This is the first year I have properly taken part in Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month (#SpanishLitMonth), hosted by Stu at Winstonsdad’s blog. It’s a month-long celebration of literature first published in the Spanish language – you can find out more about it here.
Following on from my review of Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica, here are three more books by women writing in Spanish.
People in the Room by Norah Lange, translated by Charlotte Whittle
To say that People in the Room is ambiguous would be an understatement. The plot centres on a teenage girl who lives with her family in Buenos Aires’s affluent Belgrano district. One day she notices three women through the window of the house across the street. Their faces are framed perfectly – as though in a portrait – and the girl begins to watch them obsessively, her imagination running wild. She imagines that they are hiding secrets, have committed crimes or are contemplating suicide, and transfers all her confusing teenage confusions onto the women. She intercepts a telegram and uses it as an excuse to introduce herself and before long, the unnamed protagonist is spending every evening with these three sisters, finding out what she can to interpret their past.
Suffocated by her own narrow domestic existence, the narrator craves emotion, drama and adult experience and because she can’t, she imagines all these things in the lives of the three sisters. She imagines that she loves them, she is protective of them, but she also wishes them harm.
Sure their faces belonged to me, that they endured because I watched them, sure no one else had ever shown them such patience that no one else was capable of sharing them so much, of being so addicted to them; even of glimpsing them, seeing them shift inside my face, which must express – their three faces behind my own, expressionless.
Almost everything that happens in the novel takes place in the narrators head. The writing is full of ambiguities, obliterations, and beautifully constructed sentences that lead nowhere. The prose can be difficult to follow, yet the dream-like aspect to the narrative makes it impossible to resist. Kudos must go to translator Charlotte Whittle for capturing the essence of a book that can at times feel impenetrable. This is a novel of atmosphere and style above all else.
Small things happen and the narrator gives them exaggerated importance. There is a constant feeling that something prodigious is going to happen, but it never does, and by the end of this unnerving, frustrating yet completely compelling novel, the reader begins to wonder if the three people in the room even exist at all.
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell
I very much enjoyed Samanta Schwelbin’s first novel Fever Dream, but was less enamored of A Mouthful of Birds, her short story collection. Both featured the surreal and the supernatural, but Little Eyes, despite its speculative nature, feels a lot more grounded in the real world.
The ‘little eyes’ of the title refer to a ‘kentuki’ – the latest craze in the world of technology. These are cute, furry robot animals with a camera implanted in their eye. You can either be a ‘keeper’, inviting an unknown watcher into your home to view your daily life and private routines or a ‘dweller’, the anonymous controller on the other end, rolling on little rubber wheels through the life of a stranger. Once you have bought your kentuki, or bought a code that connects your tablet or computer to the camera inside a kentuki, the connection is randomly generated. You have no idea where in the world you will be watching, or who in the world is watching you.
There were people willing to shell out a fortune so they could spend a few hours a day living in poverty, and there were people who paid to be tourists without leaving their houses: to travel through India without a single day of diarrhoea, or to witness the arctic winter barefoot and in pajamas.
Little Eyes feels less like a novel and more like a series of linked short stories, as each chapter takes its title from the location of either a dweller or a keeper. Some connections are brief and others are returned to throughout the book. It’s a clever structure, allowing Schweblin to investigate all the relationships that could grow from such technology, and as the book goes on, all the dangers that allowing a stranger into your home – even in the form of a cute cuddly toy – might bring.
As is the case with many new technologies we heedlessly let into our lives, few users have really considered the potential consequences of having, or being, a kentuki. And like all those technologies, everything imaginable comes to pass – love, rejection, loss, extortion and capitalist exploitation.
Little Eyes is a disquieting and inventive exploration of what can happen when an individual is virtually placed into the life of a stranger and what the implications are for them both. In a modern world where it is easier than ever to connect, Schweblin explores with nuance the many ways we search for intimacy and validation in our openly accessible yet increasingly isolated lives.
Dead Girls by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott
Dead Girls is a difficult read, but an important one. Like the blunt title suggests, Dead Girls explores the unsolved murders of three young women during the 1980s, all of whom were of a similar age to Almada herself. 19-year old Andrea Danne was stabbed in her own bed; 15-year old María Luisa Quevedo was raped, strangled, and dumped in wasteland; and 20-year old Sarita Mundín, whose disfigured body was found on a river bank, despite suggestions that the body may not even have been her.
The murders of Andrea, Maria Luìsa and Sarita were spread across different provinces of Argentina, highlighting the issue of femicide in a country where murders of and violence against women are horrifically commonplace. By writing about the aftermath of these killings, the grief of the family and the unanswered questions surrounding the crimes, Almada shines a light on a society and a political system where violence against women goes not only unpunished but generally unnoticed.
Her investigations show that there is nothing particularly unusual about these cases, nor about the women themselves. There are countless more like them. In 2018, 278 women died as a result of male violence in Argentina and much of the book is about the danger of simply being a woman in Argentina: a place where each day you are aware of the threat to your own safety. As Almada notes in her introduction, she was drawn to the stories of these three women, because their fates could so easily have been hers or her friends.
I was thirteen, and that morning the news about the dead girl hit me like a revelation. My house, any teenager’s house, wasn’t really the safest place in the world … Horror could live with you, under your roof.
Almada is not trying to solve these crimes, but instead tries to give these girls back their humanity, to put them back into the context of their own lives and the lives of all women in Argentina. She meets with their families, revisits police reports and imagines the last days and hours of the girls. She visits a tarot card reader, as the girls families would have, and visits the places where their bodies were found. By placing herself into the fabric of their lives, she creates a subtle but intense narrative in which she pays a moving tribute to the lives that were viciously cut short. These deaths were not only allowed to happen, but have gone unpunished and Dead Girls is a stark, lyrical and moving piece of journalistic fiction.
Have you read any interesting books for Spanish (and Portuguese) Literature Month? Do let me know in the comments!
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!