The Touch System, by Alejandra Costamanga

The touch typing system—the namesake of Alejandra Costamanga’s The Touch System (translated by Lisa Dillman)—involves placing the fingers on designated keys on a keyboard and typing without looking at those fingers after memorizing the positions of all the characters. It’s an amazing skill when done by people who can type hundreds of letters a minute. (I took a class back in middle school to learn how to touch type. I was terrible at it. I could only type a sentence correctly if I peeked. It’s only after years and years of near-constant writing that I’ve gotten good at touch typing.) In this novel, Costamanga shows us in high-relief what might happen when people never quite manage to get their metaphorical fingers on life’s keys.

The main characters of Costamanga’s novel haven’t really got the hang of having their fingers on the figurative keyboard of life. Agustín, dying somewhere in Argentina, drifted through life without doing much of anything. Ania, his niece, does a lot of many different things…but also struggles to move forward through life. She does odd jobs for money like plant and pet sitting. So when Ania’s father calls her and tells her that someone from the family needs to be with Agustín as he lies dying. He can’t make it for reasons and it’s not like she’s doing anything important, after all. So Ania travels from Chile to Argentina, back to the old family home in a backwater town. The Touch System is told through two streams of consciousness. While Ania thinks about life in the present, Agustín takes us into the past. Agustín’s thoughts reveal his biggest regrets in life, his mother’s mental illness, and a long existence of failing to launch. To be honest, it’s a bit like jumping back and forth between two hoses on full blast. (The ARC’s lack of formatting made it hard to figure out who was talking for a while.)

I realize that my Western perspective makes me value productivity as a virtue. I also realize that ambitionless characters tend to bother me. (The only reasons I got through Bartleby, the Scrivener were its brevity and my sense of psychological horror at a character who says no thank you to everything from a cookie to life itself.) But I think my pro-productive-life stance is supported by the narratives in The Touch System. Ania knows that the way she lives is not normal; she just struggles to find her purpose. When she visits the old, dilapidated family home, she gets enough of a jolt to put her fingers on the keyboard of life. We never get to see it, but we do learn enough to know that Ania doesn’t want to end up like Agustín. Meanwhile, there is so much of a sense of failure around Agustín that I know this story doesn’t approve of people who can’t make a life for themselves.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman

163330It fascinates me (in a dark sort of way, I’ll admit) when people who have been through something terrible have to find a way to live alongside the ones who committed terrible crimes against them. After the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, Apartheid, and other crimes against humanity, there were so many criminals that it wasn’t possible to just through them all in prison or have them executed. In Ariel Dorfman’s wrenching play, Death and the Maiden, we see a trio of people faced with the impossible question of justice when there seems to be no options in the face of monstrous, systemic crimes.

Paulina Salas is a broken woman doing the best she can to keep herself together. She has a sympathetic husband who loves her, but it’s clear that the damage she suffered at the hands of the fascist Chilean government some years before the play opens. Just after she learns that her husband, Gerardo, has just been named to a national truth and reconciliation commission modeled on Chile’s Rettig Commission, Paulina comes face to face with the man who helped torture and rape her while she was incarcerated.

Roberto Miranda, by pure chance, helped Gerardo make it home after Gerardo blew a tire. In gratitude, Gerardo invites Roberto over for a drink. But then Roberto shows up in the middle of the night, hoping to have a warm bed and a bit of company, Paulina overhears him talking to Gerardo. Roberto’s distinctive way of speaking and pet phrases lead Paulina to remember him as the doctor who helped torture him. So, when Gerardo is asleep, Paulina ties Roberto up and puts him on trial for his crimes.

Gerardo is predictably horrified, but Paulina is determined and Roberto is frantic. The play shows us one way that the impossible question of justice and retribution might be answered. Can Paulina get justice? Will “convicting” Roberto give her some peace? What about the other people who were hurt and killed by the fascists? How do the survivors get justice without becoming just like the criminals they want to punish? This three-act play is gripping, tense, and full of hard choices. I was completely hooked.

In the Distance with You, by Carla Guefelbein

36755921In this multi-layered novel, three people slowly discover the secrets of the mysterious cult writer Vera Sigall. The three characters take turns narrating the tale after Vera falls down the stairs of her Chilean home and has to be put into an induced coma while the swelling in her brain goes down. As In the Distance with You, by Carla Guelfenbein and translated by John Cullen, develops it explores creativity, soulmates, incompatibility, unequal relationships, curious parallels, and literary influence. The more I read, the more I enjoyed this novel.

Daniel is the first to discover Vera at the bottom of her stairs. He has been a friend to the enigmatic writer almost the entire time they’ve been neighbors. They have a strange friendship. She’s an elderly writer who refuses to give interviews. He’s a young architect whose award-winning design for a cultural center is stuck in development hell. For all their differences, they enjoy each others company. Meanwhile, Emilia has arrived from France to study the few papers Vera has donated to a library of Latin American women writers. Emilia wants to explore the star and astronomy motifs throughout Vera’s novels. But when Emilia hears that Vera is in the hospital, close to death, she starts to lurk outside the writer’s room until Daniel spots her and strikes up a friendship. Later, the voice of poet Horacio Infante joins the chorus, taking us back into the 1950s as he begins an affair with Vera.

Daniel and Emilia’s deepening relationship mirrors Vera and Horacio’s. All four are creative people, albeit in different fields. While there are moments of instant attraction, it takes time for the characters to learn how to genuinely care for and love each other. It feels organic, even if it’s bittersweet to see one character fall faster than the object of their love. I’ve never read a book that looks so closely at partners that don’t love each other equally. How can such couples move forward when one half of the couple is more in love than the other? As if this wasn’t enough, both couples also run headlong into the thorny problem of influence. Daniel and Emilia start to collaborate on a restaurant idea. Vera and Horacio dip in and out of each other’s work. The problem is, who owns the finished product? Is it possible to share credit? If one person’s name is put down as the creator of something, what might happen if it is revealed to be a collaboration? And then what happens if the partnership breaks up?

In the Distance with You is a moving and thoughtful book. I loved the realistic and original character development; by the end, I was sad to leave the characters. What I loved most, however, were the questions about influence and collaboration. Readers who are interested in author processes or inspiration will love this book. Even readers who aren’t so much into the psychology and problems of authors will probably still enjoy this book for the story of friendship turning into love in a faraway city balanced against a potentially impossible romance.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.