The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán, translated by Sophie Hughes
NB: This book was gifted to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
I’m on somewhat of a mission to read as many of the Man Booker International Prize long-list as I possibly can, as I have an endless fascination with translated literature (although I probably still don’t read enough of it). A trend I’ve noticed in the long-listers I’ve read so far is that the translators have really had their work cut out for them – there have been so many challenges that they’ve had to work around, and I’m happy to say most of them rise to the occasion.
The Remainder is no exception. This book is Zerán’s debut novel and it’s certainly made me want to keep my eye out for any other books she may publish in the future. Set in Chile, it focuses on three protagonists, all children of parents who were militants under the regime of Pinochet fighting against the dictatorship. It details the effects their parents’ lives have on those of their children, as they’re faced constantly with a past they can neither remember nor forget.
Iquela is working as a translator, Felipe is doomed to count dead bodies he sees on the streets, and Paloma who is struggling to deal with the recent death of her mother. A lot of the translation sorcery arises around Iquela’s career, as she muses a lot on the untranslatability of certain parts of her work, which in itself is quite difficult to translate from Spanish into English, as she employs a lot of examples with Spanish words that Sophie Hughes then had to render in English. There are also a lot of instances where Iquela and Felipe poke fun at Paloma’s (who grew up in Germany) stilted Spanish and conveying the nuances of those jokes and why they’re funny would not have been an easy feat, but Hughes pulls it off with aplomb.
My translation-loving nerd heart satisfied, let’s move on to the actual plot of the book, which is a tricky one to explain. The story is narrated alternatively by Iquela and Felipe, which is a strange choice given that Paloma is also a main character, but we only get to know her through the lens of the other two. I adored Felipe’s chapters which are essentially one giant run-on sentence. I know that is a stylistic device that puts a lot of people off but hear me out. Felipe is a gentle soul who is tormented by the numerous corpses he sees every day, feeling forced to keep a tally of them and the one-sentence chapters are the perfect way to convey the intensity of his character.
Iquela’s chapters are more conventional, stylistically speaking, but they’re no less interesting as she grapples with her mother’s past and her slight obsession with Paloma. You can feel that she’s a more reticent character than her two counterparts, and it makes for a fascinating dynamic as the trio move throughout the book. As previously mentioned, Paloma is attempting to adjust to her mother’s recent death, exacerbated by the fact that a giant ash cloud over Santiago has diverted all flights, meaning her mother’s body cannot be repatriated to Chile and is instead stuck in transit. Determined to return her to her motherland, the trio rent a hearse and set off across the country to retrieve the body. It’s a bizarre plot and indeed it’s a bizarre book, but such a compelling one. Interspersed with the cross-country road trip are flashbacks to the regime and their parents’ involvement, as well as some truly dark and disturbing scenes from the trio’s childhood.
From the English translation you can tell that Zerán likes to be playful with her prose, and the effort Hughes has gone to replicate that in the English are more than worth applauding. An intense and readable debut enhanced by a brilliant translation, and I’m happy this one has been shortlisted.