Over the last couple of years, I’ve discovered many great books and writers, mainly in translation, but it’s always nice to return to old favourites. However, in some cases, these discoveries have quickly become old favourites, with sequels appearing within a decent space of time. Good examples of this are Jon Kalman Stefansson with his Icelandic sagas, Karl Ove Knausgaard and his very public midlife crisis and (of course) Elena Ferrante’s bitter, twisted and compelling tales of two women in Naples 🙂
Let’s see if today’s post, my first for this year’s Spanish Lit Month, can add another name to that worthy list…
Iosi Havilio’s Open Door was a novel I enjoyed a few years back, and Paradises (translated by Beth Fowler, e-copy courtesy of And Other Stories) is a follow-up book, featuring the same protagonist. It picks up several years after the events of the first book, with our nameless heroine still living on the old farm in the country. However, right from the start, Paradises shows us that things will be a little different this time around – her partner, Jaime, has just been killed in a hit-and-run incident, and our friend decides that it’s time to head back to the big bad city.
However, things are a little different this time around. First, she lands a job at a zoo, mainly thanks to Iris, a Romanian migrant who lives at the same lodging house. Then, Eloisa, her oversexed friend from the country, manages to track her down. Oh, there’s one other thing – did I forget to mention her four-year-old son, Simon?
While the story and setting are different from those of Open Door, the style is very much the same. It’s just as detached, just as world weary – and just as lacking in sentiment:
“In this new Jaime, the final Jaime, who I’ll only see this once, in addition to his stillness, the smell of alcohol or formaldehyde, I’m not sure, I suddenly discover an oddity that bears little relation to death. Instead of his lips being sealed, as was his habit, somewhere between resignation and embarrassment, I catch sight of a small opening at the right-hand corner of his mouth, a sarcastic, sly smile, as if death had caught Jaime mocking something.”
(And Other Stories, 2013)
We don’t waste too much time grieving poor Jaime. Instead, his departure merely marks the start of a new stage in his widow’s life.
She moves on, then, just as she arrived, without leaving a trace, and with all contacts left behind. Simon is one addition to her baggage, but he too is quiet and unassuming, not a boy to overcomplicate her life. However, for the first time in years, she has to find a job, entering the world of work once more. From the country to the city, you might think it’s back to reality – the truth is that none of it seems real…
In fact, Paradises is pervaded by a dreamlike, grotesque quality at times, and when she moves into an old tower block, it’s almost like a journey into a twisted fairy tale. Not that you’d find much like this in a kids’ book:
“But the thing that keeps me from sleep more than anything, adding to the insomnia of recent days, is not the noise from the street or the music or conversations, but those strange murmurs produced in the bowels of the building and which at times I think might be in my head. Metallic sounds, wind-like, flushes, hums, sputters, like the secretions of a decomposing organism.”
What awaits her there does remind the reader of certain of Grimm’s Tales, though. There’s Tosca, the gigantic, cancer-ridden, morphine-addict matriarch of the building, watching over the goings on with the help of her mentally handicapped son. Together, they sit at the top of a society of drug dealers, drag queens and other assorted human jettsam in a squat with unreliable power and water…
It’s inevitable that Eloisa, the most memorable character from the first novel, crashes back into the life of the main character. The younger woman is as mad as ever, but slightly different in this new environment, and this actually sums Paradises up nicely – it’s very similar to Open Door, yet very different at the same time (if that makes sense…). While the older woman is happy to see Eloisa again, she’s never quite sure whether to go along with her stunts or cut her off. There’s some excellent interplay here, and for readers who remember the first book, the sexual tension between the two is skilfully drawn out.
Havilio’s style is simple, but hypnotic. While the plot is quite ordinary, the author’s handling of it makes it seem as if it’s happening a world away. It can all seem hidden behind a veil of fog – you see, the main character just isn’t quite on our wavelength:
“Simon has taken advantage of those seconds of distraction to escape from my sight. He’s hiding or being hidden by the landscape. One of the two is using the other. I’m not going to shout, I wouldn’t know how. I wait, to see if he appears, surely he’ll appear, but he doesn’t appear. I stand up and walk without alarm, accommodating my flip-flops between the holes and the stones.”
She seems incapable of strong emotions, no matter what life throws at her, and her inability to really get upset adds to the dreamlike feel of the novel.
While I’m not quite sure Havilio is up with the writers I mentioned at the start of the post, Paradises is very enjoyable and well written with a good translation (one with a noticeably British-English feel). In truth, it’s not really about the story, it’s all about the ‘vibe’ – it’s a mellow book, with occasional (deliberate) jarring tones of swearing and drugs, just enough to keep the reader on their toes. Enough of my thoughts though – I’ll leave the last words to our anonymous friend, words which sum up her style perfectly:
“I offer no opinion, nor do I contradict her. I prefer to let things follow their natural course, then I’ll see.”
And that pretty much sums her (and the book) up 😉