Growing Pains in Tough Times: María José Ferrada’s “How to Order the Universe,” Translated from Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer

By Emma Jones

This past year was a year of disappointment for many of us, but especially for children and adolescents who had their life plans dashed before their eyes. For some, higher education has been postponed, employment has proved difficult to find or keep, and the world seems like an altogether darker and unfriendlier place than was promised. Though María José Ferrada’s How to Order the Universe, translated in English by Elizabeth Bryer, takes place in another time – Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship – many people today will be able to relate to the idea of growing older only to realize the world is not at all what it seemed to be. Against a backdrop of Chilean history, Ferrada’s novel depicts a young girl growing up and becoming jaded with the world around her, with significant cause.

The plot, as such it is, is simple enough; the protagonist, a seven-year-old girl from Santiago who only ever goes by the letter M, is learning to assist her father, a traveling hardware salesman who goes by D, in his business. She takes this role very seriously, skipping school to help him (without the knowledge of her emotionally distant mother) and eventually asking for a commission on the sales he makes. Though she misses school, M learns about life, philosophy, and other rarely taught subjects on her travels with her father. However, the older M gets and the more people she meets, the more questions she has about the adults in her life, and her own life in the world she understands less than ever.

How to Order the Universe is remarkably spare for a book that deals with such weighty subject matter. It’s less than two hundred pages, the margins are large, the chapters are short. It is a quick read, but not an easy one, because learning to navigate the world of adults is never easy for children. The dark period of Chilean history in which this book takes place is not strictly defined or delineated, though the book does allude to the danger of some characters’ activities. I was occasionally frustrated by the novel’s refusal to sit still and keep us duly informed about current events, but the haziness of the telling is consistent with the nature of life as a child. We often don’t remember world events from our childhood in their proper context because we come into the world without it. We expect children to fill in so many gaps because we forget what it was like to try and fill them in ourselves.

M has her own gaps to fill in, and her narrative voice, which seems to be her adult self looking back at her childhood, explores them with humor and irony. She views the charades her father and his friends put her through with a jaded, sarcastic eye. One example is the scene where she is introduced to her father’s friend’s son by another woman and told to embrace him: “For as long as the hug lasted, I pretended to be the sister he would never meet. I pretended, the boy pretended, S was pretending, the world was a ridiculous theatre” (101). This is Ferrada’s adult debut, but she is best known in Chile as a writer for children, and this shines through in M’s voice, a mixture of child and adult. I imagine that voice was difficult to render in translation, but translator Elizabeth Bryer pulls it off extremely well. She slips back and forth between formal and informal registers with ease, and I especially appreciated her rendering of profanity. The character S refers to a shop owner as a “thieving sonofabitch” (94), which, you must admit, is simply so much better as one long Frankenword than it would be spaced out.

Although this is indeed a story of M’s childhood, it is also a story of adulthood, that of her family members and friends. We see glimpses of their own stories, though not usually detailed ones. Her favorite of their fellow salesmen is S, who loves to tell the ridiculous story of his past, always ending it with the phrase, “Because one calamity is always followed by another” (28). In many cases, M’s mature narrative voice adds some insight to the people her younger self knew, including her parents. She realizes at a young age that “while D was nothing special as a father, he made an excellent employer” (45). She also empathizes with her distracted and depressed mother, who somehow does not notice that her young daughter is missing school for days on end to gallivant around Chile: “Did that make my mother irresponsible? I don’t think so; I think that, instead, life had been a bit irresponsible with her” (20). Truth be told, life does not treat many of us responsibly, as many of us know or have learned of late. As How to Order the Universe shows us, growing up is, in many ways, about learning that very thing.

Ferrada, María José. How to Order the Universe. Translated by Elizabeth Bryer. Tin House, 2021.

Emma Jones is a first-year MA student in Global Communication and Applied Translation at Carnegie Mellon University. She translates from Spanish. Before CMU, she was a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Colombia, a reporter for The City Paper of Bogotá, and a lover of books and salsa dancing. She still is the latter. 

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