Charco Press, a British publisher focusing on short contemporary works from all over South American, have been fairly successful so far in their short existence. Their unique niche has made them a firm favourite of both readers and bloggers, and they’ve also found critical acclaim, with long- and shortlistings for the International Booker Prize (including for The Adventures of China Iron in this year’s prize). Today sees my eighth review of a Charco book, one of this year’s crop, and it’s another enjoyable read, a short book posing a rather intriguing question as it ponders just how much of what we get up to is the result of our own free will.
Jorge Consiglio’s Fate (translated by Carolina Orloff and Fionn Petch, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a short novel set in Buenos Aires, revolving around two couples and a short period in their lives. First up we meet Amer, a fifty-something taxidermist forced to give up smoking, and Clara, a younger woman he meets at a self-help group. The other pair consist of Karl, a German oboist who has settled in Argentina, and his wife, Marina Kezelman, a meteorologist with a zest for life and a wandering eye.
Over the course of a hundred pages or so, we follow the four as they go about their days, and their relationships. The two strands shine a light on two very different stories, contrasting the blossoming of a middle-aged love affair with a marriage slowly falling apart, and as they do, the writer seems to be posing a question to the reader. Are the protagonists here in control of their destiny, or is this simply fate, with the outcome already predetermined?
Fate is an intriguing short work, made up of a number of brief chapters switching from one person to the next. The writing is mostly descriptive, with no direct dialogue, and Consiglio provides a detached, leisurely view of his creations, allowing the reader to sit back and watch the show, one that’s over almost before it’s really begun.
One half of the story focuses on Amer and Clara, with their slow-burning relationship mostly seen through Amer’s eyes. While the two ex-smokers are both keen enough to make a go of their opportunity, there’s always a sense that it’s not meant to be. Even when they go off on a perfectly nice picnic, enjoying a day out in the sunshine, a feeling nags away at them:
The outing had put them both in a good mood, yet underneath that sense of well-being – or rather, at the same level of consciousness, like a sort of varnish that tainted their enthusiasm – they had the impression that they were playing parts in a scene that wasn’t theirs.
p.37 (Charco Press, 2020)
More than merely the awkwardness of dating, it’s the idea of two people leading separate lives trying to force them to converge that gives this impression of failure.
However, it’s the other strand that Fate really explores. Karl and Marina are married with a son, Simón, but here Consiglio shows us how the ties holding their relationship together are starting to melt away. The more we learn about them, the more inevitable the end of their marriage seems as they’re two very different people, each lost in their own world and not really in touch with their partner’s thoughts.
It’s unsurprising that it’s Marina who wants out of the marriage. From the start, her forceful nature is emphasised:
Marina Kezelman hunted for the sewing basket. She chose a strong thread and a slender needle and painstakingly began to sew. Just as she faced everything else in her life. Resolute. Relentless. (p.18)
Whether she’s sewing an ear back onto a toy dog, killing ants in the kitchen or pursuing a man she meets at work, Marina is never less than fully engaged, and the contrast with Karl is palpable. He’s a tall, easy-going man with his head in the clouds, drifting through the streets wondering where life is taking him, and it’s almost painful to see him sleep-walking towards the fate awaiting him.
In truth, though, the strength of Consiglio’s book lies more in the writing than in the plot. The work is almost cinematic in the way the writer observes his protagonists, with the four characters more akin to lab rats in a maze of his creation than to real people. He also uses certain linguistic features in an attempt to deliberately distance the reader, such as repeatedly calling Marina Kezelman by her full name and often labelling Karl ‘the German’, emphasising his foreign origins. The effect is to make us focus on what is happening rather than who it’s happening to, and it works very well.
While Consiglio’s short novel is enjoyable enough, I’d be doing you all a disservice if I were to encourage you to expect a resolution, and I wouldn’t even say that the two halves of the story join up properly. In the end Fate is simply two stories about four people reaching a turning point, and the crux of it all seems to be whether the protagonists are in control of their lives or merely going through the motions to reach their inevitable destinations. I’ll let you be the judge of what the answer to that question is 😉