Women in Translation Month: Valeria Luiselli

WITMonth15 (1)Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good few.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd :
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Even before I knew anything about Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, I thought of the above poem by Ezra Pound. Only to find that the book is indeed named after it (at least in the English translation, more about the title below) – and has a poignant story to share about the origin of this poem (I have no idea if it’s true or not).

I’ve previously criticised ‘vignette’ type novels, calling them more of a collection of prose poems or flash fiction. That doesn’t detract from the beauty of the writing but the book just doesn’t hang together in a narrative arc that has taken me on a journey and left me emotionally charged or changed. And that’s what I expect from a novel.

facesHowever, this novel (and yes, I think we can call it a novel) is different. While the narration is fragmented, there is control and precision at work here. Every thing mentioned at an earlier point in the novel is then referred to again later on. It’s like a solo instrument introducing a melodic theme, then it gets picked up again by other instruments, until finally it is amplified and performed by the whole orchestra. So the structure is beautifully mastered and truly experimental ‘a horizontal novel, told vertically’, not just pretending to be experimental. There us indeed a fearless (and erudite) imagination at work there, not just someone trying to be achingly hip and cool.

The narrative alternates initially between two times and places: a young mother trying to find the mental peace to write her book in Mexico City; and her remembrance of the days when she was a young woman working in publishing in New York City.

The difficulties of writing with small children will sound very familiar:

Now I write at night, when the two children are asleep and it’s acceptable to smoke, drink and let draughts in. Before, I used to write all the time, at any hour, because my body belonged to me.
A silent novel, so as not to wake the children.
Novels need a sustained breath. That’s what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is – has to be – in short bursts. I’m short of breath.

Yet the conversations with the Boy also anchor the story, adding a wonderful touch of humour and instantly recognisable to anyone who has children or works with children.

Who are you hiding from, Mama? From Papa?
From Without? [the house ghost]
From nobody.
If you want to hide, Mama, you have to find a more hidey place.
Isn’t the bed hidey?
No, the bed’s springy and a bit nuisancey when I want to run.

The narrator is aware that she is wallowing in nostalgia for something that perhaps never existed in the first place. She describes her simple New York routines, her far from glamorous, tiny apartment, her fear of loneliness and compulsive sharing of her apartment keys with friends.

All that has survived from that period are the echoes of certain conversations, a handful of recurrent ideas, poems I liked and read over and over until I had them off by heart. Everything else is a later elaboration. It’s not possible for my memories of that life to have more substance. They are scaffoldings, structures, empty houses.

Author picture from Open Letters Monthly.
Author picture from Open Letters Monthly.

So it starts off innocently enough as a contrast between then and now, between young adult and motherhood, which would have been interesting enough in itself, although perhaps not very original. But then it becomes something far richer and more satisfying. The young narrator becomes obsessed with the life and works of a Mexican poet called Gilberto Owen, who lived in New York in the 1920s. She fraudulently claims to have found a collection of poems by Owen, supposedly translated by a better-known American poet Joshua Zvorsky. (By the way, both poets did exist, although the name of the American one has been slightly modified.) But then, when there is real danger that her forgeries will be detected, she turns to fiction instead and from that point on we move between Owen’s story and the other two strands. It all gets more knotted, more intricate, with apparitions in the subway (a woman in a red coat, Ezra Pound, Federico Garcia Lorca) until we have a fine danse macabre of ghosts and possibilities, a braided narrative of alternative universes perhaps.

I think this is what the author is getting at when she talks about the multiple deaths a person can go through. All the dead ends or paths we did not take, the things we did not become.

Naturally, there are a lot of deaths in the course of a lifetime. Most people don’t notice. They think you die once and that’s it. But you only have to pay a bit of attention to realize that you go and die every so often. That’s not just a poetic turn of phrase… Most deaths don’t matter; the film goes on running. Except that that’s when everything takes a turn, even though it may be imperceptible, and the consequences are not always apparent straightaway. I began to die in Manhattan, in the summer of 1928. Of course, no one except me noticed my deaths – people are too busy with their own lives to take notice of other people’s little deaths.

The title of the book in Spanish is ‘Los Ingravidos – The Weightless’ and that perfectly captures the sense of drifting in and out of lives, floating above and diving into our different selves (the imagined ones, the real ones, the discarded ones). You will occasionally have the impression, like the narrator, that you are ‘the only living girl in a city of ghosts’.

So don’t be put off by the book’s manifest ‘strangeness’: it is a very pleasant, often funny and emotionally candid read. Phew – this became a much longer review than I expected! That’s because this was a book I relished reading, with a style and openness to experimentation that reminded me of Clarice Lispector and Virginia Woolf.

20 thoughts on “Women in Translation Month: Valeria Luiselli”

  1. This does sound like a really rich reading experience, Marina Sofia,. I respect writers who add layers like that, and who take the reader on – how can I put this? – more of a journey than it seems on the surface. That commentary on dying several times is really deep and thoughtful; I have to reflect on that…

  2. Great review – I have heard good things about this so I shall add it to the list of ones to look out for!

  3. Great review Marina – you really nail it and help peel away the layers… I loved it- actually kept rereading bits as I read – but want to read it again, closely because I feel there still more to appreciate than I got.

    Keen to read more Luiselli – got Sidewalks on my #WITMonth TBR pile but fancy The Story of my Teeth too. You read either yet?

    1. I want to read Sidewalks, but don’t have it yet (had to get this one sent from the States). Not quite sure about the Teeth one, but I think she has the potential to make anything interesting!

  4. Excellent review, Marina. I love your orchestra analogy and how you’ve likened the novel to a piece of music. That’s an interesting way of visualising it.

    As for Luiselli’s other work, I’m not sure about the Teeth one either (something about the premise is holding me back). Sidewalks is great, though – a quiet, thoughtful collection of essays. I think you’d like it very much.

  5. I loved Faces, and Sidewalks when I read them. She’s such an intelligent writer, and her translator is clearly gifted, too.

    1. I was wondering about the translator, thinking how hard it must be to render that style into English. English and Romance languages (not French perhaps so much, but Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romania) are polar opposites.

  6. I read your review…then I read it again….then again.
    That is how much you have managed to squeeze into this ‘classy’ review.
    Poetry, dramatic structure, metaphors (intruments/sound) were all there along with a strong recommendation to give this Mexcian voice a chance.
    Enjoyed reading every word…..!

    1. You are so sweet – and I could have gone on and one. What does it say about a book, when your review is almost longer than the book itself? Set so many little cogs in motion.

  7. I may be sweet but am still learning how to write by following you and many links you promote. Thoughts that just jump into my head while writing are chaotic and that shows in my writing. I have to learn to pause, reflect, and polish those thoughts. It will take time.

  8. Loved this one (and ‘Sidewalks’), but ‘The Story of My Teeth’ wasn’t anywhere near as good for me. I’m hoping she’ll get back to this kind of form with her next book…

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