The luxuriously disquieting and lexically dynamic fiction of Argentine author Ariana Harwicz offers many examples of such coerced complicity. Delectable images that would prompt stunned silence, disapproving frowns, illicit twinges if presented out of context or crafted by a less engaging author. And she never tells you how to react: you’re left chained to the crag, exposed to the elements.
A mother calmly watching through a window as her six-month-old son crawls into the fireplace. A mother so entranced by her 12-year-old daughter masturbating that she continues to ash her extinguished cigarette. A mother and her 14-year-old son playing catch with their pet cat after it froze to death during the night. These memorable moments are taken from a trio of novellas — Matate, amor (Die, My Love), La débil mental (Feebleminded), and Precoz (Tender) — that Harwicz published between 2012 and 2015. She dubbed the books an “involuntary” trilogy because, despite their many shared themes, she never intended them as a group. She could just as accurately have dubbed them involuntary because of the way you will find yourself reacting to them, rapt despite their complicated, incredibly flawed characters and their at times monstrous behavior.
All three books have now appeared from Charco Press in remarkable English translations. Harwicz’s fellow porteña Carolina Orloff, co-founder and director of Charco, translated all three, working with Sarah Moses on the first and Annie McDermott on the second and third. Their translations deliver rhythmic, punchy prose — melodic and brusque, violent and carnal, crude, carefree, and careless, suffused with terse, jabbing sentiments. “Kisses, kisses, hell itself.” “Old age is a shipwreck.” “I want that wetness.” “The crowd is like a stabbing pain.” “Masturbation and lethargy.” “I admit I’m sadistic.”
The three novellas are set in small, isolated rural communities in France, the country Harwicz has called home for more than 15 years. The stories are not anchored temporally, though cell phones place two of them in the current century. Our era is also present in the subtle yet ubiquitous reminders of racism, violence, and social inequity — military exercises and helicopters overhead, dumpster-diving refugees tear-gassed by police, tent cities and junkies crowded beneath overpasses.
Each book features a mother and her only child, all unnamed, their roles and relationship more important than their individuality. All three mothers are labeled and harassed for something beyond their control — being a foreigner, an addict, an aging beauty. All three find it difficult to differentiate between filial love and abuse, between maternal devotion and the desire to be free from responsibility. All three seem to be battling mental health issues, though the writing, especially in the second and third novels, can be so hallucinatory that it is sometimes difficult to descry reality. Each narrative is driven by an intensely physical affair with an adulterous man, though one such relationship involves the adult daughter rather than the mother. All of the adults pursue sexual gratification that strains the bounds of desire and pushes the limits of morality. But Harwicz does not titillate for the sake of titillation. Neither the sex nor the violence is gratuitous. Extravagant, yes. Unwarranted or merely indulgent, never.
In the latest novel, Tender, the mother grew up modeling, praised by her parents and others for her exceptional beauty. When you’re young, she says, “[y]ou can’t not dress up, you can’t hide in the shadows, have you ever met a goddess who works in a basement? It’s impossible, it wouldn’t be allowed.” She still has “slender legs, […] pretty shoulder-length hair, […] an edible mouth,” but she also has a teenaged son and lives in a society that sees youth as a precondition to beauty. “But then the flipside, when they let you go after twenty years and you have to find work stacking shelves or selling spare parts.”
Mother and son don’t seem impoverished, but they live on the margins, shoplifting occasionally, foraging and hunting for food. Social-service authorities have issued numerous warnings, and her son’s school talks to her “about his repeated and unacceptable absences, his strange moods, how he’s a loner and comes to school hungry, how he gets teased by his classmates, and some rumours” concerning her. The mother objectifies her son as she was objectified, and these rumors hint at incest. At first there are insinuations, the mother channeling Humbert Humbert:
We stop for a snack, chocolate milk with a drizzle of port, oatmeal biscuits and the hours edge by like a string of executions. […] My son dozes off, stretched long in my lap, his arm over my bare legs, my shawl, the weight of his head my first indication that he’s become a man.
It can often be difficult to tell whether she is fantasizing about her lover or her son, but eventually her feelings reveal themselves more explicitly: “Now I have him on top of me. […] Fear of being seen. Fear of wanting him to stay there.” And toward the end, after her son helps her into a dress and praises her beauty, she struts for him, pouts for him, shameless, and thinks, “I’m a slut all over again.”
In Die, My Love, which was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2018, the mother is an immigrant married to a man she no longer loves, with a baby she never wanted. She describes herself, in the first chapter, as “a weak, perverse woman,” “an ignorant country bumpkin,” “an educated woman, a university graduate,” a “normal woman from a normal family,” “an eccentric, a deviant,” “a fraud of a country woman,” “a woman who’s let herself go,” a “nutcase,” a “foreigner,” and “[s]omeone beyond repair.” Her mercurial opinion of herself is partly dictated by her unhappiness at being stuck in a life she doesn’t want, partly a product of her husband’s belittling, and partly a result of decisions, conscious and unconscious, that she makes herself.
But she knows that “[n]o one grieves for the wretched woman with scarred arms who was consumed by the misery of life.” Before heading off on a Sunday outing, she tells herself she
[m]ust appear enthusiastic, must show others we enjoy life. Must take the child here, there and everywhere, buy him balloons, let him ride on the merry-go-round to nowhere, take pictures of him, because that’s how you give your child a childhood.
She also devotes a “morning to swearing at the baby. I said all kinds of nasty things to him. To the baby. There’s nothing I didn’t say, it was one insult after another.” So, her efforts at fitting in are inconsistent to say the least.
In Feebleminded, the perspective shifts, with the twentysomething adult daughter narrating. Mother and daughter live together, the child supporting them both with a job she has had since her teens, plus money she finagles from men she sleeps with. They are hard-partying roommates, though alcoholism defines the mother’s life more than the daughter’s. The two make hungover pacts to sober up, but those don’t last, and the demands of addiction dictate their actions.
This mother seems always to have craved an accomplice more than a child, a relationship she enjoyed with her own mother as well. The daughter reports that her mum was
delighted when my back’s finally strapped by my very first bra and already I’m talking dirty. Mum beaming the day a man followed me through the woods saying, don’t be afraid. […] Desperate to smoke like two chimneys at sunset, to go drinking in a pub full of tattooed sailors and giggle at the bar like two hysterical small-town girls as we feel their biceps.
Now that she is older, the daughter has become that sought-after confidante and co-conspirator:
We’re both in heat from the scalp down, […] [t]wo foxy little sluts […] [s]ecretly longing for a couple of guys in wide-brimmed hats to stride through the gate […] and then they rape us over the chairs, against the wooden seesaw, in the pergola, taking one of us from behind and the daughter face-to-face.
This daughter is the most hedonistic of all Harwicz’s hedonists, having grown up surrounded by sex, including her mum perhaps turning tricks. She masturbates constantly, and even when she fantasizes about a more conventional life, her lust soon takes over:
Pretending I had a mother who wore dresses gathered at the waist, a mother addicted to the luxury of seaside casinos, pretending there was a cowboy who came to rape me by the side of the motorway, gorging on me until I lost my bearings.
What makes all of these challenging characters so enjoyable, even when they are abusing each other mentally and physically, is the rhythm of Harwicz’s language, realized thrillingly by Orloff, Moses, and McDermott. It makes itself felt from the self-abnegating opening sentences to the hammer-blow conclusions. I could quote endless examples of stylistic beauty — “Still red from his beard I drive laden with life, ashamed but so drunk I shriek and kick the accelerator as the boy looks on, slumped in his shuddering seat. Eyes like eggs.” “Rapid pulsions pushing me into the pure.” “I’m roused from what I thought was thought by the sweet sound of delirium.” — but it is probably best simply to urge you to read the books.
The first book is a bit more nuanced, with the second and third leaning more into extremity, but all make powerful statements. I’m curious, though, why the third book is titled Tender rather than “Precocious,” for example — after the book’s Spanish title, Precoz. “Tender” conveys a sense of immaturity and innocence that seems almost the antithesis of precocious. And the teenaged son exhibits so many “mature qualities at an unusually early age” — possessiveness, violence, manipulation, his physical treatment of his mother.
Ariana Harwicz has said these books were conceived in French but written in Spanish. The glorious English translations are a testament not only to the skills of Carolina Orloff, Sarah Moses, and Annie McDermott, but to the universality of the dark desires and desperate emotions that Harwicz captures and makes readers react to, almost involuntarily.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.