The Case of Lisandra P. by Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson – #WITMonth 2016

Title:  The Case of Lisandra P.

Author:  Hélène Grémillon

Translator:  Alison Anderson

Publisher:  Penguin Books, New York (2016)

ISBN:  978 0 14 312658 4

 

When writing #WITMonth posts, my first instinct is to spotlight only amazing books. And while those books definitely exist, it started to seem unfair to hold a writer to a ridiculously high standard because of her gender. It is perfectly acceptable for women, like men, to write mediocre but ultimately entertaining novels. Novels you take to the beach or read beside the pool not caring if the pages get full of sand or foxed from the water. Novels that are a little far-fetched and require a willingness to buy into coincidence after unlikely coincidence; but  which have you locked to the page – frantic to find out what happens next.

The Case of Lisandra P. is that kind of book.

In 2003 the French military’s role in training Argentine forces thirty plus years prior, in both urban warfare and torture techniques, was revealed. That training was subsequently used by the Argentine government against its own people in what came to be known as the Dirty War. Anywhere between 7,000-30,000 men, women and children disappeared between 1974 and 1983 – no one knows the actual numbers – and devastated families had no choice but to accept never knowing what had happened to a generation of their loved ones.  French writer Hélène Grémillon sets her story in Buenos Aires, 1987. It is against this backdrop of residual paranoia and loss which The Case of Lisandra P. plays out.

When a beautiful young woman is found dead on the sidewalk by a pair of young lovers, six stories below the window of her own apartment, the police are more than happy to implicate the husband. But Dr. Vittorio Puig,  psychoanalyst, maintains he is innocent.  From prison he reaches out to one of his patients and asks for her help in uncovering the truth. Eva Maria, an alcoholic and emotionally fragile woman (who may be a little in love with Puig), hesitantly agrees.

The alcoholic detective, recovering from a tragic past may be as cliché as it gets – but Eva Maria is more than that. She is a mother still reeling from the disappearance of her daughter.  One day Stella left the house and, like so many others during the Dirty War, never came back.  Her body was never found. In the aftermath, Eva Maria’s marriage falls apart and she drinks until she blacks out.  Her remaining son’s attempts to reach out to her, to care for her, are continually rejected. He desperately wants some sign of his mother’s affection, but Eva Maria is buried alive in a very real portrayal of a parent’s inconsolable grief.

…The funeral of a dead woman is one thing, but of a murdered woman, that’s something else entirely. The sorrow of not knowing how she died, this woman they are burying: it impedes mourning, and nothing should ever impede mourning, or there can be no healing. Can anyone here imagine Vittorio pushing his wife out the window? Is anyone here absolutely convinced he did? Eva Maria got there first, and she will be the first to leave. The policeman are waiting. Talking. Laughing. Eva Maria hides behind a tree. She watches as people leave the church. You don’t take photos at funerals. Her camera sounds like the song of a sick bird. She doesn’t want to miss anyone. Eva Maria is beginning to have a taste for suspicion, the stifling sensation that anyone could have killed Stella. She meant to say Lisandra. She’s confusing them. Mixing things up. In her mind now the two dead women are overlapping. The one who makes her suffer so much that she cannot bear to think of her, and the one who did not suffer, who occupies her thoughts for hours on end.

As she becomes more involved the case the boundaries between  Lisandra P.’s murder and Eva Maria’s obsession with her daughter’s disappearance begin to blur. As she listens to tapes of his sessions, at Vittorio’s request, she learns terrible secrets regarding her fellow patients. Things quickly spiral into an ending both shocking and tragic.

Structurally, The Case of Lisandra P. is a hodge-podge that incorporates first person stream of conscious and all three third person narrative perspectives (objective, limited and omniscient) as it jumps from character to character. Even the victim gets her turn to speak. Four pages of sheet music are reproduced between chapters, we read directly from the transcripts of Puig’s therapy sessions, there is the illustration of a sign and of a business card, a list of words Lisandra found in a book takes up three pages. There’s probably more that I’ve forgotten. Grémillon has metaphorically dumped a box onto a table and assembled a novel out of the contents. A hot mess is one way to describe it.  But the disorganization also creates the impression that the reader is actively participating in Eva Maria’s investigation.

Hélène Grémillon’s first novel, The Confidant was nominated for the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman and won Monaco’s Prince Pierre Literary Prize.  I have to think that it was a very different book than this one.  The Case of Lisandra P. is a perfect poolside thriller. Easily read and just as easily forgotten.

 

The Planets by Sergio Chejfec (translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary)

Is there a place where our trajectories can speak for us, without our intervention?  The other did not respond.  If it does exist, we don’t know where it is; if it doesn’t, we should invent it.

Click on the cover image to read an excerpt of The Planets (available on the Open Letter website).

I won’t pretend to completely understand everything that is going on in The Planets.  Despite that, I can appreciate that with its publication by Open Letter Books, Sergio Chejfec has presented English readers with a gentle novel on friendship, grief and loss.  It is, ostensibly, a collection of memories told to us by the narrator about his childhood friend, M.  M was abducted during Argentina’s Dirty War.  He disappeared, his fate unknown, leaving his friends and family in a kind of limbo.  (Sergio Chejfec has stated that the book is in part based on a real life friend who did disappear in the 1970’s).  Some years later the narrator reads in the newspaper about an explosion outside of Buenos Aires.  He believes, for no good reason and without evidence as far as I can see, that M was killed in it.  What he has come to see as confirmation of M’s death unleashes the flood of memories which make up The Planets.  Eventually leading him to some kind of closure.

Memories are not bound by the law of causality, linear space or time.  And so we are forced to follow the disorganized train of the narrator’s thoughts.  Interspersed between the memories of M are other, related, memories – an encounter the narrator has with his and M’s mutual friend, meeting M’s mother after the abduction, stories told to him by M and M’s father. It becomes tricky keeping track.  This meandering stream-of-conscious style was also present in My Two Worlds, but the geography of the park in which that narrator walked provided a structure.  Structure which I badly missed in The Planets…. at least in the early chapters.  Coming to terms with the lack of a lineal storytelling is a hurdle that has to be overcome in order to appreciate this novel.

Like The Catcher in the Rye, The Planets is obliquely about grief.  Like Salinger, Chejfec plays this information close to the chest.  He engulfs you in his narrator’s subconscious, leaving you to experience first hand the strange distance combined with an eery connection that exists between the person lost and the other left.  Holden Caulfield mentions his dead brother briefly in passing, but his loneliness informs every line of the novel.  The narrator of The Planets has assembled a montage of memories, yet his connection to M (he eventually acknowledges) is stretching and becoming tenuous.  To confuse matters, his memories of M are mixed with fictional stories he’s come to associate with the friendship.  Some of those stories are split into parts, appearing at random intervals through the course of the book. It’s often difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, but the experience of the narrator attempting to hold on to his grief and, through the emotion of grief his friend, is recognizable and feels real in its very ambiguity.  Heather Cleary, the translator, has done a remarkable job of capturing what she refers to as a “certain – productive – dissonance” in the text.*

A highlight of The Planets, which is foremost a novel of ideas, is the narrator’s explanation of how the static existence (or non-existence) of M, created by his disappearance and the mystery of his fate, has changed the orbits the two young men once traveled in relation to each other.  Chejfec continuously references space, gravity, stars and the planets.  The ongoing metaphor that he’s created is startling because it is so beautiful.

The constellations that M and I believed we formed throughout the day as we connected our individual trajectories needed the space of the city to be understood as such, as the orbits of planets whose course is influenced by the relative effects of mass, force, gravity, and things like that, which define the breath and depth of their impact as complex equations and reciprocal equilibrium; in the same way, the two of us seemed to bear the weight of the city on the transparent lines that connected our bodies in movement.

Sergio Chejfec seems to have an attachment to the cosmos, as demonstrated by his choice of titles.  My Two Worlds, The Planets, and the upcoming The Dark, seem too pointed to be coincidental. As more of his books are translated into English, perhaps the significance (if one exists) will come to light.  Which segues nicely into why I find Chejfec’s writing interesting and exciting.  There’s so much there to explore.  These aren’t books to be quickly consumed and, just as quickly, forgotten.  The Planets will linger, frustrate and engage – demanding you return to it to fully understood and appreciate its many layers (for example, I haven’t even touched on the political aspect of the wartime setting).  This is what I like best about Sergio Chejfec’s novels – like the great classics of literature they live and grow with the reader.  As such, they are never finished.

Publisher:  Open Letter Books, New York (2012).
ISBN:  978 1 934824 39 9

*This link leads to an excerpt of a longer post (which can be read in its entirety here) from Heather Cleary’s blog Lost in the Stacks.

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