Ramifications – Daniel Saldaña París (tr. Christina MacSweeney)

Ramifications is another interesting offering from Charco Press, which specializes in literature from Latin America and has doled out gems such as Dead Girls by Selva Almada, Fish Soup by Margarita Garcia Robayo and The German Room by Carla Maliandi.

The memories we return to most frequently are the most inaccurate, the least faithful to reality…

Set in Mexico, Ramifications is a moving portrait of arrested development, a tale of a boy growing up in a broken family and trying to survive in an environment where machismo and secrecy rule the roost.

First I have to write the story through to the end, fill this spiral-bound notebook with my scribblings to the very last page, drop it by the bed, open the next notebook, and continue writing until that one, too, is full. Not because writing is an act of salvation, but because there’s no other way I can tell myself the things I don’t even dare think when I’m alone. Only when I’ve written it all down will I be able to look at myself in the mirror and not see the face of someone else, the other that stalks me from within.

Our unnamed narrator begins his story by highlighting a defining event in his childhood, a development which pretty much dictates how the rest of his life pans out – his mother abandons their family to move to Chiapas. A woman aspiring for greater heights, she feels stifled by the drudgery of an abusive marriage and motherhood. Participating in the Zapatista movement (the uprising that shook Mexico in 1994) appears to her as the perfect outlet to refocus her energies.

Meanwhile, our narrator, his father and his elder sister Mariana are left to fend for themselves and come to terms with this loss. The father, emotionally distant, has not much clue about running a household and bringing up children. The role of caring for the boy falls on Mariana, who is much more interested in her social life. Thus, the narrator, who is aged ten at the time, is largely left to his own devices and to his own thoughts of which plenty abound. He takes refuge in making origami figures although he has no talent for it, and spends days reading Choose Your Own Adventure books and hiding in his Zero Luminosity Capsule (which is nothing but his wardrobe). Beset by aching loneliness, he is prone to concocting various imaginary scenarios that entail his mother returning to the family.

Trying to comprehend his mother’s abandonment forms the central focus of this narrative. Gradually, a portrait of the family is revealed to us – how the parents have different political ideologies, the mother has a rebellious outlook and detests her husband for his far right views. The father is also a man prone to violent bursts of temper, raging and ranting.

The narrator is a misfit in school too. Suffering the consequences of his mother’s actions, he is trolled and bullied mercilessly. The school, which he once considered a refuge from the toxic atmosphere at home, is no longer so. It’s as if the two environs have blurred and merged into one.

Daniel Saldana’s storytelling is not linear and there are a plethora of stark focal points in the narrator’s life that stand out like beams in the dark – his mother’s disappearance, her death around six months later (we learn of this in the opening chapter too), his father’s inability to form a close bond with his children and his subsequent death by cancer, and how the siblings thereafter construct their own lives.

While the tone of the novel is largely reflective, certain moments instill a creeping sense of dread. A set-piece in the middle of the book, particularly, injects a kind of tension to the tale. Just months after his mother disappears, our narrator decides to hunt for her in Chiapas and boards a bus alone. In the middle of the night, the bus is stopped by soldiers and the narrator is struck by immense terror when he and some passengers are randomly questioned.

Now in his early thirties, the narrator has cut himself from the world, spends most of this time in bed, and unfolds his memories, trying to come to terms with events that shaped his childhood and the subsequent years.

Memory, loss, grief, masculinity and revolution are some of the dominant themes that are touched upon. Reflections on memory run consistently throughout the book…

Memories are fabrications that bear little relationship to their supposed origins, and each and every time we recall something, that memory becomes more autonomous, more detached from the past, as if the cord holding it to life itself is fraying until one day, it snaps and the memory bolts, runs free through the fallow field of the spirit, like a liberated goat taking to the hills.

Grief and coping with loss is also central to the narrative. Our narrator finds solace in his strange rituals, but they only serve to alienate him further from those around him. Grappling with expected norms of masculinity is another thread that weaves the story together. Our narrator desperately yearns to resemble his mother both in looks and temperament, and is dejected to learn that he is increasingly turning into his father. The shattering impact of the revolution (which in the book is in the background) on the family unit also forms an essence of the novel.

Ramifications, then, is a poignant depiction of a child’s attempts to interpret events beyond his understanding. Saldaña París’ writing is simple and elegant and there’s almost a fairy tale like quality to the prose as we are taken inside the tormented psyche of a child. Despite a few places where the pace drags a bit, it is overall a strong read and the final allusion to the truth of his mother’s death gives the reader a lot to think about.

Invitation to the Waltz & The Weather in the Streets – Rosamond Lehmann

Lately, I have been drawn a lot towards the writing of 20th century female authors, a lot of them I had not heard of previously. I have made some wonderful discoveries – the novels of Elizabeth Taylor, Muriel Spark, Barbara Pym, Barbara Comyns to name a few. Then I came across Rosamond Lehmann. After seeing a lot of love for her on Twitter, I picked out two of her 1930s novels which garnered considerable acclaim during her time – Invitation to the Waltz and The Weather in the Streets – both focusing on the protagonist Olivia Curtis. And, with these two books, Lehmann has turned out to be another wonderful discovery.

So here are my brief thoughts on both the novels…

Invitation to the Waltz

Invitation to the Waltz is the first of the Olivia Curtis novels. When the book opens, Olivia has turned seventeen and there is a family gathering to celebrate her birthday and present her with gifts. We are introduced to Olivia’s parents, her elder sister Kate, her younger brother James and their uncle Oswald. Olivia’s parents gift her a material of flaming red which gives Olivia considerable joy. She can now get a dress stitched for her very first social event – a ball at the residence of the wealthy Spencers.

Nowadays a peculiar emotion accompanies the moment of looking in the mirror: fitfully, rarely a stranger might emerge: a new self.

It had happened two or three times already, beginning with a day last summer, the languid close of a burning afternoon; coming from the burdened garden into the silent, darkened house: melancholy, solitary, restless, keyed up expectantly-for what?

She looked in the glass and saw herself…Well, what was it? She knew what she looked like, had for some years thought the reflection interesting, because it was her own; though disappointing, unreliable, subject twenty times a day to blottings-out and blurrings, as if a lamp were guttering or extinguished: in any case irremediably imperfect. But this was something else. This was a mysterious face; both dark and glowing; hair tumbling down, pushed back and upwards, as if in currents of fierce energy.

The novel charts the emotions of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood – the anxiety as well as the excitement of making a good impression at the ball, Olivia’s hopes for a thriving schedule of dances, which alternate with the fear of being left alone.

The novel is divided into three sections – the first two portray Kate and Olivia’s anticipation and preparations for the dance, while the last section is entirely devoted to the ball.

The ball itself is beautifully presented with vivid details as Olivia manages to get her share of dancing partners while at the same time is also let down by one or two. The dialogues between Olivia and her various dance partners sparkle and through them we are given a brief sketch of various characters.

Lehmann’s prose is lush and beautiful and I was immediately struck by her impressionistic writing style. Set in the 1930s, she also subtly brings to the fore the class differences prevalent in the society at the time.

The Weather in the Streets

Set ten years after Invitation to the Waltz, The Weather in the Streets revolves round the doomed love affair between Olivia Curtis and the married Rollo Spencer who is first introduced to readers in the final few pages of the first novel.

Olivia is the narrator and she is now residing in London, in cramped quarters with her cousin Etty and is leading a bohemian lifestyle with her artist set of friends. The Curtis sisters could not have turned out more different. Kate, who in the first novel, gives the impression of being sassier of the two, eventually ends up taking the traditional path of marriage, children and settling in the countryside. It’s Olivia who shifts to the big city choosing to lead an independent life with a failed marriage behind her.

While on a trip to the countryside to meet her family, particularly her father who is down with pneumonia, she starts talking to Rollo Spencer on the train and they hit it off.

An invitation to a family gathering of the Spencers follows. And from thereon Olivia and Rollo embark on a passionate affair, snatched moments played out behind closed doors – in wretched hotels, stuffy cars and Olivia’s tiny rooms interspersed with a couple of getaways, all of it shrouded by a veil of secrecy.

It was then the time began when there wasn’t any time. The journey was in the dark, going on without end or beginning, without landmarks, bearings lost: asleep?…waking…Time whirled, throwing up in paradoxical slow motion a sign, a scene, sharp, startling, lingering as a blow over the heart. A look flared, urgently meaning something, stamping itself for ever ever, ever…Gone, flashed away, a face in the train passing, not ever to be recovered.

There was this inward double living under amorphous impacts of dark and light mixed: that was when we were together…Not being together was a vacuum. It was an unborn place in the shadow of the time before and the time to come. It was remembering and looking forward, drawn out painfully both ways, taut like a bit of elastic…Wearing…

Lehmann brilliantly captures the stages of the affair as it pans out from Olivia’s point of view – the first heady days of the affair when the world is seen through rose-tinted glasses, and then gradually followed by moments of desperation as Olivia endlessly waits for Rollo’s calls. Olivia begins to fall in love with Rollo even though it is evident right from the start that their affair has no future.

Besides the two of them coming from different social backgrounds, one of the main obstacles to the affair ever blossoming is the strict moral codes of the time. Status and social standing is critical as is keeping up appearances. There is simply no room for divorce.

Lehmann’s prose in this novel is incredible turning the ‘done-to-death’ tale of an extra-marital affair into something entirely new. Her sensitive portrayal of Olivia’s plight is truly heartbreaking and evokes the sympathy of the reader. One striking aspect of Lehman’s writing style is the shift in narration from the first person to the third in the space of a few paragraphs. Indeed, it feels that at one point we are inside Olivia’s head as she experiences the turmoil and the anguish of the affair, and at the same time we are the observers watching Olivia’s fate from a distance. This instantly reminded me of Damon Galgut’s wonderful novel  In A Strange Room where Galgut effortlessly switches from the first person to the third in a single paragraph and pulls it off with aplomb.

While Olivia and Rollo are the focal point of the novel, it is also peppered with some wonderful set pieces that paint a picture of Olivia’s bohemian and vibrant friend circle.

In the afterword of my Virago Classics edition, Elizabeth Day highlights how the novel was quite ahead of its time, more so because certain developments described were perhaps shocking for audiences in the 1930s. However, Lehmann stood her ground and ensured that the novel was published the way it was intended to be.

The Weather in the Streets was one of my favourites last month and easily one of the highlights of my reading in the year so far.

The Magic Toyshop – Angela Carter

It is interesting how reading moods and phases can change every year. In 2018, I was keen on reading newer books released by some of my favourite publishers, whetting my appetite for innovative writing whether in English or translated literature.

2019 has started out differently. I have been greatly drawn towards early to mid-20th century literature penned by women. I already loved a couple of Muriel Sparks and The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer.

Right now, I am thoroughly enjoying Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour and Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy. And I hope to read more of Barbara Comyns, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor in the coming months and also get to Shirley Jackson and Anita Brookner, whose novels I have not yet read.

Now, into this list, I would also throw in Angela Carter – the focus of this post – whose The Magic Toyshop I simply adored.

magic toyshop

The Magic Toyshop is a beguiling coming of age story that has shades of an adult fairy tale, both wonderfully surreal and grotesque all at once.

When the book opens, 15-year old Melanie is at the cusp of her sexual awareness, that she is a woman and no longer a girl.

The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood.

Melanie has a 12-year old brother Jonathan – a strange child, living in a world of his own, fixated on building his model ships – and a 5-year old sister Victoria who is still a toddler. Her parents are well-to-do, and she lives in a clean, well-kept, comfortable home. There is Mrs Rundle, the housekeeper to look after the kids.

In the first chapter, we learn that Melanie’s parents are travelling in the United States, and so the kids are under Mrs Rundle’s care back home.

Melanie, meanwhile, wanders around the house, musing on her newly discovered sexuality, and in the midst of all this, comes upon her mother’s wedding dress. She wears it even if it’s too big for her and steps into the garden. It all becomes too much and scared, she makes a run for the house only to realize it’s locked. She has no choice but to undress completely, climb up a tree to get to her bedroom, and drag her mother’s wedding dress along with her. This scene beautifully captures how Melanie is still in that transition phase, not really a child, but not exactly a grown woman either, somewhere in between. She finally lands in her room, the dress all torn, and a fear of how she is going to tell her mother about it.

But that moment never comes because a telegram arrives relaying the news that her parents are dead. Melanie is devastated. Her world turns upside down.

In the new world, Melanie, with her siblings, has to now stay with her mother’s brother Uncle Philip and his family in South London.

The train was a kind of purgatory, a waiting time, between the known and completed past and the unguessable future which had not yet begun.

Gradually, we are given a glimpse of the family. We learn that Aunt Margaret is incapable of speaking and communicates with her family by writing. Her younger brothers Francie and Finn stay in the same house, Uncle Philip’s apprentices, helping him in the toyshop and the workroom whenever required. Francie is a musician, while Finn has a flair for painting and carefree and more irreverent of the two.

Aunt Margaret immediately takes to the kids especially Victoria and she to her. The chapters when Melanie moves in with her aunt and uncle are particularly poignant. Still beset by grief at the death of her parents and yearning for her old life, she finds it hard to adjust to her new surroundings. Although Aunt Margaret and her brothers do their best to make Melanie comfortable, Uncle Philip’s menacing and dominating personality casts a pall of gloom.

Jonathan, strangely self-sufficient in his own way, immediately adapts to his new life and his penchant for making boats works to his advantage.  Victoria, who is still too young to grasp the drastic changes in her circumstances, looks upon Aunt Margaret as her own mother. It’s as if her previous life didn’t exist.

A far cry from her clean and comfortable upbringing in the country, dirt and grime permeates Melanie’s new South London habitat, and Finn is at the epicenter of it. In fact, it reminded me of Charles Dickens and his masterful novel Bleak House, where the opening page is evocative in its description of a grubby and filthy London.

Eventually, Melanie too comes to love Aunt Margaret and actively starts taking part in their family life, which excludes Uncle Philip of course.

Uncle Philip is monstrous, just the kind of villain you would encounter in a fairytale.

His authority was stifling. Aunt Margaret, frail as a pressed flower, seemed too cowed by his presence even to look at him.

He is brilliant at making toys though but he bullies Finn. Finn’s insouciance particularly infuriates him.

One of Uncle Philip’s pleasures is staging puppet shows with the family as his audience, and here too he demands perfection from Finn. It is symbolic of how he is a tyrant in the household, the family members at his beck and call, as if they are live puppets whom he strings along.

There is one such puppet show staged in the latter half of the novel, at the centre of which is Melanie, which sets the tone for an action packed conclusion, and once again puts a question mark over her future.

Meanwhile, Melanie and Finn are drawn to each other. Carter has subtly and sensitively explored Melanie and Finn’s relationship where Melanie is simultaneously both attracted to and repelled by him, by how dirty and slovenly he is.

The curl of his wrist was a chord of music, perfect, resolved. Melanie suddenly found it difficult to breathe.

It was as if he had put on the quality of maleness like a flamboyant cloak. He was a tawny lion poised for the kill – and was she the prey? She remembered the lover made up out of books and poems she had dreamed of all summer; he crumpled like the paper he was made of before this insolent, off-hand, terrifying maleness, filling the room with its reek. She hated it. But she could not take her eyes off him.

Carter is such an interesting writer and her prose is so luscious and captivating. She has an uncanny ability to weave fairytale elements into the mundane and it all seems so effortless.

Here is Melanie, in the first chapter, looking at her mother’s wedding photo…

Photographs are chunks of time you can hold in your hand, this picture a piece of her mother’s best and most beautiful time.

The first chapter is particularly strong in the way she has evoked Melanie’s sexual awakening and her curiosity about her body. Incest is also later hinted at but so expertly handled by Carter that it does not feel shocking. It is a wonderful coming-of-age tale and the dreamlike quality of the writing helps in blunting the impact of the darker shades in the novel.

The Magic Toyshop reminded me a little of Carter’s equally strong The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, where her radical take on fairy tales (as we have known them) was also painted with darker elements and hues of feminism.