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Letters From Latin America: July 1, 2022

Reviews of Never Did the Fire by Chilean Diamela Eltit, Catching Fire by Daniel Hahn and Pyambu/Dream Pattering Soles by Miguelangel Meza

NEVER DID THE FIRE (Charco Press, £9.99), originally published in Spanish as Jamas el Fuego Nunca in 2011, cemented Chilean Diamela Eltit’s reputation as one of the most avant-garde and experimental novelists writing in Latin America.

The book, intelligently translated by Daniel Hahn, deals with the aftermath of the revolutionary political upheavals that took place in Latin America in the 1960s and ’70s.

The story is narrated by an unnamed woman, who is in a room with a man, also nameless. The two characters have endless disputes about the past; both were communists who lived in clandestinity, suffered betrayals and prison, but also an equally terrible event, the death of a child they could not take to hospital so as not to endanger themselves or their organisation.
One of the most fascinating things about this book is the Beckettian language the characters use to narrate their revolutionary experience, since from its emerges a central idea of the book, that of the couple as a clandestine cell.

“We are, so we agreed, a cell. We did it after the death had to be consummated, don’t move, not your head, let alone your arms, not now, because it was a death that was up to us and that tore us apart,” writes Eltit.

The cell seen as a militant organisation, but also as a body cell that is slowly dying, almost in the process of decomposing. There’s a constant tension between what they perceived as the end of a political era in Latin America, and the dilapidation of their ageing bodies.

“It’s a struggle for us to sleep amid the difficulty of our bones that are also affected by the discomfort of calcifications … We’re a cell, we are alert to ourselves like the cell we are.”

Both characters find themselves completely isolated, endlessly arguing in an increasingly asphyxiating room. They bicker about a society that they wanted to change, but were unable to do so.

Eltit belongs to a generation in Chile that, like those in many other countries in Latin America, suffered dictatorships, state violence and political disappointments, and her language is one of political failure that would resonates today with many in that region and elsewhere.

Although the book can be challenging at times, with its long descriptions such as the one of the narrator bathes an old invalid woman, it is a work of great literary merit, linguistically ambitious and devastatingly brave.

The narrator says that her revolutionary past could be “a thousand years” away, that is how distant the events and the language to name them seem.

A sobering book about political and personal failures but also about the impossibility of making a revolutionary experience comprehensible with a language that no longer circulates socially.

Catching the Fire (Charco Press, £9.99) is a diary written by Daniel Hahn about his experiences of translating Never Did the Fire by Diamela Eltit.

It began as a blog during the Covid pandemic, when Hahn would post almost daily entries about his experiences and challenges translating Eltit’s daring novel.

I read Hahn’s incisive book while at the same time reading Eltit’s work, and I’d go from one book to the other to check specific lines, individual words and translation choices.

Of course you read Hahn’s diary on its own. It is a wonderful way into the process of translation and the daily life of a translator in the 21st century.

A concise journal about writing, close reading a text but also about trying to understand other languages, histories, cultures and writers.

“One might imagine translation to be an intimidating thing, a sort of miracle of baffling complexity. But let’s not start there. Because on the most basic level, translation is those two things, each of them simple enough, after all: translation is reading, and translation is writing,” Hahn suggests.

As a writer, editor and translator with over 80 books to his name, his prose is eloquent, clear and full of useful ideas for translators and readers alike. A book not to be missed.

Pyambu/Dream Pattering Soles (Ugly Duckling Press, £10) is a trilingual chapbook written in Guarani by Paraguayan poet Miguelangel Meza, translated into Spanish by Carlos Villagra Marsal and into English by Elisa Taber.

It is a book that deals with the different ways of being and beings in this world it is written with a poetic language that seeks to bridge the world of contemporary Paraguayan society with that of their Guarani ancestors.

There are menacing presences, particular gods, animals, deities turned human, including the mighty Pombero, a sexually ambiguous character from Guarani mythology, as well as images of the immense Gran Chaco landscapes.

Its complex nature-inspired folklore and the people at its centre: “My eyes turn to stone / your rift in the forest. / I seem to see, in miniature, / a stream of men ending. / The forest seems to end, / smoulder, through that hole. / You seem to follow it, / Mainumby…/ your image,  /the size of a crow, / merges with the wind/grazing my cheek /-and I fall.” (Hummingbird).

Pyambu/Dream Pattering Soles successfully merges the personal with the communal, using a language that is as powerful as it is political: “The poor sleep / where the sierras cave in,  /the poor sleep. / Under the pindo*, a dog / and the poor person sleep.”

* Is a palm tree typical of the ancient lands of the Guarani people, now the frontier region between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.


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