Our Dead World, by Liliana Colanzi (transl by Jessica Sequeira), Dalkey Archive Press, 120 pp, ISBN: 978-1943150113
In 1940, Maria Simma, then aged twenty-five, awoke to an apparition. A man was pacing at the foot of her bed. She attempted to speak to him but he remained silent. She tried to seize him but found herself grasping air. With admirable equanimity, she returned to bed; the man disappeared.
The next day, Maria visited her parish priest, who identified the visitor as a soul from Purgatory and instructed her to ask of any future spirit, “What do you need of me?” That night, the same man returned and Maria, in another remarkable display of sangfroid, attended to the plan. In response to her question, the man informed her how to reduce his time in purgatory (three holy Masses for his intentions) and departed. Maria went on to serve other purgatorial petitioners in a similar way.
Early in Liliana Colanzi’s new short story collection, Our Dead World, a young woman reads Maria Simma’s The Marvelous Secret of the Souls in Purgatory. It’s a propitious reference. Throughout this book Colanzi masterfully explores liminal states – not just the intersection of this world and the next but the boundaries of the earthly, animal, human, cosmic, and spiritual.
The story Alfredito slips disconcertingly between these domains. It begins with an image of brutal violence as the narrator observes her neighbour killing a pig, “battering the creature with blows of his hammer”. She then discovers that her schoolfriend, the Alfredito of the title, has died and wonders “Where could Alfredito be? In Heaven or Hell, or maybe his spirit was wandering through the world?” but soon matter-of-factly describes his “body … beginning to decompose and feed the worms”. The story then pivots when another friend reveals that “(l)ast night Alfredito appeared to me” and relates how she questioned the ghost. He, unlike Maria Simma’s interlocutor, declared “I’m coming back” and the story culminates in a scene of mystery, hope, and expectation.
Such intimations of the numinous recur throughout these stories but are destabilised by the circumstances of their reception. Colanzi’s characters are often under intense psychic pressure and mentally disintegrating in response to societal, familial, or historical pressures. “The Eye”, which opens the collection, focuses on a young woman who lives with a religious and authoritarian mother, amid “dolls – gifts from her mother that she didn’t dare throw out”. This woman suffers the ignominy of her mother’s close surveillance, not least the sniffing of fingers and underwear, and descends into self-harm. Her university offers no sanctuary, intensifying the pressure by reinforcing female subjugation; a male professor callously dismisses her diligence with advice that she should “learn how to disobey” and mercilessly gives her a “mediocre mark”. Graffiti in a bathroom stall read like a condensed social-media feed and push her further beyond the edge of reason:
Slut whoever reads thislong live pee-pee Yeni sees visions FEMEN long live MOVEMENT FOR SOCIALISM free, beautiful and mad women I’M GOING TO KILL YOU MISERABLE SLUT.
She becomes increasingly delusional and pursues a final act of debasement with a male classmate who had earlier betrayed her. This happens in a cinema where “on the screen a woman howled, dragged beneath a madly advancing mechanical reaper, her guts flying to one side”, and she has a vision of the “gears of a great destruction … set in motion”, “the end of days”, a perverse revelation.
Domestic oppression pervades this collection. In “Family Portrait”, an extended family gathers for a formal photograph, observed by a photographer and his assistant. When the assistant suggests “(l)ife must not be so bad if you have family”, the photographer responds contemptuously. This is a study of deepening misery across three generations – a severe and disciplinarian grandmother, her damaged and violent son and her alienated and repressed grandson. The grandmother has been rendered insensate by a fall, for which her son might bear some guilt. Colanzi interrupts the third-person narrative with the son’s piercing internal monologue. She dispenses with commas and full-stops to convey the urgency of thought:
no one knows what it was like living without a husband and without a peso the only thing we had was discipline and without her I wouldn’t be who I am … love is tough that was always her motto and now I know she’s right
When the third-person narrative returns, the gathering descends rapidly towards violence. The photographer’s assistant bolts from the scene.
That internal monologue is one of many formal techniques that Colanzi employs in pursuit of emotional intensity. From her wide repertoire of devices, her use of Beckett-like parataxis is particularly effective in turning the psychological screw. The story “Our Dead World” intertwines a first-person narrative of exile on Mars with paratactic remembrances of the tragic circumstances that preceded the journey, while the complex and brilliant “The Wave” – much of which is a fable told within a story within the story – uses the same technique to achieve a resonant ending:
There, beneath the golden light was the house of my childhood. The clouds peeling away in tatters. The long journey. The old Dream. The Wave suspended on the horizon, at the beginning and end of all things, waiting. My worn-out heart, shivering, trembling with love.
The final fiction in this work, “Story with Bird”, is the culmination of both this technical virtuosity and many of Colanzi’s themes. This polyvocal piece interweaves the story of a Bolivian plastic surgeon, in hiding after a botched job on the wife of the Argentine consul, with an indictment of the exploitation of the Ayoreo people, indigenous to forests of Paraguay and Bolivia.
While existential threats abound for characters in this collection, for the Ayoreo devastation is potentially imminent and absolute. The Ayoreo are nomadic hunter-gathers, whose way of life is dependent on the forest. Cattle farming, deforestation, violation of their territory, missionary contact and other incursions make their situation precarious. The book’s epigraph, and by extension its title, draws on an Ayoreo song:
This is the trunk of all stories, it tells of our dead world
This evokes a state of being explored by Jonathan Lear in his in his book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Harvard University Press, 2008). Lear relates the situation of the Crow Nation of North America, in the period following their settlement. The Crow were previously “a vibrant tribe of nomadic hunters” with a culture entirely based on warfare in protection of territory. The starting point of Lear’s investigation is a quotation from chief Plenty Coups, a leader during the period of transition:
I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell into the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.
Lear explores what it means for a worldview to be eradicated, so much so that its absence represents an end to experience (“After this nothing happened”). While this form of cultural catastrophe is almost impossible to imagine, it increasingly represents the undertone to global developments. In the case of the Ayoreo, it is an immediate and tragic reality: for some it has already happened; for the few uncontacted people, it is impending.
In “Story with Bird”, Colanzi uses direct testimonies of Ayoreo people to devastating effect. These brief, recounted narratives, collected by the anthropologist Lucase Bessire, are deeply moving. They describe both the violence of the Ayoreo experience and the world-shattering effect of their persecution:
I don’t know what to say. We ate honey. We killed fish. We were dirty. I don’t know my story. I don’t know what to say. My thoughts and my memories are gone. They won’t come to me anymore. I don’t know my own story. It is done.
The struggle to survive, perceive, and express is profound. Colanzi builds the story to a fitting conclusion by allowing narrative itself to disintegrate. Here she appears to draw on Frank Kermode’s proposition, in The Sense of an Ending (Oxford University Press, 1967), that “the clock’s ‘tick-tock’” is “a model of what we call a plot”. He also proposed:
The Bible is a familiar model of history. It begins at the beginning (‘In the beginning…’) and ends with a vision of the end (‘Even so, come, Lord Jesus’); the first book is Genesis, the last Apocalypse.
Colanzi, who bravely begins this book with a degraded form of revelation (in “The Eye”), ends it with a return to storytelling’s essence. In the final pages of “Story with Bird” the doctor descends into delirium. The text becomes a haze of decadent images, then bleeds into one last heart-wrenching Ayoreo testimony before finally reducing to a variant of Kermode’s foundational form:
Tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack …
In this short book, Colanzi offers an extraordinary density of ideas, transmitted in shape-shifting and affecting prose. The translator, Jessica Sequiera, deserves immense credit for her deft rendering of this complex work.
Alan Crilly is a freelance writer who lives in Dublin