After a week spent in Japan (with unreliable narrators and idealistic aliens), it’s time for a change of scenery, so we’re heading off to Chile now for a pair of different, yet interconnected works. Later in the week, we’ll be taking a look at translation (and all its perils and pitfalls), but in order to discuss translation, we need something to translate – and that’s where today’s book comes in. It’s a dense, powerful work, claustrophobic at times, with most of the action taking place in one, slightly shabby, room, more prison cell than home…
Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire (translated by Daniel Hahn, review copy courtesy of Charco Press) is a short, mesmerising novel set primarily in the bedroom of an old apartment. The two main protagonists, an old man and an old woman, spend much of their time in bed, with the man virtually never leaving the apartment. The woman, by contrast, has a job washing and cleaning bedridden invalids or pensioners, and her visits to her clients’ homes allow her to escape from the tense atmosphere of her own flat.
However, there’s more to the moody atmosphere hanging over the bed than old age. The couple are survivors from opposition cells from the years of dictatorship, and while they may seem alone in their tiny hideout, for the woman the ghosts of the past are just as present as her taciturn partner. In fact, that past is ever-present, haunting them as they seek in vain for sleep, and as we slowly learn what happened all those years ago, we understand just why that sleep proves so elusive.
Eltit is a very big name in Chilean literature, so it’s perhaps surprising that I’d never heard of her before receiving a review copy of this book. Perhaps one reason she hasn’t caught on in English, despite a few translations, is the culturally-bound nature of her work, with there always being a sense of a whole history of trauma lurking beneath the words, one the average Anglophone reader would struggle to perceive. Another slight impediment might be the nature of her writing itself, taut and forbidding, Literary Fiction in capital letters (and possibly bold and underlined, too).
Nevertheless, for those willing to dive in, Never Did the Fire is an absorbing read, providing insights into the feelings of those who spend their lives plotting against tyranny and looking over their shoulders. Early on, there are several mentions of the ‘cells’, the man and woman, and the people they work with. Here we’re provided with the most basic of details, names and major personality traits, but nothing more:
Ah, that third cell, ten magnificent synchronised bodies all yearning. Ten desires. I fulfilled my functions, each one of us. We carried out a scientific exploration of the means of production, we noticed industrial flight and how it was transformed into a major crisis. We wore ourselves out. I worked non-stop writing a report that didn’t end up convincing you because, you said, it had structural flaws.
p.72 (Charco Press, 2022)
Instead of descriptions of heroic actions, there are hints of discussions and disagreements, in which the man is described as a leader, taciturn and commanding.
These are no heroes of the revolution, though. From the first pages, there’s evidence of a life of exhaustion, of submission. The two old people are confined to a dingy set of rooms, barely living, trapped in a behavioural loop while their bodies decay around them. The man, passive and mostly unmoving, is certainly no longer in control – this is very much what you’d imagine defeat to look like.
Even the woman’s work, which could be an escape from life at home, proves to be just more of the same, caring for other people trapped in their own bodies. The writer gives painstaking descriptions of what the woman actually does, removing filthy nappies, hauling the old people around for baths or showers, and rubbing cream into their skin in a futile attempt to stop the inevitable. It all makes for rather grim reading, and it’s almost as if this is all the woman’s punishment for… well, what, exactly?
This lack of clarity is another feature of Never Did the Fire, as the writer delights in keeping the reader in the dark for as long as possible, drip-feeding us details, one at a time. We’re shown the occasional flashback to the time of the cells, the woman’s memories of what happened back then gradually filling us in on how she got here. There are hints of friction among the ranks, a sick child, disappearances, the need to stay hidden… Eltit tantalises us with confusing fragments of the past until some (by no means all) of the secrets are spilled in the last few chapters.
Of course, style looms large throughout the novel. Many of the passages unrolling in the couple’s rooms consist of lengthy, abstract sentences, full of words that obscure rather than uncover any kind of meaning. These are contrasted with the clipped, businesslike, instructional language of other sections, such as those describing the woman’s work:
Although I don’t look at her face, I know she’s keeping her eyes closed. Always I squeeze and squeeze the sponge I’ve used to clean her crotch, until I’ve made sure that, down the drain, amid a circle of water, the last remains of shit that were still left around her genitals is slipping away. I run the sponge over her again, this time without soap, to tidy her up. (p.38/9)
Once the job’s done, it’s back to longer, more complex sentences describing the woman’s thoughts, and her discussions with the man she spends her nights with. To the end, the nature of their relationship remains unclear – are they lovers, partners or two people forced by circumstances to cower under the same roof?
Given its complex nature, I’m not convinced that everyone will enjoy Never Did the Fire, but I suspect that enjoyment isn’t really what Eltit is going for here. It’s a story of a mind-numbing present caused by a traumatic past, one many in the writer’s native country will share, and even if I can’t say I understood it completely, it’s still an absorbing, intriguing work. So, who (if not me) might be able to provide more of an insight into Eltit’s novel?
Hold that thought…