Cold Scrutiny and Venomous Complicity in Lina Wolff’s “Many People Die Like You”
By Brendan RileyNovember 10, 2020
Many People Die Like You by Lina Wolff
Wolff explores voyeurism, surveillance, and compliance, how needs and desires entwine beneath powerful gazes, how characters’ sufferings beckon, repel, or even demand complicity. Whether one breaks faith, commits adultery, or saves a soul, the human heart is insatiable, and society cares little for love.
As a Swede exploring Iberia — 10 of her stories happen in Spain (two with a Sweden-Spain intersection), four in Sweden — Wolff singles out, celebrates, and satirizes some signature Spanish attributes: cava, seafood stews, sunshine, heat, and sexy beaches, but also severity, superstition, stubborn silence, and prying eyes that expect dignity and enforce conformity.
In “Nuestra Señora de la Asunción,” a young Swedish mother in Madrid, wary that her acquaintances not take her for “one of those women who went swimming topless in Benidorm in the seventies,” attempts to slough off postpartum depression by joining a bus trip to Granada. En route, acquaintance Filomena recounts a midnight tryst of “unbridled sex,” confessing that she doesn’t mind being forced “to do all sorts of things […] because I can be both predator and prey at the same time.” Filomena’s bravura is a seductive ouroboros of ambiguity that encircles and slithers through these tales where women prevail and men fare the worst.
Stricken with heatstroke outside a church, the narrator sees the fiery-eyed black angel of death striding toward her. Reluctant to summon her husband’s traditional, superstitious side, she opts not to share her vision. Seeking refuge in the cinema, she watches This Must Be the Place, her black angel of death proxied by Sean Penn in goth drag, and believing him to be the movie’s director (actually Paolo Sorrentino) she indicts Penn for ineptly aping Tarantino. Her confusion highlights Wolff’s interest in the communal disfunction and dislocation bred by men’s cretinous violence, grasping insecurity, and execrable bad taste.
During a bullfight as the matador delivers the coup de grâce, the narrator of “Veronica” plans to propose to his girl, who is already happily wedded to working in her father’s bar. He wants to perform a sort of veronica, the matador’s maneuver that Hemingway called “the touchstone of all cape work” on his own beguiling Veronica: “It is where you can have the utmost in danger, beauty, and purity of line. It is in the veronica that the bull passes the man completely and, in bullfighting, the greatest merit is in those manœuvres where the bull passes the man in his charge.” But more capricious caper than deft cape work, his decisive moment dissolves into stoned distraction as he lights a joint instead of sinking his sword; dizzy Veronica vomits, and he ends up deflecting not a charging bull but a handsy Peruvian panhandler dressed as Mickey Mouse whom he catches groping his girl.
In “Maurice Echegaray,” the title character employs tenacious Almudena as his office assistant but then hires Rebeca, a “real pro,” who lands fat accounts and becomes his lover, muse, and accomplice. The two women eye each other in a locker room but their erotic tension is more competitive sales savoir faire than sleekness versus cellulite. And while Maurice and Rebeca’s cava-soaked success is seductive and sinister, live-at-home Almudena’s big score is securing consignments of bathing caps for El Corte Inglés — that bastion of Castilian consumerism. The power couple’s “death” is arrest, investigation, and foreclosure but not before performing a defiant dance in the rain, the balconied neighborhood onlookers seen as “caged hens, or like any animal kept in stacked cages.”
Wolff’s beguiling, often hilarious, nightmares blend ambition, abuse, and giddy uncertainty into quicksilver quagmires of the quirky and quotidian that encompass seven literal deaths — four human (one murder, two old age expirations, one human sacrifice), and three animal (a cat, a bull, a gorilla) — as well as the black angel of death in “Asunción.” A proper theater of cruelty, weirdness, taboos, manipulation, and malice, Wolff’s work bears comparison to other notable collections by female authors concerned with violence, oppression, and gender-power dynamics: Anaïs Nin’s Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories, Isabel Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories, and Lucy Corin’s One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses. Across Wolff’s stage, her characters enact what Nin’s Antonin Artaud stand-in Pierre dreams of: “Gestures, cries, music […] scenes like the ancient rituals, which will transport people with ecstasy and terror.” Wolff achieves such transport, in spades.
In “Many People Die Like You,” a depressed philandering Dante scholar, his skidding marriage symbolized by a bag of frozen peas, finally meets his Beatrice. But his erotic Vita Nuova becomes a weird Dalí tableau, his blissful bubble burst by a diabolus ex machina as his Beatrice is reduced to run-of-the-mill Raimunda. The eager seducer is seduced to satisfy others’ desires, then cast adrift, more jaded than before.
Interestingly, in Nin’s “Je Suis Le Plus Malade des Surrealists,” her figure of mad Pierre/Artaud (cum Savonarola and Heliogabalus), bound in an oracular laudanum trance, brands the narrator his Beatrice — not Dante’s, but the celebrated parricide Beatrice Cenci, who murdered her father for raping her — and demands she follow him into destruction and death. But Nin’s Cenci spurns Pierre, channeling Dante’s unobtainable Beatrice Portinari: “Brother […] do not touch me. I am not to be touched. You are the poet, you walk inside my dreams, I love the pain and the flame in you, but do not touch me.” Raving Pierre ends up straitjacketed in the madhouse.
In Huggan’s “Sorrows of the Flesh,” a high schooler smitten with her friendly biology teacher, eager to spy on his life, offers to babysit his newborn girl with spinal bifida. She finds herself horrified by the baby’s birth defect and troubled by the wife’s clumsy lies about her own bruised face. The murderously abusive husband is eventually arrested and led to prison in handcuffs.
In Nin’s “Houseboat,” her quaint but constricting domestic barge is tied and towed up the Seine away from the male gaze (the visiting English king), though not before almost sinking, and abandoned in a barge cemetery. In “Through the Streets of My Own Labyrinth,” she finds peace in the self-drawn maze of diary writing, an imaginary Fez where madmen are restrained:
The blunders I made lay like the refuse on the doorsteps and nourished the flies. The places I did not reach were forgotten because the Arab on his donkey or on naked feet walked forever between the walls of Fez as I shall walk forever between the walls and fortresses of my diary. […] I let the cypresses alone watch the dead in their tombs, I let the madnesses be tied in chains as they tie their madmen.
Lucy Corin’s “Madmen” imagines a society where pubescent teens adopt madmen from asylums, leading them home in harnesses and on leashes, using them as comfort animals against trauma; in this case, almost immediately when the narrator’s mother, depressed about her daughter’s preferences for madwomen and Dancing Fools, takes her own life in the driveway.
In Wolff’s “And by the Elevator Hung a Key,” old Antonio is exiled to die, caged inside a nursing home by his wife Inés, who refuses to visit him: “I’ve done my part.” Their divergence, witnessed by the younger couple downstairs who tend to Antonio’s demise, is echoed by a simian subplot involving a gorilla paterfamilias shot dead while helping his brood escape the zoo.
Wolff’s freaky opener, “No Man’s Land,” sports a jealous wife who hires a slimy, indiscreet private eye to shadow her unfaithful husband. The menace of investigation compresses and elides identities: husband/cocksman/cuckold; wife/homemaker/slut; lover/mistress/whore. The story spins on a surreal axis of manifold phalli (the husband’s, the detective’s, a colossal phallic fountain — rendered as sketch, clay sculpture, and cava-spurting cast-iron whang), an inescapable concatenation of superimposed frames and repeated metaphors, a singularity forever driving the same point home, sex organs clashing in endless violence, the phallus a fatal inescapable totem. In an inebriated post-debriefing, post-coital game, the private dick finds himself hogtied and doubly dicked over as the narrator goes from minx to maenad: “I crawl in between the wall and the toilet. Cover my ears. Belt out a song I learned in school. It’s about fish who drink up their own river, drinking and drinking as they’re swimming around in the water. Meanwhile, the Virgin Mary is combing her hair at the water’s edge.” Her drunken vision suggests the haunting figure in John William Waterhouse’s painting A Mermaid.
Both Nin and Huggan grapple with the sex-birth-burden-weapon agon. In Huggan’s “Secrets,” Elizabeth Kessler discovers that her stern, hardworking German Lutheran banker father serves her unfaithful siren of a mother who secretly finds spiritual and sensual joy in the sermons and songs of an Anglican rector. The husband, unaware, remains bound to a loveless marriage of material provision. In “Getting Out of Garten,” Huggan’s fictional Canadian town (kindergarten, the children’s garden, some never escape), one young couple who connect intellectually but not physically witness their passionate friends sail straight onto the sirens’ rocks, from high school pregnancy to shotgun wedding, constricted by the garter of society’s censure. In Nin’s “The Mouse,” a poor housemaid’s weekend tryst with her boyfriend leaves her pregnant and then proves fatal when her attempted self-abortion causes sepsis; despite her employer’s best attempts, no doctor will treat her. In “The Birth,” the final story in Under a Glass Bell, the narrator relates a grueling ordeal of trying to push out a stillborn baby girl who is “perfect” in death, perhaps because patriarchal life will never disfigure her or exploit her misery.
Wolff’s “Circe” finds a precocious teenage girl consulting a gypsy fortuneteller whose predictive powers seem inspired less by her crystal ball than her eight children and smoky tent staked on the future site of a Corte Inglés department store. The girl’s mimetic search for purpose turns her into a Lolita who wins “perks” from the school principal, but the gypsy’s message hangs in the air like smog — our only human choice is which kind of unhappiness we suffer.
In “A Chronicle of Fidelity Unforetold,” Jazmina Flores, life model at the Prado museum, meets painter Joan Roca (the cheating husband from “No Man’s Land”) who coaxes her to pose as Eve, with apple and stuffed python. Jazmina seems an easy mark for Joan, who aims to mystify her and make her his mistress, but Jazmina’s transactional mindset triumphs: her modeling wages mean new shoes; her plan to “swing by Goya when the afternoon session finished” suggests honing her modeling skills by spending a few minutes with La Maja Desnuda. So, although she lunches and sips cava on the Retiro Park lawn with Joan, she is not about to become his Victorine Meurent.
Wolff’s quartet of Swedish stories casts a colder, less baroque eye on life and death. “Odette Klockare” (a haunting riff on Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”) suggests that death may result from others’ gazes tracing our identities, shapes, and histories; subjected to cold scrutiny, we prefer flight. Through the traditional seduction of piano lessons — think Vermeer’s The Music Lesson and Jan Steen’s Harpsichord Lesson, both paintings with an older male teacher hovering over a young female pupil — Wolff again inverts the student-teacher scenario. Virginal Malcolm agrees to instruct the much older Odette. Spying a chance to satisfy his sexual curiosity, he instead finds himself in thrall to her as spinster becomes succubus.
“Misery Porn,” the harshest of Wolff’s Swedish tales, finds a second-rate chef lured into violent televised sex by his passive-aggressive, dominant-submissive partner, then bound to a new identity as an infamous abuser. As James Joyce wrote: “The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic — desire or loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts.” Wolff’s stories plumb such impropriety: porn/not passion, provocation/not titillation, the repetitive hell of domination, the voyeur enjoying-pitying-abhorring others’ suffering.
In Lucy Corin’s “Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster,” high school freshman Patrick forms a brief friendship with senior Sara, with smog monster hair, but the closest he comes to porn is a dream:
He keeps having dreams they’re in the cave, that it’s the end of the world and he’s seducing her. He can’t help it. Things get pretty pornographic. Now, now, now, she says, Now, now. No. Now. Sometimes there are cave drawings on the wall of horses and buffalo, arrows flying, and sometimes the drawings come to life and trample them with delicate massaging hooves while they’re fucking. Why is it surprising, he wonders, that drawings made of outlines, drawings that are translucent, worn over thousands of years, have almost no weight? Why is he so sure they ought to be able to kill him?
Films, drawings, paintings, writings: our projections are lethal. In this story, regular everyday porn is a cheap monster movie, a fireplace video for somatic comfort, California exploding in apocalyptic flames on the TV news, a furled umbrella as virginal member, a superhero losing her powers — no heroism, only fracture. Patrick finds his father’s videotape of “Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster” hidden away like a porn movie, but for the son it conjures more dangerous ideas: nuclear war, embezzlement, callous adultery.
The husband in Wolff’s “When She Talks About the Patriarchy” taunts his Jamaican housemaid Blossom with money for sex, drooling for “that black ass.” Inspired by an evil plumber urging PSYWAR brutality (“Grab him, lay him out on a board, and castrate him […] stuff his junk in his mouth like the soldiers in Afghanistan did with the Russians […] sew him shut”), Blossom avenges herself by cooking the family cat, literally packing the pussy into the pressure cooker. A vacation with his wife intended to lower the heat finds the loathsome Lothario outfoxed by a waitress-hooker and scorned by his wife, fulfilling the adage that most misery is self-inflicted.
Wolff’s other Swedish stories, “Nothing Has Changed” and “Imagine a Living Tree” offer contrapuntal studies in domesticity. The former presents two females roommates — one involved, one single — vying for the gaze of a neighboring voyeur who scopes them undressing before naked windows. The ménage à trois tease is nullified as convention triumphs; couples pair off in traditional comic denouement, and a bold invitation to an orgy is shrugged off in favor of a hearty dinner.
In “Imagine a Living Tree,” an adulterous wife conducts marital legerdemain and damage control against her cuckolded husband by inviting her younger lover to stay with them. Her tree feller husband becomes a reluctant fellow and mentor to the wife’s fella who, seeking refuge and reset after having ruptured his own relationship, becomes, in turn, a fellow tree feller. The wife’s own “tree felling” forces the men together, the husband finding respect for his rival. The wife is matriarch; sexual/domestic power roles shift and flow for the women’s benefit; reunification pivots on maternal control of male sexuality, a powerful, ambiguous example for the couple’s daughter, infidelity as empowerment.
During a drunken Chinese New Year party, the narrator of “The Year of the Pig,” a self-appointed miracle worker, recalls “hearing the host explaining to someone that I was from Sweden, and women in Sweden make sure to give men a hard time” — Wolff certainly racks, lashes, and lampoons her male characters; even the thoughtful loving husband in “Nuestra Señora de la Asunción” gets puked on by the screaming baby. In “The Year of the Pig,” the narrator’s trickiest client, a man with impossible debts, is like the gorilla in “Elevator,” determined to sacrifice all for his loved ones. Although the narrator’s miracle effects a ghostly solution to the man’s problem, the story’s eponymous zodiacal Pig, said to symbolize calm bearing, happiness, and good fortune, raises the predator-prey question: are people self-sacrificing or self-swallowing? Saviors or stepping razors? Miracles of the merry nocturne may not translate well to the waking, working week.
Many People Die Like You sounds a declaration and a challenge, the title coiling, uncoiling … many people you like die … you die like many people … many people like you die … Wolff’s fictive, raffish finesse, extruded through Saskia Vogel’s ace translation, creates an urge to revisit these haunted pages, to see the ball of serpentine stories shed their skins and reveal brighter colors, heightened sensations of surveillance and venomous complicity, and the puckish enjoyment of human entanglement.
Brendan Riley is a teacher, writer, and ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English. His published translations include The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes; Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue; Caterva by Juan Filloy, and the forthcoming The Greens of May Down to the Sea (Antagony: Book II) by Luis Goytisolo.
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