‘The Remainder’ by Alia Trabucco Zerán (Review – MBIP 2019, Number 9)

As we were making our weary way across the world, flicking through the photos of our time in Oman, it so happened that over in London the official Man Booker International Prize judges were announcing their shortlist.  I won’t go into that too much here, but I will remind you that the Shadow Panel will be following suit next week, with our list revealed at 9 a.m. (London time) on Thursday, the 18th of April.  Still, before that happens, we might be able to squeeze in a couple more stops, including today’s visit to Santiago.  I have to warn you, though – it’s looking pretty grey out there…

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán
– And Other Stories, translated by Sophie Hughes
(digital review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
Felipe and Iquela, two young Santiago natives, have grown up in a city rocked by earthquakes, political violence and occasional outbursts of thick, grey ash that transform the city into an apocalyptic nightmare.  While Iquela is a fairly level-headed woman, visiting her mother every morning and getting by on piecemeal translation work, Felipe is anything but, a crazed bundle of nerves roaming the streets in the company of feral dogs, obsessed by the dead people he claims to see every day, and which he counts (although unsure whether he should be adding or subtracting them).  He occasionally appears out of the blue to stay in Iquela’s apartment, and the two have constructed a relationship akin to that of siblings, with Iquela acting as Felipe’s touchstone in life.

The story really gets going when Iquela learns of an impending visit from a woman she met many years ago.  Paloma is the daughter of family friends, a couple who moved to Germany decades earlier, and Iquela still remembers the visit they paid during her teens, and what the two girls got up to while the parents were otherwise occupied.  This time, though, Paloma’s visit has a more sombre purpose as she’s returning to Chile to bury her dead mother in her native country.  Alas, another eruption of ash means the body is stranded on the other side of the mountains.  I sense a road trip coming on…

In itself, The Remainder is an interesting premise.  It’s a story of young people, drugs, lust and a crazy journey over the mountains in the middle of a cloud of volcanic dust.  At its heart is a strained triangular relationship involving three very different people, and part of the charm of the book is observing their behaviour under pressure and predicting who will crack first.

Of course, what makes it even better is the subtext, with much that is unsaid coming back to the country’s recent political problems.  Like many South American countries, Chile had its fair share of issues in the second half of the twentieth century (c.f. the stories told by Alejandro Zambra, for example), and the main characters are connected by their parents, activists who stood up to the brutal right-wing regime.  Paloma’s parents eventually fled while Iquela’s stayed, and regretted it.  Felipe’s father, however, appears to have disappeared without a trace, one of several secrets that the writer will gradually touch on as the story progresses.

The novel is divided into two fairly equal strands.  The more lucid accounts, driving the story on, come from Iquela, and these chapters include short recounts of her childhood, and her first encounter with Paloma, before continuing in the present with the tale of the trip to Argentina.  The other-wordly ash, thrown up by volcanoes, means that flights are unable to enter Chilean airspace.  The only way to get Paloma’s mother home is to bring her back by car, hence the impromptu, and rather dangerous, drive across the mountains.

Felipe’s side of the story is very different, though.  His chapters are numbered in reverse, counting down from eleven to zero, and they are told in a rather unique voice:

Off and on: one week there, the next nowhere to be seen, that’s how my dead began, out of control, every other Sunday, then two in a row, catching me unawares in the strangest of places: lying at bus stops, on curbs, in parks, hanging from bridges and traffic lights, floating down the Mapocho, they were scattered all over Santiago those Sunday stiffs, weekly or bimonthly corpses which I totted up methodically, and the tally rose like foamy scum, like rage and lava it rose, till I twigged that adding them up was really the problem, because it makes no sense for the number to rise when we all know that the dead fall, they blame us, they drag us down…
p.7 (And Other Stories, 2018)

This strand consists of paranoid, crazed monologues, pages without sentences (this first section goes for three pages without a pause), providing the reader with a frightening view of life through his eyes.  Damaged and alone, Iquela is his only connection to normal life, which means that Paloma’s arrival and the trip to Argentina serve to upset a very fragile balance.

One of the most striking aspects of Felipe’s chapters is his obsession with the corpses he (thinks he) sees, and gradually the reader comes to realise why he’s so fascinated.  These bodies are a representation of the many dead and disappeared of the bad years, a (not so) subtle reminder of the country’s recent, bloody history.  Felipe’s constant counting, whether he’s going up, or down, is an attempt to make the numbers fit, even if he always seems to be one short – which may have something to do with his father…

The Remainder coverThe Remainder is beautifully written, with a striking contrast between Felipe’s rants and Iquela’s accounts, and quite apart from the political edge to the novel, readers will enjoy the growing sexual attraction between the two women, and Felipe’s jealousy at seeing his friend drift away from him.  There’s also a lot of clever word play, with the Chileans teasing Paloma for her European Spanish.  Hughes plays here with English’s own diversity, having Felipe and Iquela use British words while the foreigner slips up by using American terms – which I thoroughly agree with 😉

However, perhaps more than words, it’s the imagery of the book that leaves an impression.  This is certainly true of the spectral ash falling from the sky:

Outside it was raining ash.  Once again, Santiago had been stained grey.
With my feet buried in that powder, I stood rooted to the spot and stared at the ash coating the pavement and the news stand at Avenida Chile-España, caked all over the table on the corner of my street where the olive vendor sat trying to work out the correct change from his latest sale.  The ash had settled in infinitesimal flakes on the roofs of the cars, in the nooks of wing mirrors and on windscreens, nestled in the hair of pedestrians taking a leisurely walk, their heads appropriately bowed. (p.81)

This is apparently a real phenomenon, but here it’s also allegorical, acting as a sign of the darkness of the times.  The culmination of these images comes, though, when the three travellers finally reach their goal and encounter a sea of coffins, and it’s very hard not to see them as a representation of all those lost in political struggles.  In the end, our three friends, like all Chileans, find themselves struggling to come to terms with a violent past…

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
This is another of the books on the fringes of my personal top six, with several books vying to make the final spot.  For the majority of the story, it seemed as if it was about to break into the (very) small group of real contenders at the top of the list, but I (like several readers I’ve talked to) feel the book lost its way once we were on the other side of the Andes.  Still, it’s very possible that The Remainder will appear on my personal shortlist, and also that of the Shadow Panel.

Why did it make the shortlist?
It’s an entertaining novel, well-written and touching on important historical events.  It’s by a non-European female writer, published by a popular small press.  What’s not to like?  Lots of box-ticking plus quality = a shortlist place 😉

Having had a good shower (and put our clothes in for a thorough dry-cleaning), it’s time for yet another transatlantic flight, with this one taking us to France.  Our next journey will be a slightly more sedate, conventional affair, but it’ll be much longer, too.  This is a story spanning most of a lifetime, and while much of it will be very familiar, it’s also a tale with a rather personal tone.  Allons-y?

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