Thursday, 24 October 2019

The Remainder

'The Remainder' by Alia Trabucco Zerán, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes, was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize this year. It is about three young people, I want to call them friends but in some ways, although they have know each other for years, they are not. They have a shared history, does that make them friends? I think this story is very bound up with the history of Chile and the Pinochet era and the ongoing impact that such a regime has on a country. It is as if the three characters are just the different ways in which people adapt/cope with trauma, and how Chile has tried to cope. Felipe is obsessed with death, and sees dead people everywhere. Iquela is bound up with caring for her mother, who she cannot bear to be around and who is terrified and obsessed with the past. Paloma left, and only comes back now, to bury her dead mother in the country where she belongs. When the coffin is diverted on route the three of them acquire a hearse and drive to Argentina to collect it, through a surreal landscape covered in ash, only to find themselves thwarted by bureaucracy, and Felipe. The book feels like a glimpse inside the psyche of a country, surreal and perplexing.

"He got up off the floor and began pacing around the room, all the while staring at Paloma, looking for some vital clue.
'So she died in begin but you want to bury her here, in Santiago?' he scoffed, his footsteps out of sync with the sugary, pop beat of 'Time After Time', his fingers counting and his face forlorn.
Paloma nodded. Of course, what with Ingrid being Chilean, there was no issue with her being buried in Santiago, but for that she'd had to be returned. 'Be returned,' Paloma said, but I realised that this wasn't what she meant. She was looking for the exact word, but it had escaped her, and I was primed to jump in.
'Repatriated,' I said.
'Repatriated, that's it,' she repeated, relived and grateful (and I began to wonder if only the dead could be 'repatriated').
Felipe couldn't believe his ears.
'That's all I need,' he said, burying his face in his hands and letting out a pained sigh that slipped entirely from my mind as we moved on to our second or third round of pisco.
He was still pacing around the room muttering and jotting down phrases in a notebook when, eventually, he announced that he was leaving. He was always doing this: upping and leaving without wanting. And I always wanted to know where he was going, and why, and how long he'd be. But there was something about Paloma that was stopping him, holding him back. It must have been her eyes, because the only thing she did was stare at us and smoke.
'Cigarette, Iquela?' she asked, inhaling deeply (perhaps remembering, perhaps not).
Felipe eventually came out with the question he really wanted to ask.
'Hey, Fraulein,' he said, already halfway out of the apartment, his hand on the door handle, 'why don't you just burn her?'
I looked at him agog, certain, now, that Paloma really would lose her cool, and I immediately corrected him as if to protect her from the word 'burn'.
'The correct term is "cremate", Felipe.'
But Paloma didn't bat an eyelid. Felipe opened the door to go wherever it was he was going, and from there, standing on the threshold, he turned to me and, with a smile, a wink, two chuckles and a shrug of his shoulders, he said:
'Tomaytoe, tomahtoe ...' " (p.67-69)

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