doesn’t matter whether it’s deliberate or not, because that’s how it just is with some mothers. (I’m not describing my own, but the mothers of some people I know. Especially one—my God.) There’s more to be said about Consuelo, the mother, if that’s what she’s really called. Later.
Meanwhile, Paloma’s visit. It seems to be as awkward as when they were both adolescents, starting with a bungled attempt at a hug—the same happened in in 1988—and Paloma’s wired, leg-twitching nervousness. There’s an inevitable misunderstanding at the airport—they nearly miss one another—and when they get to Consuelo’s apartment the evening they spend is dreadful. Consuelo is incapable of speaking positively, except when she tells Paloma—boring her daughter to distraction in the process—the old story of how she, and she alone, made sure Paloma’s parents got over the German Embassy wall. Iquela’s father (Rodolfo? Or Victor?) wasn’t there in time, and Consuelo was going nowhere without him. In the version she’s telling, ‘she would stay. Consuelo would resist.’ I’m sure that before the end of the novel, other versions will become available.
Is that enough about the three (living) women for now? Iquela doesn’t seem to know what to do about the unhappy mess of her life. Paloma… Paloma we’re not sure about yet, beyond the fact that her life seems a mess in a different sort of way. Whilst Iquela hates herself for never having left Chile, Santiago—in fact, the street she’s always lived in, Paloma’s life seems to have been a never-ending series of moves. Bits of her are in motion—that tapping leg, the endless shift of the cigarette to the lips for the next deep drag—even when she’s going nowhere. And Consuelo. She loves re-telling the past, and her version is only ever the comforting one. As I said, we don’t know about what really happened on the night of Hans and Ingrid’s escape… but we do know that when they arrive with Paloma for the 5th October party she makes things up. When Iquela is forced to hug the friend she never had it’s just ‘feigning our parents’ nostalgia.’ And if things start to ring too false, Consuelo can always fall back on that desperate last resort: ‘Some things are better left unsaid.’ I suspect any Chilean reader would recognise the line. And maybe, now I think about it, they would recognise her terror of the outdoors. She rarely goes out, and when Iquela is about to take Paloma back to her flat her warnings are terrifying. It’s normal for Iquela to hear the phone ringing—her mother checking her safe arrival—even before she’s reached the door.
Amongst the living—and he isn’t, not always—that only leaves Felipe. I called Iquela a troubled soul, but she has nothing on Felipe. I think that the dead he’s counting are the ‘disappeared’, dissidents arrested the dictatorship, never to be seen again. We come to realise that this is why he wants to count down: as he finds one—and I don’t think we know yet what exactly he’s finding—it’s another one subtracted from the tally of the missing. I think it’s in Chapter 8 that he’s increasingly concerned about the ages of the dead who are turning up. Down through the 30s, body by body, which is worrying for a nutcase like him. He’s 30 himself—what about if he’s about to be next?
If there’s any crazy internal logic to all this, I don’t get what it is. Felipe likes maths, but that’s no excuse…. And it isn’t all he likes. In an earlier chapter, he wants to test a theory he has about the beloved parrot kept by the grandmother he lives with as a child. Felipean scientific logic comes into play when he wants to find out what’s so special about what’s on the inside. ‘It’s what’s inside that counts, son,’ says his gran… and soon he’s stripped off the first layer, and the bird’s feathers are fanned neatly around its plucked body. But that isn’t enough, and soon he’s stripped things back further. He doesn’t seem to find what he’s looking for, either the essence of the bird or the source of its voice, and now it’s just a mass of bloodied flesh and bones. He realises he can’t reassemble it and… what? He buries it. As he recounts us the story, the tells us the parrot was the first of his dead. It isn’t the last—another Felipean theory is put to the test on his gran’s beloved chickens. Her happy pills are supposed to make her put on weight, and he wonders if they would do the same for her scrawny chickens. It ends badly, and she takes Felipe to stay with Iquela and her parents for even longer than usual.
If it’s comic it’s so dark it’s hard to see any light at all. Just like the darkness Felipe encounters after he leaves Iquela and Paloma with his tomaytoe/tomahtoe joke. From the darkness comes a voice, a man’s voice… and Felipe makes a big thing—I’m just mulling over the symbolic connotations of it—of how things exist even if we can’t see them. The man asks for a cigarette and then, clearly moving to the next stage in his pick-up routine, offers to share a joint. One thing leads to another, and soon the man is offering a blow-job, then performs a hand-job while Felipe wonders about the seagull that seems to have lost its way in the night. It isn’t the only one if you ask me. When he finally reaches orgasm, he seems bemused. The sky is crashing down on him, and is that snow falling? No, ‘this stuff raining down is something else, this is ash, goddam ash, once again it’s raining ash.’ (Felipe doesn’t do full stops, in case you were wondering.) Felipe, Iquela…. Is that ash there for everyone?
Whatever. Is a frantic hand-job from a stranger as close as it gets to intimacy in this world? Paloma’s parents divorced long ago, Rodolfo/Victor was a mass of tubes and medical apparatus before his death, and we hear no fond memories from either his widow or surviving daughter. Iquela mentions a night-game she and Felipe used to play, in which he took off all his clothes—but only for Iquela to play him, in role, while he… I forget what. It seems to have just been a way for bored kids to pass the time. OK, Paloma has brought her mother’s body back for burial, but—so? When Felipe interrogates her about it on the drink-fuelled first night of her stay, she says she’s doing it because ‘what with Ingrid being Chilean, there was no issue with her being buried in Santiago.’ Obviously, she’d had to come too. But if it’s about love—and it might be—she doesn’t seem to know it yet.
A couple of final things…. Iquela’s father must have gone through terrible things. He didn’t make the escape run because he was arrested, and Consuelo didn’t see him for eight months. Years later, one of his former friends accuses him of betrayal—and, meanwhile, the family’s names are changed. (Is even Iquela’s a new name?) We don’t know whether Rodolfo/Victor really did betray comrades still in Chile, but it would make sense. And Felipe. Only one person ever calls him son, his supposed gran. But he isn’t her son, and we have to wonder what happened to his parents. Is his obsessive countdown of the missing a desperate search for them? I’m guessing it is.
To the repeated ‘I do all this for you’ before Chapter 3
I don’t think any of them know what love is. Why would they, when whatever it is that they’ve ever been shown doesn’t look anything like it? As the road movie element of the novel kicks in—a review I didn’t read mentioned this aspect in the title, and before this section I hadn’t realised why—it all comes to seem far less strange. Felipe is now simply one of three main characters, sharing the narration with Iquela, rather than a voice from another dimension. They’re three young people—although we’ve still no idea how many years have passed since October 1988—and their behaviour is beginning to seem all too understandable. I’m regretting the way it’s becoming easy to imagine it as a conventional road movie…
…albeit seen through Zerán’s own particular glass, very darkly indeed. At the point I’ve read up to, they’ve reached where they’re going—it obviously isn’t the longest of road movies—but I want to rewind to a moment when they’ve decided to rest up for the night. We get the second of the book’s moments of intimacy (if we count the surreptitious hand-job in the dark in Chapter 7 as the first) as Iquela, in the darkness of the back of a hearse at night, is having the scar on the back of her hand stroked by Paloma. It seems they are discovering something about themselves That Felipe says he knew all along. It might or might not be intimate and/or loving—it’s too early to tell—but the scar came about through a childhood form of close contact, when a girl Iquela knew used to gently scratch her skin until it bled. And when it would start to heal, Iquela herself would go at it some more. Self-harm doesn’t have to be a solitary pursuit in this universe.
Zerán makes that permanent-seeming cloud of ash work very hard in this section. When Felipe noticed it during his nocturnal encounter with hand-job boy, the ash was like snow—but the city has been suffering an intolerable heatwave and there’s no snow anywhere nearby. Except… there is if you’re driving a hearse east over the mountains to meet up with the dead. Actually, Iquela and Paloma anre taking Felipe to Mendoza in Argentina to pick up Ingrid’s body. That pesky ash had made Santiago too dangerous for the plane to land… and that same ash continually turns them all into ghosts. It covers their hair and skin, and it’s so deep they often leave no prints as they walk. And if that isn’t metaphorical enough for us… Felipe is delighted, up on the mountain road where they’ve parked up for the night, to go out and gather handfuls of the stuff. He’s never seen snow close up, and thinks this cold grey mess is the real thing. He doesn’t realise he’s in a novel where nobody knows what’s real and what isn’t. And guess what? As soon as hey get into Argentina the skies clear and the ash disappears. Sure, the relentless sun isn’t exactly welcoming, but at least it isn’t ash.
But I need to rewind further. Only a day has passed since the message about the body not having reached Santiago, and… and what? Maybe it’s something about Paloma’s presence, but Iquela isn’t dancing to every last note of her mother’s tune. Reader, the morning after that first night of drinking with paloma, she doesn’t answer the phone. I know, staggering. Felipe, draped over a chair after his own late night, wakes from a doze to tell her Paloma is at the embassy trying to sort out her mother’s ‘repatriation.’
Fast-forward through some necessary plot—it’s only through sheer good luck that they find an undertaker who will lend them an almost clapped-out hearse—the ‘General’s’ gears can be tricky, he tells them—and they’re off up towards the ‘cordillera’. (I don’t think there’s any punning intention in the use of that word that derives from the Spanish for ‘rope’. Zerán makes nothing of it—the things that tie these three to the past have nothing to do with these mountains.) When it’s Felipe’s turn to drive he attacks the hairpin bends without braking… but he hasn’t killed them yet. He wouldn’t, would he? After all, he’s a subtractor of the dead. He lets Paloma know how annoyed he is that all this fetching and carrying won’t make any difference to the list. Add one, take one away….
Is Felipe the most interesting character? Of the three of them, all living with the consequences of their parents’ past actions, he seems the most seriously damaged. His obsession with accounting for the dead is as real as ever, and in the fragments of back-story we occasionally get, we begin to understand why. The first clue, beyond the fact that we already suspected he was orphaned a long time ago, is to do with his name. One time, whilst living with Iquela and her family, he can’t stand it any more and he begins to wander the streets. He does it for days, and when he’s finally picked up the police match his name to that of one of the missing. Ah. He has his father’s name…. And in another fragment, we hear how Iquela and he would be ‘pretending to play’ (her phrase) while her father and mother argued about him in another room. They are only looking after him because they owe it to him after what Rodolfo/Victor had done. Which was… no need to guess, because it’s become obvious by now. He’d said ‘two words’—Felipe’s phrase this time—and they were ‘Felipe Arrabal.’ His father’s name.
I wrote in relation to Iquela’s opening lines that this novel was clearly going to be about memory, and versions of past events. The three characters we’re following are all struggling to live with their parents’ past in their different ways. Felipe carries such a sense of loss that as Iquela sees his face in the rear-view mirror the dark bags under his eyes make him look old. Iquela’s struggle is to do with her mother, obsessively trying to protect her from the harm that she imagines to be lurking around every corner. To Iquela, of course, it has become so overbearing as to be intolerable. ‘I do all this for you I do all this for you I do all this for you…’ repeated over and over is a mantra turned to concrete poetry at the end of the chapters set in Mendoza. On the page it looks like an impenetrable wall. As for Paloma… we only get to know about her by way of what the others tell us. We know about the chain-smoking and willingness to lose herself in alcohol. In fact, she seems to be adrift. Iquela remarks on how she had seemed content to let the drive over the mountains simply happen, almost losing herself in the opportunity to just let the road slide by. But once in Argentina, she wants everything to happen right now.
Felipe is sarcastic, patronises her for her anxiety—‘Relax, Blondie’—and reminds her that with the lines down between the two countries they won’t get any joy from the consulate.
As Iquela is suffers from an agonising mixture of anxiety and relief over not having contacted her mother. She hadn’t been able to face telling her where they were going, and now she can’t. She feels terrible, but at least she isn’t having to suffer the recriminations. And she’s worried about what her mother expects to gain from the return of Ingrid’s body to Santiago. What on earth is she hoping for? I think it’s Felipe who reminds them all that dead people don’t any carry any answers.
The truth is that having travelled all those miles—225 according to Google Maps, in case you’re wondering—they’ve become stuck in a new kind of limbo. And, in what seems like an otherwise empty hotel, the tension among them all rises. Iquela has become somehow disinhibited by the distance from home—we know from the early chapters that she’s never been out of Santiago before—and, perhaps, by the presence of an ally in Paloma. For the first time, she lets Felipe know what she really thinks about him and his demons. ‘Look who’s talking, … Mr Light and Breezy, so at peace with the past.’ And when she asks him what she means, she lets him know: ‘ I mean that you don’t even have to open your mouth: it’s written all over your face.’
Oh dear. When Paloma asks what is written all over his face, he abandons any of his own inhibitions too: ‘That we’re dead, Fraulein. Dead-dead.’ And he bounds up the hotel stairs, in Iquela’s words, ‘laughing loudly, the laugh he used to stop himself from crying. Or maybe not: maybe he was laughing and I was the one who wanted to cry.’ There’s a big, quite unmanageable shift going on somewhere in her consciousness, and perhaps (forgive me for this) that’s what her journey has really been about. Zerán likes to signal her metaphors nice and clearly. And maybe, by the time they’ve made their way home—there are only 50 pages left, so the road movie will have to start up again soon—the journey will have taught them that the place you return to isn’t the same as the place you left. Maybe the sun will be shining in Santiago too. Or would that be too easy?
Yes, it seems, that would be way too easy. Reader, everything falls apart… except, perhaps, for one thing. That shift in Iquela’s consciousness seems to have been real, because after she’s found herself imagining every last detail of at least two possible return trips to Santiago—I’ll tell you in a minute—she tells Paloma she isn’t going back. The last chapter of her narrative, the one before Felipe’s final countdown to zero, has her deciding that whatever she does, she can’t help her mother, and her mother can’t help her. In one of the imagined return trips, she parks the hearse, and Ingrid’s body, outside the little garden where her mother can always be found watering the plants. Pointless. And in another scenario, having walked on her knees from Mendoza to Santiago she is finally able to lay everything before her mother. Finally, she will be able to turn her mother’s mantra back on her: ‘Mother, I have done all this for you.’ Also pointless. It’s been a long time coming, but finally she has come to realise that the children cannot be the saviours of the parents if the parents are incapable not only of helping themselves but of showing their children how to do any of it.
If it’s a hopeful sign, that she finally realises she doesn’t deserve to be held to account by a mother who only ever criticises, then it’s as bleak as everything else. It doesn’t feel like redemption, it feels like no more than a rejection of rejection. Iquela isn’t doing anything as positive as imagining a new life for herself, only bringing her old life to a full stop. When we last see her saying goodbye to Paloma, there’s no resolution of anything. ‘“I’ll catch you up,” I added, pulling her in for a hug, remembering our first encounter (wondering if it was a new kind of longing beating inside of me, or if it was the steady pulse of our parents’ nostalgia).’ There are two ‘ifs’ in that sentence, and I’m reminded of the way her narrative opens: ‘Perhaps it rained ash. Or perhaps it didn’t.’ Nearly 200 pages later, she still isn’t sure about anything. As Paloma drives off, all there is to hear is the ‘uncontainable din’ of a flock of birds taking off. Is it a hopeful image? It doesn’t feel like it.
But compared to Felipe’s final chapter—I’ll come back to that—Iquela’s is sweetness and light. She has taken her fate into her own hands, for all her uncertainties about the future (or the past, or the present). Felipe has left the two women at the warehouse in Mendoza airport, taking with him the coffin that Iquela located among countless others, and it feels like the culmination of something. These final chapters—three narrated by Iquela, four by Felipe—have felt other-worldly compared to the almost conventional-seeming middle section. There’s one tiny nod in the direction of a conventional plot—the airport security guard who had refused to raise the barrier to them without the right papers happens to meet Felipe at a nightclub and tells him where he’ll need to look next day—but otherwise all three of them are living in a tumult of uncertainty and frustration. The powerful drug that Paloma has smuggled with her from Berlin, left over from her mother’s failed cancer treatment, turns the whole experience into a vertiginous waking dream, sometimes more of a nightmare. If it had felt like limbo before, now it sometimes feels like one of the circles of hell.
Ingrid, in the smoothly polished wood of her coffin—Felipe has always hated smoothness, seeking out whatever is diametrically opposite to it—means different things to all of them. They are shocked by the number of coffins in the warehouse, adding another layer to the obsessive arithmetic of Felipe’s calculations. Should they all count towards the ‘minus’ tally? Should any of them? And however Ingrid’s body fits into it, she’s definitely part of Felipe’s story—and nobody else’s, as far as he’s concerned. He’d resented it when, even before the coffin is found, Paloma had been claiming it for herself. She had insisted to the others that, back in Santiago, it would be ‘my funeral.’ Nobody laughed.
But it’s Iquela who finds the coffin, and her reaction is strong. She had fantasised that their stay in Mendoza could be prolonged indefinitely, had told the hotel receptionist—who had insisted on immediate payment for their one night—that they would be staying a while. Now, suddenly, here is the coffin, complete with its label—and she has an idea. She will remove it, even though she knows this might well condemn Paloma to years, perhaps a whole lifetime, of searching…. In the end, she can’t do it. But both the others, for their own reasons, are annoyed that she was the one to find it. In a different universe, one in which comedy might exist, it could be comic. But not in this one. The moment merely confirms what has become clearer than ever during these last chapters, that all three of them are condemned to an existential separateness from everybody else.
The word ‘love’ makes several appearances, and it is always problematic. Zerán makes it clear—and I’m not quite sure how she does it—that what existed between Iquela and Felipe when they were children could have been, ought to have been, love. In an earlier chapter, somewhere in the middle section of the book, Iquela had told the story of how Felipe wanted to be close to Iquela. But not too close. Not married, not part of the same family—and Iquela invents an impossible relationship for them, where she could (or he could? I forget) be the great-great-great-grandmother. It’s absurd and terribly sad, like so many of their childhood games. We hear about another one, the one that gives Iquela her idea of how to honour her mother by walking on her knees to Santiago. All those years ago, Felipe had strewn stones and fragments of glass on the ground for them to make their way over, on their knees. Iquela’s mother had not been impressed. This is how the change in Iquela’s way of thinking slowly takes shape. She’s had enough of trying, and failing, to prove her worth to her mother.
Love. Paloma is, we have to assume, the only one ever to have shown Iquela what a physical manifestation of it might be like. It doesn’t work, for either of them. There’s nothing so straightforward as a rueful smile next day after their naked caresses (or whatever) in the hearse, no confirmation that it was nothing more than a pair of lonely people comforting one another in the night. Nothing is spoken of it, positively or negatively—so it’s no surprise that Iquela could contemplate, for more than a brief instant, the idea of condemning Paloma to a lifetime of frustrated searching. And it’s no surprise that when they part, Iquela has no idea whether their hug means anything or is just another relic of the past.
I’m not really giving any impression of these chapters. Despite everyone’s supposedly shared wish to ‘repatriate’ Ingrid’s body—the word keeps coming up, sometimes with layers of irony—the 24 hours or so they spend together is marked by recriminations and resentment. And by a sort of anomie brought about by their uncertainty of what they are seeking. They all seem lost—and, by the end, none of them has found anything they could possibly have hoped for. Most spectacularly, this is true of Felipe. He’s left the others to work out, or not work out, what they will do next. Paloma accepts a lift from the guard, with a view to getting back to the city and from there back to Santiago. Iquela, we know, is content for the time being with anything that isn’t a return to the failure of her broken relationship with her mother. Whereas for Felipe…
…the combination of his seemingly lifelong obsessions and an extra phial of the high-powered drug stolen from Paloma’s bag take him into a new realm altogether. He drives the hearse, ‘the General,’ beyond its capabilities, and at the summit of the mountain road it breaks down. At the same moment, something in Felipe gives out too. Any realistic assessment of his behaviour and visions would put them down, at best, to a drug-fuelled hallucination At worst it’s a total breakdown. Either way, there’s no resolution for him any more than for Paloma and for the only living person he might ever have loved, Iquela. The strident rush of ideas and images that come to him, almost all based on obsessions we’ve seen in him before, reach a terrible climax in the last words we get from him: ‘I have to say the words … in a voice that dies and is reborn I have to scream as I blaze, as I give birth to myself, as the flames give life to me I have to scorch the air with my voice, with my final howl, my final sum, minus one, minus one, minus one.’ To me, this only makes sense if he has decided that he can only reach zero through his own death.
We can’t be sure that’s what the last line signifies. We’ve only had Felipe’s word for it that he is somehow magically able to find his way from the summit of the cordillera all the way into the familiar topography of the Santiago streets. But whatever is happening, as for Iquela, it is no kind of satisfactory resolution. On his way from the snowy summits he has been a bird flying, feathers attaching to him as though he is reconstituting himself from the remains of his grandmother’s plucked and eviscerated parrot. And, once in Santiago, he is the soulmate of the street dogs, an idea he’s always carried around with him as though he has no more value than any of them. He finds himself with their muzzle and paws, and digs like them. Up until now, it’s the dead he’s been digging for. But now that his arithmetic has stopped working all he can dig are trenches like minus-signs. Whatever has happened to Felipe on his own personal journey, he has found nothing. Which—and I’m not sure if this is glib—is all he ever hoped to find. It’s no wonder he’s become nothing himself along the way.
So, no hope for anybody? It seems that way—which, perhaps, is as much of a cop-out as the easy resolutions that were never going to happen. No lessons are learnt because—well, why? How can three separate non-resolutions—plus another for Consuelo, the only living survivor of the failed resistance to the coup—constitute any kind of satisfactory outcome? Does Zerán genuinely believe that there is no hope of resolution, redemption, reconciliation? Authors may not have to offer any easy answers. But to offer no answers at all?
I’m not a sentimentalist, but the idea of a living hell, with no prospect of escape for anybody, is simply not interesting enough. Totalitarianism does terrible damage, and Zerán has painted a harrowing picture of the appalling effects it has, not only on individuals but to whole families. But it doesn’t leave every last survivor a wreck, and turn all their children into hollow shells whose only hope is to turn their backs on those they should love. In Zerán’s universe there doesn’t seem to be any space for hope.