Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 10, 2018

Melodrome, by Marcelo Cohen, translated by Chris Andrews

Another novella for #NovNov Novellas in NovemberMelodrome by Argentinian author Marcelo Cohen is really interesting reading, and at only 142 pages long, it’s easy to romp through it in a day.  It’s from Giramondo’s Southern Latitudes series, indulging an interest in countries to the east and west of us, in our own hemisphere.

Vaguely Orwellian without being derivative, and offering a critique of neoliberal capitalism without being heavy-handed, Melodrome is set in an indefinable future.  It’s the story of Lerena Dost, a successful woman in executive management, who undertakes a bizarre quest to thank an enigmatic benefactor.  Lerena has lost her lover, her job and her home in short order but through quirky circumstances has won a major lottery.  Uneasy about unearned income, she wants to thank Dona Munava, whose hint provided the winning numbers, but it turns out to be more difficult than she thought.  So she enlists the help of her former lover, Suana Botilecue, a psychoanalyst who lost his job for having an unprofessional relationship with her and is now reduced to living among the homeless as their publicly-funded counsellor.  (It is one of these homeless who narrates the story).

Lerena’s life has unravelled due to an unfortunate series of events.  Her replacement lover dumped her because he thought she was manipulative, and she was so shocked that she wasn’t able to react with her usual assertiveness when her rental manager gave her notice to quit.

She was well acquainted with the miserly sadism of real estate administrators, the deals they did with the judges and the size of the bribes they demanded, but the guy was accusing her of fraudulently negotiating a rent reduction and manipulating the apartment’s elderly owner: the combination of charges left her gaping, with her tongue stuck to her palate.  And she can’t be sure, but it may have been this silence that emboldened her boss to call her in to the personnel room two hours later and announce that, having observed for quite some time now how Lerena’s attitude, with its combination of arrogance, pride, intimidation, assertiveness, moral blackmail and manipulative skill, was inhibiting rather than motivating the team of analysts under her supervision, quashing rather than nurturing their spirit of initiative, and not only making them inefficient as employees but also damaging them as people, he had decided to replace her; that’s the word he used, replace, not dismiss or fire, when in fact he had already prepared her resignation, and produced it then for her to sign, along with a piece of paper on which the sum of her severance pay was crisply inscribed: seven thousand panoramics.  (p.15-16)

‘Panoramics’ and ‘bitcards’ (securely encrypted money cards) are two of the many words coined to create a disorientating sense of a world familiar yet not quite our own, and the translator Chris Andrews has done a splendid job of rendering these in English.  Lerena drives a mincar, stops at ‘anytime eatchas’ for a meal, sleeps overnight at a ‘lodgitel’ and visits a ‘sanit’ when nature calls.  There are Clearseers for surveillance and Guards who enforce checkpoints that no one, not even the Guard, can explain. 

So, Suano joins Lerena on this bizarre road trip, where everyone they meet already knows about their quest.  They get blocked, distracted, threatened with blackmail, spied on by hitchhikers and accused of the crime of killed sacred beetles.  And while Melodrome seems to be a love story of sorts, Suano is constantly psycho-analysing himself as well as her, while he suppresses his feelings of irritation and desire.

Dona Munava is a quixotic guru indeed and she has set up her realm to exercise control in ways that seem disconcertingly familiar.  [I’m thinking of those tele-evangelists exposed as manipulative fraudsters]:

…residential planning, community production, rational logistics, mafia-style finance, a gambling monopoly controlled by a sect, and the sect’s hermetic, intoxicating dogma, are all layered one over the other with a stomach-churning efficiency.  (p.66)

After some verbal jousting, Lerena and Suano are sent to the agapythia, where they work on the production of umbrellas in a multiflex workplace.

The workers cut the silkose into panels for the canopies, fit aquasensors and thermosensors into the shafts, and examine the rings, springs, ribs and tip cups, which have already been assembled by minbots. This results in callused fingers, since it is the norm to work without gloves, in direct contact with the materials.  The rest of the time is chiefly spent in fornication to relax the body. (p.76)

Paradoxically, it’s the decisive Lerena who willingly gives up freedom of choice while Suana is not so sure…

A review in The Saturday Paper suggests that Melodrome

…provides an exciting model for Australian writers and readers when it comes to the literary rewards that can be found by taking stylistic risks. (The anonymous KN, in The Saturday Paper, October 15-21, 2018).

Jane Rawson (From the Wreck) and Angela Meyer (A Superior Spectre) (to name just two) are already doing that, aren’t they?

Author: Marcelo Cohen
Title: Melodrome
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, Southern Latitudes series, 2018, 142 pages, first published as Balada (2011)
ISBN: 9781925336771
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available direct from Giramondo and Fishpond: Melodrome: A Story from the Panoramic Delta (Southern Latitudes)



  1. Your extracts and comments indicate a good job by the translator. Btw, my Lloyd Jones novel just arrived – hope to read it soon.


  2. Sounds good.
    Thanks for the Nov Nov alert as well – coincidentally just finished one and reading another (plus have one you recommended, Swim) so I’ll be able to take part.


    • It’s a good time of the year for short books!
      PS I hope you enjoy Swim:)


  3. Coincidentally I picked up the current ABR this weekend, with a review of Melodrome which focuses on translation – Cohen is apparently a renowned translator of such authors as JG Ballard and William Burroughs into Spanish. Andrews, the translator of this work, must have had to make some difficult choices to render Cohen’s poetic Spanish into English. The title in Spanish is Ballade, I wonder why it, or Ballad, was not retained.


    • My mistake, Balada.


      • Yes, that’s a classic example of a translation issue, but I must admit that I like the name Melodrome, which its associations of melodrama and the Greek meaning of ‘drome’ as ‘running’.
        Maybe it’s just my personal taste, but I tend to like books that have been translated by poets:)


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