By Eva Dunsky
You wouldn’t want to be clocked by the narrator of Eva Baltasar’s Permafrost. She has an effortless way of sussing out the thing that will devastate you most and then stating it as a pithy one-liner. “Being the bearer of important news: the only climax Mom has ever known” (50). This, after her mom calls to announce the birth of her niece. Few people escape her notice unscathed.
Luckily for us, and for her, the narrator is a witty kind of mean, and being inside her head and privy to the trainwreck of her relationships is incredibly entertaining, especially given that the conductor of said train insists on an angry, biting meta-narrative about the wreck-in-progress, in which all blame is squarely placed on a society that, as far as this reader can tell, actually treats the protagonist pretty well. She lives a cushy life provided by her well-off Catalan family. She’s vaguely interested in making art, but spends her days aimlessly wandering through various European cities, avoiding the trappings of post-grad adulthood. But her anger doesn’t depend on the external circumstances of her life. It’s the unexamined pulse beneath all her cutting observations; it’s what makes this narrator so delightfully infuriating and this book so fun to read.
You might find yourself, as I did, rooting for the protagonist despite her copious flaws. Even though she hesitates to admit it in a meaningful way, it’s obvious she’s struggling, that her casual cruelty toward others is her way of holding them at a distance so that she can keep reveling in her woundedness. You might even want to judge her for this, given how her life has been a careful dodge of expectations, a strict avoidance of beholdedness to others, and especially as of late, an aimless romp through a rolodex of women. This all seems pleasant enough, except that the narrator is actively contemplating suicide.
It’s hard to get a grip on how seriously we should take this ideation, as the narrator herself seems unsure: sometimes she treats it with a finicky focus on logistics that borders on the absurd; other times she’s a lot more contemplative, pondering the ways her body might betray her after death. While it seems she’s being frank to an almost isolating extent, there’s still the sense she isn’t telling us everything, that even the seemingly candid internal monologues in this book have been revised for irony and cleverness.
Here is where we might invoke the trope of the difficult woman. But both narrator and author seem uninterested in this label. Or even labels in general. Just as the narrator dodges expectations, so does the book itself: in addition to foregoing much plot arc or character development, the book also dances around conventions of genre. What could have been a Künstlerroman, or the travel log of a flaneur (flaneuse?), or even a sanguine story about finding common ground with family after the turbulence of a queer childhood, manages to be none of the above. Even though the narrator studied Art History in college, the field holds no particular luster; she isn’t in one place long enough for us to get a sense of the cities she travels through; while she finds some camaraderie with her older niece, we’re left with the sense that she’ll continue to be at odds with her mom and sister.
“I know myself like a decade-long involuntary commitment” (118), the narrator tells us. But does she really know herself? She appears uninterested in self-examination; her life is a fun run she didn’t sign up for. Her only escape is through her various trysts, which she falls into and extricates herself from at breakneck speed.
Other than her thoughts of suicide, the only times this narrator can muster any sense of urgency or agency is when sex is on the table. The sex writing is somehow both jarring and sensual, free of the fussy, overwrought erotica that tends to characterize lesbian sex in fiction. This wasn’t lost on Julia Sanches, who dedicates a large part of her translator’s note to her use of the harsher English cunt for the comparatively easier-to-swallow Catalan cony, a choice she makes because “it feels in line with the spirit of the book, with the naturalness of the author’s treatment of the sexual body” (130). The fact of the body is almost as much a non-issue as how the body acts out desire, which is another focal point of the novel.
Overall, Sanches’ translation into English pays close attention to the keen sense of rhythm apparent in Baltasar’s sentences:
I felt smaller and smaller by the day, next to her nothing but a frilly kitchen curtain.
Jo em sentia cada dia més empetitida, reduïda, a una cortineta de cuina al seu costat.
Reading how beautifully the translation flows, you get a sense that the liberties she takes (and she takes quite a few, even in the above sentence) tend to pay off. The translator’s note confirms this: her first priority is to the music of the prose, rather than a sentence-level account of the details included in the original, and the result is an English rendering of Baltasar’s original Catalan that does justice to Baltasar’s career as a poet. For a novel that eschews a traditional plot arc and focuses much more on language, this approach makes sense, and it’s exciting to see a translator finally giving Catalan literature its full due in English.
In Permafrost, Baltasar has created a character that defies easy categorization, both frustratingly obstinate and easy to root for, who can reflect back some of our most stubborn characteristics while somehow still managing to charm. But how can a character be both easy to relate to and hard to love? And what does this suggest about us?
Baltasar, Eva. Permafrost. Translated by Julia Sanches. And Other Stories, 2021.
Eva Dunsky is a writer, teacher, and translator at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Joyland, The Los Angeles Review, and Cosmonauts Avenue, among others, and she’s at work on a novel. Read more of her writing at https://evaduns.ky/.