Submersion: The Sensory-Heightened Fiction of Elvira Navarro

February 24, 2021   •   By Nathan Scott McNamara

Rabbit Island

Elvira Navarro

PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON’S 2017 movie Phantom Thread features an aging dressmaker in 1950s London who takes on a new young woman as his muse. They first encounter each other at a hotel restaurant with floral wallpaper and a foggy view of the water. She is his waitress, and he delivers an indulgent and luxurious breakfast order that feels like it will never stop: “A welsh rarebit, with a poached egg on top, please — not too runny. And bacon. Scones. Butter. Cream. Jam — not strawberry. […] Do you have lapsang? I’ll have a pot of lapsang, please. And some sausages.”

Food triggers the senses in storytelling, handling the audience’s palate with id-evocations that lend themselves to emotional stakes and also help submerge the audience into the scene. In the seminal metafiction story “Lost in the Funhouse,” for example, John Barth writes about how sensory details such as smell and taste activate the reader’s attention. “When a detail from one of the five senses, say visual, is ‘crossed’ with a detail from another, say auditory,” Barth writes, “the reader’s imagination is oriented.” Barth compares it to the way surveyors and navigators determine their position by multiple compass bearings, a process known as triangulation. “The fragrance of the ocean came strong to the picnic ground where they always stopped for lunch, two miles inland from Ocean City,” Barth writes. Then he pauses and reflects on how James Joyce in Ulysses uses the adjectives “snot-green” and “scrotum-tightening” to describe the sea. “Visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory.”

Elvira Navarro is a deft practitioner of metafiction — writing stories that slither back on and within themselves as they progress — and she’s a virtuoso at triangulating a reader. In the first story in Navarro’s Rabbit Island (translated by Christina MacSweeney), her protagonist is on holiday she doesn’t want to be on, with a man she doesn’t want to be with, in a place that she’d like to disappear from: a weekend vacation with her boyfriend Gerardo at a hostel three miles from Talavera, a small city in Central Spain popular for its ceramics. They arrive late in the evening, then go down to the front desk in search of sandwiches. The clerk sits them in the dining room and comes back with a selection of dishes: lima beans in garlic, sausages, dried-out Spanish omelet. “The table has a green checked cloth with tomato stains,” Navarro writes. “The cutlery is dirty too. I start to eat.”

The description alone of food, when done relatively well, taps into the carnal part of us that drives primitive longings, needs, and desires, not just the insatiability of literal hunger, but also shelter, security, love, and so on. Think of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and the hundreds of pages triggered by a madeleine. “[A]t the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake-crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening in me,” Proust writes, as translated by Lydia Davis. “Undoubtedly what is palpitating thus, deep inside me, must be the image, the visual memory which is attached to this taste and is trying to follow it to me.”

Just as it can be delectable, food can also revolt. Navarro returns to the slightly grotesque tastes and smells that endow the liminal spaces of her stories. Similar to Phantom Thread, in Navarro’s stories we also bask in lodge dining rooms, but instead of modish chalets Navarro uses roadhouses for the cheap and broke. “The Top Floor Room,” for example, features a chef going mad while living in the cut-rate hotel she futilely tries to “cook” in each day. “The canned carrots and beets tasted of acidity regulators,” she says. “The salchichas were veined with long strips of tough pork. The green vegetables in the mixed salad were always soggy, even though they weren’t overcooked, and the mayonnaise left a sour taste in the mouth.” The chef gets into the habit of eating a fried egg sandwich for lunch and a hardboiled egg sandwich for dinner almost every day, except for the one day a week the hotel served a lentil soup she could tolerate.

In Phantom Thread, once they’re partnered, the dressmaker quickly grows annoyed with his muse. One morning while he sketches in his notebook, she scrapes her burnt toast, clanks her knife while retrieving butter, and pours her tea with a grand loud lift. “Please don’t move so much, Alma,” the dressmaker says. She says that she’s only buttering her toast, he replies that it’s very distracting, and she says maybe he pays too much attention to it. He says, “It’s as if you just rode a horse across the room. This is too much movement. It’s entirely too much movement at breakfast.” He takes a big bite of a large pastry, throws it down on the plate, and leaves the room.

In the way it pleasures, repels, stimulates, and annoys, food serves as a conduit for the very specific ways people are feeling. This also operates within the concept of the pathetic fallacy, or the idea in writing of imparting emotions to inanimate objects — communicating annoyance to the viewer with an oppressive turquoise wallpaper, for example, or even the dressmaker lashing out at the sounds of Alma’s food rather than her more generally as a person. Throughout Rabbit Island, for example, Navarro evocatively uses odors, too, to convey dread: a woman who smells of “burned eggplant,” or a house of “dried fish.”

The hyper-pronounced sensations that Navarro’s characters experience often communicate the precarity of their balance between reality and delusion. In one story, a protagonist describes the physical marker in the neighborhood that divides the wealthy and the impoverished as “an open sewer that poured its stinking contents into the sea.” In another story, a character recurringly almost falls on her face “not because of the cracks in the pavement, but from the sensation that she’d come across an unexpected step. That feeling — which lasted the milliseconds it took her foot to find solid ground, and made her body think it had dropped into a hole.”

Rabbit Island is a gorgeous, unnerving, and scary follow-up for English readers to the 2017 translation of Navarro’s A Working Woman, and both books represent a movement of some of the most electric work happening in translation. Navarro is represented by the Barcelona literary agency Casanovas & Lynch, who have also brought to English the books of Mariana Enriquez, Javier Marías, Maria Gainza, Andrés Barba, Rodrigo Fresán, Pola Oloixarac, and many more; both Rabbit Island and A Working Woman are translated by Christina MacSweeney, who collaborates with writers such as Valeria Luiselli, Julian Herbert, Verónica Gerber Bicecci, and Jazmina Barrera; both books are published by Two Lines Press, the San Francisco indie house helping publish into English some of the most stimulating voices in contemporary literature: Marie NDiaye, Naja Marie Aidt, Johannes Anyuru, João Gilberto Noll, Wolfgang Hilbig, and others.

Whereas Rabbit Island features many crumbling characters and situations, some of which are unnerving horror stories — A Working Woman highlights one sustained prescription-drug fueled dialogue between Elisa and her roommate Susana — their exaggerations, manias, sexual obsessions, and increasing economic precarity as their disintegrating professional circumstances push them toward the exterior of Madrid. “They’d taken me off Risperdal and put me on lithium by then,” Susana tells Elisa toward the start of the novel, “I’d been recategorized from schizophrenic to bipolar. Lithium has fewer side effects, and that meant I could follow a conversation.” A Working Woman tensely holds sanity in the balance; this effect in Navarro’s hands is unnerving because her prose is so clear and hard-hitting, and the sensory experience of each moment is charged. “I love it when breaches open up, and when things take an unexpected turn,” Susana says to her roommate. “I like it when the car breaks down halfway to my destination, and I have to spend the night in some small town I’d never have even considered stopping in otherwise, or when there’s a power outage and the air is filled with scent of candles and camping stove fuel.”

In his 1939 essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Walter Benjamin wrote about scent as “the inaccessible refuge of memoire involontaire. […] It is unlikely to associate itself with a visual image; out of all possible sensual impressions, it will ally itself only with the same scent. […] A scent may drown entire years in the remembered odor it evokes.” Navarro writes in the gritty spirit of Baudelaire, even using a Baudelaire epigraph for one of these stories, and in an interview, she says that she sometimes feels she follows in the flâneur tradition — of being a member of the crowd — set by Baudelaire. “Sometimes I get the impression that […] the storylines that I cast are an excuse for justifying that my characters travel across certain spaces that tend to go from one urban periphery to another where the city dissolves.”

Dissolution is at near-constant concern in Navarro’s writing, which makes the stakes quite frantic and high. In one nerve-racking story, the protagonist’s recently dead mother, Pepa Nieto, friends her on Facebook. The protagonist throws up three times, not only because her dead mother just friended her on Facebook and she can think of no one who would play such a nightmarish practical joke, but also because of the uncanny nickname on the account: her mother’s name backward, Apep Otein. Navarro’s characters are constantly finding or losing their sanity in relation to the person who moves alongside them in the disorienting fog of their lives. “Getting wrapped up in each other’s manias is what couples do,” Navarro writes in the opening story, “you find a special person who loves you, and whom you love, and who gives his blessing to all of your personal eccentricities, like doing an ab workout at nine at night on a dark basketball court three kilometers from Talavera.”

All food is a suggestive in Phantom Thread, but nothing more than the mushrooms, and early on, the housekeeper cautions Alma against the poisonous ones when she goes foraging in the woods. Soon the dressmaker’s muse is looking in books and seeking out the poisonous-mushroom pages. The first time, she feeds the poison to him covertly. During his illness, she nurses him back to health, and after he recovers, he asks her to marry him. Relationships are weird in their hyper-specifics. Later in the movie, Alma makes mushrooms for him again. As she cooks them, the dressmaker leans back in his chair, sniffing, remembering what happened and anticipating what’s to come. As Benjamin calls it: memoire involontaire. He happily sits down to eat.

In an interview with Carlos Labbé, Navarro says that she recognizes in her writing “the pleasurable experience of dispossession, of shredding the ego and not caring about it.” She says people are all so attached to their qualifications and achievements and that she can’t imagine anything more liberating than becoming unimportant. “The days were all so similar that they erased memory,” Navarro writes in the story about the chef. “Then her thoughts grew darker. Was she losing her mind?” Toxic fat seeps from the longaniza sausages; she makes the Spanish omelet with roast potatoes left over from breakfast, scraping off the thyme before mixing them with the pasteurized egg and milk.

In her interview with Labbé, speaking to her process, Navarro aligns her literary ambitions with the opening of The Vice-Consul by Marguerite Duras: “How to avoid going back? Get lost,” Duras writes. “I need some signpost to lead me astray. Make your mind a blank. Refuse to recognize familiar landmarks. Turn your steps toward the most hostile point on the horizon.”

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Nathan Scott McNamara is a nonfiction and fiction writer whose work has also been published at The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Poetry Foundation, Literary Hub, and more.