I’m talking about pathological individuals; six twisted people taking part in an unpredictable game.
Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza is the story of two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually. it’s the story of a group of scientists who are working on a top-secret project, and pass the time by collectively writing a novel about two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually, it’s about a group of friends playing a “novel game” in which they write a story via email based on the movements of pieces on a game board. Actually, it’s all three, equally true and untrue at the same time. The narrator is a scientist codenamed Domingo, except when it’s the conman Boris Real, except when it’s the alleged kidnapping victim Bruno Vivar, except when it’s the novelist, Labbé himself . . .
Do you remember how many times we discussed that Wittgensteinian way of looking at things? And how many times we talked about idealism? That objects don’t exist, dear Sabado, only words, which build and break, build and break.
The book is a compelling work of meta-fiction, and is rife with recurring images and motifs, such as theremins, Mormonism, and Edgar Lee Masters. These all form an intricate web to ensnare the reader in a synaptic echo chamber, where everything is connected but the reasons for the connections are never made entirely clear. The chapters of the novel are labeled 1-100, but most of the chapters are missing (the novel clocks in at just over 90 pages), implying that not everything has been or is going to be revealed. This withholding of information is also present in the internal monologues or thought processes of the handful of characters—not even the people who could best answer our questions, as readers, are going to give us a break and reveal (or explain) everything that’s going on. Like in the scene where Alicia is on the beach and encounters the journalist; we’re given information, but it doesn’t immediately appear to be of much help or use:
In that moment she should’ve begun telling him about the Vivar family, about her childhood, about Boris Real, the longing, Bruno, her father’s chemistry laboratory, the woman, the sirens, the hadón, the bloodless body of James Dean that’d given her nightmares until she was thirteen; yet all three of them sat in silence.
The most “coherent” plot of the novel consists of the wealthy Vivar family, and the disappearance of their two children, Bruno and Alicia, from the beach between the small towns of Navidad and Matanza, in Chile’s sixth region. An investigative journalist, who had recently done a human interest story on the Vivar family, tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together, but the most he can conclude is that the Vivar siblings abandoned their abusive parents to travel the country, accompanied by their uncle Francisco Virditti, or perhaps the investment banker Boris Real, or perhaps the Congolese thereminist Patrice Dounn. The mysterious experimental drug called hadón—said to cause intense feelings of hatred—might also be involved, or maybe it’s just a myth.
What makes Navidad & Matanza great is its ambiguity, its ethereal quality. By the end you wonder if you’ve even read a novel at all, or a jumbled collection of confused notes, or a set of disconnected events dictated by the rolling of dice. This short work makes you question again and again the reliability of its narrators, right down to their overlapping and multifaceted identities. It’s packed with clues, and definitely warrants a second read-through, which will only serve to bring out more tidbits you might not have noticed the first time around, bringing the myriad ends a little closer together. And yet . . . Do the connections between people, places, and things really exist, or is it only in your head? The question of what really happened lingers in the air, begging to be played with, but promising no concrete answers.
“Literature is a lie. Embrace the wind.”
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Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.
It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .