The Meaning of Isolation: On María Sonia Cristoff’s “Include Me Out”

February 28, 2020   •   By Joel Pinckney

Include Me Out

María Sonia Cristoff

MARÍA SONIA CRISTOFF’S Include Me Out begins with the book’s protagonist, Mara, sitting in her museum chair, observing the flight of a fly. The reader is given little identifying information; initially, all we learn about Mara is that she is working at a museum and conducting some sort of experiment — “For moments,” we’re told, “she believes that her experiment is working.” We also learn, by way of Mara’s discussion of what comes when she is having success in her experiment, that she is a thoroughly unhelpful guard; her response, when approached by museum guests at such moments: “She emulates the pieces in the exhibit, stares straight ahead at a tiny detail, turns a special quality of attention to how she is sitting, the tensing of her muscles, the expression on her face.”

Some of the best parts of Cristoff’s brief novel are moments like that, where the self-imposed requirements of Mara’s experiment humorously come in conflict with what’s asked of her in her daily life. But this, we learn, is exactly what our protagonist is interested in provoking — or, at least, that Mara is unconcerned with this particular byproduct of her experiment: “She was always absolutely clear that her experiment in detachment would not be the practice of an ascetic in a tower or a fugitive in the forest: what interested her was to practice the art of keeping quiet while interacting with the world.” So, we encounter Mara in the provincial Argentinian village of Luján, working as a museum guard and conducting an experiment in silence. Mara is seeking anonymity, isolation; she’s seeking to blend in with her place. In one instance, after getting sprayed with dust by a passing car on her walk home from the museum, Mara “rejoices mentally at those layers and layers of dirt making her ever blurrier, more like yet another mishap of the landscape.”

Mara’s experience as a simultaneous interpreter has led her to this place, where she seeks her particular version of disappearance. In her work as an interpreter, she had a unique ability (so our narrator tells us) to quickly understand her subjects’ intended meaning.

Since she was quick to perceive, she had a lot of time shut away in her booth to observe the infinite number of discursive strategies and detours the orators used in order to present that nucleus at precisely the right moment, or to hide it, or to allude to it, or to elude it. She had a lot of time, in short, to understand manipulative discourse.

This understanding leads Mara to write her “manual of rhetoric,” which plays a central role in Include Me Out. Mara continually refers back to her manual, quoting various of the “ten types of silence” throughout the book. Taken together, these types of silence are the compass for Mara’s experiment; she regularly refers back to them to remind herself of the way forward.

The manual, in fact, is the vehicle Mara uses in the incident which precedes her experiment, at an important summit for which Mara was translating. This incident is the first of two sabotages we learn about in the book. Instead of translating what was being said, Mara started to read from her manual. “The part about well-documented examples and prototypes [of manipulative discourse], she still believes, is what made everybody so nervous[.] […] Though, as it turned out, she was able to read very little, because after exactly seven minutes, the security people removed her by force.” After this incident, Mara “was expelled from both interpreter associations, the international one and the local one.”

Mara’s experiment in silence is an attempt at control, the simultaneous interpreter trying to turn herself into the one speaking. Her deviant speech at the summit leads her to another paradoxical version of speech: silence. Throughout the text, Mara frames her experiment in these terms — that silence is itself a speech act. So says Mara’s definition of the first of the 10 types of silence in her manual of rhetoric: “Silence is prudent when we know how to remain quiet in an opportune way, according to the moment and the place in which we find ourselves in the company of others, and according to the consideration we must show to persons with whom we are forced to deal and live.” Elsewhere, Mara recalls another section of her manual, stating that “remaining silent is important as a paradoxical speech act.” In addition to its own speech act, Mara sees her year in Luján as equivalent to the pause in an orator’s great speech, which builds anticipation for and lends weight to what follows: “That instant — that gesture — is what Mara was seeking by coming here.”

Throughout the book, I found myself wrestling with my feelings toward Mara. Was she to be trusted? The narrator’s limited omniscience, lending insight exclusively into the mind of Mara, leaves the reader in a fog in this regard — we’re inclined to feel sympathy toward Mara for what she’s been through, but she regularly complicates that inclination.

Some of her inconsistencies, in particular, make the question of how to regard Mara particularly difficult to answer. The narrator regularly shows Mara contradicting herself: we’re initially told that her experiment in detachment requires complete silence, but we often see her interacting with others, including a standing lunch date with a fellow museum guard; the narrator interjects comments indicating contradiction in the mind of Mara, in one instance commenting, “She’s lying, lying to herself once again”; elsewhere, the omniscient narration shows Mara contradicting the terms of her experiment, at one point commenting that it requires the “art of keeping quiet while interacting with the world,” while elsewhere stating, “being permanently heedless of her surroundings [is] one of the main goals of her experiment.” In this way, Cristoff challenges readers to interrogate their perceptions of Mara and what it is she’s trying to accomplish in Luján. At times, this is an exciting exercise, opening up interpretive possibilities for the reader that may have been foreclosed by lesser authors; at other moments, the text can feel frustratingly obtuse and a bit plodding, as if complicated for complication’s sake.

One complicating technique employed by Cristoff is a series of notebook entries of Mara’s, interspersed throughout the book. These frequently consist of lengthy quotations from other texts (always dutifully cited), lending some balance to questions of Mara’s trustworthiness. One of these entries tells the story of Mancha and Gato, two famed horses of Argentinian breed that are the most celebrated holdings in the museum at which Mara works. The novel hinges on Mara’s appointment to assist a taxidermist in his restoration of the two horses, who have slowly deteriorated in the museum over the decades. Mara’s reaction to this appointment gives the reader more insight into her mentality, and the reasoning behind her experiment in Luján:

From the beginning [Mara] was […] quite clear that […] others would circulate on parallel tracks, never interfering in her life, her everyday existence, and it is precisely this, the implicit interruption, that she now finds intolerable about this job as assistant, which has just been dumped [on] her.

Almost immediately, Mara begins to consider how she might undermine and destroy the work of the taxidermist, the book’s eventual second sabotage.

Cristoff is a gifted writer, employing a variety of techniques to build the character of her protagonist and give us a sense of how her mind works. One particularly effective technique is Cristoff’s writing of lists (a technique she employs both here and in False Calm, her only other book to be translated into English). Her list-making serves as a way of illuminating Mara’s mind. After being assigned the assistantship with Mancha and Gato’s taxidermist, she reflects on why she chose this town as the site for her experiment:

Mara knew that promotions were compulsively given at large corporations, but she never thought that would also be the case at a provincial museum in decline. In fact, that’s why she chose a place like this, a place where nobody was obsessed with improving their position or their salary or their image or their quota or their level of English or their contacts or their skin or their education or their muscle tone or their networks or their car or their house or their speech or their efficiency or their manners or their memories or their nutrition or their words or their prosthesis or their posture.

Cristoff’s choice to endow Mara with these ideas and perceptions of the provincialism of Luján, and of what sorts of people would live in such a place, is particularly interesting considering False Calm, which tells of Cristoff’s journey through the ghost towns of the Patagonia of her childhood. The travelogue takes readers to a number of provincial, out-of-the-way, desolate towns, places that certainly could be inspiration for the Luján of Include Me Out. Cristoff knows and intimately cares about such places, suggesting, perhaps, an authorial sabotage of sorts. Maybe Cristoff includes this list simply to demonstrate what it is from Mara’s previous life that she is glad to have escaped, or perhaps Cristoff is trying to associate Mara with an urban simplification of provincial places that Cristoff would certainly criticize; either way, this list and others like it subtly and effectively complicate the text. 

Though False Calm is a far more personal book than Include Me Out, the two have much in common, indicating the themes that motivate and drive Cristoff in her work. Both are constantly in conversation with other works, borrowing ideas and quoting passages at length to introduce new ideas. It’s a dynamic and ambitious technique by Cristoff, who manages to create patchwork texts that are well situated historically and culturally in large part through the external texts they engage with.

Additionally, both books explore what it means to be isolated, why one might pursue isolation, and the effect isolation has on an individual — though, it ought to be noted, the various isolations explored in False Calm are far less voluntary than Mara’s self-imposed experiment in silence. The subjects of False Calm, spread over the Patagonian expanse, are individuals living in ghost towns that mostly had some role to play in the world of oil, roles which, having been performed, leave them isolated, with little purpose to serve beyond their own borders. Cristoff’s exploration in Include Me Out of a more voluntary isolation shows her working with similar ideas, but in an entirely different vein.

Finally, both books value moments where Cristoff’s subjects, isolated as they are, connect with another individual. In these moments, Cristoff’s prose tends to be stripped back and simplified, as if to indicate that her subjects struggle for understanding, for navigating their worlds, can finally rest for a moment. Mara’s relationship with Luisa, a fellow museum guard, is illustrative of this in Include Me Out: “Mara really loves her — how is it possible to love someone after such a short time?”

Include Me Out, just the second of Cristoff’s five books to appear in English (both excellently translated by Katherine Silver), puts the reader in an uncomfortable position, forcing them to make judgments that feel like a stretch either way. Neither rejection of Mara and the premises of her experiment, nor unconsidered sympathy for her in her plight, feel right. It’s complicated. Just as Cristoff does in False Calm, Include Me Out asks its readers to wrestle with questions of how a story is being told, and who is telling it. Without such wrestling, understanding is fleeting. Include Me Out demonstrates an entirely new dimension to Cristoff’s work; I’m eager for whatever comes next.

¤

Joel Pinckney is a writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared at The Millions, Ploughshares, Full Stop, and the Paris Review Daily.