by Bruno Lloret, translated by Ellen Jones
Giramondo, $26.95 pb, 134 pp
Near the beginning of Bruno Lloret’s stark, unvarnished first novel, Nancy, the cancer-riddled protagonist discovers that her husband has died in a workplace accident, sucked into the tuna processor while drunk. With no body to bury, she imagines having ‘a moment alone with the 2,500 tins containing [him]’.
That unsentimental account issues from a woman habituated to abandonment and plays out in the north of Chile, where the Atacama Desert meets the ocean. In the world of the novel, it is a place where the love of family is circumscribed by the vicissitudes of industry, and where the forces of capitalism, even on its fringes, are as merciless as any Old Testament god. When swine flu breaks out at a pork-processing plant and the townspeople refuse to send representatives to meet with a visiting minister, she ‘laid down her curse: Never again will we remember you in the capital, she said, according to my tío x Then the slow exodus towards the horizon, the sea.’
The bolded x’s that typographically scar the novel accrue a multiplicity of meanings. As well as defamiliarising the text, they guide the reading much as does the blank space around, and line breaks in, a poem – they impel where you place your focus, how many beats a sentence is given to resonate in your mind. This is especially the case for the exquisite opening and closing sections, where time is compressed and the enjambment of the spare prose builds a hypnotic rhythm.
If there is a flaw in Nancy, it is that for the most part the reminiscences of childhood and adolescence are neatly chronological, and footnoted; sometimes the fact that the scenes are being evoked by a remembering mind is lost. While a vastly different book, Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream (2014), likewise narrated by a dying woman, carries out the complex dance between memories and the present with greater finesse.
Yet Ellen Jones’s translation is attuned to the asperous beauty of everyday language, and Lloret’s evocations of place, the intensity of his narrative, and his experimentation with form are resplendent. This is a beguiling addition to Southern Latitudes, a series that in a few short years has become the most invigorating across the Australian publishing landscape.