Jeffrey Errington reviews All My Goodbyes by Mariana Dimópulos
All My Goodbyes
by Mariana Dimópulos
translated by Alice Whitmore
ISBN : 9781925336412
Reviewed by Jeffrey Errington
In 1907 after living and writing in Europe since he was a young man, Henry James, aged a pinch below 60, sat down at his desk in New York and decided that that writing a novel was like looking through a self-made aperture of a “million-windowed” mansion. Inside was society’s dirty secrets and the position of the viewer glaring at these peccadillos was to frame its revelation. For Argentinian novelist and translator Mariana Dimópulos the house of fiction has become a rotting abode in a decrepit suburb. Not a stately Victorian home but a grotto; one flipped inside out to reveal yellowed bones grafted on as exoskeletons. Europe is stagnating. In All My Goodbyes, the main character’s (who remains unnamed for the entire novel) is listening to her boyfriend give:
“..extremely valid reasons (valid because they were his) why I should continue living in that den of European traditionalism, with its 500-year-old houses and its balconies dripping with flowers. He mentioned books, the peace and quiet, the university. If you found it hard to think, you could just head to the forest or to Italy, which served as something of a last resort for all melancholy Germans. The age of travelling the world and marvelling at other people’s poverty was over. And yet he still felt the weight of an entire continent on his shoulder” (p. 87).
She has no such weight and so moves like a leaf down a windswept strabe. She is the Antipodean answer to the centre, unweighted by its shifting traditions. Her character arrives in a Europe to find, disappointingly, that that culture has long been exhausted. She looks through the window, winces and chooses to voice no response, and moves right along.
All My Goodbyes is a short novel where the nameless main character wishes to escape Argentina to Europe. In the Continent she enters into a peripatetic existence, almost as if she were trapped in sleepwalking and returns to Argentina and then to the far south of Patagonia where she becomes embroiled in a brutal axe murder. Dimópulos’s touch-stone writer seems to be Thomas Bernhard and she has mastered and extended the Bernhardian mode: the controlled raving is accented and solidified by a non-linear ordering of the chronology, giving the structure a Cubist presentation. Her mastery is apparent as the reader is never confused as to where in the chronology the action is occurring. This structure relieves the characters of the burden of time as the Cubist narrative does not progress towards the final act (the killing of her lover and her lover’s mother) but the scenes are broken up and then grouped thematically. The structure of Dimópulos’ language supports the complexity of her protagonist’s crossing of European borders. A recognisable refrain in the syntax of the novel is heard when the final clause of a sentence or paragraph cancels out the truth that was asserted by its opening subject. The following examples illustrate this self-contradicting parataxis:
“They asked me for help and I told them there was no way I was going into the sea to rescue their horrible ball. That last bit is a lie. Nobody ever asked me anything” (p. 19).
“I could cross over to one side and say one thing and then cross over to the other side and believe the exact opposite.” (p. 31)
“It’s not true that we leave a place when the future is adorned with beautiful visions of faraway travels. We leave one morning, the morning after any given evening or the afternoon after any given midday, just when we’d decided to stay forever.” (p. 84).
“He removed his scarf, tied it around my next. We hugged and I promised him so many things: that I’d come back, that I loved him, all of them lies.” (p. 114).
One of the main character’s various jobs is at IKEA. Here she finds Europe in its purest form: sterile, easy to digest, useful and entirely supported by the labour of non-Europeans – a place where people go for the “narcotic” effects of a state of “pleasantness” (p. 42). It’s ironic that she is working here because IKEA represents the very thing that she wants to avoid – usefulness: “Being useful is of no use to me” (p. 14.) To deepen the irony, in a country where the language is not her own, she simply exists and language no longer serves a purpose. When she works in a German bakery she is frequently agitated as her German vocabulary is riddled with gaps, leading to misunderstanding between her and the boss, and the customers. This leads to her not knowing the German word for “jar” and her trying to break one in frustration but the jar rolls along the floor and still doesn’t break. So that “[a]t that moment, more than ever, I despise the Germans’ world-famous quality-assurance standards” (p. 91). Her constant movement is to avoid the pressure to perform a pejorative and menial task, which has been forced upon her both because of her Argentinian heritage and her gender. Without this language ability she comes across to all Germans as someone with no inner life. She pushes back as, “my tongue, as we all know, was still asleep in its Spanish dream” (pp. 62-63).
What she seems to be searching for is a community that is based on recognition. A place where the people recognise and accept her. Europe does not recognise her according to this logic. And she can not find it at home in Argentina either. In the wilds of Patagonia her identity exists in a state of perpetual flux as she is not even sure if she herself was not the one who used the axe to hack apart her lover Marco and Marco’s mother, Lady Dupin. Perhaps she is guilty, perhaps not. She certainly, like Ivan Karamazov, feels an ideological guilt for the crime that occured. Saying goodbye is her ideology, even if it means accommodating the death of her lover to render this scene impossible for her to re-enter, either in time or space. She accepts no responsibility for any one and she asks for none in return. She will never have the community that she longs for as she accepts that she has nothing in common with anyone else. She barely has anything in common with herself. She only accepts that her lover has become truly unknown when he can only become expressed in the past-tense:
“I never saw any of them again. I never spoke to any of them again, never replied to any of their messages. I put an end to them all, I didn’t leave a trace, didn’t feel a trace of remorse. There are all my crimes: all my goodbyes” (p. 140).
All My Goodbyes is an astonishing novel. It situates itself to the novel and to Europe with a level of sophistication that is, sometimes, lacking in Australian fiction. The translation of this novel by Giramondo contributes to the Australian literary ecosphere, and is to be celebrated. Particular mention must go to the translator, Alice Whitmore. Whitmore has successfully shepherded this novel from its Spanish language mode into an English language mode while maintaining the prose’s Spanish language strangeness. She does this by maintaining a near pitch-perfect tone throughout.