There have been many Paradise books – by Milton, Toni Morrison and Abdulrazak Gurnah to name and recommend but a few – but this one promises more than one paradise and they turn out to be trees! In a very clear and contemporary translation by prize-winning translator Beth Fowler, Paradises by Iosi Havilio is a sequel to his first novel Open Door. Open Door is a rural village in Argentina from which the unnamed narrator ‘escapes’ to a seedy suburb of Buenos Aires with her four-year-old son Simón. After a period of stability, her partner Jaime has been killed in a hit-and-run accident which leads to her being evicted from their farm with minimal compensation.
In Buenos Aires, and living in a squat, called el Buti after a young man who dies resisting eviction, she pays ‘rent’ to the squat matriarch Tosca by injecting her with heroin. She manages to get work at the zoo and scratches a living. The other characters at the zoo and el Buti all have their peculiarities which are a foil to the narrator and food for her feelings and reactions. Out of the blue, a friend from Open Door, sexually adventurous Eloísa, now living in the luxury family home of Axel a gay drug addict, turns up and invites the narrator to take advantage of life in her way. The narrator resists yet cannot resist her either.
The narrator recounts her days in short chapters much like diary entries using mostly the present tense, except that such acuteness of observation, self-analysis and quality of language are not found in many diaries not written for publication. In another book (in another world, indeed) the chapters might be short stories by Virginia Woolf, or indeed, as other critics have remarked, author Havilio can be compared with writers as diverse as Camus (say La Peste) or Michel Houellebecq (Atomnised). It is an easy-to-read, matter-of-fact prose that makes the events seem more credible: like, for example, the minutiae of getting that job at the zoo which includes cutting and pasting a concoction of a CV, taking her fevered son to hospital because he may have swallowed the seeds of the paradise tree and then secretly giving the shamanic antidote of a tincture of the bark of the tree from which the seeds came (no other will do!), stealing and later burying a baby iguana from the zoo, and wildly sexual dreams.
I think I tried at first to resist the qualities of this book because I was not on the narrator’s wavelength but, as page succeeded page, I found myself drawn in by the language and my growing anxiety to know what was coming next; whether action or meditation
Morning in the plaza. Swings, slides, taxi drivers drinking coffee, too much sky for the city. Sitting in the sand, I take off my shoes and entertain myself burying and exposing my feet. My toes are covered in grains of sand that pile up on the skin like miniscule human beings. Thousands of blond little men with the singular mission of sinking and allowing themselves to sink. And at that moment, passing from one state to another, when the toes stop being toes, the instant at which the knuckles have no beginning or end, the deformity is revealed. My deformity. A different kind of deformity, through concealment, that leads to the same nothing, the same mystery as ever: A horn beeps and it’s goodbye abstraction. Simón is carefully swinging his motorcycling cat back and forth until suddenly he ducks his head and gives it a hard push, launching it like a rocket.
The voice of Havilio’s narrator has grown on me but, I have to admit, not enough to lure me to the book’s prequel, Open Door, so I will finish up by giving Paradises (London: And Other Stories, 2013) 6.5 out of 10.