It’s August, and that means it’s Women in Translation Month once more, so all my posts in the coming weeks will cover works of literature originally written in other languages by female authors. I’m planning to post approximately ten reviews from around the world, but with the Spanish- (and Portuguese-) Language Literature Month event carrying on into August, there will be several reviews that work for both events. That starts today, as my first post for the month takes us to Colombia, for a short, creepy encounter with a woman, a dog and a rather unusual boy…
Carolina Sanín’s The Children (translated by Nick Caistor, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) is set in the Colombian capital of Bogotá, and is told from the point of view of Laura, a single woman living with her greyhound, Brus. Although she works as a cleaner, she doesn’t really need the money, having inherited shares in the family salt mine; the part-time job is more of a distraction from her everyday boredom.
However, her life changes one day when she hears noises outside her apartment. On going out to investigate, she finds a young boy crying in the night. After allowing him to stay the night, Laura contacts the authorities and drops him off, but she’s unable to forget the child (whom she nicknames Fidel) and eventually tracks him down. What develops is a story of a woman and a child getting to know each other, yet there’s something in the background preventing them from making a real connection – perhaps something in Fidel’s past…
That’s certainly one way of describing The Children, but in truth it doesn’t come close to explaining what the book is really about. You see, Sanín’s short novel is less about what happens and more about what doesn’t, forcing the reader to examine each bland statement carefully in an attempt to understand what the writer is trying to say (especially true for the many Moby Dick and whale references…). The feeling pervading the work is, to use one of our family’s favourite expressions, NQR (‘not quite right’), with a number of gaps in time and content adding to the confusion.
Part of this comes from the lack of clarity behind Laura, a character with very little background or motivation, something that changes when Fidel turns up:
Laura thought it might be good to live and walk with a child alongside her so that she could sometimes tell him where to look. She also thought that with a child days might have the shape of days: they would surge upwards, speed forward, drop down and then disappear beneath the waves once more. Time would be time again. She and the child would pass by, and the world would see them pass by.
p.78 (MacLehose Press, 2017)
However, even after her encounter with the boy, her lethargy continues, and it takes more than a year for her to find him (even if bureaucracy isn’t exactly on her side). There’s obviously something in her past that has had a profound effect on her; if only we knew what it was.
That’s nothing, though, compared to the enigma that is Fidel. His real name (or what he offers up as his name) is Elvis Fider Loreto Membrives, but Laura is unable to learn anything else about what happened in his life before he appeared at her apartment. When she finally tracks him down at a home for lost children, the deputy director has little to add to his history:
Like all the other children, Elvis went once a week to a psychotherapist. He was still refusing to give any information about his past. Once he had said that everybody had gone away and he had preferred to stay. He had not mentioned Laura. (p.71)
This mysterious past eventually manifests itself in strange and frightening behaviour. Fidel has rapid mood swings and begins to talk about an imaginary parallel life, leading Laura to wonder if they’ll ever really be able to live a normal life together.
The Children is a joy to read, a novel you can fly through very quickly, but one in which you never really get the sense that you know exactly what’s happening, or where you’re going. While there are hints of magical realism here and there, and supernatural touches (à la Fever Dream) in places, it’s more the lack of logic to certain parts of the story that gives it its unique style. At times, it’s as if Laura is living life through a fog of painkillers, with only some of what’s happening around her getting through, and this has its effect on the reader too. Sanín certainly doesn’t overextend herself to help the reader navigate through the events of the text:
“It’s well designed,” the sentinel said, getting ready to leave as she had announced. Before she crossed the threshold, Laura called out from behind:
“Have you seen me before? Do we know each other?”
“O.K.,” said the other woman without turning round, and then went down in the lift. (p.92)
The sheer number of moments like these has you constantly second-guessing the story, but this rarely gets you anywhere…
The key to the secrets of The Children obviously lies in Colombia’s violent recent history, and if you mentally fill in the gaps, imagining what might be behind Fidel’s trauma (and Laura’s absent-mindedness), the novel makes a lot more sense, a story examining how people move on with their lives by blacking out the horrors they’ve lived through. There’s definitely a feeling here of two people shutting themselves off in their own mental worlds (with Laura’s imaginary island populated by those she has loved in the past an obvious example) in an attempt to cope with pain. However, this is all speculation, and I suspect you need to know more about the background of the country to really understand what Sanín is doing here. It’s not a criticism as such, but a reader picking this book up with no knowledge of what’s behind the story may struggle to understand it, or even enjoy it.
Nevertheless, The Children is still an excellent novel, with Caistor (one half, with Lorenza Garcia, of the team that has translated several of Andrés Neuman’s books) doing his usual sterling work. I suspect that a reread (after a little background research) might shed a little more light on the novel, as well as helping to reveal some more of its secrets (some of the notes I made first time around turned out to be less than useful). Who knows – I might even work out what all the whales are for…