Liliana Colanzi: Our Dead World

This is my most recent #20BooksofSummer read (No. 12 in actual fact), but I am somersaulting over the earlier ones I read and placing it at No. 10, so that I can have at least one review this week for #SpanishLitMonth initiated by Stu Jallen (which is not just literature from Spain but literature in the Spanish language).

Liliana Colanzi is a Bolivian writer, considered one of the most promising young voices in Latin America today, but so far Our Dead World is her only book that has been translated into English (by Jessica Sequeira and published by Dalkey Archive Press). I heard Colanzi speak at the Hay Festival two years ago, as part of the Bogota39 initiative, and bought her book then and there (and of course got it signed). The stories are unusual, surreal, captivating and show a great deal of courage, in the sense of not worrying about making the reader feel comfortable or of fitting under one convenient genre or label.

The first story The Eye, for example, could be described as a more realistic, coming-of-age type story, with a girl in her first year of college struggling with her feelings for a male classmate, who lets her down by buggering off with another girl at the last minute while working on a group project for class. Her mother is deeply religious and traditional, her professor chides her for not being brave enough to think for herself, and she compensates for all of her disappointments by cutting herself. So far, so conventional, you might think, but then the story and the language takes on a surreal turn, as we follow the protagonist into something like a nervous breakdown (or illumination?).

And that is the hallmark of Colanzi’s style: taking the mundane and well-trodden set-ups and then twisting them completely beyond recognition. You sit and read breathlessly  and wonder how the author will manage to conclude the story and exit from the impossible situation in which she has placed herself and her characters. Usually, this is done through altered states, which the author is very good at conveying through repetitive, mesmerising language, which is often like watching a film playing at double the speed in someone’s head.

Each story (bar one) has a different but realistic setting – a Bolivian village preparing for a funeral, an East Coast college campus, a Paris hotel, a photographic studio, a house hidden in a sugar-cane plantation. But then a curveball gets thrown into the apparently familiar set-up: a family starts quarreling as they remember past frustrations while having their portrait taken, a meteorite is ready to hit the earth, a mysterious wave-type weather pattern drives students to suicide, a cannibal is on the loose, the corpse at a funeral seems to start breathing, you stumble across a place in the jungle where indigenous slavery still exists. There are hints at secret traumas and a side serving of horror in most of these tales.

The story which is the exception has more of a sci-fi premise: it’s set on Mars. A young woman has joined the colonising workforce on Mars but still yearns for the life and man she loved on Earth. While she and her fellow workers are doomed to either go mad or die of cancer, she becomes obsessed by the idea of life perpetuating itself even in the most hostile of environments.

These are the kind of stories which pack so much into their tiny frame that I’m not sure I’ve completely understood them. I also like the way in which Colanzi alludes to her cultural background but is not limited by it. I want to reread and analyse these stories – but above all, they give me permission to go forth and be bolder and more experimental in my own writing.