Difficult Light – Tomás González (tr. Andrea Rosenberg)

Difficult Light by Colombian author Tomás González is a poignant, beautiful book touching upon big themes of family, loss, art and the critical question of whether death can provide relief from a life filled with chronic pain.  

Our narrator is David, a painter by profession, who is now residing alone in a village in his native Colombia since the death of his wife, Sara, a couple of years ago. David’s specialty is capturing light in his paintings, and he has earned some renown for his craft. However, in his old age, David’s eyesight is failing because of macular degeneration, and he is gradually turning blind. The forms and shapes he discerns appear fluid and liquid rather than distinct and concrete. Thus, forced to give up painting, David turns to writing instead and this book in a way is his attempt to record some of the most difficult moments in his past.

In brief we learn that David and Sara marry in their early twenties, and despite some initial hiccups, theirs is a healthy marriage, only strengthened as the years roll by. Along with their three sons – Jacobo, Pablo and Arturo – the couple, after a brief stint in Miami, eventually move to New York. Sara and the boys settle down quickly in the megapolis, she in her new position as a counselor in a hospital, and the boys in college. David finds it difficult initially to adapt to the city, the noise is too much and the space is cramped. But a move to a larger apartment with a lot of light streaming in does wonders and David begins to make some strides in his art. With things coasting along smoothly, those are some of the happiest times that he recalls. And then tragedy strikes.

An inkling of this is provided in the first chapter itself. Indeed, I had to read the last couple of lines twice to make sense of what is happening, was it a translation mistake?

“…until I was awakened at seven by the knot of grief in my belly at the death of my son Jacobo, which we’d scheduled for seven that night, Portland time, ten o’clock in new York.”

The background to this development is this – Jacobo is on his way home in a taxi, when an oncoming vehicle driven by a drunk junkie rams into it. The taxi driver emerges unscathed, but Jacob’s life is shattered. The accident leaves Jacobo paralyzed from the waist below. But the irony is that while his lower body is now useless, the pain completely engulfs him. So soul crushing and immense it is that he begins to wonder whether death is not a better option.

This particular development and its harrowing consequences form the bulk of the book. Jacobo and Pablo, who in many ways is Jacobo’s anchor now, travel to Portland to induce death enlisting the help of a doctor.

I enjoyed nearly two years of artistic plenitude, a happiness that also brought with it pangs of anguish: I was finding treasures everywhere, like someone for whom the stones in the road were suddenly gemstones. How could I have known what was coming! Misfortune is always like the wind: natural, unforeseeable, effortless…

We are also shown a window into David and Sara’s personalities – David is the silent, melancholy type, while Sara is more extroverted and warm and able to connect with people better. David and Sara are extremely supportive of Jacobo’s decision, and yet the impending death of their eldest son is a source of heartbreak as well. When the doctor postpones the procedure by a few hours, David and Sara are filled with hope that maybe the doctor might not arrive or that Jacobo might change his mind. This heightens the narrative tension of the story, as the reader, while aware that his death is inevitable, is still left wondering whether Jacobo might not go through with it after all.

Difficult Light, then, is an unblinking meditation on grief, loss and our capacity for pain as humans. At a fundamental level, it questions whether an individual has the right to end his life rather than live an undignified existence of unrelenting pain. David and Sara, in their ways, understand the unbearable ordeal his son has to endure on a daily basis, and yet the hell that Jacobo experiences is something that only he can fathom.

Interspersed with this central theme, are David’s reflections on his paintings and the light he is always trying to capture. David also wrestles with the notion of fame. He craves for it in his earlier years, only for it to be denied. It’s only after Jacobo’s accident that fame and money come knocking on his door, and the irony is not lost on David – now he wants to shun the limelight, but has to grudgingly accept that the money is crucial for Jacobo’s treatment.

What I also liked in the book is the portrayal of David’s family. On the day of Jacobo’s scheduled death, the family members and friends gather around in their house to show support – not by continuously doling out words of comfort, but by just being there. The palpable sense of tension and anxiety is punctuated by moments of talk and camaraderie as the family navigates the seemingly endless hours of waiting.

So many years have passed since then that even the pain in my heart has gradually dried up, like the moisture in a piece of fruit, and only rarely now am I suddenly shaken by the memory of what happened, as if it happened yesterday, and swallow hard to contain a sob. But it does still happen, and I nearly double over with grief. But at other times, I think of my son, and then I feel such warmth that in those moments it even seems to me that life is eternal, restful and eternal, and pain is an illusion.

González’s prose is crystal clear, limpid and sensitive whether he is describing the anguish of his characters, the debilitating impact of grief as well as the healing power of art especially the joy of nailing it right. When showcasing the family’s plight around Jacobo’s fate, González is compassionate without being overtly sentimental. It’s a beautiful book that dwells on the intimacy and humour of a family, of displaying resilience amid pain, and as another author has put it, “manages to say new things about the way we feel.”

Fish Soup – Margarita Garcia Robayo (tr. Charlotte Coombe)

Charco Press books have been the highlights of my reading so far this year. I had already loved and written about The German Room by Carla Maliandi.

And now it is Fish Soup by the Colombian author Margarita Garcia Robayo, another equally wonderful offering, from the same publisher.

Fish Soup

Fish Soup comprises two novellas ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’, and ‘Sexual Education’ as well a collection of seven tales titled ‘Worse Things’.

The opening lines of ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ hit you right in the gut.

Living by the sea is both good and bad for exactly the same reason: the world ends at the horizon. That is, the world never ends. And you always expect too much. At first, you hope everything you’re waiting for will arrive one day on a boat; then you realize nothing’s going to arrive and you’ll have to go looking for it instead. I hated my city because it was both really beautiful and really ugly, and I was somewhere in the middle. The middle was the worst place to be: hardly anyone made it out of the middle.

Our narrator is a woman, tired and self-aware, obsessed with escaping both her life and her country (Colombia).

She is emotionally detached from her family with not much respect for them. Her dad “was a pretty useless man. He spent his days trying to resolve trivial matters that he thought were of the utmost importance in order for the world to keep on turning.” Her mother “every day was involved in some family bust up.”

Stories of travel offer our narrator glimpses of hope, of running away and not coming back. There’s Gustavo, the local fisherman living in a shack by the sea, who enthralls her with his stories of travel. She keeps coming back to him even though “he stroked her down there with two fingers” when she was a young girl.

Even when she does fall in love with a man called Tony, there’s that cynical feeling that it’s not going to last.

Tony would cling to my back like a limpet, his arm around my waist, and whisper in my ear: one day we’ll get out of here. Me: we’ll always be here, waiting for a hurricane to come.

Escaping, leaving, getting out of the rut are feelings that permeate the consciousness of our narrator with the result that they form the focal point around which her relationships and even her profession is based.

She manages to find a job as an air hostess with an airline, even though Tony doesn’t like it. The route she is assigned to is Miami and even if it involves frequent visits to the same city, for her it is still a start.

Tony had a lot of ideas about air hostesses, but I had just one: air hostesses could leave.

An affair with the captain of the plane, not surprisingly, ends up nowhere like all her relationships. And there are moments of regret, of whether chances have passed her by and she failed to grab them or latch onto.

‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ is a beautiful novella. Despite the all-pervading cynicism, wariness and the tiredness, there is something lyrical and poetic about Robayo’s writing that makes it intense and absorbing.  It is a novella about the frailty of relationships, of missed chances and regret, of why travel may not always be the answer to everything.

The second novella that also packs quite a punch is ‘Sexual Education’. As the title suggests, this is a topic that is explored through the eyes of adolescents in a school which strictly preaches the doctrine of abstinence. However, what is taught at school is hardly what goes on outside its confines.

Here’s how it opens…

“In girls, just like in other fauna, moisture attracts all sorts of nasties.”

The characters that people this novella are part of the narrator’s inner circle of friends. There’s Dalia ‘a bad apple’ who doesn’t care about going to university, preferring to travel instead.

Others – me included – thought that backpacks and dreads and Latin American travels were an invention of poor people who liked to think they were bohemians. Dalia was not poor, but she smoked weed and that was enough to make her feel bohemian.

Then there’s Karina, a real devotee of Mary…

She had convinced everyone that the Virgin talked to her in her sleep and gave her instructions about how to behave at moments of moral conflict.

‘Sexual Education’ is essentially a novella that explores the existence of opposing forces side by side – sex and confronting desires as against celibacy and self-denial.

Between these two novellas, ‘Worse Things’ (a collection of seven short stories) is sandwiched. These stories examine frayed relationships, death and illness.

In ‘Like a Pariah’, Ines who is dying of cancer, refuses to have people fussing around her and insists to her son “I’m perfectly alright.”

In ‘Worse Things’, Titi, who suffers from a debilitating condition causing obesity, prefers staying in his room, engrossed in games.

In ‘Better than Me’, Orestes is trying to connect with his distant daughter Becky, sometime after his other daughter Rosa has committed suicide.

In ‘Fish Soup’, one of the stories, from which the overall title of the book has been taken, an old man is beset by the smell of overpowering fish soup. This is a strange tale in which the man’s dreams and reality merge making it disorienting to distinguish one from the other.

Overall, Fish Soup is a very strong collection, stimulating and refreshing despite the tiredness of the characters. Most are struggling to keep head above water and fight even if they perceive their circumstances to be bleak and meaningless.

The blurb at the back of my edition states:

Throughout the collection, Garcia Robayo’s signature style blends cynicism and beauty with a rich vein of dark humour. The prose is at once blunt and poetic as she delves into the lives of her characters, who simultaneously evoke sympathy and revulsion, challenging the reader’s loyalties throughout the remarkable universe that is Fish Soup.

Highly recommended!