Much as I am enjoying EIBF online, there are so many things I am missing. Chief amongst these is The First Book Award. Entries are restricted to authors appearing at the EIBF to promote their first book published in English, regardless of the language it was originally published in. There is usually a dedicated bookcase of 30 to 40 titles in the EIBF bookshop which is, in itself, a rich source of literary discovery. The winner is voted for by EIBF audiences. It is extremely gratifying to note that translated titles took the award in both 2018 and 2019.
Selva Almada’s The Wind That Lays Waste (tr. Chris Andrews) won the First Book Award in 2019, and it demonstrates the discerning taste of the EIBF crowd. It’s not often I read books in one sitting, not even 114 page novels, but this story of a spiritual tussle between the travelling preacher, Reverend Pearson, and the car mechanic, Gringo Brauer, had to be swallowed in one delicious gulp.
The setup is similar to Dan Rhodes’s When The Professor Got Stuck in The Snow except with role reversal. In Almada’s novel the preacher is the one on foreign territory, stranded by a broken-down car, and the mechanic, who sees God as an irrelevance, the one coming to his aid. There’s no snow, but searing Argentinian heat, and the conflict between god-fearing and humanist doesn’t take the form of a head-on hell-for-leather theological argument. While Rhodes’s satire had me LOL-ing around hysterically in places, Almada’s more nuanced novel had me smiling wrying. Nevertheless there are two opposing world views in play, and over the course of a day lives are going to change dramatically.
Reverend Pearson is an interesting character. A talented preacher, his calling never in doubt from the moment of his spur-of-the-moment baptism. He now spends his life driving around less-advantaged territories, spreading the word to the frequently ignored. He is accompanied by his teenage daughter, Leni, who is tiring of the itinerant lifestyle, and, now at that difficult age is beginning to object to it. Where is Leni’s mother? She’s not around. We see her only as the Reverend drops her off and drives away with Leni in the car some years previously. There is no further explanation. There are other puzzles too. Like the Reverend’s temperament. He is not always the mild-tempered exemplary Christian you’d expect …
There’s a motherless child at Gringo Brauer’s too. The boy, Tapioca, left by his mother with Brauer, also some years back. Brauer has treated Tapioca kindly, but also as a lackey. Brauer believes him to be his son. I’m not sure Tapioca knows that. The thing is, following a conversation with the Reverend, Tapioca proves receptive to the spiritual side of life, and the Reverend sees in him a potential to become his protegé.
A storm is brewing. Both literally and metaphorically. The outcome? I’m not saying but I did appreciate the neat ending and the final scene, both a reflection and replay of previous scenes in the book.
The ending of Almada’s latest English publication, Dead Girls (tr. Annie McDermott) is anything but neat. In it, Almada investigates 3 unresolved femicides, which remain that way. Even when there are prime suspects.
Andrea Danne (19) was stabbed through the heart while sleeping in her bed Her death stayed with Almada, as she was the same age as the victim at the time and lived not so far away. It was some years later, prompted by ongoing femicides in Argentina, that Almada decided to write about it. She added a couple of other cases. Maria Luisa Quevedo (15) was raped, strangled and dumped on waste ground. The skeleton of Sarita Mundin (20), was washed up on a river bank. The girls were all killed in the 1980s. Work on the book began in 2008 and it was finally published in Argentina in 2013.
As Almada interviewed friends and family of the dead girls, it became clear that they wanted the stories to come out. The author wished to give a voice to the lives behind the headlines, and by referring to them by first name throughout, she does exactly that. Their backstories are as shocking as the murders themselves and reveal a society which places an extremely low value on its female members. Abuse is systemic. So botched was the investigation into Andrea’s murder that there was no hope of finding the culprit. Sarita, the mother of a 4 year-old boy, was forced into prostitution by her husband. And Maria Luisa simply disappeared into thin air following a day’s work.
These are not the only dead girls in the book. Almada relates the stories of many more. Given the dangers that females routinely face in Argentinian society, the author’s bravery in not only tackling the subject, but also in travelling unaccompanied to interview strange men becomes increasingly clear. Her reflections on nonchalantly hitch-hiking with a female friend, when a student, resonated with me, Not that I ever hitch-hiked, but I used to blithely wander alone around Regent’s Park Outer Circle in the small hours of the morning without a care in the world …
The interest in spirituality, apparent in The Wind That Lays Waste, is here too. Rather I should say spiritualism, in the form of frequent meetings with a medium. (A practice I find extremely dubious.)
Andrea was murdered in 1986. With Annie McDermott’s English translation of Dead Girls appearing in 2020, you have to wonder if Almada’s book is still relevant. Read about what has been happening during the Argentininian lockdown of 2020 here. Chilling.
On a lighter note, it’s just as well Spanish Literature Month lasts two months, isn’t it? Because here I am scraping in with an entry on the very last day. These reviews also serve as my contribution for Women in Translation Month, AND fulfill my 2020 Argentinian Literature of Doom obligations! (Talk about multi-tasking.)