Lina Wolff - a novel constructed from a number of jigsaw pieces, including the story prostitutes at a run-down brothel in Caudal, Spain, who adopt a collection of stray dogs, naming each after a famous male writer.An absurd, funny and fiercely feminist exploration of a hard and dry physical and emotional landscape
Lina Wolff, Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, Trans. by Frank Perry, & Other Stories, 2016.
Read extracts in The Guardian and Words Without Borders.
short story Maurice Echegaray
At a run-down brothel in Caudal, Spain, the prostitutes are collecting stray dogs. Each is named after a famous male writer: Dante, Chaucer, Bret Easton Ellis. When a john is cruel, the dogs are fed rotten meat. To the east, in Barcelona, an unflappable teenage girl is endeavouring to trace the peculiarities of her life back to one woman: Alba Cambó, writer of violent short stories, who left Caudal as a girl and never went back.
Mordantly funny, dryly sensual, written with a staggering lightness of touch, the debut novel in English by Swedish sensation Lina Wolff is a black and Bolaño-esque take on the limitations of love in a dog-eat-dog world.
A book that you just want to give people and say: take a look at this, read it, experience it. I would have liked to devote the entire review to quoting sentences and paragraphs from the novel – it is almost as if that were the only way of adequately conveying the gravity, depth and lightness of Lina Wolff’s prose, her tender yet pitiless character descriptions, her distinctive but also natural way of piecing together the novel’s disparate parts into a shimmering whole.’ - Eva Johansson
Lina Wolff (Sweden)’s Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs is a novel constructed from a number of jigsaw pieces, including the story prostitutes at a run-down brothel in Caudal, Spain, who adopt a collection of stray dogs, naming each after a famous male writer – Dante, Chaucer, Bret Easton Ellis – all centred around the mysterious Alba Cambó, herself a writer. An absurd, funny and fiercely feminist exploration of a hard and dry physical and emotional landscape.
- Joanna Walsh
Lina Wolff’s Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs (translated by Frank Perry) advertises its sexual content and feminist credentials on the dust jacket: “At a run-down brothel in Caudal, Spain, the prostitutes are collecting stray dogs. Each is named after a famous male writer”. In fact the prostitutes, and sex in general, play very little part in this intriguingly oneiric novel, made up of overlapping narratives and indebted to both Franz Kafka and Roberto Bolaño. Wolff’s cool surrealism and her confident, mischievous disruption of form... -
Another filmic offering is Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs (& Other Stories, £10), the first novel to be translated (by Frank Perry) into English from the Swedish author Lina Wolff, but set in Spain and very much channelling the spirit of Pedro Almodóvar. Wolff presents a world of women: some weak, some strong, and each carrying their own traumas, heartbreak or loss. Linking them all is the attractive and charismatic Alba Cambó, author of captivating short stories in which men meet violent and terrible fates – the inclusion of which in the text accounting for some of the best writing in what is already a thoroughly invigorating novel. - Lucy Scholes
The dog Bret Easton Ellis lives in a brothel, where the prostitutes name their dogs after unpleasant male writers. Bret Easton Ellis is purchased by a man named Rodrigo as a present for his wife, Encarnación. Encarnación is having an affair with a man named Ilich. Ilich is the boyfriend of a writer named Alba. Alba and Rodrigo are friends, sort of. When Alba somehow learns her teenage upstairs neighbour, Araceli Villalobos, is advertising her services as a prostitute, she asks Rodrigo to become Araceli’s first client. Rodrigo declines to sleep with Araceli and instead tells her the story of himself, Alba, Ilich and Encarnación.
Forget about the dogs of the title; they barely feature. The whole book is overlapping loops of plots circling the question: who is Alba? She is from central Spain, and a well-regarded author. Some of her short stories, which are included in their entirety or described in detail, are about an isolated girl growing up under the thumb of a hateful and neglecting mother; it is strongly implied these are the facts of Alba’s childhood. As an adult, she develops an entourage in her small flat in Barcelona. This group eventually includes one of Araceli’s teachers, an Italian boyfriend, a Guatemalan servant, Blosom, and Araceli’s mother, Mariela.
A question the book doesn’t explore: who is the narrator Araceli? She is the kind of person who exists only to narrate novels about other people. But she’s not even a Nick Carraway, privy to observations hidden from other characters for the readers’ benefit. Araceli is a vessel to be filled with the stories of others. She sits in silence as other people talk, recording verbatim the stories they tell without interruption or even a stage direction. She has hardly any identity, or even a body; her only direct action in the book is, as a child, falling in love with an adult stranger on the beach who she convinces to buy her ice cream. Even her choice to prostitute herself is done at the impetus of her only friend, Muriel. Muriel and Araceli are studying at a school for translators attended almost exclusively by young women. Once they are taken on a field trip to a timber factory. Blosom warns Araceli about the world of business, “… don’t let them sell you like a bag of meat along the chain from one supplier to the next.” Over the slow course of the book, we are meant to realise that women are bags of meat. Women are timber. Women are tadpoles swimming with the big fish. Women are potted plants. Women are canaries released from their cages.
These ghastly metaphors are made palatable by the excellence of Lina Wolff’s prose. She is able to evoke the physical experience of northern Spain with vivid sensory detail:
“The days were going to be long and stressful; the air would be stagnant with humidity, and the staircase in Parra’s building would smell of fried fish and tortillas. I would fall asleep and wake up in the little room Parra had assigned me that was the size of a broom cupboard. It had a small window that looked onto a minimal courtyard and at night the wind used to cause an acoustic phenomenon in that drum-shaped space. It made a sound like a major mechanical catastrophe, and trying to fall asleep to the noise of an airplane engine coming apart was clearly going to get on my nerves …”
But what is this attention to detail in service to? There is plenty of surface action, with the feeling of very little substance beneath it, although it’s difficult to say how big a part the translation by Frank Perry plays in this. Wolff is writing about metaphors. Her characters are only that. She doesn’t discuss their hopes, or plans, or feelings. She is not exploring what it means to be growing up in Spain right now, with little money and a stagnant future. She writes like a puppeteer, pulling the strings to make a group of marionettes dance to her whims, and therefore describes physical activity with extreme precision, such as this, when the Italian boyfriend slips and falls:
“His long arms were fumbling for something to grab hold of and when he couldn’t find anything they windmilled through the air. He put his hands behind his back only to move them quickly to the side but it was no use as all control over his body had been lost.”
The most blatant example of Wolff’s choice to treat her characters as metaphors is when Alba convinces Mariela that Blosom should live with her instead. Araceli reacts like this:
“There was no point discussing it as everything had already been decided. Alba Cambó would continue to pay Blosom a monthly salary and in return Blosom would clean her and the Italian’s flat once or twice a week. The rest of the time she would look after Mum (my name was never mentioned). I would move into the living room. My desk would be placed in one corner along with a lamp and a reading chair. My bed would then be fitted in as well along with a little screen which would ‘make the whole thing a bit more private.’
I said nothing. All that was left was to pack my things and put a good face on it when Blosom arrived.” - Sarah Manvel
A young woman living in the slums of Barcelona quietly observes the aftermath of a famous writer's interventions.
This is Swedish author Wolff's debut novel (after a book of short stories: Many People Die Like You, 2009), but she uses many of the techniques of short fiction in weaving together a quixotic portrait of a Spanish neighborhood. Bookish types should be warned that the story has nothing to do with literary agitator Ellis, the title character here being one of several dogs named after well-known writers. Wolff applies a gritty patina to her somewhat chaotic novel, opening with a quote from the barfly Charles Bukowski and weaving together an unvarnished play about love and transformation that recalls the work of the late Roberto Bolaño (2666, 2008, etc.) The novel's point of view is mostly that of Araceli Villalobos, a young girl living in a rotted-out apartment whom we follow into adulthood. But the book’s touchstone is Alba Cambó, a famous writer of violent short stories. Through these two characters, Wolff depicts the breadth of the human condition. In one passage, Alba hires a Mexican maid who recounts the story of her son’s death on the border. In another, a newly arrived priest quickly meets an untimely end. In a particularly memorable sequence, a desperate Araceli turns to prostitution, only to find that her first client has been hired by Alba. “You may not be very good at selling yourself, Araceli, but you’re even worse at lying,” the john tells her. “That kind of thing grows on you; the attraction has to take its time. You see the person. You start fantasizing about them. Then suddenly one day you’ve got there, and it’s all wonderful.” The novel’s jarring scene changes can be off-putting, and Wolff’s nesting-doll approach to storytelling may lose some readers as well. That said, the author demonstrates a marvelous command of language and creates characters with real depth, lending the book a sensual vibe and an acerbic wit that force its emotional truths to rise above the grunge of its hard-boiled setting.
A poetic, unsentimental drama that offers a meditation on love in all its disparate forms. - Kirkus Reviews
‘We’re going to call this little pup Dante. Let’s call the mangy old cur over there Chaucer.’ This is Alba Cambo, standing in front of a dog pen, teaching women in a brothel about passive aggression. When a john doesn’t treat them right, they feed the dogs rotten meat. And across town, a teenage girl tries to fit together all the stories that lead back to this one woman.
Swedish writer Lina Wolff has had enough of the big swinging dicks of masculine literature. She examines the idea of violence as entertainment – especially violence towards women. Bret Easton Ellis is a dog, bundled into a box in the boot of a car. Other violent moments: a boy hit by a truck in front of his mother; an old man farting wetly in the moment before the lights turn on and everyone shouts “surprise” for his birthday; a cat boiled on the stove by the maid as vengeance for eating a blackbird’s chicks. But it isn’t all blood and gore – the book shifts about. Sometimes it’s funny, then startling, then dark.
This is the novel’s non-lineal structure at play: the narrative appears in many voices, moving fluidly from one to the next. There are stories within stories, each one tracing the patterns that Alba’s life has drawn across the people she knew. It’s clever and challenging and distinctive – and brought to life by a sharp translation. -
ecent years have seen a wave of feminist literature that has challenged the prose form in variously surreal, tender, disruptive and eccentric ways. This strange, provocative debut from Swedish writer Lina Wolff is a welcome new voice in the chorus, and sits well alongside the work of Roxane Gay, Katherine Angel, Maggie Nelson, Zoe Pilger and Miranda July.
Araceli Villalobos is an inquisitive and restless girl living with her mother in a small, sultry Spanish town. Her life is punctuated by glimpses of Alba Cambó, a reclusive writer who appears throughout the book as a part sinister, part benevolent guiding force. The novel does not progress in a stately fashion along a narrative arc: rather, disparate tales begin gradually to cohere, with Cambó as a slippery sort of fixative. As young women, Araceli and her best friend embark on sex work by way of an encounter with a timber merchant; a short story (ostensibly by Cambó herself) tells how a schoolgirl called Lucifer falls for a lonely priest; a formidable French teacher is a source of fascination and revulsion to her students; a feminist academic suggests a brothel name its stray dogs after Chaucer, Dante and Bret Easton Ellis as a little gesture of defiant contempt for men. The female characters chafe against the constraints of their gender, always kicking against the pricks – “It’s the duty of the prisoner to try to escape … We shouldn’t pretend. We ought to meet as real enemies.” The men, meanwhile, are generally rather shiftless and inadequate: I reached the end of the book longing – just for once! – to encounter a “strong male character”.
If the novel’s narrative is a little tricky to unravel, its ideas are not. This is a novel that puts its feminist cards on the table and is all the better for it. That the brothel’s dogs are named after male writers should be taken as indicative of a furiously irreverent writer determined to tip every conceivable power structure on its head. Power, indeed, is the crucial theme of the novel: the uneasy power play between pupil and teacher, buyer and vendor, mother and daughter, writer and reader, and – always, and above all – man and woman. A scene in which students seduce a diffident teacher with a sudden act of kindness is dizzyingly accomplished in its subtle shifts of power.
There is a particularly astringent and sensuous quality to Wolff’s imagery: the discomfort of hot bodies, a “gob” of saliva dripping down a temple, heat beating against patios and walls. Everything is faintly off-kilter, faintly surreal – a necessity for a novel in which the actions of the characters often lie just beyond believability (as when a man lies across his lover and contemplates an egg inexplicably placed on her buttocks). There are brief but striking episodes of brutality such as a young girl idly snipping the legs off frogs with a pair of scissors that suggest a kind of frustrated explosion of female violence.
I had a few misgivings about that hoary old “sex work as quirky career choice” trope: here are two healthy, educated young women with no small degree of privilege who enter prostitution almost as a kind of intellectual exercise, and without apparent duress. This device does not pass without interrogation: there are clear parallels drawn between the women in the brothel and a consignment of timber being offered up for sale (“Do you like the wood? Or do you not like the wood?”), and at one point Araceli remarks to a “john”: “As long as there are people like you, there’ll be people like me. Shall we get started?” But I couldn’t help but feel – not for the first time – that writing about sex work from a position of privilege is a decision not to be taken lightly, nor merely for the sake of artistic effect.
Wolff’s prose is translated by Frank Perry, and is – or at least appears to be – deliberately flat and affectless. Even with the odd colloquialism, it has a quality of “otherness” entirely in keeping with the surreal atmosphere of the novel. This, then, is a cool, clever and fierce addition to the canon of modern feminist literature. The greatest pleasure, for me, lies in the book’s sly critique of phallocentric literary culture and its wicked dismissal of all those venerated old dogs of more-or-less contemporary literature: Bukowski, Ellis, Houellebecq. I laughed aloud as one character recalls a scene in Houellebecq’s Platform in which a man masturbates ferociously over a book’s depiction of half-naked young girls. “So this is what literature is all about?” he says. “A bunch of wankers who stick pages together with their own sperm? Ha! It’s enough to make you weep.” - Sarah Perry
Upstairs, a flat where mother and daughter struggle from pay cheque to pay cheque; downstairs, the love nest of a dying writer and her last of many conquests. Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs is a multilayered testimonial to the writer, the eccentric Alba Cambó, gathered by Araceli, the teenager upstairs. Through Araceli's bird's-eye view, anecdotes unfold as told by lovers, business acquaintances (often both – for with Alba Cambó you can never know), and the short stories of Cambó herself.
The testimonial is as much about Cambó herself as the people whose lives she has touched, or in the case of her own characters, created: there is the disillusioned timber trader who finds himself being filmed in an awkward ménage-a-trois, the former factory worker scrubbing floors with gusto to come to grips with her tragic past, the priest accused of paedophilia and burnt to death, and the student set to reveal the inner goddess of his detestable teacher, herself set to establish a relationship with Cambó.
It is a novel that does not lend itself to synopses, and as always with such novels, there is the risk of the eclectic structure resulting in nothing but a poorly woven thread of disparate short stories. However, Wolff manouvres with great skill through her breathtaking multitude of worlds and an equally impressive cast of characters, transporting the reader with admirable ease from the hustle and bustle of Parque Güell to the morbid village of Caudal. The flow of the novel is such that there is no time, or indeed need, for the reader to stop to ask what, if any, the connection between a student taking up prostitution and a dog named after a famous author is – if the novel was an aeroplane, the destination would be unknown but as a passenger, the reader can relax with Wolff in the cockpit.
The page-turner nature of the novel is largely indebted to Wolff's vibrant writing style which delivers to all five senses: the reader can feel, see, hear, taste, and smell all at once the scenes she is invited into, guaranteeing very much a full-on reading experience. The unique depictions of the surroundings provide a hint of magical realism in the vein of Gabria García Márquez to the often so mundane world of prostitutes, minor criminals, and students at schools where no one believes in their future.
To populate these tangible settings, Wolff has succeeded in creating a simultaneously lovable and hateable cast of characters, with an Austen-esque knack to produce comical yet so recognizable character descriptions. It is precisely from this perceptiveness of human nature that the novel derives an underlying feel of dark humour – even the more serious topics do not escape Wolff's wry descriptions and inherently witty use of language.
Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs takes the reader on a roller-coaster from the tragic to the comical, with hints of the mysterious and magical scattered in between – it is a testimonial of a dead person remarkably full of life. - Anna Hollingsworth
Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs begins with the narrator, Araceli Villalobos, being told a story by Valentino Coraggioso about Alba Cambó. Valentino was out with Alba, walking, trying second-hand clothes on, dining at a restaurant, discussing marriage.
That was the way we were going to live. Full on, flat out and no teasing the brakes. Wholeheartedly. Otherwise why bother? We would live life even if it killed us. That was what we would do and that was the moment I realised it. Alba Cambó and I would live life, even if it killed us.
At the end of the day, Alba takes a ‘phone call and reveals to Valentino that she has an inoperable tumour.
Alba Cambó’s a writer. On the day she moves into the flat below Araceli and her mother they read her short story, published in Semejanzas, about a lonely, socially phobic man. The climax of the story comes when his daughter organises a surprise birthday party for him. He enters his apartment unaware that anyone else is there and lets out a fart that’s been building all day:
The sound that came out of the man was lengthy and sustained. It echoed between the walls and was drawn out into a kind of lamentation; it was then transformed into the cry that issues from the gullet of a bird one evening on some isolated mountain lake, and was finally followed by a sigh of relief. The daughter stood there paralysed in the darkness. The whole thing fell apart.
Apart from possibly being the best description of a fart in literature (are there others?) these two short pieces introduce the key theme of the novel – storytelling, translation and particularly, how each of us translates the same person differently depending on our experiences of them. We do meet Alba but she’s shown to us by Araceli who, we discover in the second section of the book, is studying to be a translator. In that second section, Araceli gives an account of the dinner she and Alba attend at the apartment one of her teachers. It’s one of the few moments when Araceli directly discusses Alba. Also in that section, one of Alba’s stories is included in full, unlike at the beginning of the novel when it’s related to us by Araceli. However, even the inclusion of Alba’s story is a decision made by Araceli and, ultimately, Lina Wolff writing as Alba Cambó. Everything we learn is filtered through someone else’s viewpoint.
The book also includes the stories of those around Alba. In the first section, Alba’s housekeeper, Blosom, tells Araceli and her mother her story. In the final section, it’s Rodrigo Auscias and how he became mixed up in a business arrangement and more with one of Alba’s former lovers. The title of the novel (and isn’t it a great title?) belongs to his story when he procures a dog for his wife from a brothel:
We’ve got a kennel and all the dogs in it are named after famous male writers, she [the sex worker he’d spent the night with] had said. Whenever some guy pays us a visit and is nasty to us, we give the dogs rotten meat.
Their names are a result of ‘an intellectual feminist from the city…[who] said she wanted to help us, though the truth is she looked down on us’. When she discovered the dogs were unnamed, in a passive aggressive move, she named them Dante, Chaucer and Harold Bloom. Bret Easton Ellis is ‘named after a book someone found one morning on the bedside table’. I can’t help laughing at the nod – and a middle finger? – to American Psycho there.
Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs is a clever, thoughtful novel whilst also being a really interesting, well-told, engaging story (or set of intertwined stories). There’s a lot of noise at the moment about the American novel The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North (which I’ll review in a couple of weeks). In that, the protagonist – a young, female, indie film director – is revealed through the stories of those who knew her best. Wolff does something similar but subtler with a slightly older, female writer. If you prefer your literature European filtered through Latin America with an occasional kick of dark humour, Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs is the one for you. - thewritesofwoman.wordpress.com/2016/01/14/bret-easton-ellis-and-the-other-dogs-lina-wolff-translated-by-frank-perry/
Men are dogs. This is the prevailing theme of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, a debut novel that has already turned Sweden’s Lina Wolff into a literary sensation. Wolff’s project – a text at once fragmented enough to pass for a short story collection and yet untraceably centred on the character of Alba Cambó, a writer of violent, horrifying tales who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer – draws a connection between the canine-like nature of human males and the limitations of revenge against their more animalistic natures by women. Setting Alba’s story mostly in colourful Barcelona, Wolff renders it into a kind of narrative kaleidoscope, told through the eyes of her friends, lovers, and acquaintances.
Wolff’s own life seems as kaleidoscopic as the story she has created. She has done stints in both Spain and Italy, and now lives in southern Sweden. She has published one previous book, a short story collection called Många människor dör som du (Many People Die Like You; Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2009), which was met by strong reviews. She writes with an unmistakable focus on feminism – but it is a peripatetic feminism, one that looks to travel widely across the expanse of gender dynamics, and to hit them from a multitude of angles. Ironically, one of her biggest literary influences appears to be French shit disturber Michel Houellebecq, whose own work makes a deliciously comic appearance in Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs.
Wolff’s novel’s title is explained by the back-cover copy, but readers will be misled if they think the following is a summation of the whole book: “At a run-down brothel in Caudal, Spain, the prostitutes are collecting stray dogs. Each is named after a famous male writer: Dante, Chaucer, Bret Easton Ellis. When a john is cruel, the dogs are fed rotten meat.” In actuality, this sequence comes relatively late in the novel, and yet captures the very essence of book’s theme. Here it is, narrated by character named Rodrigo Auscias, a man who once had a threesome with Alba and one of her casual boyfriends:
We’ve got a kennel and the dogs in it are all named after famous writers, she had said. Whenever some guy pays us a visit and is nasty to us, we give the dogs rotten meat. I couldn’t help laughing at the whole idea at the time. Passive rebellion is what they call that, I informed her. When you’re powerless, passive rebellion is what you come up with. It’s also called projection. You make the dogs suffer for what the men have done to you because the dogs are weaker than you. It’s like a father who abuses his children because the factory owner has forced him to work too hard.
Rodrigo goes on to ask where the women got the idea from, and the say they were once visited by an “intellectual feminist” who planted the seed in their minds. This term, passive rebellion (one might also dub it a kind of low-level terrorism), has, the reader will now realize, played a huge role in the various chapters that have preceded this scene. This idea of punishing an animal for the sins of a person has appeared a couple of times already in the novel, with the murder of a canary in one chapter and the boiling of a cat in the other. With a sharp, unflinching eye, Wolff shows us that revenge can take many strange, off-kilter forms.
Yet the real strength of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs isn’t that it hews closely to this one prescribed theme. In fact, the reason this book haunts and horrifies and challenges us so much is that it strays so widely, and so wildly, from any fixed structure or approach. This lack of a traditional narrative arc allows Wolff’s imagination and talent to sore: there were several points throughout the novel’s episodic approach where I was wowed by her out-of-left-field audacity and the unexpected twists in the turn of events.
A summary of these sequences would prove to be as disjointed as the novel itself. The story begins with an unnamed narrator recounting the time that Alba was spending time with one of her lovers, a man named Valentino, and informed him after a romantic episode together that she was in fact dying from cancer and would not be around for very much longer. The novel then shifts and we soon learn who this narrator is: a young girl named Araceli Villalobos, who lives in the same apartment building in Barcelona as Alba. We learn that Alba is gaining notoriety in the neighbourhood for publishing a series of brutal, feminist-infused short stories in a magazine called Semejanzas (Spanish for “Similarities.”) The most memorable of these pieces involves a man who kills himself after humiliating himself at his own surprise party by farting loudly just before turning on the lights.
The story soon shifts as Araceli learns of a woman from South America named Blosom who is living with Alba. Alba attempts to pawn off Blosom to Araceli and her mother as a kind of live-in housekeeper. After that happens, Wolff takes us on a detailed, first-person tour of Blosom’s life. We learn that she was once married and had a young son who was killed in a traffic accident. We also learn that Blosom began an affair with a married man while working as his housekeeper, right under his wife’s nose. The tension in the household comes to a head during a scene in which Blosom is helping the wife, whose name is Jessica, take a bath. This was one of the most audacious scenes in a novel full of them:
“You’re a pretentious little ignorant cow,” Jessica cried. “Is that what got drilled into you while you were growing up, that there’s nothing more important than giving a man a child? Hah. Along with all those Venezuelan soaps you watch. that’s soft porn for old ladies, all of them thinking the best thing you can do for a man is to give him a child and then the women are left with chains around the ankles and a ring through the nose, stuck with life in a cage. Fortunately, Vicente doesn’t belong to the old school. He doesn’t actually want to have children.”
Our eyes met in the mirror on the other side of the bathtub. I hate you, I thought. I hate you so much it’s killing me.
“You’ve got something in your hair,” she said.
“It looks like sperm.”
“Well it’s not that.”
“Would you mind washing it off, please.”
Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs is full of these kinds of jarring, shocking sequences, and they infuse the novel with an inventiveness rarely seen in contemporary fiction. As we go along, the perspective of the book changes once more. By the time we meet a girl named Muriel, a classmate of Araceli’s at the translation school where she is studying, we get a sense of just how decentralized this book’s structure is.
Eventually we loop around to the story of Rodrigo. He has his threesome with Albo and her casual boyfriend Ilich. Ilich uses his cell phone to film part of the encounter and threatens to reveal the video to Rodrigo’s wife, Encarnación, unless Rodrigo agrees to help him. What does Ilich want? He wants Rodrigo’s help breaking in the Spain’s competitive timber market. It’s actually more compelling than it sounds. Rodrigo does what Ilich wants of him and he comes to think he is now free of the man. But Ilich shows up one day at Rodrigo and Encarnación’s apartment in a scene that is rife with domestic tension. The section concludes with Rodrigo watching as his wife descends into a harrowing alcoholism that he cannot stop.
Themes of cruelty and of vengeance churn through this book at every turn, to the point where such acts feel completely normalized. Yet Rodrigo, in detailing his encounters with Alba and Ilich, offers a powerful counterbalance to the notion “passive rebellion” discussed above:
I have no political convictions. I don’t give a damn about politics. People with political convictions frighten me. People who are willing to sacrifice themselves for an idea are also willing to sacrifice other people for the same idea. That applies to people who have been the victims of injustice as well. They are the most dangerous people of all because they believe themselves entitled to revenge.
This one passage helps to snap so much of this novel into focus. The idea that revenge is an entitlement, even if (or, in the case of passive rebellion, especially if) the victims of that revenge are not the same individuals who victimized you in the first place, feels very much like a contemporary preoccupation. The entire world, this book is seeming to say, is full of randomized violence and cruelty, and ideas of “motive” or “blame” may very well be passé in this new reality. Wolff’s dark vision of how our world now operates is a disturbing, but deeply compelling, one.— Mark Sampson