#RivetingReviews: Jennifer Sarha reviews PERMAFROST and BOULDER by Eva Baltasar

Baltasar’s 2018 novel Permafrost is the first part of a triptych (her choice of word), in which three women tell their stories in the first-person voice. The second book, Boulder, was published in Spain in 2020, and the third, Mamut, in 2022.

Baltasar’s interest in conveying information through poetics is evident in these novels. In an interview with Mathias Énard on Radio France in 2022, she discusses the value of concision when applied to poetry and how she has transferred this to her prose writing. Language in Baltasar’s novels is made to work hard; sound and stress and rhythm are deployed to show how her protagonists experience their lives. Each short, rich chapter provides innovative metaphors and insights, and each offers something to delight the reader – and through Sanches’ beautiful translation, English-speaking readers are able to find the original textual construction as well as the soundscape of the language.

The women in Permafrost and Boulder are Catalans, women-loving women who are confident in their sexuality; multi-skilled non-professionals with jobs rather than careers, people who emigrate to seek a more fulfilling life, or to follow a lover, or out of curiosity. These are recognisably modern lives full of the worries and certainties of these women’s generation. But in Baltasar’s fiction, queerness is normalised, so their anxieties arise from elsewhere. Baltasar has spoken of her own life as a Catalan lesbian and, particularly, of the extent to which the societal homophobia endured by older generations is no longer part of her experience (see her interview with the Letture Metropolitane).

A common thread throughout Permafrost and Boulder is the toxicity of motherhood, gender conformity and heteronormativity; the sudden hardening of societal expectations for women after childbirth, the struggle to find a role in society beyond that of ‘woman’, and how different women respond to these pressures through their own understanding of their gender.

The origin story of Permafrost comes from Baltasar’s experience of a therapy session; she was asked to write about her life, and after forty pages found that she did not want to stop. Yet Baltasar makes it clear that these books are not autobiography or auto-fiction, but rather a ‘new way of getting to know women’.

In the translator’s afterword, Julia Sanches, citing the novelist and translator Jennifer Croft, talks about finding the heart of the books and using that as key to the translation. One of the ‘heart-keys’ Sanches finds is ‘searching’. As a concept ‘searching’ opens interesting vistas across the works; seeking the physicality of desire; searching for the precision and concision of expression; or searching as a stand-in for the restless mobility of contemporary European immigration. It can also serve as key to the narrative method; for all their poetic and linguistic innovation, Permafrost and Boulder are novels with plots, events sequentially offered, weighted, described, dramatised or obfuscated. The narrative is pushed forward by intensity, desire, time-lapses and bad habits.

One might think of ‘searching’ as a quintessentially modern experience, without the old certainties regarding gender and sexuality, family life, home ownership, job fidelity and career progression – challenges that Eva Baltasar’s protagonists live through, fight over and explore with endless curiosity. But ‘searching’ might also constitute the trajectory of a novel; the narrative imperative of movement across time, and the occupation of the restless mind whose thoughts we follow.

Baltasar’s protagonists are concerned with the fundamental solitude of experience: how do we feel inside our bodies, and how do we feel about the bodies of others? (Engagement with the bodies of other women without ‘othering’ is fundamental here). But these novels also ask how we as individuals feel, assess and position the shocks and pulls of the external world in our own mental structures.

Reviewed by Jennifer Sarha

PERMAFROST and BOULDER

by Eva Baltasar 

Translated by Julia Sanches

Published by And Other Stories (2021, 2022)


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Jennifer Sarha is a Finnish writer and scholar based in Luxembourg. She has an unmentionable day job, but her spare time is dedicated to literary and historical pursuits; reading voraciously in many languages and in translation.

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Category: April 2023 – The Spanish RiveterThe Spanish RiveterReviews

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