Here are four things you should know about The Fish Child:
1.) The novel is sensual, crude, vibrant and unyielding.
2.) The protagonists, Lala and Guayi, are the sort of characters who make dangerous, fascinating mistakes.
3.) Puenzo, born in Buenos Aires, directed a film adaptation of The Fish Child that premiered in Berlin. So this story has traveled all around the world before it’s finally been brought to print in the U.S.
4.) The Fish Child is narrated by the family’s pet dog.
If that last item threw you off, that’s okay. The canine mindset is a bit alienating in both theory and practice. Just look at the novel’s opening paragraph:
It could have been worse, believe me. It took them a day to make up their minds. Prodan. Saumerio. Violeta. I imagined myself going out into the world like Violeta and I peed my pants hiding in corners. Let’s see if you get me: I’m black, macho and bad. No matter how I look right now, with tubes coming out of me, on the verge of being dead meat. It was an accident, something that could happen to anyone. And what they’re saying is not true: I’m not stupid, just curious. If I see something moving beneath the leaves…I bite. Sorry, I digress, I know…it isn’t easy when Lala caresses me this way. And it doesn’t look good, a dying dog with an erection.
Puenzo’s narrating mutt (ultimately christened Serafín) allows the reader a unique view of the world. Characters, setting and plot are presented free of the standard censorship of “polite” society. The result is a gritty, sensual narrative voice that, along with a tight sense of storytelling, makes this novel impossible to put down.
Just in case, after all this hype, you’re wondering what this novel is actually about, here is the premise: Lala, the daughter of a popular Argentinian author, falls in love with Guayi, her Paraguayan maid. The two teenagers plan to escape to Guayi’s family in Paraguay. But when Lala, driven by passion, commits one of those dangerous, fascinating mistakes, she is forced to leave for Paraguay earlier than expected—and without Guayi. The consequences of Lala’s actions, and her struggle to physically and emotionally reunite with her lover, fill the 161 pages of The Fish Child.
Despite the compelling plot, the best thing about this book is Puenzo’s characters. Serafín follows Guayi and Lala with the fiercest of canine loyalties. His presence helps transform a harsh book about reckless teenagers into a narrative about the strong devotion that binds the three leads together. Puenzo isn’t afraid to create truly messed up characters, but her compassionate exploration of the characters’ histories and motives forces readers to love and even respect them despite their mistakes.
The Fish Child has a few sore points. In spite of what seems like a stellar translation from David William Foster, Puenzo’s narrative occasionally darts from past to present without clear indication of the transition. This is visible in the aforementioned opening paragraph, where the narrative begins in the distant past, moves to a slightly unclear moment in the novel’s future, then darts back to the distant past again for the following paragraphs. I also had trouble remembering the characters are teenagers—Lala’s tendency to idolize Guayi led me to assume the latter character was in her mid-twenties, at least.
Still, these are minor flaws in what is generally a refreshingly honest, thoroughly captivating and ultimately compassionate novel. Add in the lightest touch of magical realism and an ending mysterious enough to demand a reread, and you have The Fish Child. I consider myself lucky to have found it.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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