Paradises by cult Argentinian author Iosi Havilio is the continuation of his earlier novel, Open Door, and tells the story of our narrator, a young, unnamed Argentinian woman.
The very first sentence in Paradises echoes the opening of Camus’s The Outsider and prepares us for the struggles and alienation that are to follow: “Jamie died at the start of spring”. With this flat, factual statement, we enter the world and life of the narrator, both of which we very early begin to suspect carry on around her entirely without her agency.
Jaime, the narrator’s partner and the father of her small son, has been killed by a hit-and-run driver in a freak accident while changing a tire at the side of the road. At his wake, she knows no one besides Jaime’s brother, Hector, and his family. She is acutely conscious of being an object of curiosity for many of the mourners and is unsure how to behave in the midst of all the strangers. Her memory of Jaime as she pays her last respects is oddly disconnected and remote:
“. . . that rough man I fell in love with unintentionally and with whom I fell out of love without realising it. I can still feel him jerking about on top of me, like an animal, impotent at times, insatiable at others.”
Life as a widow in their previously shared home in the rural village of Open Door—itself home to a lunatic asylum and standing smack bang in the middle of a large plot of land earmarked for a country club and golf course development—rapidly degenerates, an unrepaired leaky roof deteriorates and renders the house virtually uninhabitable, the water pump breaks, the telephone is cut off . . . until one day an eviction notice is served and the narrator and her son, Simón, find themselves in a taxi clutching a few possessions and heading for a new life in the city of Buenos Aires.
Survival is the name of the game, but the two arrive in the city to find it flooding so bad that its inhabitants can only cross the street with the help of a rope to guide them through the rising floodwaters, scenes described by the narrator as a “rehearsal of apocalypse.” With difficulty, they find a cramped room in a seedy hotel and try to adjust to the sudden and bewildering acceleration of the pace of their lives in this utterly foreign city environment. The narrator reacts to the strangeness, as throughout the novel, by taking refuge in the visual and in her acute powers of observation of her surroundings that take in the tiniest detail—here she carefully lists all the items of food in the hotel fridge labeled with their owners’ name, and tries to imagine what the owner is like. She also has a sharp eye for interpreting the physiognomic and gestural signs that people tend to use to appraise others. Her first encounter is with Iris, a Romanian woman, native of Transylvania, who becomes her friend. Iris is described as a woman with
“. . . very blue, alarmed-looking eyes, a broad back, from rowing or swimming, a violently uneven fringe . . . She looks at me suspiciously, side-on, almost with contempt, wrinkling her nostrils as if I smell bad or she’s about to attack me.”
Iris kick-starts the narrator’s new life by pushing her into a job in the reptile house of the zoo where Iris herself works. None of the jobs that the narrator subsequently finds is the result of her own efforts. She is buffeted through a kaleidoscope of sights, smells, and sounds in this unfamiliar environment without seemingly controlling her life’s direction, as if caught in the eye of a tornado. A retinue of weird, marginal, or diseased characters parade across her field of vision and her only refuge from insanity seems to lie in her keen powers of description and her ability to encapsulate a character with a sometimes lacerating, sometimes wryly humorous, but always carefully aimed, simile. Here are a handful of her observations to whet the appetite:
- “The man is dark, thirty-something, with leathery, porous skin, his hair spiked up with gel like a porcupine. . . . As the minutes pass, I come to realise that his hairstyle is a perfect reduction of the other parts of his body, his small, nervous mouth, fidgety hands, which cross and uncross at least a hundred times during our meeting, strong shoulders, as if he lifts weights between sentences.”
- The security man at the zoo with the “fat, soft wart that lengthens his lip like a sleepy, sprawling beetle.”
- Tosca, a character with “a head that seems the size of two” who is “more than just fat, she’s pure, inflated volume.”
- “The boy with a cyclops head, index finger in his nostril.”
- “He’s one of those skinheads who shave to disguise premature balding, to seem harder or more virile.”
The carnival of bizarre characters descends into the grotesque and the absurd when the narrator gets a job administering morphine to Tosca, a grossly overweight woman who is dying of cancer. The narrator’s environment takes on the nightmarish, ghoulish tinges of a 19th century travelling circus complete with outlandish characters or a hall of mirrors with its endlessly repeated series of misshapen reflections. Meanwhile, and not entirely surprising under the circumstances, the narrator’s sleeping world and waking fears are dominated by snakes, which she tries to obliviate by drawing endless sketches of the reptiles to deaden their symbolism and turn them into mere lines on paper. The reader is drawn into this powerful, and all too real, living nightmare. The narrator herself is conscious of her alienation and the absurdity of her surroundings, and finds the solution in passivity. Not the kind of passivity where one has lost control, but the kind of passivity that never had any control in the first place. Fatality is her answer to the big questions:
“Like everything, once the novelty has passed, things stop hurting or making you happy.”
And also to the small ones:
“Sounds good,” I say quite sincerely; the truth is, I can’t think of a better option.
It is no accident that, of all the characters, it is the narrator who has no name; she doesn’t have any use for one—she takes no active role in her destiny, she resigns herself to her fate, and submits to the bossiness of others; life for her is “just a question of luck” in which she chooses to “improvise and see what happens.”
Halfway through the book, the narrator meets up with Eloísa, a former friend who first appeared in Open Door. A domineering, partying drug addict, Eloísa is someone the narrator would rather have kept in her past. The dominant/domineered relationship between the two women occupies a large part of the second half of the book and leads the narrator, again without her agency, toward another new, unplanned life, announced in the very last sentence.
This sparkling novel is full of contradictions. The narrator lives on the outer limits of existence, at survival level. Yet strangely, this does not seem to concern her. However, her inner musings, through their biting, well-placed and often humorous observations of others (including animals, which she barely differentiates from humans) seem to put her on a higher intellectual plane than her social circumstances would appear to suggest. Havilio thus uses his narrator as a vehicle for a wider commentary on the human condition, which questions whether we are really as free as we think we are—what do we control and what controls us?
The title of the novel is, of course, the ultimate paradox—the narrator’s surroundings are very far from being any kind of paradise, unless paradise can be limited to the snake in the Garden of Eden (and even then . . .). We only discover three-quarters of the way through the book that the title refers to paradise trees that are prevalent in Argentina, have toxic berries and whose bark is believed to supply the antidote to poisoning from the berries. Yet another paradox!
And because I am a translator and believe that no translated work remains entirely that of the original author, but becomes a filter through which we see the original work, and indeed a piece of literature that must stand (or fall) in its own right, a word of praise for the brilliant Beth Fowler. She has produced a sparkling piece, with a grasp of tone, voice and register that captures the paradoxes between the narrator’s thoughtful and evaluative inner world and the rough-edged characters and dire circumstances that surround her. Slang is often particularly hard to translate in a believable way without either overusing the f-and c-words, or, conversely, without toning the whole lot down too much, but here it works wonderfully and there are even some inspired lexical choices. My favorite word in the entire book has got to be “carked,” as produced by Tosca, the cancer sufferer who receives the morphine injections:
“You thought I’d carked it, didn’t you? It’ll come, girl, it’ll come, you need to have a bit of patience.”