The Matrilineal Maze: On Adriana Riva’s “Salt”

By Caroline TraceyFebruary 25, 2024

The Matrilineal Maze: On Adriana Riva’s “Salt”

Salt by Adriana Riva

THERE IS a certain likeness between love and saltwater: each makes you thirstier as you consume it. Many writers have taken up the parallel. “Making Love with you / Is like drinking sea water,” writes Kenneth Rexroth in Love Poems of Marichiko (1978). “The more I drink / The thirstier I become.” Malone, a central figure in Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978), a novel about gay life in New York, makes the same observation. “Love,” he writes, “was like drinking seawater.”

In Argentine author Adriana Riva’s 2019 novel Salt, the love that leaves its characters parched is not romantic but maternal. The novel—now out in Denise Kripper’s translation from Veliz Books—follows its narrator, Ema, on a road trip with her sister, her mother, and her mother’s sister. The women set out from Buenos Aires to the provincial town of Macachín, where her mother and mother’s sister grew up. Their family had settled in the town at the end of the 19th century after emigrating from Ukraine “along with so many other starving Jews.” The travelers depart under the narrative pretext of recovering some boxes from a storage unit, but plot is secondary in this novel: the trip is a frame for Ema’s observations on the possible forms that motherhood and daughterhood can take—and the ones they have taken during her family’s four generations in Argentina.

These questions are on Ema’s mind in part because she is pregnant with her second child. For her, motherhood has been fraught from the start. “When he was born,” she narrates of her son, “his shrieks pierced my stomach. No one had warned me about the brutal selfishness of babies.”

But Ema’s shortcomings as a mother don’t worry her so much as the intransigent fact of being a daughter. Hers is a “family of bowling pins”: they don’t hug, or even touch. Her strained relationship with her mother started early. The summer Ema was 11, she fell off a ladder, breaking her back. As an adult, she remains troubled by the suspicion that her mother witnessed the scene and let it happen: as Ema climbed the ladder, she caught sight of her mother’s elbow peeking out of the open window of the parked family car. The two women relate to one another from a distance, and Ema would prefer not to belong to her mother. “I would like something made solely by me, without any inherited genes,” she says.

By hesitating to surrender herself completely to being a mother, however, Ema becomes similar to her own mother in ways she had hoped not to replicate. “While I have tried hard to be different, I am like her,” she laments. Each of them has passed on a maternal love that is brackish—a love that fails to quench the thirst or meet the emotional needs of their children.

Ema claims that her sister Julia—also on the road trip—has always been their mother’s favorite. But Julia has her own troubled relationship to motherhood. She became pregnant with twins at 20 and devoted herself to a mechanical and all-consuming single motherhood, “becoming invisible to the rest of the world, like a pastel wallpaper in the background.” Though Ema believed that their mother, Elena, was more loving toward Julia, the latter’s parenting seems a desperate attempt not to replicate their mother’s coldness. The corrective so consumed her that, as Ema notes, eventually “there was nothing left of the happy and exciting person she used to be.”

Sara, Elena’s elder sister, is the only woman on the road trip who is not a mother. The wealthy, fiery redhead sports a neon yellow blouse and silver pants. She lives with a woman named Basilia, whom the novel does not identify as either a partner or a domestic worker. Yet as the family’s backstory unfolds, it becomes clear that Sara, too, did her share of mothering: she took care of Elena after their parents died in a car accident when they were teenagers. She took over the family’s remaining businesses, including a salt lake whose mining operations she made wildly lucrative, and provided financially for herself and her sister. She so excelled at mothering, in fact, that her efforts allowed Elena to never fully grow into adulthood. “My mother got cozy underneath Sara’s long arms, as if nesting under the wings of a stork,” remarks Ema.

There is one other good mother in the book, who likewise assumes the role nontraditionally. As Ema recovers from her fall, Juvencia, a Guaraní-speaking Paraguayan maid, nurses her back to health. Juvencia offers Ema a warmth so novel that it initially makes her uncomfortable. Soon, however, it soothes her. When friends from school come to visit, radiating a newfound maturity that leaves Ema crestfallen, Juvencia spends the entire night with the child, “whispering in [her] ear an endless story about a fox in a reed bed, repeating like a ballad some phrases that even today [she] remember[s] by heart: Poraviomosarambikavaju para, hákatuñandeha’eñaínañaha’ãva (destiny shuffles the cards, but we are the ones who must play the game).”

After Ema convalesces, her mother fires Juvencia. “I think it was in that moment that my childhood ended,” Ema recalls. “Not the day of my fall, nor the first time I wore a bra, but the day Juvencia said goodbye.” To Ema’s mother, Juvencia was simply an Indigenous immigrant worker; to Ema, she meant much more. In one tender, fleeting moment later in the book, she suggests to her husband that they name the baby Juvencia. As she examines the mother-daughter relationships around her, the ties that transcend the limits of traditional, vertical kinship are the ones that stand out as nurturing.

Though Ema’s desire for her life to be made solely by her—her desire to be unmothered—may be impossible, she asserts a similar creative autonomy in narrating the novel. Salt is entrenched in Ema’s subjectivity. Its style departs markedly from contemporary US fiction, which, as literary critic Mark McGurl notes, tends to favor “the third person narration of a succession of dramatically presented fictional scenes.” Instead, Riva has written a slim novel in which little happens, thereby offering the reader the opportunity to enter the protagonist’s mind. Ema offers narrative summary without trepidation: “All her life she has been confused about who she is,” Ema says of her mother; “Sara fell in love with balance sheets,” she explains of her aunt. A North American writer might render these phrases into chapters’ worth of flashbacks. Salt’s heavier-handed narrative style is not uncommon in Latin America, however, especially in contemporary works published by small presses.

Riva’s writing reminds me of two writers in particular: the Uruguayan Fernanda Trías and the Chilean María José Navia. Navia’s novel Kinstugi (2005) is composed of character sketches of the members of multiple generations of a broken family; as fate would have it, Kripper has also translated Navia’s work into English. Trías’s novel The Rooftop (2001) follows a woman caring for her father in a thinly veiled Montevideo, Uruguay, as she grows increasingly paranoid and trapped in her apartment. As in Salt, Trías’s first-person narration ensures that descriptions play a different role than they do in works with omniscient narrators: Riva’s and Trías’s narrators editorialize their surroundings in ways that reveal important information about the ambience of the worlds in which they exist and how those worlds have shaped them.

The phenomenon echoes sentiments Trías shared in a 2021 interview with translator Annie McDermott, in which the author describes her childhood in post-dictatorship Montevideo, where, “because of the oppression you could feel in the air,” the city as it appears in her texts is “always an oppressive, malign, suffocating city for the protagonists.” The Macachín of Ema’s perspective is similarly shaped by the history that confines its inhabitants—specifically, immigration from Europe. “The tracks divided the town in two: on one side the Jews, on the other the Germans,” she explains of her mother’s and aunt’s childhood early on. Once they reach the town, even the plants are suffocating: “On the sidewalk, the roots of trimmed trees poke through the stone tiles in several spots, as if trying to break free from their claustrophobic confines.” This mixture of narrative voice and social setting is cinematic, but not in the Hollywood sense. Rather, as one of Navia’s characters comments in Kintsugi, “if her life […] were a film, it would be one of the ones where the people barely talk amongst themselves and the person watching it understands that they are infinitely alone.”

Salt’s sole visit to the eponymous lake resembles one of those slow, quiet scenes. As I reached the novel’s end, I wondered if the salt lake would ever appear. But it was there on the book’s cover—a collage of a dark-blue background with cutouts revealing expanses of hardened salt. (The cover is a translation of the book’s Argentine edition, which features a very similar image illustrated in pastel pink, blue, and purple.) It had to show up sometime, I told myself.

Finally, leaving Macachín, the women decide to pass by it. “Don’t you want to visit the salt lake before going back?” Julia asks Sara, as though an afterthought. The lake is 10 kilometers from town, and the road is damaged by flooding and the trucks ferrying salt away each summer. The body of water is shallow and narrow, divided in two by a “rundown wire fence.” Elena’s and Sara’s different reactions to the place are striking. “Isn’t this place amazing?” Sara says. She smiles and poses for a picture next to the sign, which shows that the lake is named after her. To Elena, the lake is “bright red and devastating, like hell.” As they drive home, Ema tries to understand “Sara’s paradise and Mom’s hell.” She cannot seem to square their divergent reactions. To Ema, it was neither—only “a pool of white water. A pool that says something untranslatable.”

Ema’s gradual, tacit resolution of the implacable difference between these dueling visions of the salt lake quells the protagonist’s doubts about motherhood and daughterhood that have plagued her throughout the book. Her musings about her relatives and her childhood have shown that any relationship between mother and daughter is saline, never perfectly fulfilling. There is a stark contrast between biological motherhood, laden with expectations, and the chosen, adoptive care Sara and Juvencia offer. What matters, then, is what one does with the inheritance of maternal love—just as Elena and Sara inherited the same salt lake and made it yield opposite meanings.

Sara’s trajectory redeems the saltwater—it did not have to be ugly, or hellish, or unfulfilling. Despite its chemistry and the strange, seemingly sterile landscapes it produces, the water could nourish too. Sara affirmed this in her care for Elena; she realized that love could flow where it was needed. Understanding the power of choice and perspective allows Ema to close the novel as her own person. She can be “something made solely by [herself],” while remaining simultaneously a daughter and mother. As the book concludes, she narrates her mother’s life to her newly born daughter, connecting the two in a way that her past self wouldn’t have allowed. The love that flows between them may be saline, but it is what they share.

LARB Contributor

Caroline Tracey is a writer whose work focuses on the US Southwest, Mexico, and the US-Mexico borderlands. She is currently the climate justice reporter at the High Country News and an editor-at-large at Zócalo Public Square. She holds a PhD in geography from the University of California, Berkeley, and lives between Tucson, Arizona, and Mexico City.


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