An Illusion of Freedom

You may remember that during German Literature Month I reviewed Clemens Meyer’s collection of short stories, All the Lights, published by And Other Stories, and while I enjoyed it, didn’t really find it my kind of book.  However, the other book from the same publishers, the book I had actually asked to be sent, had to wait until late December, pushed down the queue by a whole host of German-language books and a certain Japanese novel you may have heard of…

Argentinian writer Iosi Havilio’s Open Door (translated by Beth Fowler), the book I asked to review, is much more my kind of novel.  Set in Buenos Aires and a small country town not far from the Argentinian capital, it explores a year in the life of a person whose partner disappears one day, leaving them to start afresh in a small town.  They somehow stumble into a relationship with a taciturn macho farmer, spending long days doing housework, taking siestas and researching the history of Open Door, a local low-security mental asylum.  Gradually though, attention wanders from the farmer to a teenage girl, a young lady who makes no secret of her attraction to our narrator…

At which point you’re probably noticing something unusual in the way this post is unfolding, namely the fact that I haven’t actually given you much information about the central character, someone who narrates the story and keeps a lot close to their chest.  We never learn their name, and in fact it takes a long time for their gender to be explicitly revealed (even then, I had some serious doubts for a while!).  Although the disappearance, and possible suicide, of their girlfriend Aída is the catalyst for the events of the story, there is a sense that things are awry well before this.

It is probably no coincidence that when our friend drifts into the arms of the rugged Jaime, it is in the vicinity of Open Door.  After discovering an old book on the ‘colony’, written in French, a fascination with its workings and history arises, an interest which is more than just a hobby to occupy the time spent waiting for the man of the house to return from work.  In fact, as the novel progresses, the line between the colony and the nearby town blurs and disappears, leaving us to wonder whether there is any difference – and where we actually are…

Havilio’s style virtually encourages us to indulge in such speculation, the lack of detail hinting that the truth lies somewhere below the surface, and the book our friend discovers, relating the history of the colony, could just as well be telling us about her life.  In fact, the distinction between the town and the colony seems relatively unimportant, and if you take it a step further, Havilio is suggesting that we are all, in some way, living in our own little colonies.  In the book it says:

“No walls restrict the horizon, nothing to limit the illusion of absolute liberty.” p.133

While it is meant to describe the freedom of the patients at Open Door, it may actually be hinting at the illusion most people outside it have of being able to lead free lives…

The relationship the narrator develops with the young Eloísa is also slightly unsettling, seeming as it does to just drift into being, from nowhere (a pattern which many of the events in Open Door follow).  An almost violently-sexual affair develops, with the (presumably) older woman fascinated by the misbehaving teenager – who frequently shows that perhaps she would not be out of place at the colony.  However, it is Eloísa, unable to understand what our friend is doing living with an old man, who says:

“It’s madness.  If I didn’t know you better I’d say you were wrong in the head.” p.185

It’s hard not to think that she is on the right track with this comment…

As much as the reader speculates though, the reality is that this is a book which defies interpretation, giving enough up to intrigue us, but nowhere near enough to allow answers to be found.  At times, it all feels a little Kafkaesque, but where the Czech writer’s characters charge around in a desperate attempt to find out what on earth is going on, Havilio’s creations leave the heavy thinking to the reader, preferring to drink, fornicate and enjoy their siestas while we are wondering what to make of it all.  Is it a story of post-traumatic stress?  Is it an allegory for some aspect of modern life?  Are we meant to suspect that we are all actually living inside an asylum?

Don’t ask me (I never claimed to know!).  Read it for yourself, and you might find out – then again, you might not.  In any case, whether you succeed in unravelling the truth or not, you’ll certainly have an interesting time 🙂

13 thoughts on “An Illusion of Freedom

  1. Gary – It certainly is interesting, one I'm sure would appeal to the Latin-American fiction fan in you 🙂

    Caroline – It's one where the attitude of the reader will play a big role. If you're interested in analysing it to death, that's very possible, but it would be equally possible to just read it and think 'well, nothing much happened there…'.


  2. “We never learn their name, and in fact it takes a long time for their gender to be explicitly revealed (even then, I had some serious doubts for a while!).”

    This is easier to achieve in English than in French, and I suspect in Spanish (I don't speak Spanish)I wonder how the writer does it in the original text.

    Interesting find. Unavailable in French translation though.


  3. Rise – Well, if there are any budding film-makers out there, I'm open to offers 😉

    Emma – That's true (although it may just have been me being dense!). It's easy in English with a first-person narrator, especially when they swing both ways, as it were – you just need to put in a few things you would usually associate with one gender (but which could equally be used with the other).

    You never know, French might be next 🙂 If not, it's fairly straight-forward to read in English. Now understanding the writer's intention is another matter…


  4. Thsi is very close to the top of my reading list and moving closer as a result of this review. Stefan, who runs And Other Stories, used to live in Oxford and The Albion Beatnik Bookstore where I hang out most of the time is still their spiritual home so I'm lucky to get to a lot of their events, which regularly bring translators and writers together to talk. They're a fabulous publisher – I'd thoroughly recommend Down The Rabbit Hole if you haven't read it already.


  5. Dan – I didn't know that – another serendipitous connection 😉 I've heard a lot of good things about 'Down the Rabbit Hole', so I'm sure I'll get to it at some point 🙂

    Mark – Sometimes it's better that way – too much analysis can make the magic lose its lustre 😉


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