Faces In the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

Title:  Faces In The Crowd
Author:  Valeria Luiselli
Translator:  Christina MacSweeney
Publisher:  Coffee House Press, Minneapolis (2014)
ISBN:  978 1 56689 354 1

Faces in the Crowd*This review contains spoilers*

Subway trains make me think of Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. Not all the time, obviously. But sometimes a train will be moving in a dark tunnel and a second train will overtake it.  They will run on parallel tracks for a few seconds, side-by-side.  Until the tracks diverge and the two trains separate – each into its own tunnel.  Or one gains momentum and pulls away.  If you are a passenger in one train, for those few seconds when the two trains are accelerating at the same rate of speed you can see clearly into the lit car, filled with passengers, traveling beside you.  It’s eerie. Two reference frames briefly merge.  Then one train begins to move away and the tenuous connection stretches taught, snaps.  You are once again hurtling through a dark tunnel.

The plot of Faces In the Crowd seems to me to be built around this experience, peculiar to underground mass transit. Valeria Luiselli’s two narrators move through the same city but within different frames of reference. A young Mexican woman writes about the time when she lived in Harlem, translating (and fabricating) the poems of a forgotten Mexican poet named Gilberto Owen.  The novel contains post-modern elements.  As this woman writes from present day Mexico City about her past her husband and children interject, comment on and insert themselves into her narration.

The story is also being told from a different perspective, that of Gilberto Owen.  He is a Mexican poet living in Philadelphia in the 1950’s. He travels to Manhattan regularly to see his children.  Luiselli drifts between these two artists – creating a third level of narration in which we are led to believe that Owen’s parts of the story are actually being written in the present by the young woman in Mexico City. A star between paragraphs notifies us of a change in speaker. But sometimes even that can be misleading.

When I was in other people’s beds, I slept deeply and got up early the next morning. I’d dress quickly, steal the odd personal items – my favorites were towels, which smelled good, or white singlets – and depart in a good mood. I’d buy a coffee to go, a newspaper, and sit in some very public space, in full sunlight, to read. What I most liked about sleeping in other people’s beds was precisely that, waking up early, rushing out, buying a real newspaper, and reading in the sun.

My husband stands behind me as I write. He massages my shoulders, too hard, and reads what’s on the screen.

Is it him saying that or you?

Him – she barely speaks now.

And what about you, how many men have you slept with?

Only four, or perhaps five.

And now?

No one else. What about you?

There’s a lot of experimental writing happening in Faces In the Crowd.  It’s a complicated book. Luiselli, a resident of New York City, has (like her two main characters) spent a lot of time travelling the NYC subways. Trains and platforms appear throughout the pages. The plot – and I use that term loosely – is convoluted and challenging. The characters are fascinating but not particularly charming. They do not drive the narrative so much as participate in an exercise in prose, an experiment in time and space.  The narrator’s lives and thoughts overlap.  They are, both metaphorically and literally, passengers on two trains traveling on parallel tracks. Sometimes running alongside each other and at other times entering separate tunnels. The twist arrives when they reach their destinations.

Valeria Luiselli can fairly be described as the new It Girl of Mexican literature. She’s everywhere these days: the Brooklyn Book Fair, Bomb Magazine, LA Review of Books, the London Book Fair, selected as one of The National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 40, Electric Literature, The New Yorker, The Guardian, LitHub, NPR… Faces In the Crowd has been long listed for numerous prizes & shortlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. Luiselli also has a new book of essays coming out this Summer.  She is a talented writer and a unique voice – there’s a casual, brusque earthiness in the way her characters express themselves, particularly the female writer in Faces… (who readers can be excused for imagining as a fictional version of Luiselli, whether or not that is the case).  She is almost masculine in her descriptions of casual sexual encounters.  “I could have told him I was going because I was incapable of sustaining and inhabiting the worlds I myself had fabricated, that I also had a scar splitting my face in two. Perhaps I could have made love to him in the bathtub. Perhaps I did make love to him.”  “My husband has started reading some of these pages again. Did you use to sleep with women? he asks.”

Cliché as it may be, Frida Kahlo comes to mind while reading these pages.  Or at least Salma Hayek’s portrayal of Frida. And the quiet desperation that goes hand-in-hand with having once been young in NYC that Jennifer Egan describes so perfectly in A Visit from the Goon Squad, particularly Sasha’s sections, and Joan Didion captured in her famous essay about leaving the city behind.  Valeria’s writing reminded me of all those things.

For all the apparent talent and promise on display I didn’t particularly enjoy Faces In the Crowd.  Part of that is my fault: I tried to read it in short bursts when what it needs is to be read in long, uninterrupted sittings. But ultimately I was undone by the segmented narrative structure, the messiness of the timeline, the sudden twists built on seemingly the flimsiest of foundations.  The entire thing appears to be the outline of a novel rather than a carefully crafted, finished product. Like Nabakov’s index cards* Faces In the Crowd seems to still be waiting for the author to return and fill in the empty spaces.  To complete the story.  Unless, of course, I’ve completely missed the point and the empty spaces are really what this story is all about.

 

*I probably should clarify that I’m thinking of The Original of Laura.

 

 

The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber (translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid)

 
 
 
 

 

– excerpt from the United Nations Report of the International Independent Investigation Commission Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1595 (2005).  Popularly known as “The Mehlis Report”.

Rabee Jaber’s gorgeously written and brilliantly conceived novel – let’s establish that right out of the gate – is set in the days leading up to the release of UN Security Council Resolution 1595:  The Mehlis Report.  And while it isn’t necessary to know the history to enjoy the book (I learned most of of the information included in this review only after I’d finished reading) knowing a little bit about Lebanon and the events leading into to the story is helpful.

With that in mind:  Lebanon, like Belgium, might be considered a victim of its geography.  Both Syria and Israel loom at its borders.  The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the details of which I’m not going into, resulted in internationally sanctioned invasions and occupations of Lebanon by both these neighbors.  Israel sent troops into Southern Lebanon in 1982, where they remained for almost two decades.  Syrian forces invaded even earlier, in 1976, eventually occupying two-thirds of the country.  It was Former Prime Minister Harriri’s assassination, spawning peaceful protests known in the West as the Cedar Revolution and Intifadat-al-Istiqlal in Lebanon, which precipitated Syria’s withdrawal in 2006.  Thus ending almost 30 years of continuous foreign occupation.

Jaber’s The Mehlis Report takes place in 2006 after the protests have begun and a few weeks prior to the release of the UN report investigating Harriri’s death.  Tensions in Beirut are high.  Everyone is talking about and speculating on what Mehlis’ (the German Special Investigator appointed by the UN) Report will reveal.  A middle-aged architect named Saman Yarid is no less effected than those around him.  We are privy to conversations between Saman and his two sisters (one now living in Baltimore and the other in Paris).  It is a close family.  The sisters worry about his safety. They feel it is time that he, too , leave Lebanon.  He knows they are probably right… and yet he stays.  And takes long walks saturated with memories of war, family and the changing landscape of Beirut.

Saman’s Beirut is a place laden with portent.  He comes from a family of architects, his father and his grandfather founded the firm in which he works, and so he has an intimate knowledge of every square foot of the city.  He’s constantly comparing the new buildings and construction to what he remembers from his childhood or to the time before the war.

He passes the BLOM bank and the new sidewalk behind the buildings on Maarad Street that descends to the Place de l’Étoile.  There aren’t many customers on this side of the street either.  Spotlights light up Roman columns underneath the street.  Crowns of sculptured marble.  Thresholds.  Grass sprouting among the stones.  He’s seen the plans for this park.  And the long winding path among the ruins.  When will this park be completed?  The view will be different on this side once the park’s finished.  The fish market was here before the war, behind the Banca di Roma.  He used to come here with his father.  The bank has since moved to Al-Omari Mosque Street.  Its building collapsed during the war.  Or rather, half collapsed, and the Solidere bulldozers removed the other half.  These columns were discovered beneath the debris, after the rubble was dug up and dumped into the sea.  The plan had been to put up some buildings here.  The Roman columns changed that plan.  Saman has the very first map of the ruins in his office.  And he has the amended maps as well…

The Mehlis Report is a ghost story in more ways than one.

There was a third Yarid sister, Josephine, who was the victim of a brutal kidnapping 22 years ago.  During the war.  She provides a second, stranger, layer of narrative – speaking to us from a kind of limbo.  She resides in an underworld that is also Beirut, but different.  This shadow city is inhabited by ghosts who remain connected to their former lives through books, a compulsive need to write (a self-reference by Jaber?) and continuous observation of those still living.  Whereas Saman’s story is told in the third person, Josephine narrates in the first.  This lends an intensity and desperation to her part of the story that is incredibly disturbing.  Like in the following excerpt where she attempts to contact her brother.  She calls him on his cell phone.  Though he receives the calls, he doesn’t recognize the number and doesn’t pick up.  She keeps calling, but when he eventually answers he’s unable to hear her voice.

I see you all by yourself, Saman.  You want to know what binds you to this city, but you don’t know.  It’s like your guts are tied to Beirut’s, and you don’t know why.  You go your way while your eyes drink in the buildings and the streets, the city’s hidden nooks.  Wrought iron doors.  Polished walls. How many cities are hidden in the belly of this one city?  At rare times, you see all of those cities together.  At night, when you push the window open, outwards, and hear the wooden shutters bang against the wall and then retreat into the darkness, your heart jumps.  It doesn’t jump because of the sound of wood striking wood:  you’re not scared of that noise.  You’re not scared it will wake up the naked woman under the sheets.  Like you, she drank a lot before going to sleep.  You can tell she’s sound asleep from her breathing.  Even if they started shelling the city right now, she still wouldn’t open her eyes.  “And if it weren’t for my headache, I wouldn’t have woken up.”

Josephine is as chained to the city as her brother.  She refuses let go of her ties to the living world.  She is haunted by her former life, just as those left alive are haunted by their memories of the dead.  And so we are given two evocative descriptions of Beirut, one from above and the other from below.  This inability to release, to let go, is the source of the tension in The Mehlis Report.

The writing, as already mentioned, is gorgeous.  Rabee Jaber uses a shadow world of ghosts and memory to explain a place he obviously feels very strongly about.   And Kareem James Abu-Zeid deserves praise for his stunning translation of a novel that depends as heavily on capturing “atmosphere” as it does prose.  Moving with Saman Yarid through the streets of Beirut it’s hard not to believe you’re experiencing the sites, smells and tangibles first hand.  In Josephine’s voice Jaber describes the same city’s soul. The cumulative effect of both narratives is an incredibly poignant expression of love for this war torn, shifting city that is perpetually rising from its own ashes.

Rabee Jaber is the youngest author to win the International Arabic Fiction Prize, which he was awarded in 2012.

Publisher:  New Directions, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 8112 2064 4

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