Rating 5 stars
Read for both the 20 Books of Summer readathon and Women in Translation Month.
Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs is Lina Wolff’s debut novel. Translated from the Swedish by Frank Perry, it’s a tale set in Spain that follows the narrator’s teenage encounter with a short story writer whose mission is to reveal the disparity between the binary genders of male and female and how meaningless the word love can be.
The women in this novel are strong, independent, resilient and resourceful. They take no shit from the men who drift in and out of their lives. None of them is entirely likeable but all of them are compelling as characters. I was instantly gripped by the world Wolff has created and wanted to do nothing but read this book and hang everything else I was supposed to be using my time for.
Araceli, the narrator, is raised in a tiny Barcelona flat by her single mother Mariela. Her father is long gone. What she terms Mayfly Fathers come and go, leaving little behind but her diary entries about them. She attends a high school described as “a sort of refuge for girls who are too ugly to be models and too stupid to be engineers” and has low expectations for her future self, her biggest goal “to find a man who would allow [her] to lead a life that was gilt-edged”.
When the writer Alba Cambó moves into the flat below, Araceli’s mother becomes obsessed, buying the literary journal that publishes Cambó’s stories each time a new one appears in its pages. Gradually, their lives become interwoven, in quite unexpected ways.
The second time Cambó is published in the literary journal, she sets out her views on violated bodies in literature.
In [the interview] she said that the entertainment value of a violated female body was infinite and inexhaustible and that in writing about violated male bodies her aim was to explore the kind of entertainment value they offered … what was wrong with depicting violated male bodies when women’s bodies were continually being used in literature for that purpose? Some writers wrote like lazily masturbating monkeys in overheated cages, she said. They wrote as though they had lost the taste for the real flavours of a dish and had to keep adding salt and pork fat in order to make it taste of anything. Raped and murdered women here, raped and murdered women there, that was the only way the readers’ interest could be kept alive, said Alba Cambó.
I could write a mini essay about violence in literature and my attitude towards it, but I don’t want to distract myself or give a false impression of what this book is about. I’ve quoted that passage because I am interested in why Wolff has Cambó take the viewpoint that countering the prevalence of violence against women in literature is a matter of upping the depiction of violence against men and having women be the protagonists. Cambó suggests that male writers’ reliance on violence against women to titillate their readers is laziness, so surely the same would be true of female writers depicting the mirror of that? The feeling I got from the story was of this fictional female writer venting her anger towards men and their dominant role in society by giving them a taste of their own medicine. Which is only a step away from men venting their anger against women in violent fantasies enshrined in literature. They’re both equally problematic.
The novel has sexual politics at its core, examining what it means to be a woman and how women negotiate male expectation in relationships. Another character, Blosom, is an economic migrant who left Guatamala for Mexico with the intention of crossing a border into the West. She shares her story with Mariela. It’s a story that involves maternal tragedy, relationship breakdown and being taken advantage of as a vulnerable migrant woman. She describes the sex she has with the husband in a couple she works for, when she arrives in Spain from Mexico, as “Compulsive and mechanical, your standard master and slave relationship, just to confirm who is who and who wears the trousers and has the power.”
Araceli’s closest friend at school, Muriel Ruiz, is mordantly funny. Araceli characterises her as a bird of prey who knows what she wants, and cites her perpetually 12-year-old appearance as an advantage in relation to men. Muriel has the measure of the male psyche, understanding that they believe youth belongs to them and therefore hunger for it, chasing after young girls until they realise that young girls are not interested in what they are interested in.
The disappointment is enormous when we, as the young women we are, fail to be impressed when they go on at length and in great detail about old writers, nostalgic fishing trips or exaggeratedly important football matches. That’s when they’re likely to long for someone who has learnt that essential survival instinct of appearing to be listening while thinking about something else.
Muriel also has an opinion on truth that was described by Wolff in a captivating way.
For Muriel Ruiz truths were like sheets fluttering in the wind – they kept switching sides and sometimes they got tangled up in themselves. Sometimes they just hung there, heavy and unglamorous and drenched with rain. They weren’t something you could respect, in her view.
She’s a very opinionated young woman, Muriel Ruiz, and she makes some unusual choices in how to live her life, drawing Araceli into similarly unusual situations.
Muriel is an example of a woman who manipulates other women, as is Alba Cambó, as are other characters in the book. These are the women who can broker a power relationship where they are on top, calling the shots. They have power over the women who they see as inferior, weighing their lack of ruthlessness and their lack of social standing against their own self-belief and inherent confidence. They get what they want at no matter what cost to other people. They also use their manipulation skills to create the impression of power over the men in their lives.
And then there are women, like the French teacher Madame Moreau, who stand apart from the games involved in sexual politics. She is seen by her pupils as frigid, bitter and shrewish, but comes across as a woman who lacks patience with having to play a role just to be acceptable to men and therefore to women who think of male opinion as important. Her nemesis at the school is the caretaker Camillo Pochintesta, who is simultaneously intrigued and repelled by her. In an exchange of views about feminism, which Pochintesta believes is drivel, Moreau leaves him in no doubt about the insignificance of his opinion. She begins by asking him to reflect on the history of men “as the arrangers of gladiatorial games, as witch burners, inquisitors and the perpetrators of abuse against women as a whole” before telling him, “You might as well stop reflecting … The human race is not very likely to go under because a man like you stops considering the matter.”
Moreau was the character who most tugged at my sympathy. She is a warrior, but it’s not clear what she is battling. Wolff has Araceli sum her up, from her teenage purview, as not being essential to anyone’s life, whose disappearance from the world would have no impact, framing personal meaning as needing the context of other people, particularly other people who care about you. I felt sad for Moreau, being misunderstood and forced into embracing her solitude as a shield against the world. It’s utterly human to want to matter to another person, more than anyone else matters to them, and it can be hard to be true to yourself when you feel that the person you are is somehow the wrong side of likeable.
… you are never really any more powerful than you were when you were born and had an entire regiment of parents and grandparents to protect you, and in the end you are left naked on the battlefield with only your bare hands for weapons while the machinery of war rumbles on around you.
Right? It seems to me that we’re all working hard at trying to avoid this truth, finding compromises as adults to bolster us in the battle against irrelevance. Or maybe I think that because life’s a bit of a grind at the moment, for reasons macro and micro. This day/week/month/year, this is the thrust of the book that resonated most with me. We’re all alone, even in the midst of our relationships with each other.
This solitude in relationships is borne out by a man that Araceli meets as a result of both her friendship with Muriel Ruiz getting her into unusual situations and Alba Cambó being a woman who likes to manipulate the lives of other women. In a long episode that reminded me of Haruki Murakami’s novels, Rodrigo Auscias spends a single night with Araceli and tells her everything that is wrong in his middle aged life. Auscias is married. He doesn’t understand his wife, Encarnación. Encarnación appears remote and unattainable to him. Unlike with a Murakami novel, because Wolff is a woman, we get to know why Encarnación is remote and unattainable. We get to see inside a marriage where two people possibly never loved each other, possibly loved each other at cross purposes, and are now at a stage where they share physical space but not emotional space. Wolff captures the pain and the boredom that each of them feel. We see Encarnación through Auscias’ eyes, but we learn useful things about her, despite Auscias not knowing who she really is. Such as her take on people and relationships.
Encarnación liked to say that people were, in essence, like the stock for a sauce, like the stuff you can buy in a bottle in a store. You could dilute it any number of ways, you could add port, cream and herbs, you could jazz it up however you liked, but the stock always remained the same, and sooner or later the taste would force its way through like a nauseating odour from the underworld. It made no difference how much enthusiasm you entered a relationship with, or what blinders you put on, or the kind of games you intended to play. Sooner or later those fumes would force their way through.
Wolff’s novel says many things about relationships, about they way we hide the truth about them from ourselves, about the blind faith we put in them, and perhaps most significantly about the way we can spend years with a person but never actually know them.
We learn other things from the episode between Araceli and Auscias, such as why the book has the title it does and what set Alba Cambó on the course her life has taken. I personally learned some things, too, that I’m sure I’ll be reflecting on for a while.
I loved this book. There’s a lightness to the writing, but also a gravity. You can sense the tenderness with which Wolff has formed each of her characters but also how merciless she is in depicting humanity warts and all. I didn’t want it to finish. I could have stayed wrapped in its pages for a long time after the story drew to its close. In fact, I delayed finishing it, rationing myself towards the end so that it would be over less quickly.
Published by the independent publisher &OtherStories, it’s currently on offer (25% off in their online shop – click the link in the image at the top of this review), so if you think it might be up your street, head over there pronto.
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