Romina Paula - Dazed with grief, a young woman pours out her heart to a beloved friend who committed suicide, in a stream of consciousness that scatters the page with the ashes of home, popular songs, horrific news items, movie plots, pets, vermin, and exes old and new
Romina Paula, August, Trans. by Jennifer Croft, Feminist Press, 2017.
Traveling home to rural Patagonia, a young woman grapples with herself as she makes the journey to scatter the ashes of her friend Andrea. Twenty-one-year-old Emilia might still be living, but she’s jaded by her studies and discontent with her boyfriend, and apathetic toward the idea of moving on. Despite the admiration she receives for having relocated to Buenos Aires, in reality, cosmopolitanism and a career seem like empty scams. Instead, she finds her life pathetic.
Once home, Emilia stays with Andrea’s parents, wearing the dead girl’s clothes, sleeping in her bed, and befriending her cat. Her life put on hold, she loses herself to days wondering how if what had happened—leaving an ex, leaving Patagonia, Andrea leaving her—hadn’t happened.
Both a reverse coming-of-age story and a tangled homecoming tale, this frank confession to a deceased confidante. A keen portrait of a young generation stagnating in an increasingly globalized Argentina, August considers the banality of life against the sudden changes that accompany death.
A young woman returns home five years after her best friend’s suicide.
When they were 16, Emilia’s best friend, Andrea, committed suicide. Five years have passed. Now, Emilia is living in Buenos Aires when Andrea’s parents invite her back to their rural Patagonian town for a ceremony to scatter Andrea’s ashes. This is the first book by Paula, an accomplished Argentinian actor, director, and writer, to be translated into English. The novel is narrated by Emilia, who addresses herself directly to Andrea (referring to “you,” “your parents,” “your house,” and so on), and it is a lucid and vibrant account. In Buenos Aires, Andrea’s death had come to seem distant, even abstract; back in their hometown, however, Emilia is faced with the truth of the death and its permanence. But she is also faced with the other particulars of the life she left behind: her father with his new wife and new kids (Emilia’s mother left her family when she was a child); and Emilia’s former lover has moved on, as well. Emilia is a chatty narrator, and her account is crammed with pop-culture references, slang, mild cursing, and the kind of repetitive, obsessive thought processes familiar to anyone who's lived through their early 20s. You can practically hear her talking out loud. Here she is soon after her arrival at Andrea’s house: “Anyway, so dinner with your parents was great, albeit with me performing acrobatics the entire time in order to avoid or not broach certain topics. Basically they asked about my life in Buenos Aires, if I liked it, if I’d adapted, who I was hanging out with there…they asked if I was happy with my job, and here I edited a little bit and told them just about the good stuff,” and on, and on. It’s an engaging, frequently moving story, and its only fault is that we don’t hear more about Andrea and the specifics of her death. In contrast, there’s a great deal of focus on Julián, Emilia’s ex-boyfriend, which eventually becomes tiresome.
Paula’s English-language debut is almost impossible to put down: moody, atmospheric, at times cinematic, her novel is indicative of a fresh and fiery talent with, hopefully, more to come.—Kirkus Reviews
"Fluently translated from the Spanish, this absorbing novel with a Holdenesque narrator delivers a raw and arresting new voice in literature." —Booklist (starred review)
“Romina Paula is an extraordinary and distinct new literary voice. I texted photos of almost every page of this novel to my friends. August is enviable in its unpretentiousness, feminism, and intelligence. It is a rare gift to be able to write what I thought of as a voice-driven emotional thriller. I wanted to live inside of August, and am now Paula’s biggest fan.” —Chloe Caldwell
“In Romina Paula’s August, the narrator returns to her native village, but the person she yearns to see is no longer there. She proceeds to address us as ‘you,’ the missing person, in an urgent, generous, often funny voice rife with confidences, reminiscent of an adolescent sharing important, whispered truths for the first time to the only person she can trust. Ingeniously constructed around this absent interlocutor, ‘you,’ that the reader stands in for, this second novel breathes with feverish life.” —Maxine Swann
“Croft’s translation of this hyperlocal and/yet global tale of the lonely pressures of womanhood and loyalty bristles against sentimentality at the same time that it insists how much we must turn to language to realize emotion. August’s confessions are rinsed in the waters of the intellect and thus give a large purchase on the readers’ imaginations: a book of deft fury and defter beauty.” —Joan Naviyuk Kane
“Dazed with grief, a young woman pours out her heart to a beloved friend who committed suicide, in a stream of consciousness that scatters the page with the ashes of home, popular songs, horrific news items, movie plots, pets, vermin, and exes old and new. In this pitch-perfect performance of actress Romina Paula's novel of a chilly autumn homecoming in Patagonia, Jennifer Croft conjures a millennial voice that is raw and utterly real.” —Esther Allen
Romina Paula begins August with an epigraph: “The girl returns with a rodent’s face, disfigured by not wanting anything to do with being young.” The quote is from Hospital Britanico by Hector Viel Temperley, but it evoked in my mind Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, another slim volume of autofiction that grapples intimately with the questions of youth, age and time. With how to hold onto the past while also struggling to leave youth’s entrapments behind—with what to keep and what to discard. The characters in August also occupy this limbo, a space where they yearn to move forward but dance intimately with the temptation of living in the past.
The narrator, Emilia returns to her hometown in rural Patagonia. Five years after the death of her best friend, Andrea, Emilia receives a vague invitation from Andrea’s parents to attend a gathering around her cremation. The girl’s friends and family end up in a strange sort of reunion as they gather to scatter Andrea’s ashes. Emilia’s been living a cosmopolitan life in Buenos Aires with a lover who is unconnected from her past, and the return to the life she left behind is like a crash, a reckoning with things she thought she’d recovered from. Emilia says, “If it weren’t for the sneakers I’m wearing that I definitely purchased this year, I might doubt my age, doubt my historical moment, the point on the line of my life where I am currently positioned—I’d doubt the line.” Emilia’s return to her hometown is a kind of time travel—as diving into our past lives always is. Her family, ex-boyfriend and other friends exist as they once were—of course, with the conspicuous absence of her beloved dead friend.
The city persists as though the girls never made their respective departures—Andrea for death and Emilia for her new life. The reader sees the comparison of Emilia’s parallel lives, the one that she’s re-entering in Patagonia and the one that she’s been living in Buenos Aires, where she was trying to create something separate and new. The lives exist in concert, and she’s forced to compare and reckon with them. When chatting with another old friend about her new lifestyle, the narrator speculates, “She assumes, I think, that I love my life of a free agent in the city, believes it’s a life I wouldn’t trade for anything, which I guess is what I have been trying to convey to her since her arrival, what I’ve led her to believe.” But Paula’s musings don’t veer into the syrupy or nostalgic, rather the narrator wryly confronts the past: “As no time has passed, like an idiot, clingy,” she writes, and steps back into her old life like a shed skin.
It’s a case study in how a life unfolds only to collapse back in on itself, a ceaseless grappling with the choices one made and pondering the age old questions: Does love get you anywhere? Who are we once we’ve left everything we know behind? How do the ghosts of our loved ones go on living through the prism of our memories?
Romina Paula is better known as an actress, and, curiously, it makes sense here: her skills in creating a persona of her narrator are extensive and well honed. Actors and authors in some ways have a similar job: they need to convince us of the viability of a personality, make us know the character in ways that go beyond seeing and reading. I felt that way immediately with Emilia, her voice casual but endearing, charming, thoughtful and, most of all, real: the way women really talk to each other and themselves, rather than nostalgic caricatures based in overwrought stereotypes. When Emilia sorts through Andrea’s belongings: “Today I snooped around in your stuff, but like, just because, like demelancholized, like my eyes were dry, as I was snooping, just checking things out, taking a look. I came across that drawer you keep filled with scraps of paper and things, the one that has all sorts of movie tickets and little invites and little notes, a million of my little notes, pure nonsense on them, so much nonsense written down, the reconstruction of a history of stupidity, basically, of silliness, of whatever.” The tone is youthful, naïve, which has traditionally been looked down upon by men of letters, but by inhabiting it without apology, it is reclaimed and made legitimate, giving women permission to write as they think. The book is phrased as a letter to the dead best friend, and as the reader we become as familiar with Emilia’s addresses to Andrea as the people who we’re closest with. It is how brains work when they’re not worried about who is watching: not pontificating, not posturing—this is how we get to the truth of depicting women.
Emilia says, “My life is not what one would term heroic.” But through this lens it is heroic, it’s heroic for being itself and not changing for the masses, or the male gaze. The tone is also deceptive—its casualness can be mistaken for a lack of effort, when in actuality the words are carefully considered, the flow poetic. She uses slashes when deciding between two feelings—someone “seems far away/removed”—reflecting how emotions are not definitive, rather a consistent excavation into how human interactions affect us.
Emilia is also, simply put, very funny. When her boyfriend is trying to get mice out of their apartment, “He bought a mousetrap (ugh, an inquisition),” and she continues, “My humble household has quickly been transformed into a site of terror.” It’s humorous in its tone and turns of phrase, but also in situations and scenes. Paula demonstrates an eye for comedic detail, like when Emilia is lying down in the shower while a cat looks on, or an unfortunate incident with a cumbersome pad while running into her ex at a bar.
The narrator is able to simultaneously judge the behaviours other humans engage in, while never straying from a deep love for the people she’s returning to. Her unique way of relating to others is exhibited primarily through her interactions with her ex, Julian—now the father of another woman’s child. When greeting him for the first time after their years apart: “The hey is absolutely false.” We’ve all said and observed the “false hey”. Paula puts the communal social interactions that we all engage in and perpetuate on display, makes fun of them and questions why we act the way we do.
The ostensible centre of the novel is the death of the best friend, but instead of examining it in a straightforward manner, it shows how people talk about death when it actually happened in their lives—as a bemused reckoning, rather than manufactured faux-artfulness. Andrea is not presented as a monument, rather as a static memory that is as complex and flawed as the narrator herself.
On many occasions the narrator is glib about death, intentionally invoking the average person’s cognitive dissonance between the gorge of actual death and the colloquial referencing: “I feel like I would like to die, or else like I would like to kill this messenger… I could and would prefer to die right now.” But this flippancy isn’t a turn off, it succeeds because it’s so unabashed and authentic it acknowledges its own absurdity. We don’t stop talking the way we normally talk when someone dies, instead we must learn to reckon how we speak casually with the reality that death does exist in our midst. Emilia’s way of speaking about death is so genuine that it makes you wonder if the cliches people say about death are even emotionally sound at all, or just posturing to say how you think you should feel when something ends.
We don’t ever really get to know Andrea except through Emilia, but that felt painfully accurate: our closest friends often shape who we become, and our interactions with them are mirrors of how we behave in the world. Their friendship is threaded through the book, present even when the narrator isn’t referring explicitly to it, because such a close friendship permeates everything about one’s life. In Julie Buntin’s recent novel Marlena, she writes: “I begin to see the outline of the best friend, the girl she shaped herself around, according to. For so many women, the process of becoming requires two. It’s not hard to make out the marks the other one left.” We see the outlines of Andrea on Emilia, and thus we get to know her even though she’s not alive within the timeline of the book. Their friendship is the biggest mark on Emilia’s life, “undying friendship, the purest form of love over tables at bars” and it is so pure because friendship doesn’t rely on social status or sex or role fulfilment. Rather, it lives in the pure joy of companionship, of two people being together for no other reason than enjoying each other’s company and building a specific intimacy.
The narrator is less sure of her allegiance to any of her romantic partners. She expresses ambivalence toward the live-in boyfriend in Buenos Aires, and is unsparing in her judgement of her former lover in Patagonia, even as she feels herself sexually drawn to him. With these struggles, it asks how we choose the people we are romantically involved with, if it was even a choice at all, or nothing but chance. Emilia’s bond to Andrea is so much stronger than with her current beau or Julian it forces us to question the social prioritisation of romance over friendship.
Amidst the exhumation, scattering Andrea’s ashes, and rekindling relationships with family and friends, Emilia is still obsessive about her past with Julian, and thus the book confronts our inability to let go of our obsessions amidst tragedy. For one, how sexual desire clouds and distracts us even when confronted with death. Is this evidence of the importance of sex, or just evidence that humans are biologically animals? Paula is able to pinpoint the space created between two people, the electric charge, how bonds become more than the sum of their people, the connections created are impossible to erase with time, distance, breakups and death.
Paula captures the spectrum of ways of being hurt by our exes: from the acute pain of an encounter that ends with a “take care” after years of “I love yous” to the largesse despair of spending an hour with the child your ex-lover has with another woman. It accumulates the minute and terrible ways two human beings can stab each other over and over.
Depicted here are the relationships with the self, with lovers, with a dead friend, but within this is a statement about what makes a family: the families we create and destroy in the process of living a life. As the family and friends of Emilia gather in this belated wake of her death, Emilia says: “All of us drunk, almost a family.” Death and funerals are a reunion, albeit a morose one, but they’re a revival of the family, biologically and otherwise, illustrating how we create our own families when biology is not enough. When musing on the cultural death of the extended family, Kurt Vonnegut wrote:
Why are so many people getting divorced today? It’s because most of us don’t have extended families anymore. It used to be that when a man and a woman got married, the bride got a lot more people to talk to about everything. The groom got a lot more pals to tell dumb jokes to. When a couple has an argument, they may think it’s about money or power or sex, or how to raise the kids, or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though, without realising it, is this: ‘You are not enough people!’
Though Paula’s argument is stated less overtly, the objectives are similar: both authors are arguing that we need community over coupledom, that it is the extended family who helps us through death and loss. By trying to exist on an island after a tragedy, we engender more suffering. But by diving back into the wreck with the support of certain family members, friends and art, a different way of being can be forged. - Rebecca Schuh
ALTHOUGH ROMINA PAULA’S August tells a profoundly human story, it begins and ends with animals. The epigraph, drawn from Argentine poet Héctor Viel Temperley’s “Hospital Británico,” reads, “The girl returns with a rodent’s face, disfigured by not wanting anything to do with being young.” And throughout this novel of youth, trauma, and return, we are confronted by our animal natures — our bodies, our urges, and our instinctive attachments.
The novel follows a young Argentine woman as she journeys back to her Patagonian hometown, Esquel, to see her friend Andrea’s ashes scattered five years after her death, and to reckon with absences of various kinds. “It was something about wanting to scatter your ashes,” the narrative opens, “something about wanting to scatter you.” Rather than orient us in the mundane texture of daily life only to shatter it with tragedy, our narrator, Emilia, begins in medias res, after the loss. Long — perhaps too long — after the loss. As Emilia admits, “I have been able to say your name for a while now without losing my composure, even been able to talk about what happened, about what happened to you.”
The narrator’s voice is familiar, conversational, somewhere between a friend’s unselfconscious confession over a drink and a loved one’s diary. The reader feels she is listening in, perhaps even prying, and this creates a provocative tension. That tension is deepened by the fact that Emilia addresses her late friend directly; the text is full of references that are obviously intimate, but obscure to us. And she uses the second person to address not only her absent friend, but also — as we all do — to speak about herself, in the guise of the general, impersonal “you.” Emilia is talking, at once, to someone, to herself, and into the void — a fugue of grief. Jennifer Croft’s translation conveys this distinctive voice beautifully, reproducing the narrator’s shifting thoughts, which are sometimes choppy and sometimes overflow in lush sentences, as well as her tendency to pile up adjectives in clashing combinations that aim to express the inexpressible, as in, “Ah. Pain, the most profound/the lowest kind of pain.” Paula’s prose is often rhythmic, even musical:
I have a dream about rodent teeth, and then one night, standing at the corner where our place is, I look up and see a mouse running along the wires like they’re pathways, with that determination, that certainty. A few days later I come upon another one, another mouse in another neighborhood. Frozen. Tense. Close to a cable. I put two and two together, understand it got electrocuted and fell, splat, onto the sidewalk.
As this passage suggests, the grief Emilia feels is not for one loss alone. Many absences make themselves felt in these pages. The anniversary of Andrea’s death precipitates the next separation — Emilia’s departure from her home in Buenos Aires, and from her boyfriend: “Now, from here, from this station, while I wait to get my bag back, Manuel, with his pants and his curls, seems far away/removed.” Later on, the pain of another lost relationship swims up to the surface: “What the fuck came into her head or went out of it for her to just up and decide to move, to disappear/disintegrate like that?”
In her grief, Emilia even experiences proximity as distance. Her geographical estrangement from Buenos Aires brings her closer to her high school boyfriend, who himself embodies another absence:
The strange thing is going overnight from sharing everything with someone to no longer knowing anything about what they’re doing, the person you shared everything with and knew everything about, every day, everything that happened every day, and then, suddenly, from one moment to the next, nothing, and not even the option of giving them a call, or maybe you can call them anyway but then everything gets awkward, even the most basic things become uncomfortable. Losing all claims on the other person, losing them, completely, just like that, like it’s nothing. I hate that, that artificial death, that rehearsal for death.
News from Emilia’s brother back in Buenos Aires also calls death to Emilia’s mind. Emilia has left behind the minor domestic drama of an unwelcome mouse in the apartment. Her brother tells her that he’s put out rat poison, warning her that “because the mouse takes such small bites it takes it a long time to die.” Emilia finds this “horrifying”: “My humble household has quickly been transformed into a site of terror, institutionalized death.” Meanwhile in Esquel, Emilia spends time with a different animal, Ali, her late friend’s cat, whom Emilia describes as “an extension of you.” Like the people around her, these animals are part of Emilia’s psychic landscape, embodiments of mortality, whose presence reminds Emilia of absence: “I mean identifying with the mouse, so many tragic women, girls who suffer, all of them tragic.”
Life is disrupted by death, relationships disrupted by physical absence — perhaps all that remains is memory. As Emilia traverses the ephemeral networks of the living, she spends a lot of time in Andrea’s room, “retracing your steps, your words.” She thinks, “it’s neither yours nor not yours, I don’t know exactly how to explain it: it’s yours, but neutralized, taken down a notch. And yet you’re still there in certain things.” The absent are still present, if only in a diminished state. Their memories are with us, in the objects they owned, in our bodies:
I scattered the condensation on the glass with the sleeve of my jacket, I saw the first light of morning over the peaks, not yet reaching the highway, and I felt — god — that memory in my body, in the view, everything, sense memory, sensations lodged there, memory mocking plans, mocking decisions.
Indeed, although the book is very much memory, the body is never out of sight. There is, for instance, an extended menstruation scene, in which Emilia expounds on the evils of pads, their synthetic materials, and their wings. Passages like this ground the text in the particulars of Emilia’s experience, as well as the particulars of her culture.
The text is full of references to Argentine and global pop culture, mostly to albums and songs Emilia encounters as she goes through the things in Andrea’s old bedroom. In one scene, Emilia’s ex, Julián, wears a T-shirt with a wolf on it, which she says might as well feature a Rata Blanca logo — referring to an Argentine metal band that, my sources tell me, is terribly cheesy. In another exchange between Emilia and Julián, she calls his sweater “so ñoño” (that is, nerdy or lame), a term which he himself doesn’t recognize. Emilia explains that it’s from The Simpsons, the Mexican dubbed version. I loved Croft’s choice not to translate this slang, which puts us in Julián’s position and points to the flow of pop culture across national and linguistic boundaries. (Search “Simpsons ñoño” on YouTube.)
It was a pleasure for me to encounter these bits of pop culture, as well as an effective rendering of the ways we connect with our past selves by uncovering these artifacts — songs we listened to and movies we watched over and over again. The two-page reflection on Reality Bites really delighted me, which might mean I’m precisely the book’s target audience, a melancholic “old millennial.”
But melancholy isn’t despair. Although Emilia returns to witness a memorial rite, and to make sense of what befell her high school relationship, she’s also there to tell her story, at least to herself. In a metafictional moment, Emilia asks, “What works better in fiction? Past or present tense?” Emilia’s bildungsroman may not bring her to any profound realizations about her losses, but, by the end, she does manage to incorporate them into her story, to make something of them: “I am me, that’s my impossibility. There, once again, the only thing that can save you is fiction. I mean, whenever you can, when it gives you access. What isn’t fiction consumes you.” She knows she is shaping the pieces of her life into something she can handle.
August demonstrates how loss can mark a person, how it can permeate everything, and what we can do with it. - Lauren Kinney
“Ah. Pain, the most profound/lowest kind of pain. He’d just stayed with her? Since when is he capable of that level of love?” Such is Emilia’s complaint to her best friend Andrea about her ex, Julián. There’s no jokey rejoinder to buoy up the conversation or change the subject — not when Andrea has been dead for five years. Still, there’s an awful lot to say.
Romina Paula’s remarkable novel August, translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Croft, begins as a typical tale of bittersweet homecoming. In her early twenties, Emilia confronts the fifth anniversary of her friend’s suicide with a return to the small Argentinian town of Esquel. Her general numbness alleviated only by breakthrough pain, she sleeps in her friend’s childhood bed, cuddles with her cat, and walks the streets of their carefree teendom, Andrea’s jacket across her shoulders. She inevitably runs into Julián (while Synchronicity plays in the background, no less) and must reckon with the reality of his loss as well.
But the wistful Emilia-Julián connection, which takes over the last quarter of the book, isn’t the primary attraction of August. Instead, the book’s excellence resides in its weird, interstitial little set pieces and musings. As Emilia ponders the pleasures of Reality Bites, considers the essential nature of cats (“first and foremost creatures of place”) or wrestles with a subpar menstrual pad, we watch her work to assert a continuous present, one in which Andrea is necessarily included. To that end, the book reads as a one-sided conversation with a confidant: aggressively meandering, insistently present-tense. It’s melancholic and reflective, but with something messy and perverse hanging around the edges.
Emilia identifies this unsettling energy in terms of decay and permanence; in particular, objects that stubbornly persist or transmogrify in the face of death. In the first pages of August, she confronts the physicality of her friend’s ashes:
Your dad tells me that now it’s legal to exhume the body, your body, that you can finally be exhumed and, I mean, dealt with. How since the waiting period on an exhumation has expired they can now remove you from that anonymous grave and actually deal with you, deal with your body. He says they want to take you out of there to scatter you, elsewhere, sounds like they want to scatter you from somewhere else or bury you. I don’t know, that part wasn’t super clear to me, I don’t think they know exactly, either, what to do.
The strangely exhausting logistics of “dealing with” the ashes become a secondary plot point in the book, and other belongings of Andrea’s are fraught with meaning as well. And yet Emilia can’t help but enjoy, on some level, how objects associated with Andrea have changed since her death. When she first arrives at Andrea’s family home, she notes the simultaneity of her friend’s absence and presence with near-pleasure: “I always liked it that your parents kept your room going, like that they kept it up to date, so that way it’s neither yours nor not yours, I don’t know exactly how to explain it: it’s yours, but neutralized, taken down a notch.” She wears Andrea’s clothes partly to feel close to her, but also, seemingly, to participate in their decay, to complicate their ownership: “the blue pullover with the little balls, which I slept in until really recently, it’s pretty disgusting at this point, but I still couldn’t toss it, even if it means nothing now.” The link between materiality and meaning, she recognizes, is a hard one to break.
August is stuffed with late-90s cultural references, some native to Argentina, but many recontextualized American imports. Emilia jokes that her now-remarried dad looks like “a kind of more robust Woody Allen”; discussing the plans for scattering Andrea’s remains, she can think only of the funeral-home family in Six Feet Under. She remembers the music video for a Counting Crows song, but only vaguely: “Falling into water? I don’t fully remember, I do know the overall sense of it was of total desolation.” Rendering the quirks and gaps of personal media consumption, these references create a stable setting — a kind of experiential lexicon — for the book’s long conversation. But even as she claims these pop monoliths for her own narrative ends, Emilia describes their perfection in terms of inaccessibility and loss. The music video affects her emotions but withholds its meaning; the longing generated by Winona Ryder in Reality Bites is eternal, since it can never be sated: “We all wanted to have her haircut and have it look as good on us as it did on her.”
In one of the book’s riskiest conceits, Emilia introduces another variety of pop culture to the conversation: lurid true-crime stories of murder. Occupying separate chapters that starkly interrupt the plot’s trajectory, she raptly describes these cases of what she calls “families that eat some of their members”: the torturing, raping, and killing of a daughter-in-law, a wife, or a sister, and the unsuccessful attempt to hide the evidence. Emilia seems fascinated with the sheer boldness of the crimes, for one, but she’s also intent on the physical evidence that the victims can’t help but leave behind: “think of all the things Rachel won’t ever be able to tell us. Of the teeny tiny amount her decomposed body was able to tell and everything else it kept quiet.” These forays into senseless violence and horror are so abrupt and clinical as to seem disconnected, but they do important work in a story that could too easily melt into sentimentality. Even as she seems almost to forget the fact of Andrea’s suicide, and never mentions its circumstances, Emilia needs to talk about death — unnatural death — in a detailed and unsparing way.
Most powerful, though, is August’s exploration of life-or-death contingency through the variability of Emilia’s language. She liberally peppers her monologues with the slash mark: when she first lands by bus in Esquel, she reflects that her boyfriend Manuel “with his pants and his curls, seems far away/removed”; she cries after seeing Julián “because I’m nothing now/because I’m such an idiot.” After having a conversation with her dad and evading his questions about self-care, she comments, as much to herself as to Andrea, “all those things, boyfriend/school/work, were mine, were me, and it’s strange I would refer to them as things/activities taking me away — or at the very least distracting me — from myself.”
The toggling between and stacking up of intensifiers and alternatives vividly brands the narrative of August with a symbol of equivocation and transition. This verbal tic of Emilia’s subtly grounds the action in the kind of arbitrariness that Kierkegaard described, and sort-of endorsed, in Either/Or: “Arbitrariness is the whole secret . . . One does not enjoy the immediate object but something else that one arbitrarily introduces. One sees the middle of a play; one reads the third section of a book. One thereby has enjoyment quite different from what the author so kindly intended.” By resisting fixed terms, a person can assert their autonomy, their own secret order — with the small consequence of utter alienation from potential meaning.
Emilia seems very similarly disposed: near the end of the book, she remarks, “the only thing that can save you is fiction. I mean, whenever you can, when it gives you access. What isn’t fiction consumes you.” The fictions she invokes undeniably change the terms of her visit to Esquel. They aestheticize it, deny the ash-scattering ritual its solemnity, and easily flatten the five years that separate her from Andrea.
But August isn’t a to-the-letter exercise in existential despair. The book’s complexity is more naturalistic than theoretical, and its narrative detours and dead-ends all enhance the immediacy of Emilia’s voice. And the need for immediacy — propelled by that sense of both intimacy with and distance from someone who’s gone forever — keeps her talking. When she cries over an old cassette tape, Emilia easily imagines Andrea’s derision, and her retort is as snarky as it is disconsolate: “All I can say to that is that it’s easy to refuse to be sad when you’re only planning on living for such a short amount of time.” Despite its hedging either/or-ness, August holds onto the essentiality of the dialogue, and leaves us waiting for a response. - Emma Ingrisani
This is a first person narrative primarily addressed to a dead girl, our narrator in her early twenties leaving Buenos Aires and returning to rural Patagonia, to meet the family of her childhood friend and plan the scattering of her ashes, her friend having committed suicide a number of years beforehand.
The opening is haunting and deeply personal as our neurotic protagonist, Emilia, questions her return, explores her relationships and reflects on the events that have led to this “homecoming”;
Before leaving town the bus makes a stop in Liniers. The seat I chose isn’t bad, all things considered. It has a number of pros: it’s upstairs, more or less in the middle. There’s no one next to me. The only little con, which I do detect immediately, is that right exactly where my part of the window is there’s a divider – I mean, the window, the glass, is bisected smack-dab where my face is. This is bad because the view will not be optimal, although I still think I did okay, in terms of safety it’s a good thing because it’s a divider that could absorb a blow, you know, if it ever came to that. It’s a divider that isn’t glass at least. So I reconcile myself to that metal/rubber strip standing between me and the landscape.
Romina Paula uses the dairy like style to explore the inner machinations of our protagonist’s fears, and her “coming of age” as she both physically and mentally lets go of Buenos Aires and all that the city contains. Whilst the art of writing itself is also explored the presented book is more aligned to the narcissism of our narrator as she begins to question her relationship with her current boyfriend (who has remained in Buenos Aires) and her past relationships in Patagonia.
During my teenage years Buenos Aires symbolized both everything I wanted most and everything I detested. On the one hand I pictured it as ugly, jammed full of people all in a rush all the time. A clusterfuck of cars and taxis and buses and noises and people, and people, and people. In fact that wasn’t altogether unfounded: we had gone on a trip there, just once, with Dad, to do some paperwork, some paperwork he had to go and do in Buenos Aires, and we stayed at our aunt’s place, his sister’s, who was living there. Here. No, now it’s there. And the memory I have of that trip, I don’t know, I must have been about five years old, is of crossing Libertador in Retiro (now I know where it is, in my memory it was just a big avenue), and trying to get to the other side around everybody’s legs, through all those legs, hundreds coming towards us, ready to trample me, like a stampede; it was get across of die trying, and at the same time not lose Dad’s hand, not let yourself get tricked by some other hand and end up who knew where. That crossing generated an extreme mixture of terror and adrenaline in me; the terror, the adrenaline, sufficient for me to insist to my father that we go again, more than once, cross that forest of legs in motion, all furious, all enormous, all going in the opposite direction. You might say that image illustrated quite well the configuration of Buenos Aires, in my head: that excitement, that fear of losing, of being lost, of dying, literally trampled/crushed, and, nonetheless, the challenge, the challenge of avoiding it, of surviving all those knees wrapped up in suits, in stockings, of beating those heels. Those soles, those purses and briefcases, and making it – unscathed and holding on to someone’s hand – to the other side. Not that I think about it, my perception of Buenos Aires hasn’t changed all that much, it’s just that in this version my knees are at the same level as the rest of them, and my head is much higher, and some part, some little part, of the city, meanwhile, now belongs to me, as little as it is.
As Emilia goes through various stages of grief, excessive sleeping an example, she also presents, in her “journal” the plight of a mouse which has invade her home in the city as well as details of various horrific mass murderers, as a reader you begin to question her attitude to death, her genuine concern for her childhood friend’s demise, this juxtaposition forcing you to shift your views. We learn of her mother’s leaving, abandonment, when she was young, the childhood imaginings of where she had disappeared to, kidnapped, trapped behind the Iron Curtain?
And as the story progresses further, the novel becomes a “road movie” of sorts (there are a number of references to movies throughout, “Reality Bites” an example), when Emilia finds a novel way of getting back to Buenos Aires without using the bus.
The internal, rather than the external, journey of our protagonist becomes the main focus as she slowly unravels.
It would seem to be more mixed up than that: it would appear that no one knows exactly who loves whom, if indeed anybody loves anyone, if indeed anyone understands, knows, or has a clear idea of what it is to love, or of what love is. Which is horrific…
As Emilia begins her journey home even the format, presentation, of the tale changes, dialogue begins to contain quotation marks and follows the expected rules, the internalisation begins to broaden and contains existentialist discussions, our narrator is starting to conform.
Although entertaining, and starting with a great premise that leads the reader right into the life of Emilia, I did find this book to be a somewhat shallow work, a hollow piece, where the internal voice of the narrator became too obsessive and overbearing. Similar, only slightly, to the Chilean “Camanchaca” by Diego Zúñiga (translated in Megan McDowell) a coming of age story, linked to a road trip, a work I reviewed back in April, or a teenage immature version of Clarice Lispector’s “Near to the Wild Heart”, without the ingenuity, grace, method or the style. Whilst “August” throws out a range of existentialist ideas, it fails to deliver any real punch on any of them, however that may be the point!!! - Tony Messenger
In southern Argentina, where Paula sets most of the novel, August is bright and cold, and colder still in Esquel, the Andean mountain town to which the protagonist, Emilia, returns for the scattering of the ashes of her best friend, Andrea. The novel takes the form of an extended letter to her friend, about whose life and death we learn fragmentary details. Andrea died young, and, it seems, by her own hand:
Lines brimming over with anger and despair, hatred, almost, very severe, with yourself, with everything, but above all with yourself (20)
Emilia was devoted to Andrea, and cannot accept that she is gone: ”you are dead everywhere’ (111). She describes the minutiae of her life for Andrea: a mouse has come to live in her kitchen but she doesn’t want her brother to kill it–she wants no more of death. She recalls Clemente, the comically overattentive attendant who entertains passengers on the long bus journey to the south from Buenos Aires. She tells her friend about her mother, Cora, who has walked out on the family and never contacts her children. The young Emilia believed that she had gone to live in Russia and that the authorities there did not allow her to write home. Later she discovers that her father has an address for his wife, who has asked him only to write to her in the event of an emergency. Emilia tells Andrea that she has written to her mother and received a polite, unaffectionate reply that indicates no interest in any further correspondence:
Pure nothingness. A kind of flash of a mother that wasn’t even a flash, a little cut of light, a sensation and nothing more, just silence again. Nothing motherly. (137)
it was “better to lose her than to find her,” Emilia concludes, although Cora has left her ‘defenseless’ against the vicissitudes of life (137).
The loss of her friend and that of her mother have left Emilia in emotional disarray, with an abiding fear of losing someone again. She remains with her boyfriend, Manuel, though unsure about her feelings for him. In a bar, she bumps into a former boyfriend, Julián, who takes her on a long journey across Patagonia. The men are distractions from the grief she struggles and fails to contain, and which finally overwhelms her as she sits drunk on a dark pavement in a freezing seaside town.
Emilia finds solace in denial. Grief and love are powerful, related emotions but she tries to persuade herself that they are containable, that emotions can be subordinated to the practicalities of life. After all, she tells herself, she loved Julián, but left him to go to study in Buenos Aires.
Jennifer Croft has a good ear for slang, for salty everyday language. She has turned Emilia’s earthy, uninhibited thoughts and speech into supple demotic American English. She is in her element in the quick-fire exchanges between Emilia and Julián, the affectionate insults and banter the two trade on their journey across the freezing windswept deserts and plains to the coast.
‘The argument that you can only choose someone or build something with someone if you’re in love, what the fuck is that? It doesn’t work like that, there are a million other things, other factors.’
‘You literally just told me that people know when they’re in love.’
‘Exactly, but what I’m saying is, that has nothing to do with anything.’
‘How does it not?’
‘It just doesn’t. Like you saying you were in love with me but still going off to Buenos Aires.’
‘What does that have to do with anything? That was because of something else.’
‘That’s exactly what I’m saying, it’s not the only thing, then, it’s not the determining factor; for you, in that moment, it wasn’t enough.’
This stops me, I shut up. (150)
The translation conveys the oppressive mood of the original, Emilia’s whirling confused thoughts, her self-absorption, her rhapsodic recollections of happier times:
Fuck, now here, in this euphoria, with Juli, with the south, with the cold, with the alcohol, with the decade, the last decade, the one that made us, I think of you. You come to me, you appear to me in the night, the fact that you’re not here appears to me, that I can’t tell you this even though I pretend like I can, not being able to ever tell you is still something I can’t understand. (182-3)
For anyone keen to learn more about Argentina, August would be a good place to begin. The novel is replete with vivid descriptions of what the country looks and feels like, how things work. It is freighted with fascinating detail. Bus journeys can be so long, we learn, that bus companies provide hot meals and wine for passengers. With most of its population of 44 million concentrated in the cities – 15 million in greater Buenos Aires alone – Argentina has many empty expanses. The only living thing our travelers encounter on their journey to the coast is the solitary baobab tree under which they munch their sandwiches. The lonely towns they visit, Trelew and Madryn, are among the most southerly settlements in the world, their Welsh names reminders that Argentina, like the United States, was once a favored destination for the poor and oppressed of Europe (as late as the 1950s there were Irish districts of Buenos Aires). The capital is a monster metropolis that attracts the young, like Emilia, the poor, and the ambitious from the rest of Argentina and beyond. Emilia recalls an early visit to the big city:
And the memory I have of that trip, I don’t know, I must have been about five years old, is of crossing Libertador in Retiro (now I know where it is, in my memory it was just a big avenue), and trying to get to the other side around everybody’s legs, through all those legs, hundreds, coming towards us, ready to trample me, like a stampede (134)
Emilia is a familiar figure. She listens to Counting Crows. She watches The Simpsons. She swears. She drinks too much. Like all of us, she wonders where she is going. August explores emotions such as grief and loss that are part of the common human experience. It is a book about death in life, about how we fail to cope, about emotional fragility.
It is not an overtly political work, and makes no direct mention of people or events, but I sense that Paula is addressing the defining period in recent Argentinian history, the years 1976 to 1982, when the country was governed by a uniquely brutal military dictatorship. The ruling generals dealt ruthlessly with their opponents, and suspected opponents. Death squads abducted and killed as many as 30,000 people, young people for the most part. The regime gave the children it had orphaned to childless military families. It all ended in a catastrophic military defeat and the loss of hundreds of soldiers and sailors, the young again. Emilia’s are the emotions of their friends and relatives, and hers is the raw grief of people who did not have the chance to say goodbye. To this day, many elderly Argentinians do not know how their children died, or where their grandchildren are. “I have things inside me” Emilia says at one point, as if speaking for them,
I have things inside of me that are moving. And when I pay attention to them a little bit they convulse and wake up and demand justice, demand I remember them. (97)- Peter Hegarty
The novel takes the form of a diary in which Emilia, now a young woman, documents her return to her hometown in Patagonia from Buenos Aires. We as readers know none of this at first, however; we only know that “(i)t was something about wanting to scatter your ashes; something about wanting to scatter you.”
Over the windings and musings of several diary entries, we eventually learn that Emilia has returned to scatter the ashes her best friend from adolescence, Andrea, who committed suicide at sixteen. Life has gone on for Emilia in Buenos Aires as well as for those she left behind: her father is re-married and has new children—Emilia, avoiding him for the most part, comes on an invitation from Andrea’s parents— and her old flame now has a wife and kids of his own, or, as the narrator explains, “[his truck]’s full of snot and traces of child, and in the back seat there’s a car seat scattered with crumbs, one of those seats that you buckle the child into. Oh. A real family man. The worst part is that little seat, just that little seat, which being as dirty as it is, full of life, gives me an idea of the extent of the damage. This, this seat and everything that it represents, is irreparable.”
Croft’s translation not only shows a keen mastery of the formalities of language, but also a true connection to Argentine culture and an understanding of place. In a text replete with references to pop culture, she manages to effectively gloss anything specifically Argentine, while also leaving some of the references up to the reader to divine, including one that I was particularly fond of: “That’s how I end the day, this long day of shock upon shock: crying and eating a sandwich, like Chihiro but sadder, because it’s not even because my mom and dad were turned into pigs that I’m crying, it’s for myself, because I’m nothing now/because I’m such an idiot.”
In this same excerpt is also one of the most interesting aspects of the text: the use of slashes. Commonly used by translators to distinguish between different possibilities for translating a single word or phrase, the slash can, at times in August, read as a vestige of the translation process itself rather than the idiosyncrasy of a diary. Though Croft’s translations of the sections of the actual text on either side of the slash are spot on, I found myself wishing that these bits had been packaged up a bit less perfectly.
It’s obvious that Croft is dedicated to replicating the effect of reading August in its original Spanish, and she thankfully avoids—for the most part—the all-too-easy path of producing a chunky translation for the original. Only in a few minor instances does the language sound a bit too convoluted or formal for a diary. Similarly, some of the light comic relief present in Emilia’s diary does not shine through as well as English as in Spanish.
On the whole, though, Croft has produced an exemplary translation that carries with it not only words, but place, emotion, and memory. August is not only an exciting introduction to new Argentine narrative, but also a fresh take on the perennial backdrop of the South. For Paula to so clearly convey this theme without a direct appellation to Sarmiento or Facundo is impressive, and Croft’s rendering of this literary effort is a feat that should not go unnoticed. - Nathan Douglas
“People work, not me. I look out the window, look out the window, out the window. Outside it’s winter, and it’s sunny. The doors don’t shut properly, they don’t shut, they’re old. A phone rings through the wall. How come it takes such daunting effort to do what one likes? It’s daunting, daunting to begin. I find it daunting to get started, and that seems not to be a fixable thing. The road to success, the road to success. Who knows? I get tired of myself. As pleasant as I find it here, as pleasant as I find it. Did anyone pick up? In any case, the phone stopped ringing. What works better in fiction? Past or present tense? Weekends make me cranky, I don’t like them, that imperative to have a good time, do things, do something special, the notion of free time. I prefer to seek out those things while other people work. People relaxing tend to look ridiculous, like out of place, grotesque. I’m unmotivated, a little, I realize, bored, overly calm, almost comfortable. I don’t like where I live anymore, I’m fed up, I’m fed up with where I live. I want, somehow, to live differently. I’d take care of it, I’d take care of that baby if he gave it to me, if he wanted to give it to me, if he wanted.”
Why it is Important That Novels Fail in Many Ways
This essay began as a review of Romina Paula's novel "August," but in the end what I had to say was very simple. Yet the book's themes are potentially complex (it's about suicide, abandonment, love, fidelity, and memory) and it struck me as odd that a complicated structure, like a novel, can seem to become a matter of simple problems. This essay is more about that problem than about Paula's novel. First I rehearse my difficulties with the novel, then I explain why it seems to be significant that novels often fail in many ways, even though reviews tend to focus just one or two themes.
A word about the word "failure." I am not talking, in this essay, about the author's intentions: many novels, hopefully most, succeed for their authors and readers. "Failure" is, I think, the ordinary condition of average art in any medium: it denotes the fact that the majority of novels aren't remembered for long, and don't participate in the conversations about what might count as ambitious or challenging novels in the 21st century. There's more on "failure," "average" art, and other subjects in this essay on visual art: ow.ly/iVrh30bxbds. I am interested in what can be done with the novel when it's written, and read, in full awareness of precedents from modernism to the present. "Fail" could be put in scare quotes as a reminder that it doesn't mean a novel isn't rewarding, entrancing, or moving--and it certainly doesn't mean a novel isn't successful--but rather that it does not respond to the last hundred years of novels, so it is not a part of the conversation about what novels can be.
I'd like to thank Andrei Molotiu, who read a first draft of this and pointed out that my lists of things that cause novels to "fail" sound prescriptive, as if I have a ready-made list of things novels should avoid. For me, it's nearly the opposite of that. I try to have no preconceived ideas about what a novel is, how it will present the world, what it imagines as a character, or the lack of one, how it works with language.
This is an anti-prescriptive position, or attitude: each novel proposes implicit norms, practices, and theories of form and content as it goes along, and a reader will notice when it diverges from those parameters. For example, a novel might depict a character as amnesiac, and then recount an episode in which she remembers things perfectly; that kind of diversion from an established condition requires an acknowledgment: the narrator needs to explain it, or the novel needs to provide a logic that makes sense of it. Otherwise readers will doubt first the character, then the narrator, and then the implied author. Most novels don't have that sort of obvious continuity problem, but all novels have unevennesses and inconsistencies. They are what I am responding to in Paula's novel: she proposes the novel is about suicide, but pays unaccountably uneven attention to that theme. In the second part of this essay, my lists of "failures" are meant in the same way: they are things novelists commonly establish and then lose track of, or lose control over. None of the items in my lists in the second part of this essay are necessarily problems: they become so when they are not acknowledged in the structure of the novels that create them. This means even a tremendously inconsistent novel, one that has most of the "failures" I list, can be successful: "Naked Lunch" is an example, because lack of consistency is built in to the structure. Conversely, very careful and consistent novels can be failures: Agatha Christie is a good example for me, because her books are perfectly uniformly logically constructed, with none of the "failures" I list here, and yet the results are not interesting as novels.
One last thing: the translation of "August" is exceptional, nearly flawless. Here is just one example from hundreds. "So I ask him, then, if he gets away a lot like this; do you get away a lot like this?" That semicolon is a wonderful solution to a difficult problem of voicing.
1. Criticism of "August"
The novel suffers most, for me, from an inability to imagine things other than the main story, which concerns a woman who struggles to decide how she feels about an ex-boyfriend she's encountered on a trip out of town. That narrative is well written, and wouldn't have raised any issues for me, if it weren't for the fact that she encounters her ex-boyfriend on a visit to Esquel (a town in the southwest of Argentina) where she had gone to stay with the parents of a friend of hers who has died by suicide. The parents exhume their daughter's body, have it cremated, and scatter the ashes, and she stays in her dead friend's room. The friend who has died is addressed throughout in the second person, which is an effective strategy at least in the English translation. This has potential, but five major subjects are missing:
(a) We don't get a sense that the narrator understands how the parents feel, and therefore
(b) We don't believe the author has had any close experience of parents who have lost a child.
(c) We are barely told anything about the dead person's sister, who also visits.
(d) Until late in the book, we know nearly nothing about the narrator's own mother, who abandoned her as a child, and who she thought was dead. (Even after we're told, we still don't see any reflection of the mother's actions on her daughter, the book's narrator, which is bizarre given that the entire book is about commitment.)
(e) We are never told how to imagine the narrator's relationship with the woman who died. It's almost as if the person who died was just an idea, not a person the narrator actually knew.
These are the principal gaps in the narrator's imagination when it comes to the narrative about suicide. The implied author appears as a person who has known people who have died by suicide, but she does not seem to have experienced other people's reactions to suicide, and she does not seem to have thought much about what parents feel. She comes across as a teenager: the scenes of attraction, doubt, drinking, and travel are the most persuasive.
Given that the novel is about suicide, the narrator's lack of engagement with survivors (and herself, because she thought her mother had died by suicide), and the implied author's apparent obliviousness to her own lack of imagination about those characters, leaves implied gaps in the narrative. The logic of the novel calls for more meditations on suicide, in several different ways.
I can imagine a new chapter for each of the friend's parents, whose grief is nearly invisible in the book; more chapters on the narrator's own mother, who abandoned her; a chapter on the narrator's awareness of her similarity to her mother, which isn't developed and almost seems not to have been noticed by the narrator or the author; a chapter on the narrator's father, who comes across as absurdly affable and forgiving, given that his wife left him and their children; and above all, chapters on the friend who died: not in order to solve her absence, but to let us know the narrator has spent time thinking about it. All we hear about that is that she likes one of her former friend's CD's, her cat, and her leather jacket.
These criticisms are all matters of gaps in the narrator's and the implied author's imagination. It "fails" in this sense: it proposes subjects and ways of thinking about them, and then it diverges from those ways, without accounting for its reasons. The book is mainly a teenage-style love story, with several serious stories about suicide and abandonment standing in the wings.
2. Why it is important that novels "fail" in many ways
I think a reasonable starting point in considering the criticism of modern and contemporary novels is that a typical novel fails. If the novel is reviewed, the review will usually focus on one or two things that seemed to go wrong, but as readers know, that doesn't tally with the experience of reading.
Novels ordinarily fail continuously and repeatedly, dozens or hundreds of times over the course of a reading, and the variety of the sources of failure testifies to the richness and complexity of the genre. If novels failed for just a couple of reasons -- as scientific theories can fail, for example, by being simply falsified -- they wouldn't be as challenging, and it wouldn't be as important to be as ambitious as possible both in reading and in writing them.
For example, it could be said that "August" doesn't quite cohere. The reason why lack of unity or coherence is a common verdict is not simply that unity is an elusive goal, but because there are so many sources of incoherence, so many ways that a novel can be at odds with itself, undermine itself. A writer can abuse a trusting reader, disabuse a generous one, undermine its own logics of time and narrative, stray from depictions of character, lose inertia, lose track of voice, tone, mood, affect, realism or naturalism, idiom, style. It is the proliferation of pitfalls that makes novels so interesting, not the single judgment--lack of coherence, in this case--that might emerge in a review. "Coherence," in this example, is a kind of covering term: a simplification brought on by a reader's exhaustion.
This may sound abstract, but it is only a way of putting a common reader's experience: when you begin a novel, after the initial pages (during which it's normal to suspend judgment, and try to attend to the author's intentions), it is common to encounter different kinds of infelicities one after another: obtrusive digressions or ellipses, surprising and apparently uncontrolled lacunae, shifts in tense, solecisms, inappropriate asides, unwarranted assumptions about the reader's interests or knowledge, unnoticed borrowings, cliches, uncontrolled shifts from tragedy to satire or comedy, a million sorts of awkwardnesses, a tone that lapses, unintentional narrative discontinuities, failures of depiction, lags and douleurs, unconvincing details. Unless you note these one after another, producing a kind of endless and unreadable microcriticism, they will begin to coalesce in your mind, and form into groups. (I am thinking of Empson here: specific flaws combine in the mind into nebulous combined criteria.)
As you move on toward the end of the book, even simplified lists of reservations may become too long to remember. At the same time, if the author is living and might read the review, it may seem unhelpful to articulate more than one or two principal problems with the book: novels are so deeply woven into their authors' ways of thinking that it seldom helps to review issues one by one. (Teachers in MFA writing programs have to wrestle with that sort of problem: readers and reviewers usually don't.) Only the most patient and skillful reviewers, like Adam Mars-Jones, can conjure more than a few of a novel's distinct problems, and even then it takes many pages to do so.
But just because reviews simplify and condense readers' reactions doesn't mean that those simplified judgments are adequate. What matters in novels is the number of ways they fail, the bewildering and entangled and multidimensional way that novels fail continuously, on every page. That matters because is is the clearest evidence that modern and contemporary novels can actually in some meaningful way contain thought. - James Elkins