Havana Year Zero by Karla Suárez, and Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro: two new translated books from Charco Press that are quirky, poignant, and very relevant for our times.
Charco Press is a conduit of contemporary Latin American literature, curating a diverse range of ambitious works and introducing them to the English-speaking world. Two of these are their beautifully translated volumes of Karla Suárez’s Havana Year Zero (translated by Christina MacSweeney), and Claudia Piñeiro’s Elena Knows (translated by Frances Riddle). Both works are announced as having elements of the detective novel; Suárez and Piñeiro, each in their own unique way, turn the convention inside out, and present poignant reading experiences.
In Havana Year Zero, a quirky ensemble of characters is after a document which would prove to the world that the telephone was invented in Cuba, by a certain Antonio Meucci, predating Graham Bell nearly by three decades. Through this pursuit, the life of our main character Julia —a maths teacher at a dead-end job in a dead-end social climate— becomes embroiled in increasingly muddled relationships, fuelled by sex and love, as motives and lies proliferate, and the whereabouts of the document gets progressively obscured. To us readers, it might seem absurd that so much hope is invested in a piece of paper. Yet, stuck in the quicksand of their sociopolitical environs, Meucci’s document might be the only branch our troupe of Habaneros can hold onto; ‘a tangible, material reality,’ claims Julia, ‘the lever capable of moving our world’.
Elena Knows chronicles an even more frustrating pursuit. Elena’s daughter, Rita, is found hanging from the belfry of the church, and even though everyone is convinced that this is a sad case of suicide, Elena insists that she knows —the way only a mother knows— that a murderer is on the loose. Piñeiro reports Elena’s journey on her way to find a healthy body that can carry out the investigation her own body is incapable of following, because Elena, despite being only 65 years old, has an advanced case of Parkinson’s. The reader follows this mother-cum-detective on her painstaking journey, where each step is a battle, and time is measured by the speed in which pills slowly dissolve into the bloodstream, from a quiet suburb to the bustling urban chaos of Buenos Aires. Parallel to this time-line, every other chapter is a glimpse into the past of the mother and daughter, slowly revealing what Elena does know, but perhaps would rather not know.
A whiff of Cuban and Argentinian air could warm hearts chilled by the Northern winds, one might assume— especially in a damp and windy city such as Edinburgh, where the publishing house is located. Havana Year Zero does offer a gust of the Caribbean; however, as much as Julia recounts her story with sharp and witty voice, the emotive landscape of the book is of hopelessness and ennui, and the balmy tropic air hangs like a veil, stale and oppressive. The events described in the book are set during ‘year zero’ in Cuba, known to the rest of the world as the liturgical year of 1993. In fact, the calendar had been crunched to zero in 1989: with the fall of the Berlin Wall, a tsunami, whose wave trains travelled across the Pacific, did not spare the much-mythologised socialist island haven. The book is peppered with mathematical and theoretical physics references. Changes in Cuba are postulated through chaos theory. Julia, nerdy and whimsical, recounts the two bifurcation points in Cuban history, and relatedly, her personal life. Bifurcation is the critical tipping point in which an equilibrated system suddenly changes. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, a relatively steady period followed, until the next bifurcation point thirty years later, upon the global triumph of capitalism. The daily lives of normal people were severely impacted. When life is so precariously positioned and prone to fluctuations instigated by outside influences, how does one persist? When the real name-of-the-game is change, and stability is an illusory blip, should we always be on guard for unexpected circumstances to arise? And what happens when these unexpected circumstances are here to stay? Needless to say, these questions are all too relevant to our present circumstances, and Havana Year Zero may not seem like the literary solace one might hope to find during a lockdown. Suárez writes from first-hand experiences when she recounts life post-1989, when Cuba was at a standstill, with no horizon ahead. Years of destitution accumulated to form nill, as zero became multiplied by zero. Yet even though Havana Year Zero does not offer escapism, it is still a hopeful and fun read. Bittersweetly, it proclaims that life, one way or another, always goes on. Sometimes this requires us to create our own bifurcation points: perhaps in the chase of a lost document, or more supremely, in the interpersonal bonds we create and the relationships we cultivate.
In Elena Knows, though there appears no horizon for Elena either, she is determined to keep holding on. However, Elena’s will to live is not brandished, as it is shown as concomitant with Rita’s rejection to go on. Elena Knows is about the loneliness engendered by disease; but more profoundly, it is about the isolation one might feel alongside those who they supposedly hold dearest, when relationships morph into bitter and callous forms. A hopeless interdependence and resentment mark the book, as each of Rita’s sentences directed at Elena finish with a vehement Mum, punctuating phrases like the crack of a whip, and Rita’s body is already returning to dust by the time Elena, who has never hugged her daughter, feels deprived of an embrace. As much as the book speaks of an unbridgeable existential gap that stands between two humans, it is also about the awful outcomes when certain boundaries are disregarded: denying another person agency over their own body and their life choices, and condemning them, as by illness, to a life antithetical to their being. How can a person make a decision for another? Do we know what weight existence holds, unless we personally experience the worst? Do we know what weight our body holds, until it stops working the way we expect it? The venom saturating Elena’s emotive narrative is accompanied by descriptions of physical pain and frustration. The reader is incited to feel uncomfortably aware of their own body and mortality whilst reading about Elena’s affliction. Much of the book takes place either in Elena’s bodily introspection, or in the past, through memory work. Though Elena pushes her noncompliant body to pursue an investigation, it is perhaps in an inner world, through the mind’s eye funnelled onto the past, that the most coherent clues can be found. And although Elena is condemned to harrowing, inward-looking isolation, she is not entirely cut-off from an outer world either. Despite her stiff, bent neck, an Argentinian social landscape is tangentially caught in her field of vision. Elena, Rita, and the few other characters that have been introduced, are consumed by the oppressive dynamics of their interpersonal relationships; yet they are also historically situated, as their lives are impacted by a larger religious, gendered, and economic milieu. Piñeiro concocts a biopolitical tale that speaks of multiple urgencies in the span of less than 150 pages.
Of the two, Elena Knows has had a more profound impact on me, whilst Havana Year Zero was perhaps the more needed read at the moment. I sympathised with the quotidian intrigue of Havana Year Zero, as this book came my way just as I have been trying to become more attentive to the little mysteries of life, the fish-bowl existence of lock-down having brought an increased prominence to all my relations and imbued every daily event with a sense of greater urgency. There are quite a few parallels between my current lived-experience and Julia’s account; consequently, Havana Year Zero has been a comforting read. In contrast, I would recommend Elena Knows to those who seek a disquieting kind of literature- one that imparts a quick stab in the guts, as each sentence drives one into a more acute understanding of the character: her fears, her needs, her desperation, and her sorrow. Its sharp psychological insight, coupled with an eloquent and honest use of language, unapologetically gets to the heart of some very difficult emotions. Perhaps, this is not the ideal lockdown read; yet, I feel lucky to have come across the intelligent voice of Piñeiro, as her words work a kind of magic only very masterful literature does. Genre-bending novels by women authors in translation is just my cup-of-tea, so I have now added to my wish list other books by Suárez and Piñeiro, and I will definitely acquaint myself better with Charco Press’ catalogue.
Both Havana Year Zero by Karla Suárez (translated by Christina MacSweeney, February 2021) and Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (translated by Frances Riddle, July 2021) are published by Charco Press. and are available to order / preorder online.
Feature image: detail from the cover of Havana Year Zero, courtesy of Charco Press