PIECES OF A PUZZLE: ‘Tangram’ by Juan Carlos Márquez, trans. by James Womack

Juan Carlos Márquez, Tangram, translated by James Womack (Nevsky Books, 2017)
By Ellen Jones

Juan Carlos Márquez’s latest book is organised according to the eponymous tangram, a puzzle made up of seven flat shapes called “tans”: a square, five triangles, and a parallelogram. The object of the game, which originated in China, is to form specific images using all seven pieces, without overlapping them. Each of the seven chapters in the book is named after one of the shapes, and, like the chapters in Cortázar’s Rayuela (Hopscotch), the “shapes” in Tangram don’t have to be read in the order in which they are printed, but rather are interchangeable. For instance, in the first story, ‘Square: The Basement’, two unsuspecting psychology students are trapped for a month in a basement belonging to a morbidly obese ex-actress. The same woman appears, twenty years younger, in the story that follows, ‘Triangle: The Iabichino Case’, as suspect in a murder investigation. The murder victim, for his part, has a crucial role to play in a later story set in Italy, ‘Triangle: Crotone’. And so on. All except for the final chapter. ‘Parallelogram: Twins’ must be read last, because, readers are promised, “it is only on reading the final pages that the last [connection] slips neatly into place”.

The words “A Novel” are printed prominently on the front cover of Tangram – it is described as being more than the sum of its parts, and compared to novels like those by David Mitchell (Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas) that comprise multiple linked narratives and span different geographies and generations. But the phrase used on the back jacket still feels like a more appropriate description here: a set of “interlinked stories”. Stories are what Márquez, born in Bilbao in 1967, is best known for. They have won him a host of prizes and the ones contained in this volume show him to be a practiced hand. The opening pages promise concision, a fast-pace, and a unique sense of humour, but these qualities flag toward the end of the volume, which doesn’t quite achieve the narrative coherence and sustained intrigue we expect of a novel, especially a “literary thriller”.

The opening story is without doubt the best – dark but very funny indeed. The psychology students survive in the darkened basement by building fires out of books and making their way through the large quantity of frozen steak in the obese woman’s industrial sized freezer. On the eleventh day of their captivity, however,

Norberto stretches at random into the meat freezer and pulls out a hand, cut off at the wrist. It is a man’s hand, large and hairy, wrapped in plastic like the rest of the provisions. […] If I’m right, and if this isn’t some kind of sick joke, then we have already eaten more than half of an adult human male.

This engenders an appropriate degree of revulsion and existential angst, but, having no other option, the pair do eventually succumb to hunger and eat the remaining steaks, though they have by this point run out of matches: “Carpaccio seems to be the ideal solution to our troubles, and it is a revelation. Cut into thin slices and drizzled with a little Lemon Fanta, human flesh––if I may be so bold––is exquisite”. On their eventual rescue, they are told the meat was probably beef after all, which causes considerable disappointment: “Anthropophagy would have given our survival a certain heroic nature, and now all we have is two Psychology students trapped with a well-stocked fridge: it is a black and indelible stain on our legend”.

Tangram was first published in Spanish in 2011; this new English edition comes thanks to James Womack, an English translator and author based in Madrid. His publishing house Ediciones Nevsky has been publishing Russian literature in Spanish translation since 2009 and now, with its new imprint, Nevsky Books, is beginning to publish European literature in English, focusing on well-written genre fiction. Tangram is one of their first English titles, translated by Womack himself. The translation is, to my eyes, extremely tight and precise (notwithstanding a handful of glaring typos). Márquez is obviously a master of concision and Womack does nothing to loosen or belabour his language. A less exacting writer-translator pair could spend pages trying to achieve what these two do in a couple of brief, well-formed sentences.

Tangram’s language often packs a punch you don’t expect because its imagery is strikingly unpoetic. The speaker in ‘Square: The Basement’ recounts how the obese woman skips unpredictably from one anecdote to another, forward and backward over the years, so that “[t]ime falls, half-chewed, from her mouth, but bits are still stuck between her teeth” – our revulsion at the image matches how we already feel about her morbid size. In ‘Triangle: The Iabichino Case’, the policeman protagonist’s lack of imagination and worldliness is revealed when he describes autumnal trees as “severe, bald and distant, unpleasant, like bouncers at a nightclub”, and when he imagines rolling around on a football pitch, “getting covered in sand like a chicken nugget is covered in breadcrumbs”. The conscious inelegance of these similes pulls us up short, but somehow they work in these stories, populated as they are by characters both physically and morally repugnant: overweight, ugly, crude, lacking in empathy.

Most of the stories move at a considerable pace, and events are told briskly, with very little sentiment. This works well in ‘Triangle: The Reykjavik Syndrome’, whose protagonist tells us: 

Before I continue, I should probably get you up to speed about who I am: I am an occasional and selective murderer, which is to say that I only kill during the summer holidays (the rest of the year I am an exemplary citizen of Madrid), and I never kill my fellow countrymen.

This tale of a part-time criminal whose victims keep inconveniently dying of natural causes just before he can get to them approaches some of the comedy of ‘Square: The Basement’. What is problematic, though, is that the voices in the other stories (which don’t have murderous psychopaths for narrators) are so similar to this one. The novel moves from Bilbao to Reykjavik to Hertfordshire to Italy and back to Bilbao, but the seven different narrative voices (all are in the first person, present tense) are often so similar that you’d be forgiven for thinking that they are told from the same perspective. This is especially problematic at the beginning of the volume; the first five stories are narrated by men, three of whom are young and can think of little more than satisfying their sexual desires. The speaker in the first story tells us that seeing the naked breasts of an attractive woman through the window of the flat opposite “confirm[ed his] dedication to the sin of onanism”; the speaker in the second story confesses “I am nineteen and my brain is pickled in semen. There’s no space for anything else in there”; while the speaker in the fourth remembers “the ticklish feeling I felt in my guts when I first saw her, the short-circuit in my brain”. The sixth and seventh stories are narrated by women, and do differ from their predecessors, although all retain the same detachment and matter-of-fact tone.

Womack advertises his presence in this volume not only by including footnotes to explain a couple of puns that might otherwise be lost on readers (a practice that is rare in English translations), but also by making his language very English. We find “the fuzz” and “that fucker” in Hertfordshire, but also “Lard-Arse” in Bilbao and “mummy and daddy” in Calabria, which may exacerbate the difficulty in distinguishing between narrative voices. The last example sticks out like a sore thumb, because this chapter is full of local cultural references and Italian words that Márquez explains in his own series of footnotes.

It is a shame that none of the other stories quite matches the humour or surprise of the first. The fifth story, ‘Triangle: One Million Pounds’, is particularly weak. A man suddenly leaves his Icelandic wife to recover a million pounds he buried in the English countryside years earlier, after a bank heist gone wrong. He discovers that an Argentine woman called Mirta has built her house on the plot where it is buried, but the rapidity with which she guesses what he’s up to (pacing about strangely in her garden) and the ease with which they find the money (conveniently in the grounds, not under the house itself) are unconvincing.

The ending, too, leaves plenty to be desired. The way the chapters are described (“They are pieces of a puzzle, and it is only on reading the final pages that the last one clicks neatly into place”) makes us impatient for a big reveal, but I was left feeling both unsatisfied and slightly confused. The final chapter, ‘Parallelogram: Twins’, the one that allegedly explains all the connections between the others, is a monologue by a woman named Mar Sagredo, apparently in conversation with a journalist interested in the story of the two psychology students trapped in the basement. It’s a clunky device, requiring plenty of unsubtle explanation and repetition to help readers intuit the interviewer’s unheard questions and responses: “Tell me, what is it that you want from us? I was afraid of that: the whole story, all the way from the top”. But clunkiness aside, the connections between the stories turn out to be tenuous and often coincidental. Márquez has almost too light a touch (and too detached a style of narration), such that I found myself struggling to actually care. There is some pleasure in perceiving how they all fit together (though I had to sketch myself a little diagram before I fully figured it out), but the connections aren’t intricate or surprising enough to deliver the gratification we expect from the end of a good thriller.

Spanish authors who have recently made a splash in the English-speaking world (Javier Marías, Enrique Vila-Matas, Agustín Fernández Mallo) have been writers of literary fiction with a capital “L”, and so Womack and the team at Nevsky Books should be applauded for trying something different; for focussing on high quality genre writing – science fiction, thrillers, and “weird” fiction – as a way of diversifying Spanish writing outside of Spain. And although for me Márquez’s ludic formal experiment falls a little flat, Tangram was worth it for his ability to turn a phrase: his language, in Womack’s English, is fresh, startling, crystalline. For that alone, I’ll trust Nevsky to choose me another book.