Mutations of Warped Manliness: Selva Almada’s “Brickmakers”

December 28, 2021   •   By Cory Oldweiler

Brickmakers

Selva Almada

AN UNFLINCHING AWARENESS of death compels the work of Selva Almada, infusing her deeply moral and socially conscious writing with an immense pathos. She is not concerned with the somber death of old age, however, nor with the showy, indiscriminate death found in so much contemporary pop culture. Rather, the death that drives her narratives is born out of violence fueled by misogyny and misplaced ideals about masculinity that appear endemic to the society of her native Argentina.

Almada’s latest novella, Brickmakers, completes an arresting, albeit informal, trio of English-language translations of her work that together probe both the roots of Argentina’s malignant machismo and its many horrifying manifestations. Brickmakers was originally published in 2013, in the middle of a startlingly prolific three-year period that also saw the release of Almada’s other future English-language works, The Wind That Lays Waste (2012) and Dead Girls (2014). Each of the three books can easily be read in one sitting, though their impact will persist for much longer.

In The Wind That Lays Waste, Chris Andrews’s taut, theatrical translation of Almada’s English-language debut, death never actually appears, but it asserts itself repeatedly, its specter haunting El Gringo Brauer’s isolated garage, to which the Reverend Pearson and his 16-year-old daughter, Leni, have their broken-down car towed. Death lurks in the ruined lungs of the Gringo and in the Reverend’s battle to save wayward souls from eternal damnation. It is twisted into the wrecked automobiles the Gringo buys from the police, cars whose “definitive and bloody” stories he recreates for his teenage son, Tapioca, to get him used to the idea of dying. It reposes in the “mechanical cemetery” behind the garage where Leni and Tapioca hide away before a massive storm, “in a traffic jam of phantom cars, on a highway leading straight to hell.” It unites the stories of murder and suicide swapped by the Gringo and the Reverend, both witness to “the same dark, empty nothing, regardless of the hand that deals it.” And death is poised to strike in each paragraph of the novella’s storm-swept conclusion, though no one sees it approaching.

Death is grievously evident in Almada’s second English-language book, the nonfiction novel Dead Girls, which documents the femicides ravaging the interior of Argentina. When she was growing up in Entre Ríos, “[v]iolence was normalized,” Almada writes — specifically violence against women and girls. “All the responsibility for what happened to us was laid at our feet: if you stay out late you might be raped, if you talk to strangers you might be raped, if you come back from a dance by yourself you might be raped. If you were raped, it was always your fault.”

Almada spent three years researching the book, starting out from the deaths of Andrea Danne, María Luisa Quevedo, and Sarita Mundín, “three teenage girls from the provinces murdered in the eighties,” who would all be around Almada’s age had they lived. As she investigates the original killings, Almada expands her account to touch on a seemingly endless number of subsequent murders — girls killed in their homes, in the countryside, on the streets; girls killed by boyfriends, by family members, by acquaintances, by strangers; brief lives remembered and gruesome deaths laid bare in Annie McDermott’s compassionate but raw translation. Almada also weaves her own life and the lives of her friends into the narrative, because “we could have been Andrea, María Luisa or Sarita. We were just luckier.”

In Brickmakers, also translated by McDermott, Almada zeroes in on the masculine culture that fosters this normalization of violence, that posits violence as the answer to disobedience, disrespect, disagreement, and any number of other differences, including sexuality. Death is again at the forefront, with the story opening on two young men — Pájaro Tamai and Marciano Miranda — sprawled out, almost cinematically, one face up, the other face down, among a riot of colored lights, music, and rides at the town fair. They are both dying, and as their lives slowly fade away over the course of the book, they remember what came before, how they knew each other, and how they ended up in a knife fight that left them both lying in a pool of mingled blood.

Both Pájaro and Marciano are the oldest sons in their families, and both have been shaped by violence and by their fathers, although in different ways. Pájaro’s father, Oscar, is “a harsh man” who beats his son and his wife, Celina. The violence against women so fiercely addressed in Dead Girls is present in this world, but that is not Almada’s focus here, as she has Celina make despairingly and almost dismissively clear: “If [Oscar] had the stomach to beat a little kid as if he were hitting a man his own size, something wasn’t right. He hit her, too, but that was by the by: men always wound up hitting their wives in the end.” Pájaro eventually learns to fight back against his father’s beatings; embracing his own nascent anger at age 11, he grabs the whip out of Oscar’s hand when his father tries to hit him, shouting as he walks away, “I’m not your goddamn mencho.”

Marciano’s father, Elvio, inherited the family brickworks on the outskirts of La Cruceña, where the Tamais would eventually live as well after taking over a nearby kiln. Marciano’s mother, Estela, was a Carnival queen who could have married anyone, but she chose Elvio, who loved his family but loved gambling more. When Marciano was one month shy of his 12th birthday, his father was murdered on the street. The case was never solved, and Marciano lives to avenge his father, his anger festering inside him.

Oscar is an early suspect in Elvio’s murder because of the feud the two men had, a feud begun when Oscar stole the puppy of Marciano’s champion greyhounds. When the dog is killed, the men have a brutal fist fight, and from then on thrive on their mutual animosity. By the time of Elvio’s murder, Oscar’s hatred is so intense that even Celina is unsure whether her husband is innocent.

Almada does a brilliant, nuanced job recounting the evolving nature of Pájaro and Marciano’s relationship, from childhood friends to mutual killers. At ages four and three respectively, they are accepted into the gang of neighborhood kids, Pájaro introduced by his sister and Marciano by his father, who doesn’t want his son to “be a damn sissy when school starts.” Initially, the fathers’ growing feud strengthens the boys’ friendship, lending it an illicit thrill, but new influences at school pull them apart. Though the split is mutual, they were “their fathers’ sons, each one a chip off the old block,” and the minor grudge they held against each other “hardened to stone in each boy’s heart.”

The catalyst for the deadly fight is homophobia, yet another mutation of warped manliness. Pájaro is in love with Ángel, Marciano’s younger brother. Marciano believes his brother’s sexual choices are merely a result of Pájaro having “gotten his teeth into” him, and decides he needs to put a stop to it for good, after which he will cure his brother: “Then a clean slate, a new start. Force the kid to eat pussy all day long, if that’s what it took, till he got over his obsession with sucking dick.”

Both fathers continue to influence their sons even as the young men are dying. Elvio’s spirit has remained in limbo, unable to rest because his murderer has not been found. His ghost provides comfort to a scared Marciano at first but realizes soon that he must leave him. For Pájaro, there is no solace in seeing Oscar, only an incentive to fight, as his father “lights a fire in his gut, a burning rage, an urge to track him down and smash his face in now that he could, now that he’s grown up and could beat him senseless without breaking a sweat.”

There is a tremendous carnality to Almada’s writing, vividly captured in McDermott’s translation, from the early lust between Celina and Oscar, to the passion between Pájaro and Ángel, to the violence of the final knife fight. It is present in inanimate objects too — the water that the boys play in as children is “sensuous, velvety and thick,” the bricks of the nightclub walls “throb as if they’re alive,” and knives are anthropomorphized throughout, often as Oscar’s eyes. When he and Elvio fight, Oscar’s “yellow eyes glinted like the blades of twin knives, seeking his enemy’s heart.” And the first time he sees Celina, Oscar’s gaze finds “her like a knife-thrower’s blades.” Another time, as Pájaro recalls criminal fantasies of his childhood, he states his preference for knives over guns, because a “knife is almost like a continuation of your arm: you’d feel the other man’s life slipping out through the wound, the enemy blood gushing up to the handle and wetting your clenched fist.”

It is certainly never the responsibility of writers to offer solutions to society’s ills, and Almada doesn’t attempt to do so in any of these works that so thoughtfully document the problems facing Argentina. What she does do, however, is show that her characters want out, want to escape the world in which they are trapped.

Marciano imagines that escape lies nearby, in Entre Ríos, away from the desperation and poverty of La Cruceña, where “everything’s hard, dry, spiky, covered in dust. People were probably friendlier there, even. Here it’s different, here all anyone knows is violence and force.” In The Wind That Lays Waste, Leni wants to flee her father’s piety, which seems to be responsible for the absence of her mother: “One day she would get in a car and leave it all behind for good. Her father, the church, the hotels. […] She would just drive straight ahead, following the black ribbon of asphalt, putting it all behind her forever.” And in Dead Girls, it is Almada herself who has to escape, to let go of the lost lives that have been consuming her for several years. The medium that she consults in order to establish “a line of connection to the dead girls” helps her try to break free:

She told me it’s time to let go, that it’s not good to spend too long drifting from one side to the other, from life into death. That now the girls have to go back to where they belong. As she said this, she reached over the table between us and took my hand in hers. Squeezing it, each of us sitting where we’d sat in every session. I squeezed her hand back and then gradually she began to let go. I held on a little, a moment longer, I could still feel the girls through her. She looked at me. Or they looked at me and I understood and I began to let go as well.

As readers, too, there may be the temptation to run away from the violent worlds Almada captures so starkly, to believe that the causes of this violence are unique to Argentina. They aren’t. In the United States in 2019, 1,795 women were murdered by men, the overwhelming number by someone they knew. Violence against women, and the misguided, outdated ideas of masculinity that effectuate and excuse it, are a global problem. We would all do well to educate ourselves about the causes, wherever they may skulk or strut.

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Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.