Liliana Colanzi - Horror and the fantastic mark the unstable realism of Our Dead World, in which altered states of consciousness, marginalized peoples, animal bodies, and tensions between tradition and modernity are recurring themes
Liliana Colanzi, Our Dead World, Dalkey Archive Press, Trans. by Jessica Sequiera, 2017.
A young woman suffers a mental breakdown because of her repressive and religious mother. A group of children is fascinated by the sudden death of a friend. A drug trafficking couple visits Paris at the same time as a psychopathic cannibal. A mysterious wave travels through a university campus, driving students to suicide. A photographer witnesses a family’s surface composure shatter during a portrait session. A worker on Mars sees ghostly animals in the desert and longs for an impossible return to Earth. A plastic surgeon botches an operation and hides on a sugar cane plantation where indigenous slavery is practiced.
Horror and the fantastic mark the unstable realism of Our Dead World, in which altered states of consciousness, marginalized peoples, animal bodies, and tensions between tradition and modernity are recurring themes. Liliana Colanzi’s stories explore those moments when the civilized voice of the ego gives way to the buzzing of the subconscious, and repressed indigenous history destabilizes the colonial legacy still present in contemporary Latin America.
The real and the unreal merge in this latest collection by a young Bolivian writer.
A young girl discovers that a schoolmate has died of an asthma attack. “The funeral is at seven,” her mother says, instructing Elsa, the family’s nanny/maid, to have the girl ready by then. “Elsa, I asked as she braided my hair, where do the dead go? The dead never go, she answered me, her mouth full of bobby pins.” At the funeral, the girl and her classmates gather before the coffin. Then, suddenly, “the hall, people, coffin, flowers, our own astonished bodies, everything levitated in a single iridescent shaft of light.” So ends “Alfredito,” the second story in Colanzi’s (Permanent Vacation, 2010) latest book. It’s a telling moment in what is anything but a conventional collection of stories. In “Cannibal,” a man waits for his drug-trafficking girlfriend in a Paris bar. In “Story with Bird,” a disgraced surgeon hides out on a country estate run by slave labor. In story after story, the everyday ends up merging, one way or another—by sloping gently or by veering suddenly—with the otherworldly or the absurd or the untethered or some combination of these. There is no way to predict what is coming. As soon as you’ve found a foothold in Colanzi’s world, her rules of engagement will suddenly shift. “Our Dead World” ends in a line of verse; neither that story nor “Story with Bird” ends with a period, never mind a complete sentence. “Family Portrait” shifts rapidly between various points of view. Colanzi is an original talent with an utterly unique vision. Still, this slim collection doesn’t entirely satisfy. Colanzi might strip the rug out from beneath your feet, but then she seems to falter. So what, you might wonder. What comes next? Maybe her next book will satisfy more fully.
An unpredictable, formally inventive collection of stories still leaves something wanting. - Kirkus Reviews
The eight short-yet-powerful stories that make up this collection reveal an intriguing new voice in translated fiction, in general, and speculative fiction, in particular. Each piece is unnerving in its own unique way, whether it deals with a lonely colony on Mars, a a psychopathic cannibal in Paris, or a girl pushed into a nervous breakdown by her fanatical mother. And while some of these stories skirt the boundaries of “speculative fiction,” they all hold up a warped mirror to reality, inviting us to question how we perceive that very reality every day.
One main theme running through Our Dead World is the collision between the natural/ordinary and the unnatural/bizarre/unexplained. A colonist on Mars sees deer running past, a group of children experience the shock of a friend’s death, a young boy may or may not have been taken by aliens with the coming of a meteorite, a girl senses a strange “wave” that drives people to commit suicide. Colanzi’s narrative voice is perfectly poised and unapologetically mischievous, refusing to let the reader guess what twists and turns may lie ahead.
Of these eight stories, my favorites have to be “Meteorite” and “Our Dead World.” The former opens with a brilliant paragraph reminiscent of the start of Wells’s The War of the Worlds:
The meteoroid traced the same orbit in the solar system for fifteen million years until the movement of a comet pushed it toward Earth. Even so, it took another twenty thousand more years before it collided with the planet, during which time the world passed through an ice age, mountains shifted and the waves gave landmasses a new shape. Innumerable life forms died out forever, while others battled ferociously, adapted and repopulated Earth. When the object at last entered the atmosphere, the pressure of the shock reduced it to an explosion of blazing fragments that were consumed before they hit the ground. The essence of the meteorite survived the violent disintegration; the igneous ball, a meter and a half in diameter, fell on the outskirts of San Borja. Its spectacular descent from the heavens was witnessed by a couple at home, arguing at five-thirty in the morning.” (39)
The narrative lens zooms us in toward this arguing couple along the same trajectory as the meteorite, as if we readers are the meteorite, falling to Earth an an incredible speed toward a specific point. Once it “collides” with the Earth, though, the narrative speed slows down drastically, as we jump into the mind of one man (Ruddy) whose insomnia and hyperactivity, caused by diet pills, are making him irritable and paranoid. Soon we learn about the young boy who had only recently begun working at Ruddy’s farm and was seriously injured. The boy’s earlier comments about fire coming out of the sky and his own “gifts” take on a whole new meaning once the meteorite hits and the boy disappears.
In “Our Dead World,” a woman fleeing from painful memories on Earth begins seeing visions while helping set up a colony on Mars. After one colonist commits suicide, she starts to understand just how alone she and her colleagues really are. Woven in with her thoughts about the mission are the woman’s memories of her pregnancy and painful breakup back home. Hope and despair intertwine in this piece and leave the reader with more questions than answers. - Rachel Cordasco
On her Twitter feed Liliana Colanzi describes herself as a paranormal investigator. If when reading that you think of someone wearing a grey jumpsuit who tears around New York in pursuit of supernatural ghouls well then sorry you are in for a disappointment. Liliana Colanzi’s stories are much more subtle and have far more substance than that.
The first story in the collection “The Eye” sets the tone. The main character is a teenage girl who must endure the attention of her overly religious mother. Try as she might her mother’s presence hovers over her life. She conforms with the expectations forced upon her. Meanwhile her university professor tells her to learn to disobey. Her rebellion comes in the form of an act of defilement with a fellow student who had previously rejected her.
Something moves beneath the surface of each of these stories. Something which is not quite tangible but which for the protagonist, deeply disturbing. An unknown, unseen, force which transcends both time and space and moves the story toward its inevitable conclusion.
In “Cannibal” a couple trafficking drugs arrive in Paris the same time that a cannibal is loose in the city. The young woman, Vanessa, goes missing and the unnamed narrator is left worrying about her fate. Based on past experiences he imagines what Vanessa is up to and her inevitable fate. In the process, he reveals a secret from his own past. Meanwhile reports on the news continually run stories of the cannibal on the loose in Paris.
Undoubtedly these stories are South American in character. Native culture interacts with the cosmopolitan 21st century and is denigrated without its influence being clearly acknowledged.
“The Wave” relates the story of a young woman from Bolivia who’s studying in Cornell University. Her mother phones with the news that her father, now ill, has fallen and injured himself. The woman begins her journey back to Santa Cruz the city to which she said she’d never return. The Wave in question is a rather disturbing force which moves relentlessly through the World leaving malevolence in its wake.
“From my porch I could see the Wave embracing the city with its long pale arms. The whiteness refracted all visions, amplifying the voices of the dead and the tracks of deer migrating toward the false safety of the forest.”
Any Cop?: The unknown, the mysterious, the other is present in each of the stories in this collection. This collection is hard to categorise, not quite magical realism it transcends both realism and fantasy. Bolivian writer Liliana Colanzi has an utterly unique voice, and one which is destined for further success. - bookmunch.wordpress.com/
It’s time for my first Latin American choice of this Spanish Lit Month: a collection of short stories by the young Bolivian writer Liliana Colanzi, published by Dalkey Archive in a smart translation by Jessica Sequeira. These stories inhabit a place where the line between the real and the supernatural stretches thin; they’re animated by the existential tension that this implies.
In ‘Meterorite’, ranch owner Ruddy has trouble sleeping, a side-effect of his weight loss pills. He has plenty to occupy his mind, too – not least paying off the mother of the peasant boy he took on, who was then kicked in the head by a cow that Ruddy had shot. The boy’s mother said he could “speak with higher beings”; in the days before his injury, the boy had declared that “a fire would appear in the sky to take him away”. Superstitious nonsense, thinks Ruddy – yet, on the night of this story, he believes that he sees the kitchen door move by itself; and there is the meteoroid, burning up in the sky after travelling here for thousands of years. Ruddy is so worked up that it hardly matters to him whether there’s some supernatural agency at work – nor does it matter to the story, which builds up like a storm, then breaks with dread and fury.
Colanzi’s stories tiptoe back and forth across the line between real and supernatural, merrily smudging it at times. ‘Alfredito’ revolves around the death of the narrator’s schoolfriend. The whole concept of Alfredito being dead feels profoundly wrong to her:
And now I had to get used to the monstrous idea of Alfredito’s dead body, prepared to occupy its place in the cemetery, where it would begin its slow journey to putrefaction. Alfredito, I realized, was no longer the boy running in the countryside with arms outstretched, but was now something else. Would his parents be afraid of his body? Would they be able to touch it, to kiss it?
“The dead never leave,” says the narrator’s nana; and, throughout the story, Alfredito’s death is never presented as completely final, because the narrator won’t countenance it. We are introduced to a whole cast of friends and family, enough for a novel, in the space of a few pages. This narrative density gives the tale a heightened energy that carries the reader along, and might even allow an impossible door to open…
In ‘Cannibal’, a couple arrive in Paris to the news that a notorious cannibal is also present in the city, somewhere. The pair are here for an illicit liaison; but first one of them, Vanessa, has some drugs to take to a party. The entire story is told from the viewpoint of Vanessa’s lover, who stays in the hotel, thoughts churning around in his mind. His fears over what might happen to Vanessa fold back into his anxieties about their relationship, and he becomes effectively a cannibal of his own thoughts. This story won the Aura Estrada Prize in 2015, and it’s not hard to see why.
The title story of Our Dead World seems to me to tie the collection together. Its protagonist, Mirka, has taken a lifetime contract with the Martian Lottery, working on the colony for the next round of inhabitants. She has left behind her partner Tommy, but their old life won’t let go of her so easily. Neither will Earth itself: she keeps hallucinating the presence of deer and other animals on Mars. In this story, you have the mingling of real and supernatural; prose woven into a dense tapestry (dialogue between Mirka and Tommy is embedded within the Mars-set text); and a concern with human emotions (the title ‘Our Dead World’ could refer as easily to Mirka’s relationship with Tommy as to Earth or Mars).
I’ve enjoyed reading Colanzi’s stories in this collection, and I hope there will be more to come in English translation. -
For a time, while living in New York in my twenties, Carl Jung’s Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies was consistent livre de chevet. The symbolic value that Jung assigned UFO’s in his relatively straightforward historical record of mysterious things seen in the sky held a complicated double significance for me. Weekends as a child spent camping at Table Rock Lake in Missouri, a place marked by urban legend as a notorious hotbed of UFO activity, primed me to take pleasure in fantasizing about the terrible sublimity of the potential of intelligent alien life. It was a heady combination of beauty and fear, contemplated while trembling inside a flashlight-illuminated tent.
EYE: “Loss of the eye or loss of sight can lead to something healing or creative, to the opening of clairvoyance, to the ‘third eye’ of ‘inner sight,’ transpersonal awareness,” writes Bruce Marshall in The Human Body: The Eye, Window to the World. But in Lilana Colanzi’s story “The Eye,” in which a young woman emotionally abused by her religious mother a la Carrie forces herself to vomit an eyeball into a toilet, the new vision the eye portends seems anything but a gift. “She used her fingers to spit up a bitter liquid that burned her throat, but relief was some time in coming. From the toilet bowl, emerging in the middle of a bubble of vomit, she saw it appear. The Eye. It was missing an eyelid, but in the dark blue iris the girl recognizes the gaze – mocking? threatening? – of her mother. The Eye – was it possible? – smiled.” She thinks The Eye is an omen for something, or a signal. Perhaps for the end of the world. Later on she almost has a sexual encounter with a boy in a movie theater that is instead interrupted by a spiritual awakening. She has opened herself up to the enemy and finally understands her purpose, which is mixed up with a homegrown eschatology: “The Eye had disappeared, and in her bones the girl could feel the crackle of the first balls of fire setting off towards Earth. She had begun.”
A second and more immediate meaning for an almost devotional reading of the book came from my having recently returned from military service, which included two deployments to Iraq. Jung argues that what the historical phenomenon of UFO sightings portend is an act of cosmic synchronicity. People see saucers, or flying golden discs, or “chariots of the gods” when there’s some kind of vast, incomprehensible harmony between inner and outer states. A sign of synchronicity. Simultaneously, Jung wrote, they also symbolize the collective advancement through a liminal state and into a new world. He took the modern infatuation with UFOs as a symptom of our moving together into the Age of Aquarius (his words, not mine). And so for a year or so Jung’s little book on UFOs sat on my nightstand, the odd and optimistic symbol of my own passage into what I hoped would be a brand new world of civilian identity. A personal jubilee in which a radical rebalancing of force and energy would be achieved.
METEORITE: Colanzi’s story “Meteorite” is about a flabby, diet-pill addicted rancher who is confronted by the strange energies of both alien life and his peasant workers. A comet portends the strange events — which include spectral invaders and death —- at the beginning, as it did for the three wise men, Julius Caesar, the Norman invasion, and Montezuma. “The meteoroid traced the same orbit in the solar system for fifteen million years until the movement of a comet pushed it towards Earth. Even so, it took another twenty thousand more years before it collided with this planet, during which time the world passed through an ice age, mountains shifted and the waves gave landmasses a new shape. Innumerable life forms died out forever, while others battled ferociously, adapted, and repopulated Earth. When the object at least entered the atmosphere, the pressure of the shock reduced it to an explosion of flaming fragments that were consumed before they hit the ground.” And then a boy dies after a cow kicks him. Or aliens abduct him.
Lilana Colanzi’s collection of short stories, Our Dead World, lucidly translated from Spanish by Jessica Sequiera, sunk me deeply back into the more primal fears of my younger self, half awake and dreaming in the fire light, where UFOs weren’t odd gestures of a grand symbolic unity, but simply mysterious invaders from the unknown. The oldest dynamic of any invasion played out simultaneously in registers both majestic banal: the one where the mystery that the invaders bring renders you mysterious to yourself.
WAVE: The Rig Veda relates the mystery of waves to the question of a prime mover:The wave is emblematic of movement itself. In “The Wave,” the annual wave of suicides on campus corresponds with a young writer’s return home overseas. On the way home, a cab driver tells her an amazing story that both reaffirms and recontextualizes her metaphysical ache: “There, beneath the golden light, was the house of my childhood. The clouds peeling away in tatters. The long journey. The old Dream. The Wave suspended over the horizon, at the beginning and ending of all things, waiting. My worn-out heart, shivering, trembling with love.”
There was neither non-existence nor existence
Then; there was neither the realm of space nor
The sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where?
In whose protection? Was there water, bottomless deep?
Colanzi’s work moves in the opposite direction of Jung’s in every way, both stylistically and in meaning. Instead of incorporating fringe events — maybe called miracles in other contexts — into a unified theory of the symbolic nature of human consciousness, Colanzi’s work disintegrates our faith in the existence of a coherent reality itself. Colanzi works in horror, and that’s exactly what horror is supposed to do. It acts as a rejoinder to the Apollonian faith in our role as curators of a universe that naturally replicates a cogent order. Horror shows us this order infiltrated and broken down, the cosmic balance out of sync, and the total inability of the intellect to pierce the decay of meaning. In this sense, horror is a metaphysical humility.
CASKET: Not just a casket, but a child’s casket. Penny Colman tells us that before boxes were used to bury the dead, bodies were just wrapped in cloth or animal skins. Sometimes nothing at all. The casket is supposed to be something more permanent, a cross between a vessel and an abode. Built for mysterious movement inside of a cold permanence. “Alfredito” is the strongest story in this collection. Children learn about death not through the passing of an adult, who is a stranger anyways, but through the death of one of their own. A school friend. Anyone who had a friend die as a child understands the way that the presence and absence of the departed blend to create a third energy. The funeral scene in “Alfredito” is a triumph of mystical rhetoric that crescendos in a Catholic satori: “At that moment, the neon cross above us twinkled with the intensity of a diamond. The hall, people, coffins, flowers, our own astonished bodies, everything levitated in a single iridescent shaft of light. It was like our lives departed from us a moment to rise in shining vision, which left us inundated and overflowing.”
So Colanzi’s stories work within a genre that resists intellectual systemization, but her powers aren’t bound up within the genre alone. Many writers use the clichés of their genre like training wheels, making up for a lack of individual talent by leaning heavily on commonly recurring characteristics: the cowboy slinks away to another plateau after saving the day, the child accepts the supernatural threat long before the adults, human political constructs are mirrored in those of extraterrestrial cultures. Half of genre fiction writes itself. So maybe in Colanzi’s case it’s more accurate to say that she’s a writer of literature who works in a horror idiom. And though she has all the markings of being able to fit snugly within au courant political categories (she’s a young Bolivian woman currently living in the United States who writes from that perspective) her power as an artist derives from something deeper than either her identity or medium. Or maybe it’s better to say that both are subsumed by her talent and transformed. Her real genius doesn’t derive from either of these things, but more from the Keatsian negative capability to unweave the anodyne and assemble its spent threads in a disturbing pile, perhaps still half-recognizable from childhood. - Scott Beauchamp
As I said the other week , I have been adding a few new titles from my own money to the tbr pile , this is a new writer from Bolivia , I was attracted by the fact there has been so little lit from the country , Liliana Colanzi is writer , journalist and editor . She currently lives in New York this is her third collection of stories and the first to be tranalstated into English by her
She ran to the bathroom, hoisted her foot on the toilet bowl and lifted up her skirt . She took the razor and without breathing made a crosswise cut on her thigh where some old scars were fading , she gave herself three ,four ,five quick slaps on the face until the bathroom mirror returned an image of burning cheeks . Then she tucked her hair behind her ears a, cleaned the blood from her thigh with a piece of toilet paper, flushed it away and went back to bed , where she stayed reading Maira Dimma’s The marvelous Secret of the souls in Purgatory until she fell asleep.
A girl marks herself in the opening story of the collection
Now this is a strange collection of short stories , mostly all have a hint of sci-fi in there nature , I was reminded in part of Early Murakami and other writers . It has a mix of real and surreal worlds touching. A wave in one story comes across a university coming across making the students kill them selves, this is stories about stories . A man on Mars see ghostly animals in the desert of Mars as memories of his home on earth surface . , a family gather for that yearly photo and sparks fly . A dead youngster is being buried and a daughter and her religious mother discuss what happens after you die . A couple on the run in Paris run into a killer as they arrive in the city , but are they to be dinner .
The day we arrived in Paris the police confirm the cannibal is hiding in the city. He lands on a commercial flight and the airport cameras show him passing through security controls, barely disguised in a copper coloured wig. He wears a Mickey mouse T-Shirt and has a distinct beauty and fragility that makes him look like an adolescent rock star than a butcher. It’s May and raining and from the seventh floor of the hotel the streets of Paris look like an Ocean off moving heads with colourful umbrellas floating here and there.
A couple in Paris the same time as a potential killer .
This is a short collection of eight stories that mix real life and magical also a future that could be where creatures have gone and come back in ghostly views , echos of Amazion Indian powers and magic. I felt this is a nice short taster of what could be a new voice from her country , has already won a major prize for Spanish female writers under 35 .This is a writer trying out styles a mix of everyone from Classic JG Ballard with the sense of abandon worlds and Murakami earlier works , where explained things happen this crops up in Colanzis work like in Early Murakami books . Also a nod to Borges this is a collection from upcoming new writer .A collection you can read in an evening . - winstonsdad
In 1940, Maria Simma, then aged twenty-five, awoke to an apparition. A man was pacing at the foot of her bed. She attempted to speak to him but he remained silent. She tried to seize him but found herself grasping air. With admirable equanimity, she returned to bed; the man disappeared.
The next day, Maria visited her parish priest, who identified the visitor as a soul from Purgatory and instructed her to ask of any future spirit, “What do you need of me?” That night, the same man returned and Maria, in another remarkable display of sangfroid, attended to the plan. In response to her question, the man informed her how to reduce his time in purgatory (three holy Masses for his intentions) and departed. Maria went on to serve other purgatorial petitioners in a similar way.
Early in Liliana Colanzi’s new short story collection, Our Dead World, a young woman reads Maria Simma’s The Marvelous Secret of the Souls in Purgatory. It’s a propitious reference. Throughout this book Colanzi masterfully explores liminal states – not just the intersection of this world and the next but the boundaries of the earthly, animal, human, cosmic, and spiritual.
The story Alfredito slips disconcertingly between these domains. It begins with an image of brutal violence as the narrator observes her neighbour killing a pig, “battering the creature with blows of his hammer”. She then discovers that her schoolfriend, the Alfredito of the title, has died and wonders “Where could Alfredito be? In Heaven or Hell, or maybe his spirit was wandering through the world?” but soon matter-of-factly describes his “body … beginning to decompose and feed the worms”. The story then pivots when another friend reveals that “(l)ast night Alfredito appeared to me” and relates how she questioned the ghost. He, unlike Maria Simma’s interlocutor, declared “I’m coming back” and the story culminates in a scene of mystery, hope, and expectation.
Such intimations of the numinous recur throughout these stories but are destabilised by the circumstances of their reception. Colanzi’s characters are often under intense psychic pressure and mentally disintegrating in response to societal, familial, or historical pressures. “The Eye”, which opens the collection, focuses on a young woman who lives with a religious and authoritarian mother, amid “dolls – gifts from her mother that she didn’t dare throw out”. This woman suffers the ignominy of her mother’s close surveillance, not least the sniffing of fingers and underwear, and descends into self-harm. Her university offers no sanctuary, intensifying the pressure by reinforcing female subjugation; a male professor callously dismisses her diligence with advice that she should “learn how to disobey” and mercilessly gives her a “mediocre mark”. Graffiti in a bathroom stall read like a condensed social-media feed and push her further beyond the edge of reason:
She becomes increasingly delusional and pursues a final act of debasement with a male classmate who had earlier betrayed her. This happens in a cinema where “on the screen a woman howled, dragged beneath a madly advancing mechanical reaper, her guts flying to one side”, and she has a vision of the “gears of a great destruction … set in motion”, “the end of days”, a perverse revelation.
Domestic oppression pervades this collection. In “Family Portrait”, an extended family gathers for a formal photograph, observed by a photographer and his assistant. When the assistant suggests “(l)ife must not be so bad if you have family”, the photographer responds contemptuously. This is a study of deepening misery across three generations – a severe and disciplinarian grandmother, her damaged and violent son and her alienated and repressed grandson. The grandmother has been rendered insensate by a fall, for which her son might bear some guilt. Colanzi interrupts the third-person narrative with the son’s piercing internal monologue. She dispenses with commas and full-stops to convey the urgency of thought:
no one knows what it was like living without a husband and without a peso the only thing we had was discipline and without her I wouldn’t be who I am … love is tough that was always her motto and now I know she’s right
When the third-person narrative returns, the gathering descends rapidly towards violence. The photographer’s assistant bolts from the scene.
That internal monologue is one of many formal techniques that Colanzi employs in pursuit of emotional intensity. From her wide repertoire of devices, her use of Beckett-like parataxis is particularly effective in turning the psychological screw. The story “Our Dead World” intertwines a first-person narrative of exile on Mars with paratactic remembrances of the tragic circumstances that preceded the journey, while the complex and brilliant “The Wave” – much of which is a fable told within a story within the story – uses the same technique to achieve a resonant ending:
There, beneath the golden light was the house of my childhood. The clouds peeling away in tatters. The long journey. The old Dream. The Wave suspended on the horizon, at the beginning and end of all things, waiting. My worn-out heart, shivering, trembling with love.
The final fiction in this work, “Story with Bird”, is the culmination of both this technical virtuosity and many of Colanzi’s themes. This polyvocal piece interweaves the story of a Bolivian plastic surgeon, in hiding after a botched job on the wife of the Argentine consul, with an indictment of the exploitation of the Ayoreo people, indigenous to forests of Paraguay and Bolivia.
While existential threats abound for characters in this collection, for the Ayoreo devastation is potentially imminent and absolute. The Ayoreo are nomadic hunter-gathers, whose way of life is dependent on the forest. Cattle farming, deforestation, violation of their territory, missionary contact and other incursions make their situation precarious. The book’s epigraph, and by extension its title, draws on an Ayoreo song:
This is the trunk of all stories, it tells of our dead worldThis evokes a state of being explored by Jonathan Lear in his in his book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Harvard University Press, 2008). Lear relates the situation of the Crow Nation of North America, in the period following their settlement. The Crow were previously “a vibrant tribe of nomadic hunters” with a culture entirely based on warfare in protection of territory. The starting point of Lear’s investigation is a quotation from chief Plenty Coups, a leader during the period of transition:
I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell into the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.
Lear explores what it means for a worldview to be eradicated, so much so that its absence represents an end to experience (“After this nothing happened”). While this form of cultural catastrophe is almost impossible to imagine, it increasingly represents the undertone to global developments. In the case of the Ayoreo, it is an immediate and tragic reality: for some it has already happened; for the few uncontacted people, it is impending.
In “Story with Bird”, Colanzi uses direct testimonies of Ayoreo people to devastating effect. These brief, recounted narratives, collected by the anthropologist Lucase Bessire, are deeply moving. They describe both the violence of the Ayoreo experience and the world-shattering effect of their persecution:
I don’t know what to say. We ate honey. We killed fish. We were dirty. I don’t know my story. I don’t know what to say. My thoughts and my memories are gone. They won’t come to me anymore. I don’t know my own story. It is done.
The struggle to survive, perceive, and express is profound. Colanzi builds the story to a fitting conclusion by allowing narrative itself to disintegrate. Here she appears to draw on Frank Kermode’s proposition, in The Sense of an Ending (Oxford University Press, 1967), that “the clock’s ‘tick-tock’” is “a model of what we call a plot”. He also proposed:
The Bible is a familiar model of history. It begins at the beginning (‘In the beginning…’) and ends with a vision of the end (‘Even so, come, Lord Jesus’); the first book is Genesis, the last Apocalypse.
Colanzi, who bravely begins this book with a degraded form of revelation (in “The Eye”), ends it with a return to storytelling’s essence. In the final pages of “Story with Bird” the doctor descends into delirium. The text becomes a haze of decadent images, then bleeds into one last heart-wrenching Ayoreo testimony before finally reducing to a variant of Kermode’s foundational form:
Tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack …In this short book, Colanzi offers an extraordinary density of ideas, transmitted in shape-shifting and affecting prose. The translator, Jessica Sequiera, deserves immense credit for her deft rendering of this complex work. - Alan Crilly
Liliana Colanzi, a promising young writer from Bolivia, delves into her country’s complex histories, indigenous and colonial, in Our Dead World. The stories in this elegantly translated volume proffer a profoundly existential vision — a richly layered and varied darkness. Colanzi grapples with a number of powerful themes: mental illness, tradition and modernity, exploitation, and armageddon. Her tales are deeply rooted in the oral traditions of Bolivia — alluding to its myths, legends, and superstitions — but they are also situated in the socio-political context of contemporary global society. The focus is on life on the margins: racial, ethnic, and linguistic tensions. But Colanzi is not just out to update old legends or to limn Bolivian national consciousness. At their best, her stories offer a seamless blend of folklore, magic realism, and speculative fiction that transcends the limitations of nationality, probing the depths of a universal, painfully human, consciousness.
As befits its title, Our Dead World is about the ghosts of the past and the unborn future, asking such questions as “how did we get here?” and “where are we going?” These interrogatives often prompt enigmatic and bleak answers. In “Alfredito,” a story about a group of children dealing with the sudden death of their friend, a child asks her grandmother, “where do the dead go?” Her grandmother replies, “the dead never leave.” History, the past, the world of the dead, are continuously part of the present, existing in some liminal space. But such a sentiment negates salvation, too.
Given this perspective, the volume is understandably saturated with a sense of dread, dripping with apocalyptic sentiments. In the title story, a worker on Mars is under intense pressure: she longs to return to Earth, but is forced to accept her fate of dying in the lifeless Martian environment, the “miles of ochre-colored dunes where nothing was alive, a silent desert that breathed down your neck, eager to kill you.” She was selected for the “Martian Lottery” because she lived near a Chernobyl-like nuclear disaster on Earth; exposure to radiation made her suitable for conditions on Mars. When she receives a message her former lover is having a child with another woman, the woman begins to unravel. Her only way to rebel against what she calls “the Great Senselessness of our condition” is to engage in a fruitless, carnal act.
While there is no overt reference to climate change or environmental catastrophes, the circumstances of our inhabiting a dead planet like Mars, together with the nuclear accident, resonates with current ecological concerns. Our colonization of a dead planet (we can’t take care of the one we have) smacks of imperialism, “the conquest of other worlds.” “Story with Bird” is the collection’s most direct critique of brutal expansionism. The story is an indictment of the exploitation of the indigenous Ayoreo people, told from multiple perspectives that include first person accounts from an anthropological source. The yarn (and the collection) ends with an ominous ticking clock, possibly counting down to doomsday. The absence of a period at the end of the sentence is a sign of continuation, but just what the future consists of is unclear:
Tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack
The scope of the stories in Our Dead World moves with ease into a fusion of the phantasmagorical and the psychological. “Meteorite” centers on Ruddy, a farmer. He becomes fearful of an exploited, underaged worker who claims to “speak with space people” and warns that they are coming. An accident on the farm, caused by Ruddy, nearly kills the boy. At the same time, Ruddy happens to see a meteorite fall from the sky. “The meteoroid,” Colanzi writes, “traced the same orbit in the solar system for fifteen million years until the movement of a comet pushed it toward Earth.” The coincidence of the meteorite (which could contain ‘space people’ for all Ruddy knows) and the accident seems to case a spell on the man, who develops an irrational fear of the unknown.
In the surreal “The Wave” a young woman returns to Bolivia from America when she learns that her father is dying. She is also fleeing “the wave,” a physical manifestation of (her?) psychosis as well of a fate manifested through suicides on campus. This death instinct has followed her family forever. A cab driver tells her about a woman he met on the road who was seeking healing in the desert. After eating the flesh of a cactus in order to stay alive, she is given a revelation about interstellar and cosmic beings. She finds an eerie peace once she learns about the imminent destruction of the Earth.
Colanzi delivers some risky, but important, messages in these enigmatic stories. She is trying to tell us something indispensable about who we are as a species — and to probe our complicated (and increasingly troubled) relationship to the earth’s environment and to each other. She believes that there are valuable lessons to be found in myths and the nooks and crannies of history, in what happens in the remotest of places. Ironically, the people who live in those marginal places are often at the greatest risk of imminent destruction, at the forefront of fragility. The collection’s title comes from an Ayoreo song: “This is the trunk of all stories, it tells about our dead world.” If the dead never move on, as “Alfredito” would have it, then there is no other world than a world that teems with extinction, vulnerable life surrounded by the never quite absent. - Lucas Spiro
Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia, 1981) has published the story collections Permanent Vacation (2010) and Our Dead World (2014). She studies comparative literature at Cornell University, and edits the Enchanted Forest series for the publisher El Cuervo. In 2015 she won the Aura Estrada Prize. Colanzi is considered by critics to be one of the most promising voices of the new Latin American narrative, and this book is an ambitious formal and thematic leap.