“Umami” by Laia Jufresa [Why This Book Should Win]
Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!
The entry below is by Jennifer Croft, who is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, and National Endowment for the Arts grants, as well as the Michael Henry Heim Prize for Translation. She has been a MacDowell Colony Fellow and holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She is a Founding Editor of the Buenos Aires Review.
Umami by Laia Jufresa, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Mexico, Oneworld)
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 53%
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 8%
Umami is that rare novel that becomes the world it depicts, inviting us to inhabit it in the gentlest, kindest possible terms through Sophie Hughes’s delightful translation of Laia Jufresa’s perfectly crafted structural wonder in prose. With the alternating metaphors of creating and tending the garden at the center of Belldrop Mews—the building where all the book’s characters reside, in the heart of Mexico City—and remaining afloat or drowning in streams of consciousness, pressures and mourning, Umami calls our attention to attention, binding us to protagonists who instantly become beloved and whose crimes of inattention we both understand and feel deeply devastated by.
Ana, the twelve-year-old gardener who opens Umami and recurs as its soothingly emphatic refrain, describes the atmosphere of her family’s home following the death of her sister Luz at the age of five (though Luz always told everyone she was “almost six”):
. . . it’s not quite a river, our sadness: it’s stagnant water. Since Luz drowned, there’s always something drowning at home. Not everyday. Some days you think we’re all alive again, the five remaining members of the family: I get a zit; some girl calls Theo; Olmo plays his first concert; Dad comes back from tour; Mom decides to bake a pie. But later you go into the kitchen, and there’s the pie, still raw on the wooden countertop, half of it pricked and the other half untouched, with Mom hovering over it, clutching the fork in midair. And then you know that we too, as a family, will always be ”almost six.”
Her directness is disarming, and here—and throughout the book—the tone is a magic trick, the perfect mix of light and dark that enables us to understand that both life and death are in little details, like selfhood itself, the primary pursuit of Ana’s neighbor Marina: “Marina distrusts her own malleability and is attracted by the possibility of the opposite: the fascinating and at the same time terrifying prospect of being someone.” Marina is an artist with a severe eating disorder who spends her days inventing colors, or rather, words for colors, learning English from Ana’s American mother Linda because “English takes the edge off things, makes them feel less serious, a bit like scribbling mustaches on photos.”
Language and even translation are consistently integrated into the plot—a potential translation hurdle cleared with apparent effortlessness, and even pleasure, by Hughes—as another neighbor’s parallel project of cultivation begins alongside Ana’s garden. Alfonso is an academic taking time off after his wife Noelia dies of cancer; when he gets a new laptop, he decides to use it to create a chronicle of the couple’s time together, a kind of textual monument to commemorate their love. The details he remembers and loves about Noelia are so touching they are worth a novel on their own, while Alfonso’s growing understanding of his own process simultaneously takes the reader through the basic framework of the novel, its reason for existing as well as why we might read it and what reading it might help us to find:
What I like about writing is seeing the letters fill up the screen. It’s something so seemingly simple, so perfectly alchemic; black on white. To plant worlds, and tend them as they grow. If you’re missing a comma, you add it, and now there’s nothing missing. Everything this text needs is here.
And white on black, too. The pauses, the spaces, or as my friend Juan the philosopher would say: the ineffable. Everything missing from this text, its absences and silences, is here too.
Umami’s balance—of light and dark, of cultivation and deluge, of presence and absence—is what makes it such a welcoming home for the reader, one that feels profoundly lived-in (one can almost sense the neighbors’ heartbeats) as well as haunted (one can also sense the hovering shadows of Luz, Noelia, the children Alfonso and Noelia did not have, the parents Marina never quite had, the mother Ana’s mother might have been—but never was—and the abandoning, abruptly returning mother of Ana’s best friend Pina). When, in order to begin her garden, Ana stays home for the summer for the first time ever (instead of spending it with her grandmother in the States), she gets to go to the cemetery with her parents to mark the anniversary of her sister’s death:
I’d fantasized about this moment, about what I’d say to Luz. But in my fantasies it was raining and Luz was somehow able to listen to me. Now the sun is beating down and there’s not a patch of shade in the whole cemetery. She’s dead, and I have nothing to say to her. Was she beloved? She was my sister.
A little later, she goes home:
One by one, Pina and I pull off the little flowers. It occurs to me that if I’d known, I could have taken them to the cemetery. It’s a silly idea: they’re tiny. But Luz was too. Tiny, I mean. She used to sit on my lap, hug her legs, then curl into a little ball so that I’d hold her.
“Squeeze!” she’d say.
Sometimes I was scared I’d hurt her or break something, and I always let go sooner than she wanted me to. We all did. My brothers held on a bit longer, but not much. Luz always wanted to be squeezed more.
“Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze!” she begged Dad, and he would squeeze her with a single arm.
I don’t want to, but I can’t help imagining her in her box, in the cemetery. But that’s another silly idea because there’s not even anything in that box. It was too expensive and complicated to bring her body back to Mexico.
“What?” I ask Pina, who’s staring at me.
“Are you crying?” she says.
“Are you stupid?” I say, and she goes off in a sulk.
Jufresa’s warmth and restraint, along with the poise and inventiveness of Hughes’ translation, make Umami a novel I deeply hope people will contemplate and savor.