JUNE 17, 2017
ALTHOUGH ROMINA PAULA’S August tells a profoundly human story, it begins and ends with animals. The epigraph, drawn from Argentine poet Héctor Viel Temperley’s “Hospital Británico,” reads, “The girl returns with a rodent’s face, disfigured by not wanting anything to do with being young.” And throughout this novel of youth, trauma, and return, we are confronted by our animal natures — our bodies, our urges, and our instinctive attachments.
The novel follows a young Argentine woman as she journeys back to her Patagonian hometown, Esquel, to see her friend Andrea’s ashes scattered five years after her death, and to reckon with absences of various kinds. “It was something about wanting to scatter your ashes,” the narrative opens, “something about wanting to scatter you.” Rather than orient us in the mundane texture of daily life only to shatter it with tragedy, our narrator, Emilia, begins in medias res, after the loss. Long — perhaps too long — after the loss. As Emilia admits, “I have been able to say your name for a while now without losing my composure, even been able to talk about what happened, about what happened to you.”
The narrator’s voice is familiar, conversational, somewhere between a friend’s unselfconscious confession over a drink and a loved one’s diary. The reader feels she is listening in, perhaps even prying, and this creates a provocative tension. That tension is deepened by the fact that Emilia addresses her late friend directly; the text is full of references that are obviously intimate, but obscure to us. And she uses the second person to address not only her absent friend, but also — as we all do — to speak about herself, in the guise of the general, impersonal “you.” Emilia is talking, at once, to someone, to herself, and into the void — a fugue of grief. Jennifer Croft’s translation conveys this distinctive voice beautifully, reproducing the narrator’s shifting thoughts, which are sometimes choppy and sometimes overflow in lush sentences, as well as her tendency to pile up adjectives in clashing combinations that aim to express the inexpressible, as in, “Ah. Pain, the most profound/the lowest kind of pain.” Paula’s prose is often rhythmic, even musical:
I have a dream about rodent teeth, and then one night, standing at the corner where our place is, I look up and see a mouse running along the wires like they’re pathways, with that determination, that certainty. A few days later I come upon another one, another mouse in another neighborhood. Frozen. Tense. Close to a cable. I put two and two together, understand it got electrocuted and fell, splat, onto the sidewalk.
As this passage suggests, the grief Emilia feels is not for one loss alone. Many absences make themselves felt in these pages. The anniversary of Andrea’s death precipitates the next separation — Emilia’s departure from her home in Buenos Aires, and from her boyfriend: “Now, from here, from this station, while I wait to get my bag back, Manuel, with his pants and his curls, seems far away/removed.” Later on, the pain of another lost relationship swims up to the surface: “What the fuck came into her head or went out of it for her to just up and decide to move, to disappear/disintegrate like that?”
In her grief, Emilia even experiences proximity as distance. Her geographical estrangement from Buenos Aires brings her closer to her high school boyfriend, who himself embodies another absence:
The strange thing is going overnight from sharing everything with someone to no longer knowing anything about what they’re doing, the person you shared everything with and knew everything about, every day, everything that happened every day, and then, suddenly, from one moment to the next, nothing, and not even the option of giving them a call, or maybe you can call them anyway but then everything gets awkward, even the most basic things become uncomfortable. Losing all claims on the other person, losing them, completely, just like that, like it’s nothing. I hate that, that artificial death, that rehearsal for death.
News from Emilia’s brother back in Buenos Aires also calls death to Emilia’s mind. Emilia has left behind the minor domestic drama of an unwelcome mouse in the apartment. Her brother tells her that he’s put out rat poison, warning her that “because the mouse takes such small bites it takes it a long time to die.” Emilia finds this “horrifying”: “My humble household has quickly been transformed into a site of terror, institutionalized death.” Meanwhile in Esquel, Emilia spends time with a different animal, Ali, her late friend’s cat, whom Emilia describes as “an extension of you.” Like the people around her, these animals are part of Emilia’s psychic landscape, embodiments of mortality, whose presence reminds Emilia of absence: “I mean identifying with the mouse, so many tragic women, girls who suffer, all of them tragic.”
Life is disrupted by death, relationships disrupted by physical absence — perhaps all that remains is memory. As Emilia traverses the ephemeral networks of the living, she spends a lot of time in Andrea’s room, “retracing your steps, your words.” She thinks, “it’s neither yours nor not yours, I don’t know exactly how to explain it: it’s yours, but neutralized, taken down a notch. And yet you’re still there in certain things.” The absent are still present, if only in a diminished state. Their memories are with us, in the objects they owned, in our bodies:
I scattered the condensation on the glass with the sleeve of my jacket, I saw the first light of morning over the peaks, not yet reaching the highway, and I felt — god — that memory in my body, in the view, everything, sense memory, sensations lodged there, memory mocking plans, mocking decisions.
Indeed, although the book is very much about memory, the body is never out of sight. There is, for instance, an extended menstruation scene, in which Emilia expounds on the evils of pads, their synthetic materials, and their wings. Passages like this ground the text in the particulars of Emilia’s experience, as well as the particulars of her culture.
The text is full of references to Argentine and global pop culture, mostly to albums and songs Emilia encounters as she goes through the things in Andrea’s old bedroom. In one scene, Emilia’s ex, Julián, wears a T-shirt with a wolf on it, which she says might as well feature a Rata Blanca logo — referring to an Argentine metal band that, my sources tell me, is terribly cheesy. In another exchange between Emilia and Julián, she calls his sweater “so ñoño” (that is, nerdy or lame), a term which he himself doesn’t recognize. Emilia explains that it’s from The Simpsons, the Mexican dubbed version. I loved Croft’s choice not to translate this slang, which puts us in Julián’s position and points to the flow of pop culture across national and linguistic boundaries. (Search “Simpsons ñoño” on YouTube.)
It was a pleasure for me to encounter these bits of pop culture, as well as an effective rendering of the ways we connect with our past selves by uncovering these artifacts — songs we listened to and movies we watched over and over again. The two-page reflection on Reality Bites really delighted me, which might mean I’m precisely the book’s target audience, a melancholic “old millennial.”
But melancholy isn’t despair. Although Emilia returns to witness a memorial rite, and to make sense of what befell her high school relationship, she’s also there to tell her story, at least to herself. In a metafictional moment, Emilia asks, “What works better in fiction? Past or present tense?” Emilia’s bildungsroman may not bring her to any profound realizations about her losses, but, by the end, she does manage to incorporate them into her story, to make something of them: “I am me, that’s my impossibility. There, once again, the only thing that can save you is fiction. I mean, whenever you can, when it gives you access. What isn’t fiction consumes you.” She knows she is shaping the pieces of her life into something she can handle.
August demonstrates how loss can mark a person, how it can permeate everything, and what we can do with it.