The Pleasure of Momentum, the Heat of Containment: On “The Remainder” by Alia Trabucco Zerán

By Nathan Scott McNamaraAugust 29, 2019

The Pleasure of Momentum, the Heat of Containment: On “The Remainder” by Alia Trabucco Zerán

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán

ALFONSO CUARÓN’S 2001 MOVIE Y Tu Mamá También features two young Mexican men who throb with lust and impatience and so initiate a road trip with one of their cousins-by-marriage from Spain. The explicit driving forces in the story — sex, escape, an invented dream beach — propel the characters across a backdrop of national unrest that mirrors the split in each of their lives: between wealth and working class, cheating and fidelity, disillusionment and fervor. While the narrative is pushed forward by more shameless concerns than politics and history, the movie semi-regularly lingers over the Mexico milieu of police traffic stops and discriminating oppression, the prosperity of the few leaving so many behind. In an early scene, Julio is stuck sweating in a car with Tenoch in Mexico City traffic:

“I bet my sister’s in another demonstration,” Julio says, honking the horn.

“They have a right to protest, Charolastra,” Tenoch answers.

“Sure, and I have a right to tell them to fuck off.”

Following in the spirit of Y Tu Mama También, the Chilean novel The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán (a finalist for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, translated by Sophie Hughes) is a road trip narrative that finds electric circumstances with a young trio in a car. Road trip stories combine the pleasure of momentum with the heat of containment, and these two stories are fueled by desire as well as disaffection as they unpack the fraught history of a place.

The Remainder features Santiago natives Iquela and Felipe escorting their family friend Paloma to collect and repatriate her mother’s dead body. Like Y Tu Mamá También, The Remainder features three tortured souls sweating together in a small car. Maintaining the pattern in each, two of the characters grew up together, and two of the characters met just once before, in another era, setting the stage for both old jealousy and new desire. When Iquela first lays eyes on Paloma when they’re both young girls, her reaction is powerful: “Standing stock still, [Paloma’s] eyes boring into her white espadrilles, hands buried inside her faded jean pockets and a pair of headphones covering her ears — that’s all it took, she had me.”

Having always lived in Chile, Iquela and Felipe provide the alternate narratives throughout the novel. Their interloping friend Paloma is part of a family that escaped to Germany during Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. All three of their families have experienced terror and loss. In real life, during the US-backed military coup of 1973, Pinochet overthrew democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende. While the presidential palace was shelled, Allende committed suicide. The new military government rounded up thousands of people and held them in the national stadium. During Pinochet’s 17-year rule, approximately 3,000 people were killed. More than 1,000 went missing.

This actual history mostly took place before the young characters in The Remainder were born. Iquela and Paloma first encounter each other on the night of October 5, 1988, the night of the election that denied Pinochet another eight-year term as president. Iquela’s and Paloma’s mothers are close but they have not seen each other in years; Iquela’s mother’s friend arrives outside their house calling “Claudia” instead of “Consuelo” (Iquela’s parents changed their names during Pinochet’s rule). Throughout the novel and across generations, Pinochet’s rise to power discordantly divides the past from the present and the children from their parents.

That election night, Iquela has one essential duty: be a gracious host to her mother’s friend’s daughter. The fraught political leanings of the close and then geographically distanced friends play out across an intimate evening as the radio occasionally bursts updates about the vote count. Initially, Iquela’s and Paloma’s fathers are slapping each other on the back, “touching one another’s faces as if to confirm that their names really coincided with their bodies.” Throughout the party, Iquela’s mother is over-eager, frightening, smiling too frantically. “Iquela, my girl, don’t ever forget this day,” she says grasping her dramatically. “Don’t ever forget.” That evening, under young Paloma’s fast and persuasive influence, the two young girls drink, smoke, and take some of Iquela’s mother’s pills. Paloma is the bold kid who teaches the younger one a lot of illicit things quickly. “I wasn’t expecting the kiss,” Iquela says.

It lasted barely a few seconds, neither rushed nor lingering, just long enough for Paloma and I to catch the exact moment her father punched mine, for my coughing fit to return and drown out the final count of votes, and for me to watch as my mother hugged someone else, so that they, too, would never forget this day.

As Iquela interrogates the traumas she inherited from her parents and nation, Felipe imagines wandering corpses, haunted by a mission to reconcile the dead, the living, and the disappeared. In The Remainder, terror churns through the national memory. The material world of the streets, the houses, the public spaces are the places where people were killed. Looking out his apartment window, Felipe notices another walking dead, “where the gallows used to be, where they used to hang the nonbelievers, the thieves, the traitors.”

Trabucco Zerán is one of several chillingly talented writers who are heirs to this late-20th-century Chilean trauma. Alejandro Zambra’s novels, stories, and essays, translated into English by Megan McDowell, also have the backdrop of Pinochet’s reign. “School changed a lot when democracy returned,” Zambra writes in Ways of Going Home. “I had just turned thirteen and was belatedly starting to get to know my classmates: children of murdered, tortured, disappeared parents. Children of murderers as well.”

Roberto Bolaño, for example, lived much of his life as an exile of Chile because of Pinochet. Many of Bolaño’s books reckon with the experience of transience and dislocation. In a New York Review of Books essay “The Triumph of Roberto Bolaño,” Sarah Kerr writes, “After Augusto Pinochet’s coup, Bolaño was detained and could have joined the thousands who were jailed, killed, or sent into official dramatic exile. Instead, he was spotted by old classmates who worked for the new regime, and let go.” From there, he kept going to Mexico and then eventually Europe.

From a geographic distance, horror feels more abstract, but these books by great Chilean writers bring the visceral terror of Pinochet’s rule into the light. The Chilean novel Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (coming this fall from Graywolf Press, from Bolaño translator Natasha Wimmer) also closely reckons with the aftermath of terror and the specific traumas it imparts. Fernández writes, “Time isn’t straightforward, it mixes everything up, shuffles the dead, merges them, separates them out again, advances backward […] whether we were there or not is no longer clear. Whether we took part in it all or not either.”

Iquela, Felipe, and Paloma take a road trip across Chile in an absurd effort to find meaning in the passage from life to death. The Remainder follows in the tradition of stories about afterlife couriers that includes items like Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or even Greek mythology with Charon ferrying the dead across the river. In Dead Souls, Gogol’s Chichikov is a buyer of dead serfs, whom he has figured out how to exploit for monetary gain. In one scene, Chichikov says to a provincial Russian woman, “Listen, dearie […] How much could they be worth? Consider: it’s dust. Do you understand? It’s just dust. Take any last worthless thing, even some simple rag, for instance, still a rag has its value: it can at least be sold to a paper mill — but for this there’s no need at all.”

In all these stories of post-mortem passage — including the film Y Tu Mama También — the past and its plentiful horrors linger over the present moment, triggering a carnal dash for escape. The characters in both The Remainder and Y Tu Mama También experience intimacy with each other as both children and adults, in jealous and various combinations. “You first,” Iquela says to Paloma late one night, when the two of them are alone together in the car. “You undress.” Like Tenoch in Y Tu Mama También, Felipe watches, horrified and jealous, from the outside. Felipe says, “I can’t see any more than their outlines, the contours of those enveloping bodies, a pair of orphan kittens who recognize each other, coming in for a mutual lick.”

These stories both convey how quick and easy it is to fall in love as well as the manner in which adulation speeds up the demise of the dream — when each person’s fear of death rises up, when their traumatic pasts become clear. Detailing an evening out Iquela says,

Paloma was dancing with her eyes closed in the middle of the bar, her arms raised high and her hips swaying. I went up to her with more enthusiasm than I felt, trying to get into it by following her lead, but it was useless. She was dancing out of time, following a secret internal rhythm completely at odds with the music.

Later, the three of them together take some of Paloma’s mom’s cancer drugs in a cramped toilet stall, and then Iquela stares at herself dead-eyed and empty in the bathroom mirror.

In her introduction to The Remainder, Chilean novelist Lina Meruane writes, “How can they, the young characters in The Remainder, escape the heavy political inheritance passed down by their mothers and fathers? How will they distance themselves from the fateful repertoire of horror?” The Remainder is a book about what to do with inherited trauma — what good it might serve the next generation in terms of learning from previous atrocious horrors, and what paralysis it might trigger in terms of living in a world that’s materially different from the past and the muddled territory in between. Iquela’s mother is terrified of her daughter forgetting or dismissing their friends who were killed and disappeared. In one selfish outburst she says to Iquela, “One day you’ll be telling your children all my stories and you won’t have the first idea. Because these are the stories they’ll want to hear, Iquela. My stories.”

As The Remainder rotates through time and space, gaining proximity to and distance from death, we find that history is a stipulation constructed by each person’s own fears and priorities. The report or memory of it sounds different in each person’s mouth. In both The Remainder and Y Tu Mama También, the car is a shelter in which three young people construct their own meaning, pursue their own self-destruction, and fuck. But the past is still dragged into the car by the fleeing passengers. With their inherited biology, geography, and emotional disposition, the past and the present weave between conflation and division. The past is held at a distance in time. But it also reverberates through each present moment. Iquela, Felipe, and Paloma would like to shake free of their inherited burdens, but they are left with the memory in their bones. Iquela is disarmed when she first sees Paloma again when they are both in their 30s. Trabucco Zerán writes, “[S]everal faces faded in and out superimposed on the same skin: Paloma as a little girl, Paloma the adult, the little girl again, and now her dead mother.”

As in Y Tu Mama También, The Remainder is driven by immersion in visceral gratification as its characters flee the burdens of their lives. And while there is pleasure in this sort of running, there is fear in it, too.


Nathan Scott McNamara also contributes at Literary Hub, The Atlantic, The Millions, the Washington Post, Electric Literature, and more.

LARB Contributor

Nathan Scott McNamara also contributes at Literary Hub, the Atlantic, the Millions, the Washington Post, Electric Literature, and more. Follow him at @nathansmcnamara, or read more at


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