Rating 5 stars
Permafrost is the first novel by Catalan poet Eva Baltasar. It’s a thing of beauty, visceral and uncompromising. It’s about depression, and being cared about but not loved; it’s the story of someone who tries not to let others in because being self-contained is safer. It’s also deeply, dryly funny.
I’m adding a content warning here. One aspect of this novel is a focus on the narrator’s thoughts of suicide and her attempts to complete suicide. This focus on the desire to end one’s own life will be troubling to some. I found reading the reasons a person might want to end their existence enlightening.
Thoughts of suicide can come to anyone, not just as part of a mental illness, and there is help available (in the UK you can speak to The Samaritans on 116123). We can all talk to our loved ones, too, if we think that they might be considering suicide. The UK suicide prevention charity Grassroots has advice and support on how to do this.
It’s important that suicide is spoken about, to break the taboo and the isolation that exists around it, and I felt that Baltasar’s approach to the subject in Permafrost was pitched well.
Baltasar uses poetic language to describe the world of the unnamed narrator. This central character, a fine art historian from Barcelona, navigates expectation by refusing to comply. She is funny, with a bone dry humour.
There is something about the tone of the book that reminded me of The Bell Jar and Catcher in the Rye. An adolescence, maybe. The narrator is a university student at the start, the things that she describes centred on the transition to adulthood and finding meaning in who you are. It feels like she carries that adolescence into later adulthood, because she bucks against the conditioning that asks us to believe that rebellion and self-interest are for the young, that we should put it aside and accept responsibility, find our place in the machine of society, as we leave youth behind.
There are things in the narrative that I am conflicted about, personally. The narrator disdains the use of medication to soften the effects of depression, scorning the other members of her family for taking pills to dull the edges. I know what she means, but I also don’t fully agree with her. There can be times in a person’s life when the sharpness of the edges stops them functioning. I’ve been there. Medication has helped me to reset. But, as a creative person, I also appreciate that the dulling of the edges also dulls creativity. Medication gets you through, allows you to continue, to stay alive, even if that isn’t necessarily fully living. Baltasar’s narrator, though, is different to me. She doesn’t want to be a drone in the hive of society and so doesn’t make the pact with society that brings the standard format security and belonging that society offers. I don’t really want to be a drone, either, but it’s easier than occupying the edge.
As I mentioned at the start, the edge for the narrator includes suicidal ideation, and unsuccessful attempts at suicide. The narrator is bleakly, deadpan funny about it, a way to hide how serious she is. She talks about the safety precautions that litter the world in such a way that “You can’t even ram an olive pit down the wrong tube without them forcing you to spit it out”, so that “A successful suicide, these days, is heroic.” She finds first aiders unscrupulous. Her accounts of attempting to complete suicide read like off the cuff anecdotes, her observations of the things that pull her back from succeeding so wry that I caught myself smiling, while also understanding that her desire to end her life is real. Baltasar has the narrator express why she thinks about suicide in a way that is like opening a door into someone else’s mind.
The book is also about parenting, and the consequences of whether the person who nurtures is someone who sees the person in the child and encourages the pursuit of dreams even in the knowledge of the pain of failure, or someone who advocates for the security of aiming low and accepting that few are truly exceptional. The narrator’s mother is the latter, a woman who keeps her child’s self-confidence “in a near-vegetative state”.
This is a slim book, and each chapter is short, reading like an extract from somebody’s notebook, or one in a series of loosely connected anecdotes. It suited my weekday attention span for reading. I liked the punctuating reference to permafrost, which I took to be the narrator’s self-containment, given that doubt is the thing that breaches it, “the rift through which the world’s heat slips in, a brazen violation of the permafrost.”
As it flits from episode to episode, we learn more about the narrator: her sexual awakening, her relationship with her family, her stasis beneath her personal permafrost, and the multiple selves she stacks over her true self, the person she doesn’t want the world to see.
She moves around, mostly for want of any real plan in life. First she spends 18 months in Scotland, working as an au pair. In between reading, she gazes out at a rural landscape so green that it makes her nauseous.
Outside are fields as far as the eye can see, carpeted in emerald hay that heaves like a lung … I start hating the color green.
Her next move is to Brussels, after a brief return home, travelling there without telling her parents: “a policy of fait accompli, a matter of survival”. Here she finds work with a foreign language school, teaching Spanish to business people. She finds love, too, with one of the students, but it isn’t enough for commitment on her part. “Every part of her was a cry for life,” she tells us. “While my life was a cry for death.”
These moves away from family are impermanent ruptures from a life lived in Barcelona, with her family never far from attempting to invade her solitude. She paints her mother as a monster, someone who gets off on disaster, illness, hospitals, a woman so sensitive to the sound of the upstairs neighbours’ feet through the ceiling that her husband arranges for their bedroom to be soundproofed. Her sister is as curious to her as she is to her sister. They are close but worlds apart. And yet more alike than the narrator realises.
I didn’t expect the ending. It is a hopeful gain wrapped up in a tragic loss. Baltasar writes it simply, observing an event that wrongfoots narrator and reader alike. “Sorrow,” the narrator says, “is an enormous mystery light-years away from love … the savagery that stalks and besieges us – is life.”
According to the author biography at the back of the book, Permafrost is the first in a trilogy of books written from the perspective of different women who inhabit different inner universes. Boulder will come next, followed by Mamut. Hopefully all three will be translated by Julia Sanches, who has delivered the English facet of Baltasar’s Catalan story beautifully. She includes a translator’s afterword about the nature of translation generally and her translation of this novel particularly. I found it illuminating, especially about the way translators need to find equivalent language that captures the subtleties of meaning found in other languages that English lacks.
My copy of Permafrost is part of my And Other Stories subscription. It’s released to the wider world on 6 April 2021. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to the next book in the trilogy.