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.

Loop – Brenda Lozano (tr. Annie McDermott)

The first Charco Press title that I savoured was Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz. That was one impressive read and it found a place on my Best of 2018 list. This year, particularly, I have tried quite a few of their books, and the experience has been great. Both The German Room and Fish Soup were fabulous as was The Wind That Lays Waste.

So without much ado, let me delve right into one of their newest releases, Loop.

Loop is narrated in the form of diary entries that our unnamed narrator (a woman) jots down in her Ideal notebook, as she waits for her boyfriend Jonas to return from his trip to Spain. The recent death of his mother prompts Jonas to go on this trip with his father and sister.

The Ideal notebook is a recurring motif in the novel. It’s a notebook not easily available in stationary shops. In a way, the narrator compares her act of writing (composing and erasing thoughts and ideas) in her notebook to that of Penelope weaving and unravelling the shroud as she waits for Odysseus’ return in Homer’s Odyssey.

The entries are not made in any linear fashion. Instead, it is more of a circular narrative as a lot of the themes, ideas and motifs recur at various points in the novel, just as thoughts generally do. It also explains why the novel is titled Loop.

Gradually, we get a glimpse of the narrator’s personality and a bit of her everyday life. She might be pining for Jonas but she is not entirely alone given her rich circle of friends. These are friends with whom she attends parties, conferences or even dinners.

If I wrote about my friends, I’d dedicate chapters to Tania, Julia, Carolina, Guillermo, Tepepunk, Antonio and Luis Felipe.

Our narrator carries her Ideal notebook with her all the time, and it especially comes in handy when she is waiting either in reception rooms or at airports. These serve as the perfect places to pen her thoughts on tangible stuff such as music (David Bowie and Shakira make frequent appearances), literature, the availability of Ideal notebooks, to more philosophical musings like Jonas’ return, relationships with parents, metamorphosis, love and death as well as many other abstract ideas. For instance, there is one chapter that explores the concept of an island and loneliness.

As our narrator waits for Jonas, she is also plagued by doubts about whether he will really return. And even if he does, will things ever be the same?

Sometimes I’m afraid. I wonder what will happen when Jonas returns from his trip. Sometimes I worry that when he comes back this will all be over, but then, I’m scared of endings in general. It’s a consequence of the accident.

The accident incidentally was a near fatal one but our narrator manages to stage a gradual recovery.

When the recovery begins, when you’re gradually getting better, there’s a window, a small frame through which you can project yourself into another time – into the future. At the end of the day, that’s what low points are for: to open that window. I thought a lot about doing everything I’d been afraid to do, and that was the window I had.

A heady cocktail of reflections and recurring patterns swirl in our narrator’s mind. Numerous references are made to the dwarf next door that sets off a chain of thoughts on scale and size.

The dwarf, who’s a different height, who can sit in a chair and not touch the floor with his shoes. Who lives on a different scale. Who lives in a strange sort of margin. Who has the same abilities as you. Who walks down the same pavement as you. And yet.

Our narrator is also fascinated by useless things and by people who are on the margins.

Marginal, useless work. Infact I’m drawn to the very idea of uselessness because there’s something almost fictional about it. A piece of work, an object, the more ridiculously useless it seems, the more fascinating I find it. All those objects, all those services that serve no one seem to me like the triumph of fiction.

On a minor scale, she writes about her cat…

The cat’s in the living room playing with the pencil I dropped; I’m feeling sleepier and sleepier. It’s like the cat and I are working shifts on an office reception, taking it in turns behind the desk. I don’t know what that means, of course, but it’s the kind of thing I write, as if I’m playing with this pencil. Writing is my way of being a cat and shedding fur, or phrases, onto the armchair.

…And in some entries, her range of writing expands to the political as she laments the violence in her country, Mexico.

Have we got used to cruelty?

Changes in the cabinet, a change of president and the numbers don’t change. I wonder what would happen if each parent, each child, each person who’s lost someone in the last few years picked up the microphone to talk about their loss…every single one of those stories out loud.      

Other than The Odyssey, Loop deliciously abounds with references made to literary works and figures. Here’s a taster:

Beckett: So is this the story of waiting? ‘Waiting for Godot’, waiting for Jonas?

Kafka: Speaking of Kafka, have I told you he’s one of the authors I read for self-improvement?

Wilde: My first story was about a giant because the first thing I read and fell in love with was about a giant, I was seven when I read that Oscar Wilde story.

Proust: I like what I’m reading so much that if Proust were a madeleine I’d dress as a cup of tea. In fact, if Proust were alive and in Chicago, I’d invite him to the party. I bet it would be fun to go to a party with Proust. He’d be the first on the dancefloor.

Pessoa: This morning I walked past a café. I imagined Pessoa ordering five different drinks, one for each of his heteronyms.

Emmanuel Bove: Emmanuel Bove’s first novel is called ‘My Friends.’ I’ve been looking for this book for years. To no avail. If I weren’t going to the cinema tonight, I’d write a version of ‘My Friends’.

Machado de Assis: My dear friend Tepepunk gave me ‘The Alienist’, by Assis. There’s a minor character who nowadays seems hard to imagine: the rattle man.

My verdict? I loved Loop.

Brenda Lozano’s voice is fresh, irreverent, and her unique imagination peppered with flights of whimsy is at full display here. There is a beguiling quality to her writing that makes Loop quite an addictive read. The narrative is fragmentary and introspective, and the repetition of ideas heightens Loop’s novelty rather than detract from it.

The book is immensely quotable. That said, instead of elaborating further, I would instead urge you to experience Loop yourself. Another wonderful title from Charco Press and I look forward to their publishing schedule for 2020.

Meaning that being thirty-one and waiting for Jonas to come back from his trip, plus a cat, some plants, some books and an apartment aren’t the average.

Why the fervent desire to be part of the norm? How to get away from it? What’s the most distant point?