by Pola Oloixarac, translated by Adam Morris.
Serpent’s Tail, 192 pp., £12.99, February, 978 1 78816 988 2
Show More
Show More

Pola Oloixarac​ has written three novels, though calling them novels seems too reassuringly bland. They’re baroquely layered with ideas, hacker theory, anthropology, natural history, mythology, dystopias. I admire them very much, but reading them can also bring moments of boredom or impatience. Ideas are allowed to expand in unexpected habitats. Oloixarac’s characters give complicated lectures, get lost in unwinnable arguments, write arcane texts: they invent theories the same way other animals invent shells or camouflage – as strategies of protection and self-concealment.

Mona, first published in Spanish in 2019 (Oloixarac is Argentinian), looks at first to be simpler than her previous two books, but in fact it’s just as extravagant. It tells the story of Mona Tarrile-Byrne, a Peruvian writer studying at Stanford whose first novel has won so much international acclaim that she has been nominated for the Basske-Wortz Prize, ‘the most important literary award in Europe and one of the most prestigious in the world’. The award ceremony is held at Sweden’s most prestigious literary festival, situated idyllically next to a lake. What follows is a swift and compact description of Mona’s time at the festival, with all its literary conversation and jargon and self-serving theorising.

At this point I need to interrupt with a spoiler, because it’s hard to discuss Mona except in terms of its late revelations, and these revelations are savage. The setting may be the insipid festival circuit of contemporary world literature, but the novel’s real subject is trauma and amnesia. Throughout, there are nervous tics, surges and refusals of memory. The book opens with Mona waking up from a blackout on a train platform. ‘She lifted a hand: her hair was stuck to the cement, her head a swamp. She didn’t remember how she got there … Her hands felt their way down her body: wet and cold. Something had happened, something horrible she couldn’t remember. Her arm ached.’

But then, very quickly (in the time it takes for a Google alert to remind Mona to check in for her flight from California to Stockholm), this moment of horror is overtaken by the bright blandness of literary talk. This establishes the pattern for the novel’s waywardness and gaps and nuances, its wildness and its confusions. Moments of flashback blend into the accelerating narrative until, just before the grand finale, the specific sexual violence Mona has suffered the night before her flight to Sweden is revealed. To appreciate the full tricksiness of this novel, you need to allow the possibility that, for Mona, listening to writers talk about literature is a way of trying to process trauma, or repress it. The apparently garish mismatch in tone and modes of narrative may conceal a more troubled entanglement.

Everything in the book is refracted through Mona – a distorted version of a younger Oloixarac, whose first novel, Savage Theories, was both feted and attacked in Latin America for its provocative sarcasm towards intellectual orthodoxies. What kind of writer is Mona? Extrapolating from the views of her critics and translators, we detect an aura of high seriousness. Early on, we discover that Mona’s first book has been praised by ‘the august critic Jorge Rufini’ for its rejection of ‘autofiction’ and ‘micropolitics’. Rufini admires her writing for its ‘marriage of politics and literature, the sancta sanctorum of the Latin American Boom’. Later, Mona has a depressing, awkward call with her French translator about her current manuscript – but this may be the flip side of the kind of book Mona writes. ‘The characters are difficult,’ the translator tells her. ‘The dialogue is practically incomprehensible. It made me ask myself: am I really expected to make an effort to understand? Seriously? Why do I have to make such an effort? If I don’t make the effort, am I just stupid, according to this book?’

Mona wants to avoid all questions of identity, or rather wants to establish an identity that is both exotic and in a permanent state of flux. The impression of movement is suggested in minute details, as in this moment of anthropomorphic precision: ‘She took a generous toke from her vape. The green liquid bubbled with excitement over its transformation into another substance.’ In the landscape of North American academia, she becomes gleefully LatAm, even Inca:

North American universities asked all doctoral candidates, upon application, to reveal their ‘ethnicity’. Mona had clicked ‘Hispanic, Indigenous’ and typed ‘Inca’ in the box underneath … She’d been born in Peru, but claiming indigenous ancestry in any other context would’ve been outrageous – much like calling herself a ‘person of colour’ anytime prior to her arrival in the United States. There was a niche sort of glamour to it, like being a rare specimen of an endangered species.

At the festival in Sweden, writers become clichés, or national types. ‘The ways that each of them appropriated their own local colours and used them as the backdrop for playing their parts in the theatrical literary market: these were just the modern tools of the trade, weapons in the battle royale of world lit.’ The way this plays out in the novel is a problem, since every writer Mona encounters is a stereotype: a vatic Icelandic poet, a neat Japanese poet, a Holocaust-obsessed Israeli, a Colombian novelist who dresses like a pirate and so on. But in the end it seems like the necessary output of the novel’s frenetic machinery: freakish and hallucinatory, with all its energy in Mona’s desire to outrun the violence of other people. A literary festival, according to this book, is just an intense form of everyday life: people try to define who you are or what you should be. They try to interfere with your outline.

Here is Mona, a Latin American woman writer, and she wants only to be herself: pure and unique. She goes to a sauna, and is lectured by a female children’s writer on how to be a woman: ‘Look at you. Yes, you. You’re a complete caricature of a woman. Have you looked at yourself? You’re completely ridiculous.’ A Colombian writer sees her as a fellow Latin American. But Mona isn’t so easily confined:

The phony solidarity of having a ‘Latin’ culture in common with other writers was something that always repulsed her. And socially – that is, in the global society of writers, the society to which she belonged, albeit in a forcefully reluctant and itinerant way – there was nothing worse than falling in with a bunch of déclassé monolinguals. Mona felt much more comfortable in the company of other languages. That is, she preferred to live en traducción, according to her literary tastes.

Mona cultivates a fantasy of identity as something extraterritorial and free-roaming. Sometimes she switches language, as with the trio of little poems she writes in French. But mostly she plays with the varieties of Latin American Spanish, a language that looks like one language, but which is really multiple:

The ruminative phase of the trip was over: next came the real fooling around. By this she didn’t refer to any specific regimen; she certainly didn’t intend to make a fool of herself, as a literal translation might indicate: ser tonta en los alrededores – although that was always a possibility. No, in situations like this one, the expression could mean any number of things, anything from no-strings-attached seductions to merely allowing herself to be invaded by a jovial spirit of playfulness – she’d irse en yolo, as they said in Lima, or what in Argentina they called hacer cualquiera. In international waters, without a compass: at times like these, with no other task than simply to be, even if being was nothing more than being a cocotte, a being fundamentally without any ties, and therefore without limitations, but nevertheless (and more than ever) a woman, Mona embraced her liberty the way the blind embrace the darkness. It was merely her element, impossible to avoid.

There’s something disturbing in this apparently exuberant passage: the blind don’t choose darkness, it’s imposed on them. Liberty, in this analogy, isn’t radiant and utopian, but a negative situation to which you have to adapt. And it is forever inflected by gender.

Although Mona is intent on refusing all impositions, she can’t escape her proximity to male violence. She follows the news of ‘the disappearance of Sandrita, a 12-year-old girl from the dangerous Lima neighbourhood of Rímac’. Towards the novel’s end, it ‘was being reported by all the big Lima newspapers: Sandrita had been found on the banks of the Rímac River, with signs of having been strangled and gang-raped. She’d been dragged through the weeds, and her wounds indicated the involvement of more than one person.’ A chapter later, Mona finally recalls her own repressed experience: ‘not in the form of an intact memory but rather as a series of images’. These images start benignly: ‘A highway at night. Mojitos at the bar at Reposado, a Peruvian-Mexican fusion place in Palo Alto. Another round at La Bodeguita del Medio, a Cuban restaurant she really liked. Sitting there staring at her order of ropa vieja – and then a blank. Antonio, one of the guys in her programme at Stanford, paying the bill.’ Then: ‘His car, his place, feeling the glass against her face, not being able to move because of the drugs … Inside Antonio’s campus apartment, the light clicking off, murmurs and later screams. Unrecognisable screams, the screams of a woman, but she wasn’t sure who.’ Until finally, a few pages later, the missing sentence is filled in with terrible detail: Antonio ‘punched her in the neck and kicked her as she lay on the floor, unable to resist, for minutes that felt like hours, and all because of a strange argument they’d gotten into while they were having sex, sex that became strange and painful, during which she asked him to stop, but he seemed not to hear her’.

Throughout the novel, with its surface chatter and soccer matches and food and drinking games, Mona has been in shock. The night before she arrived in Sweden, she was violently raped. The final description is so shocking, so brutal in contrast to the novel’s texture of literary bullshit, that at first you think this double reality represents the essential trick of Oloxiarac’s many-layered style. But in fact there is something further going on in Mona, another form of thinking, that takes literary theory and physical violence and, however improbably, merges them into a wild and fantastical form: one that doesn’t just try to articulate violence and its repression but also to find some kind of hopefulness through it.

Another term for the novel of ideas, according to Sianne Ngai, is the gimmick: ‘We might define the novel of ideas precisely by its intimate relation to the gimmick form.’ Certainly it’s difficult to let ideas flourish in a novel – in direct addresses to the reader, or in characters’ speeches – without it all seeming willed and artificial. But Oloixarac’s writing is exciting because of its total commitment to maxing out ideas, its demonstration that ideas can move through a novel in various ways – not only through dialogue and narration but also through descriptions and minor similes – and be transformed, in the same way a character may be.

Early in the book we’re told that Mona is writing ‘about the part of the Amazon basin that remained hidden after the Conquest – a secret world that had resisted the arrival of Europe from within the impregnable darkness of the jungle. The Amazon fascinated her because there, anything that seemed real, sacred and existent, dissolved.’ It’s the first appearance of a braided network of motifs and theories about forms of knowledge on the other side of culture: monsters in the depths, like Jörmungandr, ‘a Norse mythological serpent with a beard of tentacles who lived at the bottom of the sea’; ancestral liquid goddesses and presences, like ‘the list of strange women who populated her bloodline, their fluids pouring down from the Andes in an illiterate mudslide’, or the ‘gigantic Nordic goddesses, who for millennia crouched over the region’s fjords, straddling the living geography and letting the juices run from their divine pussies like acids coursing across the unformed earth’. These monsters and goddesses are combined in the image of an eye, first glimpsed in a metaphor for Mona’s vulva, ‘like a spongy tarantula, an omniscient and all-seeing eye’, before recurring in a conversation containing the thought that ‘the Earth’s crust is like the surface of a frozen lake, but beneath it there’s this giant eye, watching.’

All this powerful mythologising seems to represent some potential vengeance on a world of male violence. And to express it requires a new kind of contemporary literature, performed by ‘the genuine heretics, the lucid and wary ones’. This way of writing would feel ancient and occult, and one possible model for it, as the novel sees it, may be the Etruscan practice of tying living prisoners to corpses – a literature of ghosts and contagion: ‘Their theory of reading is, therefore, a theory of death, death by contagion, the death that liquefies and spreads and silences the territory it conquers.’

These images and arguments snake through the novel, while the comical and terrible processes of Mona’s survival continue. Until finally something unearthly surges from the lake beside which the festival is taking place:

A mass began to swell in the centre of the lake. It looked like a squall from the high seas, a column of water elevating over the grey plane, diffuse in the distance … Through the turmoil of the lake they glimpsed a hideous shape. The hindquarters of some prodigious animal … It looked like a serpent of colossal dimensions, pocked by brilliant scales, but with something even more monstrous about it than its shape – it possessed something like a human expression.

The writers, their words, their poses: all disintegrate as the universe takes over and what was buried cascades onto the surface, destroying the human world and dissolving it into ‘the rain and the dust and the nothing.’

It’s a finale that may feel like another gimmick. But perhaps we need to rethink what is meant by a gimmick. If a gimmick is anything that we want to reject as extra or excessive or ill-fitting, then it may be important to ask what inhibitions or arbitrary conventions have made it seem like excess, and to revel in the exorbitant fictional constructions it produces.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences