What kind of writer eviscerates his own novel? What drives a person to that extreme? And – just so we’re clear – we’re not talking about paring down the prose or making a few surgical edits to tighten up the plot. Carlos Labbé rips out entire chapters of his book and leaves huge, gaping holes behind. That takes guts. When it works it’s exciting and innovative. And, yes, disturbing. When it doesn’t it’s frustrating and… well it’s frustrating.
There are two parallel narratives in Navidad & Matanza. The first, which opens and closes the book, is narrated by a journalist investigating the 1999 disappearance of the teenage son & daughter of a video game executive – Alicia & Bruno Vivar. The Vivar family is fabulously wealthy. And, if Domingo the journalist is to be believed, fabulously debauched. The youngest, fourteen year old Alicia, is the most jaded of the clan. Wise, as the saying goes, beyond her years. Her education has been taken in hand by a much older “friend” of the family. A Congolese theremin musician who goes by the name of Boris Real. Domingo’s pet theory is that Real is linked to the siblings disappearance. But it is only one of his many theories. He is constantly revisiting and re-imagining moments and scenarios; gathering first hand accounts from men and women who were witnesses to crucial events.
Domingo’s obsession with Alicia & Bruno’s disappearance is, perhaps, too personal. His speculations on what could have happened – and on the daily lives of the brother & sister before they vanished – are exercises in voyeuristic fantasy. Domingo displays all the tell-tale signs of an unreliable narrator. There’s obviously more going on here than the reader is privy to; Labbé manipulates us until we’re desperate to see those missing chapters. And yet the narrative remains solid despite their omission.
The man from the service station accompanied Alicia to the beach, walking two steps behind her for several kilometers through the night. She asked many questions and he answered them, aware all the time of the cash he’d make housing this strange group of people for a few days. Afterward everything would be calm and normal again. That’s what he believed, he said. But it wasn’t so. Every once in a while the girl would yell: Right? Left? And now, which way? It was like she was walking with her eyes closed, like she wanted to be guided in the darkness. Then all of a sudden the sound of the sea was very near. When the sand and docas came into view, Alicia started to run. Rising up from down below he heard a shrill, sharp sound. At first it seemed to him that a woman was screaming. The he though someone was doing something bad to the young girl. He quickened his pace across the beach. The night was moonless, and there were no streetlamps in the town, and so he was barely able to make out two distant silhouettes approaching the water. Little by little the shrill sound turned into a birdsong, into the gurgle of an immense stomach, and finally into a strange music. “A female robot, singing with her mouth shut in the shower,” that’s how Patrice Dounn’s theremin sounded to the man from the service station. The foreigner was standing on a dune, an open case beside him – a different case, not the one he’d opened in the kitchen – his left hand suspended above a strange gleaming, blue instrument. The other hand, the right hand, moved slowly toward and away from the object. The music was very beautiful.
The insertion of a second narrative complicates the story. Domingo, we learn, is a test subject in an experiment. He and six others are housed in an underground laboratory and administered a drug called hadon, making them fearful and prone to violence. They play the “novel-game” to pass the time; writing and exchanging chapters, they all contribute to the plot of a single story. They are writing the Vivar family history. Domingo is one of them. Not only a character in the story; he is a writer. Not just imagining scenarios as we suspected in the first narrative; but authoring them in the second.
Will Vanderhyden translation provides two separate styles for the two separate narratives in Navidad & Mantanza. The portion set in the “real world’ is written in lush, sultry prose. In the emails that comprise the novel-game the prose is emptier, cleaner and more clinical. The missing chapters are even more keenly felt (is that possible?) because there is so little to go on – no landscapes, no physical descriptions or a sense of time. Just excerpts from a correspondence, given without a context to place them in.
And yet the mind naturally reaches out to fill in the blanks left by those missing chapters, like water will fill crevices in rock. Not at first, but in the weeks afterwards I began to take ownership of Domingo’s and Labbé’s story, making my own assumptions on what was going on. Adding to and shaping the plot all on my own. Until suddenly I realized I’d joined the game. That I’d become another player. A neat trick.
Publisher: Open Letter Books, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 92 4