PARTIAL SYMMETRIES: Norah Lange’s ‘People in the Room’ and Carla Maliandi’s ‘The German Room’
Norah Lange, People in the Room, translated by Charlotte Whittle (And Other Stories, 2018)
Carla Maliandi, The German Room, translated by Frances Riddle (Charco Press, 2018)
By Rebecca DeWald
“Reality is partial to symmetries and slight anachronisms”, begins the second paragraph of Jorge Luis Borges’s short story ‘The South’ in Andrew Hurley’s translation. Borges takes care to describe the protagonist Juan Dahlmann’s background: the grandson of a German minister in the Evangelical Church, who had arrived in Buenos Aires in 1871, “considered himself profoundly Argentine”, keenly associating with his maternal grandfather Francisco Flores (who died in battle for his fatherland), while himself working as a librarian and man of letters, following the tradition of his paternal ancestry. Though, Borges stresses, this pull towards experiencing a romantic (or Romantic) death like his maternal grandfather was “perhaps impelled by his Germanic blood”. This Juan Dahlmann, then, has an accident in 1939. Having discovered a rare copy of Gustav Weil’s German translation of the Arabian Nights, he rushes towards the stairs and hits his head on a recently painted window that had been left open. He is rushed to hospital, endures all sorts of treatment in an attempt to cure his injury and the resulting septicaemia, which leaves him hallucinating. The next thing we know is that Dahlmann finds himself in a cab, heading to the family’s country house in the South.
Did he ever awake from his fever dreams, or is his journey south part of his hallucinations? We never find out, and the story is so cleverly constructed that ‘el sur’ has become synonymous with a place where reality can be suspended, and metaphysical games play out.
Borges’s story begins with a scene of migration, and ends with uncertainty about the borders between reality and fiction. You would think that Carla Maliandi’s novel, firmly rooted in a contemporary experience couldn’t be further from the metaphysical games her male ancestor was playing, yet the parallel lies in the non-parallel: initial events open up multiple doors and options for interpretations and decisions, resulting in a mesh of possible worlds.
We meet the protagonist of The German Room on the evening of her departure from Buenos Aires to Heidelberg, where she grew up. Her only aim is to get some sleep and to get well. We subsequently discover, in her first person narration, that she left Argentina after a break-up with her long-term partner Santiago, that she quit her job without telling her colleagues, and that her mother thinks she is travelling through Europe on a gap year. With that backdrop, the lethargy and passivity with which the unnamed narrator encounters life around her – partly induced by her pregnancy, of which she is yet unaware – become a drift from one scene to the next.
Her ‘sur’ is Heidelberg, the German town she describes as “something out of a fairy tale, unreal”, though it is more cosmopolitan than its picture book German façade lets on: the student residence, where she rents a room, is a hotchpotch of cultures. She instantly meets Miguel Javier from Tucumán in the north of Argentina, befriends Japanese girl Shanice, flirts with an Albanian flatmate, has discussions about immigration with the Hungarian-born landlady, and falls in love with a German-Turkish artist, Joseph.
A note on Frances Riddle’s translation at this point, which to me particularly stood out in her handling of accents, which make the characters more rounded, without ridiculing or stereotyping them (at least not more than is deliberate for the story): Shanice leaves out verbs – “Welcome! Karaoke night […]! Today we all sing and dance and no one sad.”; Miguel Javier has a Hispanic lisp and a tendency to run words together – “ithinkyourebeautiful”, “hesathirdrategypsywanker” (what a gem!) – which I could even hear in my inner ear when the narration was in reported speech. His sister Marta Paula’s speech pattern is even more pronounced (“I wanted to call you to let you know, ya know?”). This plurality of languages, and the occasional “hola” remind the reader that all these conversations are happening in multiple languages: the students are speaking German with each other, with various degrees of ability; the Argentines speak Spanish amongst themselves, and switch to English when Mrs Takahashi, Shanice’s Japanese mother, is around.
None of these characters live carefree lives: Miguel Javier cannot support his sister Marta Paula back home since coming to Germany to study economics “in order to understand why poverty exists”; Joseph, who may or may not be bi, is introduced as an incredible photographer, though his day-job is helping his parents in the small shop underneath his flat; and Shanice, the rich Japanese girl, who invites everyone to a karaoke party and seems to have the time of her life, commits suicide. The L’Auberge espagnole generation has grown up, though still hasn’t grown out of the aimless, flat-sharing, waiting-for-a-better-future lifestyle, which certainly also rings true for millennials in the English-speaking world. The cosmopolitanism of this novel simultaneously embodies the universal displacement and lack of purpose an entire generation is experiencing.
In a search of meaning – here again, the Romantic notion that Borges would attribute to the “German blood” – the narrator is intrigued by the lure of the supernatural. In her farewell letter, Shanice left all her belongings to the narrator, who finds that some of the clothes and shoes are too small for her, so she and Miguel Javier agree to treat his sister Marta Paula to the shoes. In a gesture of thank you, Marta Paula engages the psychic Feli to find out more about the pregnancy. Maybe some higher power can bring direction and purpose to her life? Instead, Feli advises to stay clear off another “witch”, Mrs Takahashi, Shanice’s mother, who came to Heidelberg to bury her daughter, but decided to stay longer and appears and reappears in the most unsuspected places. If she is a spirit, she is as lost as the mere mortals. Characteristic of the ‘sur’ trope, though, the supernatural elements never seem quite out of this world, but always believable part of it. Seemingly inexplicable instances find a convincing explanation: Marta Paula is drawn to Feli and tells the narrator, “Feli did something to me”, before she mysteriously disappears. The suspense is real, though so is the explanation Marta Paula gives when she calls again days later: “I needed to think”. And as a single mother, working full-time and living in her parents’ household, the parental home was simply too loud to hear your own thoughts.
Nora Lange’s People in the Room, translated by Charlotte Whittle, shares this aura of the supernatural, which is yet thoroughly embedded in real-life events and experiences, though it arguably hides this beneath a dream-like atmosphere not too dissimilar to Lange’s contemporary Borges’s ‘El Sur’: the allure of the novel lies, amongst others, in the uncertainty whether the narrator’s observations are real, or fabulations of her imagination. The 17-year old occupies a room in her family house in Buenos Aires with a window that looks out onto the neighbouring house. The opening chapter is a reminiscence of past events, hints at scenes the (also) unnamed narrator experienced with and in relation to her neighbours, and which have left such a profound impression on her that it would feel sacrilegious to share them with her family. Her life becomes determined by “a dimly lit drawing room looking out onto the street, with shadowy corners, and three pale faces that appeared to be living at ease”.
The plot sets in with a dramatic effect:
My bedroom lit up suddenly and flashes of lightning flooded its corners, leaving them separate and distinct. I kept watch, waiting for the flashes, trying to pass unnoticed so no one would ask me to close the shutters. […] If they’d seen me from across the way as I collected as many flashes as I could, so they would last a few seconds longer behind my eyes, perhaps they would’ve told me it was useless to resist fate […].”
She is immediately infatuated with ‘them’, the three women living in the neighbouring house, who like to sit at their dining table, curtains drawn, framed by the window like a painting. The novel itself was apparently inspired by Patrick Branwell Brontë’s painting of his three sisters, from which he erased himself, hinting at the central void around which the novel is structured. The ensuing plot is, objectively speaking, less dramatic than the opening scene suggests, yet it is an upheaval of the protagonist’s world, where even a misplaced silence can cause upset. It seems just too natural that the novel should have been inspired by the Brontë sisters, as the 1950 publication plays on the perception of a woman’s place in the home, of the tacit obedience respectable women are expected to adhere to, and how they quietly subvert it.
Tellingly, the novel is at its most eerie when women become interchangeable: the narrator is drawn to the three sisters, yet she feels a deep companionship with the eldest, “most of all her voice, her voice so much like mine.” Lange uses pronouns interchangeably – not necessarily a precocious hint at gender identities, but at the anonymity of women, where one woman becomes all women – to highlight the fluidity between the narrator or the observer, and the subjects of her desire. She alternatingly refers to ‘them’ and ‘her’, and the gap from ‘her’ to ‘I’ shrinks in the process, as if the protagonist has always been one of the three sisters, not a fourth addition to the trio. This is an appropriate instance to talk about Charlotte Whittle’s translation, as the seemingly effortless switch between pronouns and perspectives, from outside onlooker to insider, is owed to her translation. Any translator will know how difficult it is to render pronouns, which are often used differently in different languages, they can be absorbed by the verb (as is the case for Spanish), or they need to be made explicit when the source is purposefully vague. Whittle has mastered the skill to translate these grammatical facts with ease, while refraining from the temptation to make the translation more concrete than the source text, and instead to keep the text’s insecurities, changes in pronouns, tenses, and points of view. Whittle embraces complex sentences to describe feelings and emotions over occasionally long passages, which positively leave the reader pleading for a hook on which to hang their impressions. This creates the linguistic intensity, which carries the weight of this novel and is the root cause of its allure.
For example, it takes a little while until the reader is told who ‘they’ are. Upon first noticing her neighbours, the narrator recalls:
I remember seeing my reflection when I passed the tall mirror on the dresser, just as the oppressive silence of a flash of lightning deranged the shadows.
And indeed, the abstraction of the “faces” instead of three “women”, with which the narrator opens her description, and which is continued throughout, underlines that her gaze is focused on the women, on female bodies:
by night it seemed easier to answer, or to evade the conversation so no one would find out that I spent hours on end collecting their faces, that their faces crossed the street, promising me their company, no matter what.
The faces are personified and create distant objects of her gaze, while also a point of connection: she sees her face reflected in the mirror, which, like her voice, becomes indistinguishable from them. I was reminded of a contemporary of Lange’s, who also only recently was translated into English for the first time: Silvina Ocampo, and Daniel Balderston’s collection and translation of her short stories, Thus Were Their Faces. I wrote about the collection at length here, though I would like to repeat two aspects of Ocampo’s writing which are also particularly applicable to Lange’s novel, and are both pointed out by Borges in his preface to Ocampo’s collection, in Balderston’s translation:
“the immediacy and certainty of the visual image persist in her written pages”, as well as a “strange taste for a certain kind of innocent and oblique cruelty,” particularly with regards to the everyday and domestic life: cruelty and horror lurk in the most familiar of places.
The connecting image between both novels is ostensibly “the room”, a confined space with a limited amount of openings and possible exits. To English-language readers, mention of a room and women’s writing immediately triggers an image of Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’, and there are indeed a few parallels worth pointing out, without boring the reader. A room of one’s own and 500 pounds a year are all a woman at the beginning of the 20th century could ask for to be independent. Money, and the lack thereof, is a consideration for the protagonist of The German Room, who is afraid she may run out of her savings and will have to go back to Argentina before she is ready to do so. A room also provides privacy, which is a concern for Marta Paula, who escapes for a few days for peace to think. The young women in People in the Room artificially enlarge their space by opening windows and leaving curtains drawn to let in the outside gaze, and experience storms and the outside world, from which they are cut off. Money is less of an immediate issue to these upper-class women, yet the provision of money depends on the men in their lives.
So let’s talk about men for a moment.
Both novels are determined by their female protagonists. The narrator in People in the Room is infatuated with her three female neighbours; the only notable male character is a man who arrives in a carriage one night and delivers a message, which upturns the neighbours’ lives. The protagonist, who finds out about his arrival through a purloined telegram delivered to her house (which also gives her an excuse to visit her neighbours), immediately hates this male figure interrupting the female idyll. What the message was – if it was related to a parcel of love letters sent to the youngest sister – the reader never quite discovers, as we are never sure what part of the events plays out in the narrator’s mind alone.
The central plot in The German Room is equally determined by women’s relationships. The narrator’s life in Heidelberg takes a turn, after just a few days, when her almost-friend in the student accommodation commits suicide, and her mother arrives from Japan to meet this “friend” of her daughter’s. Both the narrator and Marta Paula find themselves influenced by the two “witches”, though the narrator also gives up control over her life to the men she meets in Heidelberg: Miguel Javier, the other Argentine she meets at the student accommodation, knows instantly she is pregnant and decides she must go see a doctor, and even accompanies her to the hospital (where the elderly male doctor identifies him as the “husband” – who else should he be?). At her wits’ end (pregnancy brain seems to deeply affect the narrator) about how to obtain proof of enrolment in a university course in order to be allowed to stay at the student house, she heads to the university and coincidentally meets the old family friend Mario, who immediately offers to take care of the proof and even invites her to stay at his house – two problems solved in one go. She quickly falls head over heels in love with Mario’s friend/love interest Joseph, and almost loses her mind over it, not wanting to leave his side ever again – I have to admit, I was more than a bit disappointed by her willingness to so readily give up her independence to a man she barely knew and who seems to have other lovers beside her.
The protagonists of both novels are, in their own ways, simultaneously at the centre of events and cut off from them. The observer in People in the Room spends most of her time watching the three sisters on the other side of the road from her bedroom window (a comparison with Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie would merit an entire essay, which I best leave to a Comparative Literature student intrigued by Modernist themes), and even when she visits them – if, indeed, her visits actually occur – she still needs to watch her words, her pauses, her gestures, and never fully becomes part of them. Suicide, in both novels, is depicted as an option to escape, though never contemplated by the central characters themselves.
While it is the minute observations and meaningful gazes that make People in the Room intriguing, it is in contrast the disconnect of the protagonist of The German Room which provides the gravitas of Maliandi’s novel. Her protagonist is at the centre of events: her flatmate’s suicide brings Mrs Takahashi to Heidelberg; her pregnancy involves Marta Paula and the psychic Feli; her presence alone brings back memories for Mario, who had decided not to return to Argentina after the Dirty War. Despite the focus on her, the protagonist drifts through life and through the novel, forever tired and exhausted and carried along by the people around her. Her room in the student accommodation is small, with few options for development. Yet the neighbouring rooms and their inhabitants change her life and offer different options for the course it can take, until she is eventually “upgraded” to living in Mario’s spacious flat. But it becomes clear that, despite her passivity, her environment influences her life. At Mario’s, she turns on the TV:
they show images of demonstrations across several cities, students, human rights organizations and immigrants protesting the budget cuts for accepting refugees. A woman carrying a baby in her arms cries. I can’t understand what she’s saying. Images of the protesters are interspersed with shots of boats overflowing with people. The coast guard rescuing life rafts about to sink; men, women, and kids risking their lives to get to Europe. The reporter talks about the 800,000 asylum seekers this year alone.
Migrants fleeing to Europe, just like her parents did to escape political persecution in Argentina in the 80s. We are left with this image and the thought of where to draw the line between “immigrants” and “expats”, which is cut off by a bang on the door (Mrs Takahashi), pulling the narrator back into her own affairs.
The ending to The German Room shares similarities with ‘El Sur’. Besides the parallels in German ancestry of both protagonists, migration is still a familiar feature in the contemporary novel, and seems just as relevant for a globalised generation of voluntary and involuntary migrants. The final scene has the protagonist follow Mrs Takahashi into the woods, as if guided by a fairy (evil or benign, we won’t find out). The borders between reality and fiction remain uncertain – a circumstance which applies to People in the Room as much as Maliandi’s novel, written almost 70 years later. Though what has changed is that, in addition to the reader, the protagonist herself is unsure what is happening around and to her, making her relatable while adding an additional level of uncertainty reflective of a contemporary experience.
 This event in fact happened to Borges himself who, after he’d recovered from septicaemia after a similar accident, was so afraid of having lost his gift of writing that he alleged tried something new, something he’d never written before, ‘Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote’, in the metaphysical, half fiction, half fact style which would become his trademark