Scattered Ashes: August by Romina Paula, translated by Jennifer Croft

Reviewed by Peter Hegarty

August-Romina PaulaIn southern Argentina, where Paula sets most of the novel, August is bright and cold, and colder still in Esquel, the Andean mountain town to which the protagonist, Emilia, returns for the scattering of the ashes of her best friend, Andrea. The novel takes the form of an extended letter to her friend, about whose life and death we learn fragmentary details. Andrea died young, and, it seems, by her own hand:

Lines brimming over with anger and despair, hatred, almost, very severe, with yourself, with everything, but above all with yourself (20)

Emilia was devoted to Andrea, and cannot accept that she is gone: ”you are dead everywhere’ (111). She describes the minutiae of her life for Andrea: a mouse has come to live in her kitchen but she doesn’t want her brother to kill it–she wants no more of death. She recalls Clemente, the comically overattentive attendant who entertains passengers on the long bus journey to the south from Buenos Aires. She tells her friend about her mother, Cora, who has walked out on the family and never contacts her children. The young Emilia believed that she had gone to live in Russia and that the authorities there did not allow her to write home. Later she discovers that her father has an address for his wife, who has asked him only to write to her in the event of an emergency. Emilia tells Andrea that she has written to her mother and received a polite, unaffectionate reply that indicates no interest in any further correspondence:

Pure nothingness. A kind of flash of a mother that wasn’t even a flash, a little cut of light, a sensation and nothing more, just silence again. Nothing motherly. (137)

it was “better to lose her than to find her,” Emilia concludes, although Cora has left her ‘defenseless’ against the vicissitudes of life (137).

The loss of her friend and that of her mother have left Emilia in emotional disarray, with an abiding fear of losing someone again. She remains with her boyfriend, Manuel, though unsure about her feelings for him. In a bar, she bumps into a former boyfriend, Julián, who takes her on a long journey across Patagonia. The men are distractions from the grief she struggles and fails to contain, and which finally overwhelms her as she sits drunk on a dark pavement in a freezing seaside town.

Emilia finds solace in denial. Grief and love are powerful, related emotions but she tries to persuade herself that they are containable, that emotions can be subordinated to the practicalities of life. After all, she tells herself, she loved Julián, but left him to go to study in Buenos Aires.

Jennifer Croft has a good ear for slang, for salty everyday language. She has turned Emilia’s earthy, uninhibited thoughts and speech into supple demotic American English. She is in her element in the quick-fire exchanges between Emilia and Julián, the affectionate insults and banter the two trade on their journey across the freezing windswept deserts and plains to the coast.

     ‘The argument that you can only choose someone or build something with someone if you’re in love, what the fuck is that? It doesn’t work like that, there are a million other things, other factors.’

     ‘You literally just told me that people know when they’re in love.’

     ‘Exactly, but what I’m saying is, that has nothing to do with anything.’

     ‘How does it not?’

     ‘It just doesn’t. Like you saying you were in love with me but still going off to Buenos Aires.’

     ‘What does that have to do with anything? That was because of something else.’

     ‘That’s exactly what I’m saying, it’s not the only thing, then, it’s not the determining factor; for you, in that moment, it wasn’t enough.’

     This stops me, I shut up. (150)

The translation conveys the oppressive mood of the original, Emilia’s whirling confused thoughts, her self-absorption, her rhapsodic recollections of happier times:

Fuck, now here, in this euphoria, with Juli, with the south, with the cold, with the alcohol, with the decade, the last decade, the one that made us, I think of you. You come to me, you appear to me in the night, the fact that you’re not here appears to me, that I can’t tell you this even though I pretend like I can, not being able to ever tell you is still something I can’t understand. (182-3)

For anyone keen to learn more about Argentina, August would be a good place to begin. The novel is replete with vivid descriptions of what the country looks and feels like, how things work. It is freighted with fascinating detail. Bus journeys can be so long, we learn, that bus companies provide hot meals and wine for passengers. With most of its population of 44 million concentrated in the cities – 15 million in greater Buenos Aires alone – Argentina has many empty expanses. The only living thing our travelers encounter on their journey to the coast is the solitary baobab tree under which they munch their sandwiches. The lonely towns they visit, Trelew and Madryn, are among the most southerly settlements in the world, their Welsh names reminders that Argentina, like the United States, was once a favored destination for the poor and oppressed of Europe (as late as the 1950s there were Irish districts of Buenos Aires). The capital is a monster metropolis that attracts the young, like Emilia, the poor, and the ambitious from the rest of Argentina and beyond. Emilia recalls an early visit to the big city:

And the memory I have of that trip, I don’t know, I must have been about five years old, is of crossing Libertador in Retiro (now I know where it is, in my memory it was just a big avenue), and trying to get to the other side around everybody’s legs, through all those legs, hundreds, coming towards us, ready to trample me, like a stampede (134)

Emilia is a familiar figure. She listens to Counting Crows. She watches The Simpsons. She swears. She drinks too much. Like all of us, she wonders where she is going. August explores emotions such as grief and loss that are part of the common human experience. It is a book about death in life, about how we fail to cope, about emotional fragility.

It is not an overtly political work, and makes no direct mention of people or events, but I sense that Paula is addressing the defining period in recent Argentinian history, the years 1976 to 1982, when the country was governed by a uniquely brutal military dictatorship. The ruling generals dealt ruthlessly with their opponents, and suspected opponents. Death squads abducted and killed as many as 30,000 people, young people for the most part. The regime gave the children it had orphaned to childless military families. It all ended in a catastrophic military defeat and the loss of hundreds of soldiers and sailors, the young again. Emilia’s are the emotions of their friends and relatives, and hers is the raw grief of people who did not have the chance to say goodbye. To this day, many elderly Argentinians do not know how their children died, or where their grandchildren are. “I have things inside me” Emilia says at one point, as if speaking for them,

I have things inside of me that are moving. And when I pay attention to them a little bit they convulse and wake up and demand justice, demand I remember them. (97)

Paula, Romina. August. Tr. Jennifer Croft. New York: Feminist Press, City University of New York, 2017.

Read an excerpt from August at Literary Hub.

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