Carolina Sanín, The Children, trans. Nick Caistor (MacLehose Press, 2017)
By Jessica Sequeira
Door 1 swings open to reveal an enchanted garden today, a drawing room tomorrow. Door 2 is a painting on the wall, but becomes real when the clock strikes a certain hour. Door 3 lets one crawl into a time before or after the present. So many doors, leading onto unexpected places, must exist throughout the world, waiting for us to find them—never just dead pieces of wood, but portals onto another reality. But what if a door onto the strange could also be a living being, someone who appeared with a promise of meaning? What if a door could be an ideal love? A steadfast friend? A child?
Here’s Elvis Fider now — he’s showed up from nowhere, a six-and-a-half year old boy standing on the pavement. He looks up at the wealthy Colombian woman, Laura Romero, who’s popped her head out the window. Head shaven, big eyes, there’s no way to ignore the kid. Laura doesn’t want him, but she’s also been waiting for a moment like this one. She cleans houses until they gleam to pass the time. She walks her greyhound Brus, not a common breed in Bogotá. She reads Moby Dick. She listens to the rambling of a man on the bus selling jam. She builds imaginary houses in her mind. Her entire life seems to have been set up for a surprise.
All the makings of a sentimental story are here, yet there is nothing sentimental about it. The swirl of impressions that follows the boy’s appearance is much more ambiguous than that. Laura is never kind to the boy, but neither is she cold. He simply enters her routine. She buys him a mini towel with a hood, toothpaste and glitter shampoo (the last perhaps for herself). The language is not romantic, but deliberately flat, and the most intimate scenes between woman and child are told in a dispassionate voice.
This lack of passion mirrors the tone of the intentionally dull, documented attempts of social workers to track down the real parents of the boy, whom Laura rechristens “Fidel”. According to the Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal y Ciencias Forenses, over the past five years 16.243 people have gone missing, with 8.069 of these minors. Bogotá leads the numbers. The children are recruits of illegal armed groups, victims of violence or simply souls lost in the labyrinths of the urban landscape. Fidel may or may not be one of these statistics.
Yet, even if the child was not “wanted”, he is here. With his appearance, things change at the most minute metaphysical level. Children are a locus of undefined time. They engage in strange rites — Laura catches Fidel stealing things from the supermarket, smashing them, wearing one of her shirts in a way that makes it seem like a ceremonial Egyptian garb. He relates to her his vision of travelling to an imaginary beauty parlour. With the presence of this child, Laura feels she has made contact with another existence. He asks the most basic questions, in quiet conversations that do not contain “information” but are full and private worlds.
Fidel knows things that Laura does not, and this calms her. One senses there is both safety and danger in this. Peter Handke explored a similar territory of complex mother-child relationships in The Left-Handed Woman (translated by Ralph Manheim), in which the furious energy of a female writer is mirrored in the miniature being by her side. But in Sanín’s novella, there is no such drive. The way the boy is described, he always seems intangible as a dream, and as such wish fulfillment.
The series of shimmering episodes that build up and crumble in The Children —none of them particularly important in themselves, but taking on a cumulative effect — read like a trance, a fantasy, an opium visitation. The tautness a novella requires, dependent on the propulsion of either unease or comedy, is lacking here; the story drifts, deliberately. In this, while inhabiting a similar world as Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, it forms a sort of inverse — not a hallucinatory portrait of intense angst, but the languid moment of a transitory dream state.
Laura thought it might be good to live and walk with a child alongside her so that she could sometimes tell him where to look. She also thought that with a child days might have the shape of days: they would surge upwards, speed forward, drop down and then disappear beneath the waves once more. Time would be time again. She and the child would pass by, and the world would see them pass by.
Perception of time might alter with the presence of a child —this is a fascinating idea, and would imply that a good percentage of humanity is living out a rare state of being, merely by its proximity to the little ones. The gauzy structure of the prose, floating here and there, partially embodies this thought. Indeed, Sanín could well have taken her experimentations much further.
Born in Bogotá, Sanín studied literature at the Universidad de los Andes and Yale University, and she’s known in Colombia for her lively polemics over social issues with other writers and intellectuals. In particular, last year she was involved in a dispute with the Universidad de los Andes, and was fired from her teaching post after she made complaints about the academic “prison culture” that produces delinquents, such as the students behind the online group “Cursos y Chompos Ásperos Reloaded”. She engaged in a few rounds of insults over social media. As these things do, the polemic ultimately devolved into the deadly exchange of bureaucratic documents, rendered in impossible legalistic prose.
None of this blood-drawing, and ultimately probably unimportant, polemic would be easy to guess from The Children, however. The book is not very political at all, and is told in a quiet voice. Although the inavariably sordid backstories of “missing” children similar to Fidel are slotted into the narrative, the insertion of documentary evidence comes off as a bit artificial, and never transforms organically into systemic critique. Sanín’s strength as a writer lies precisely in the reverse—her ability to sketch the intimate, otherworldly relationship between two somewhat eccentric people from different places in life.
The translation into English, by British journalist Nick Caistor, is elegant and languid. As Caistor is an experienced translator, with a history of work over varying prose styles, this tone of lyrical coasting is probably a deliberate effect—a trance state meant to mirror the soft pastels of the book, in which one thing happens after another, without much reason. The tone of both original and translation may even be too languid. It seems to need a bit of spark. A few bits of glitter in the shampoo. The smoothness of the translation here is a mixed blessing—with a dream story, a hardness, an edge is required, or the whole thing just floats away.
In accordance with dream logic, specific phrases in the text are italicised, signifying that they are out of the ordinary, special or meaningless. This is the verbiage the drifting mind picks up during the day, which returns at other moments. The fancy jargon suggests bureaucracy, or other attempts to bump-off comprehension — placement committee, intermediary centre, knocking on many doors, persistent research, as soon as the distance permitted, etc. (This last reminds one of Schweblin’s worries about “distance de rescate”, or “rescue distance”, from her child.) Words can open up new paths or close doors, too.
Who is the child here? Are both Laura and Fidel children? Roles change; everything is fluid. Tantalising ideas are left underdeveloped. The idea of maternal selfishness is alluded to. There is a suggestion that Laura conceived the child with her thoughts. There are Russian and Dickensian tales slotted into the narrative, told in such a languid voice it is hard to know what to make of the fragments. There are failures of communication.
Laura did not know how to talk about the island she had in another world, the dark mountain she had created and peopled with distant people from the past. It was a place without hope, but it was at the far end of despair. It could be said it was a sweet land, although in reality there was nothing to say about it. No-one who had gone there had ever come back. It was an empty island, even though it was full of people. There were only people, nothing else. It was in the past, but at the same time in the future. It was the centre of the sea. She could talk to Elvis about love and dissolution, about how everything came to an end and nothing was lost, or she could go through a list of names.
In places, the delicate ambiguity of the tender, mysterious relationship between woman and child is upset by obviousness. Yes, the child could be a ghost. Yes, the child could be her ghost, at some other moment of life. Yes, a fortune teller she goes to meet near the end of the story could be correct that children are particularly given to transports and transitions, with a special relationship to all that exists beyond this world.
The best moments are when Sanín lets the strangeness unspool in a natural way, following her thoughts wherever they might lead. The weird is everywhere, encoded in the mundane. Laura is attracted to whales, because they are everyday but almost unbelievable. They are so big that people and houses can fit inside. They can be a lovely deep shade of grey, or covered with molluscs. She prints out a few pictures and writes a gloss about them, which even speculates disconcertedly that the whale’s eye is the child of its body. Laura tells Fidel about whales, and to him they seem impossible creatures.
Fidel listened closely, staring into her eyes when she looked into his, and when she did not, looking toward where he thought she was looking. He said he had never heard about whales before. He asked whether Laura was the only one who knew about them, or whether she and her mamá knew about them, or if everybody talked about them.
The epigraph in the book goes to John Cassavetes, and one thinks of his film A Woman Under the Influence. Perhaps Laura is a woman feigning Gena Rowlands cool, when really she’s falling apart. Perhaps Fidel’s escapes into another world are attempts to block out or escape a horror experienced in “real” life. But perhaps this subtle story of a woman’s relationship with a boy who comes out of nowhere to change her life is something far, far stranger. Reality and the world of the spirit are separated by only a door—one that may be imaginary, or so tangible it curls up next to you in bed, asking to hear a story.