Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 20, 2020

Nancy, by Bruno Lloret, translated by Ellen Jones

Here in Australia (at least in the circles I move in) American missionaries are a bit of a joke*.

But Nancy, a striking new novella from Chilean author Bruno Lloret, makes it clear that contemporary American missionaries are just as disruptive to societies in South America, as they were in Africa and Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries.

But first, the reader has to navigate something new…

Nancy is narrated by a dying woman in a small city in northern Chile.  She is reliving her childhood and adolescence in a dysfunctional family, her indifferent marriage, her brother’s disappearance, her attempts at finding work, and her father’s religious conversion.

‘This world is a desert of crosses,’ Nancy’s father tells her – and crosses in bold make up the very fabric of the novel: X marks which can be read as multiplication symbols, scars, locations on a treasure map; or as signs of erasure and the approach of death, like the cancer that threatens Nancy’s life and memories. (From the back cover blurb).

So when you open the book, you are confronted by this:
(You may need to click on the 3rd image to see the effect properly, and note that they are only slightly different sizes because of how I inexpertly cropped them after scanning)

Now if you are the sort of reader who gets tense about unconventional punctuation (or even worse, downgrades your otherwise favourable Goodreads rating by one star, like a schoolteacher taking off marks because of it), Nancy is not for you.   But if you are an adventurous reader, this is a book that deserves your time. I loved it, because these crosses do exactly what the author intended.  In the press release that came with the book, Lloret says this:

It was critical to me that readers could engage with the text in different ways.  I wanted to get their attention and to avoid quick, superficial skimming of the text (though of course, readers have the final word on how they engage with the work. ) The text relies neither on constant, fluid sentences, nor on transparent, cinematic language, and at first I used a dash to separate sentences rather than the usual punctuation (full stop, comma, colon, and so on.) Those standard symbols didn’t give Nancy the right rhythm, and I wanted a spoken, fluent, intermittent transcription of her voice.  In Spanish, angle quotation marks (<>) are often used, and as I worked I started to see Xs emerge in between sentences framed as quotes (><).  It was visually interesting since in separating sentences, these marks added a sort of visual enigma, an invitation to interpret what is happening on the page. (Giramondo Press Release)

And that is exactly how it worked for me.  From page 1 where I puzzled over making sense of the shape, to page 2 where I was baffled by what seemed like oblivion, and then onto page 3 where text emerged, but slowly because my eye lingered over the words, I had to slow down.  The crosses made me remember that this narration is like the final days and hours of people I have loved, where ‘absences’ punctuate their time as death draws near.  Reading the book this way is like paying homage to Nancy’s last words and respecting her right to bear witness.

You might be thinking that this story is a bit grim, but what shines through a life of hardship, brutality, an indifferent marriage—and the frustration of seeing her father’s religious conversion— is an indomitable voice, powerful resilience and occasional flashes of black humour.  While I wouldn’t call it the ‘comfort reading’ that many are talking about now, it’s not depressing reading either.

Though there are times when Nancy’s story makes one wonder how people in Chile are getting on during the pandemic. We don’t seem to hear much about how less wealthy countries are coping.  I hope they’re not fobbing people off with exhortations to pray…

Having long abandoned any belief in a god that countenances the poverty and political corruption of Chile, Nancy is incredibly frustrated by the emergence of foreign Christian denominations, whose empty promises find fertile ground in a society where no sense of community exists and there is no trust in the state.  She calls it the curse of the north and at one point cheerfully blackmails the missionaries because she sees them embracing, in defiance of their religious beliefs.

It is a poignant moment when, to please Papa Santó, (later to be Papa Perdito) she submits to Mormon baptism though she doesn’t believe in any of it.  The only thing she believes in is the Old Testament Jehovah punishing her for hanging out with fornicators and other bad sorts.  For allowing myself to be baptised an unbeliever.

Nancy’s abusive mother is a gorgon — she calls her madre mala.  You can see here how well the translator has captured the vivid prose:

She had a face like a goosefish.  Downturned lips.  Hair all over the place.  Wearing something between pyjamas and a cleaner’s uniform.  A different grimace depending on the occasion. Some people received tense, smooth smiles, smiles that barely made it across the threshold, melting back as soon as she was inside the house.  Other people, her own family, got the crusts, the leftovers from a sleepless night: puffy eyes, dripping nose, face full of anguish.  Stressing about everything being just right, the fish being well seasoned, there being enough mashed potato, nobody having to fill up on bread, Ch’s young people remaining uncorrupted by the nightlife, the Temple being rebuilt before the Second Coming.  (p.37)

A hasty marriage turns out to be no escape:

… He said: I know you. You used to live in Ch, near the big port—isn’t your name Carla? I told him he was right except for the name, recognising the same roughness in his accent as those gringos we used to go to Playa Roja with sometimes  X X X
X X X  My name’s Nancy  X X X
      X X X
      X X X  He smiled and asked me out for a bite to eat  X X X X X X X ✕  When I saw him up close I realized he was the same lost gringo we’d almost run over  X X X X   We shook hands clumsily and headed to a Chicken Palace  X X X X  There he asked me to marry him before I’d eaten a single chip  X X X X  I looked at him for a second, terrified he wouldn’t let me eat if I said no  X X X X X X  I shoved a couple of chips in my mouth and, as they turned to mash between my teeth, I considered him carefully  X X X X Judging by his looks, I reckon Tim couldn’t have been more than thirty-five at the time. I was seventeen.  X X X X X  I said yes then and there and we went to live in Guayaquil, until one day we realised, out walking in a tropical rainstorm, that we didn’t belong there but in Chile  X X X We decided to move back and settle in this disgusting port town, where rum and Teletrak betting took my husband from me  X  Over twenty years Tim managed to lose every job imaginable, till no one except the Japanese would hire him  X  Working for the Japanese was a kind of slow death sentence X He’d leave one day and spend a fortnight offshore with two hundred other hired hands, trawling and processing and canning the fish then and there  X  He always came back smiling, serene, but it didn’t last. He’d go straight to some bar and spend the night getting soaked with his friends (p.10)

And yet, she says, we were fond of each other, even after we grew apart X

Nancy reminds me of other women I have known, who had awful lives and yet refused to be defeated by their circumstances.

Nancy is the sixth title in Giramondo’s Southern Latitudes series.  I have reviewed others in the series here.

*Unless you are a teacher-librarian in a churchy suburb, and are subjected to their campaigns to ban books that offend their religious scruples.  I don’t agree with religious censorship and neither did my principal so—rather than make an issue of it and *sigh* risk them getting onto school council to prevent all the children being denied books like the Harry Potter series— #TrueConfessions I resolved the issue by turning a blind eye to children reading these ‘forbidden’ books in the library at lunchtime, and I took care to prevent them from borrowing these books to read at home.

Author: Bruno Lloret
Title: Nancy (Southern Latitudes series)
Translated by Ellen Jones
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2020, first published in Chile by Editorial Cuneta, 2015
ISBN: 9781925818246, pbk., 134 pages
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Nancy
and direct from Giramondo Publishing

 


Responses

  1. What an unusual and interesting-sounding structure. Very innovative. And as the author says, a good way to stop the reader skimming over the surface. It does sound like a powerful read. And I approve your confession…. ;D

    Like

    • I hope this book doesn’t suffer from the current delays in book distribution. I think it should have a wide readership amongst adventurous readers overseas!
      PS Glad you approve!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This does sound really interesting. I remember when I was studying George Herbert and how he forces his poetry into particular shapes on the page, some of my classmates couldn’t bear it! It’s definitely a brave choice for Lloret to make. I don’t personally find it off-putting so I’ll certainly look out for this.

    Like

    • I think you’ll love the voice of the woman, and it’s so authentic, I think Lloret must have spent time with old women, to capture the tone the way he has.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Religious censorship is not something I approve of either. There are far more ‘sinful’ things than reading, but then again, opening ones mind up to new ideas is probably more worrying for them than ‘sinning’.
    I may look into these books. I have an interest in that area of the world.

    Like

  4. […] with my recent reading of Nancy by Bruno Lloret (transl. Ellen Jones), The Girl with the Louding Voice is either going to captivate you with its audacious […]

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  5. I think this is the oldest post I haven’t read. I can start working my way back up the list. It’s a hard life being a blogger … Mum (who’s C of E) used to complain about American missionaries whose main aim she reckoned was to convert people already christian to their particular brand. Her missionaries were ok apparently.

    Like

    • She might be right, but things are different now. There’s a great deal of money being spent by American proselytisers whose aim is not just #hmpf redemption but also political. Not so long ago, our entire area was letterboxed with a book, which must have cost a fortune to produce, money that might in a real version of Christianity have been better spent in aid or welfare programs. That Man in America has the support of the religious right, and they are keen to spread their ‘muscular’ i.e. hard-hearted version of Christianity into any fertile ground, for political-economic reasons. They believe that wealth is God’s reward for ‘hearing the word’ and that poverty and sickness is deserved by those who suffer it, so there should be no spending on welfare. Their missionaries are engaged in mass-conversion to a world order that you and I do not ever wish to flourish.

      Like

      • I’ll just be glad then that they don’t make their way into my neighbourhood (though I do have a rello who sneaks them into facebook)

        Liked by 1 person


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