on 19 February 2015
I haven't read Havilio's first book "Open Door", so came to this novel cold. It opens with the protagonist's partner's death and progresses from there as she moves on to make a life in Buenos Aires for herself and their son, Simon, without him.
This could be a really gritty novel, it could be full of threat and suspense - all the elements are there - and yet it isn't. It's a chronicle (and a weirdly compelling one) of a life lived passively, unconsciously, as if the protagonist is content to just go with the ebb and flow of the world around her. There's no emotional level to this book and yet in some ways the underworld described here is more gripping because of that; there's no way of knowing where the story will go because we have no moral or emotional sense of the narrator.
For me it was a very different kind of read, but especially after struggling with lots of South American Magical Realism, a welcome read. I was glued to it and saw a more interesting side to Buenos Aires because of it.
The first thing to say is that other publishers would do well to follow the publisher of this book, And Other Stories. The production values are immaculate and the Editor, Copy-editor and Proofreader are all listed, so congratulations to all concerned. As might be gleaned from the colours of the front cover, Iosi Havilio’s novel, published in 2012, is set in Argentina and, as Alex Clark points out in her Introduction, it follows on from his debut, ‘Open Doors’, 2006.
Although events from the earlier book are described, it would be best to read the books in order since this would contrast their rural and urban locations and also explain the strange relationship between the unnamed narrator and her younger friend Eloise.
The author is reported as saying that, at the age of eight, he and his father passed through a small town called Open Door, not far from a mental hospital where the inmates were free to go about the place. At the beginning of this book the narrator and her young son, Simón, are still living near Open Door when a tragedy interrupts their rural life and leads to their move to Buenos Aires. They first stay in a hostel and, through meeting Iris, a Romanian immigrant, she begins working at the zoo. This leads one of the staff, Canetti, to tell her about El Bulti, a tower block squat, where she can live in return for providing an ailing obese and terminally-ill woman, Tosca, with morphine injections.
The freedom of the old Open Doors institution is contrasted with the caged animals in the zoo, the overcrowded tower block and Tosca and her encephalitic son who rarely leave their apartment. It also emphasises the narrator’s self-restraint, only rarely making a move of her own free will, ‘I carry on, to everyone else's rhythm: this is seemingly what I have to do’. This is especially true when Eloise, a key figure from the first book, crops up and thereafter largely controls her life. It is through her influence that the book ends ‘I find it hard to believe a new life is about to begin’, thus perhaps setting up a further novel. The central character remains peripheral but Havilio’s writing and Fowler’s translation retain the reader’s interest.
In fact the narrator is very resourceful and quickly learns all about the animals in the zoo, especially the reptiles, and about the city’s trees about which Canetti is an expert. She is not given to introspection, preferring to react to the vagaries of life rather than try to affect them. She often seems separated from reality, as when she loses sight of her son ‘I'm not going to shout, I wouldn't know how. I wait, to see if he appears, surely he'll appear, but he doesn't appear. I stand up and walk without alarm, accommodating my flip-flops between the holes and the stones.’ At other times such confusion can be attributed to alcohol and drugs, but even here she just seems to end up taking them.
The author’s style is very flat with little emphasis being placed on deaths, departures or births. Only when Simón is taken ill do we observe any upsurge in his mother’s emotions, and she appears to relate more closely to reptiles than to humans. At one point the narrator finds a discarded book from the library of Eduardo Ladislao Holmberg, an Argentinian biologist who was an earlier Director of the zoo. His name crops up on several occasions but, to a non-Argentinian, its significance is unclear.
The characters, male and female, are all rounded and possess interesting back stories. The descriptions of life, first in the countryside and then in Buenos Aires overcome the limited plot. The author contrasts the lives of the poor and the rich and powerful, the latter through developers who force the couple out of their farm home and Eloise’s dissolute boyfriend, Axel, and his family who are jewellers. The inhabitants of El Bulti, itself named after a youth who died resisting eviction, include drug dealers, prostitutes and gang leaders, and at one point adult violence is chillingly repeated by one of Simón’s young friends.
The title of the book refers to the Paradise trees that grow across the city, specifically the one outside the tower block and whose poisonous seeds and their antidote play a part in the story.
on 29 November 2013
Got this book as part of my "& other stories" subscription. It is a loose sequel to Open Door with the same (unnamed) protagonist but you don't need to have read the prequel.
This is not the usual Latin American magical realism - more like gritty realism. The protagonist has daily struggles to find somewhere to live and earn enough money for her and Simon, her toddler, to survive. They end up in a squat in a concrete tower block (El Buti) with the water being brought up by hand.
The characters are all well drawn but rather strange - none are wholly attractive or repugnant. Eloisa is a manic pot smoker who lives off Axel, a monied but shadowy depressive whilst El Buti is run by Tosca, a huge woman slowly dying of a cancerous growth, plus her handicapped son Benito and Mercedes, the local drug dealer. The protagonist has pseudo Lesbian fantasies about her friends Eloisa and Iris (a grumpy Roumanian fellow employee from the zoo).
The plot moves along rapidly, if chaotically, driven by events in the zoo and El Buti as well as the antics of Eloisa. In the midst of this maelstrom Simon is poisoned by the paradise tree and a random baby is delivered in El Buti. Confused?
Great setting in the mess of Buenos Aires and great characters and plot. Read it.
on 26 December 2013
Alex Clark's introduction suggests that Iosi Havilio's `Paradises' is about contingency, connections and boundaries. City life in Buenos Aires is mundane and banal, dreary and depressing. Working at the zoo, arranging childcare, connecting with other women like Iris in similar situations, medicating the cancer sufferer Tosca with morphine. This is the grim reality mediated by contingency and connections.
Stir in abundant alcohol, drugs, sex, and a connection via Eloisa to the squalid richesse of Axel, and the scenario enters the surreal. Boundaries as Alex Clark says are crossed. Reality and unreality merge into one consciousness. But this doesn't make for a gripping or even an engaging read. Like the ordinary life it describes, the book itself is mundane and boring, inevitably and almost essentially so. It's like watching soap operas to see familiar everyday life on TV. `Paradises' didn't match the high literary claims made on the cover. Havilio has clearly set up the ending to lead straight into his next novel, so there's more to come.