Breaking the Ice

Eva Baltasar, trans. Julia Sanches, Permafrost

And Other Stories, 128pp, £10.00, ISBN 9781911508755

reviewed by Josh Weeks

In her 2004 book Precarious Lives, Judith Butler challenges us to ‘imagine a world in which [. . .] an inevitable interdependency becomes acknowledged as the basis for global political community.’ ‘Loss and vulnerability,’ she hypothesises, ‘seem to follow from our being socially constituted bodies, attached to others, at risk of losing those attachments, exposed to others, at risk of violence by virtue of that exposure.’ This exposure to the world and to the desires of the other looms large over Permafrost, the debut novel from Barcelona-born poet Eva Baltasar, translated from Catalan into English by Julia Sanches. Baltasar’s nameless narrator registers both the pain and the necessity of social interactions (predominantly sexual and familial), musings through which Baltasar produces a circuitous, often hilarious lesbian work that straddles the divide between poetry and prose, fiction and autobiography.

The non-linear ‘plot’ will be difficult to pin down. Upon graduating from university, the narrator flees Barcelona for Brussels; works as an au pair in Scotland (where the landscape arouses her regret at wasting five years on an art history degree, giving rise to an irrational hatred of the colour green); and partakes in passionate sexual encounters with a string of women who ignite her lust. These experiences take shape in the shadow of her heteronormative upbringing, overseen by a domineering mother intent on modelling her children in her own image (‘What matters to mom [. . .] is our “occupation.” And I don’t just mean our profession, but all our labels, filing drawers filled with cards scribbled on in good Latin, like the Natural History Museum’). The title of the novel describes the psychical barrier — the icy form of defence — that the narrator constructs as a reaction to such containment, driven by the fearful recognition that ‘normalcy shapes you. You grow up sheltered inside its patterns and take on its body.’

The permafrost functions at a profound, cellular level. The narrative registers the encroachment of the world upon a steadfast female body resistant to its effects: ‘The world unloads its toxicity into my core daily and assimilates me with its infiltration. But I can’t allow it, I won’t let myself partake.’ Indeed, this attentiveness to porosity (of both the body and the ego) permeates almost every aspect of the narrative. The childhood trauma of being force-fed ‘[l]iters and liters of milk’ by her mother leaves the narrator feeling ‘half girl, half milk-tank.’ In another memorable scene, when her sister asks her what it’s like to be with a woman, the narrator grabs a piece of chewing gum and ‘chew[s] quickly to get past that critical moment when the artificial sweeteners assail the front line of my buccal cells.’ Routine consumption — coloured by the vulnerability that such a question demands — is suddenly experienced as an existential burden. The phobia of envelopment that catastrophises such moments causes the permafrost to crystallise — there is very little the world throws at it which it does not seek to withstand. But in rejecting all forms of communion that portend potential injury or heartbreak, the narrator merely substitutes one existential crisis for another: how can you establish meaningful relationships with the world when the self through which you engage with it has been barricaded off?

The strange materiality of the body — its construction at the threshold between the self and our surroundings — is the thread that sustains the novel’s episodic trajectory. The narrator’s description of a life lived in fits and starts, punctuated by frequent suicidal urges, is not just the bildungsroman of a girl coming to terms with her sexuality, but also the personal expression of a collective condition: the body-as-singularity that nonetheless belies its own parameters, forming relationships and dependencies with that which is outside itself. In fact, the tension between sexual pleasure and self-preservation might be considered the novel’s most distinct narrative element, with the narrator consistently oscillating between external revulsion and the desire to meld with her partners, ‘searching for the point where the outside gives way to the naked and inner pulp.’ As the narrator puts it early on in the novel, following her decision not to jump from the top floor of a building: ‘I’ve settled on an edge, I live on this edge and wait for the moment when I’ll leave the edge, my temporary home.’

That is not to say that Permafrost takes itself too seriously. Scattered amongst its reflections on sex and belonging are nuggets of poetic, side-splitting wisdom that are too numerous to do justice to (‘Men’s hairdos are like Apple operating systems, highly compatible with all forms of life’/ ‘Despite what movies would have you believe, small towns are boring’). Equally affecting is Baltasar’s off-kilter imagery. One of the narrator’s lovers, Roxanne, harbours ‘the ability to apply font to speech,’ whilst the guest room of her sister’s apartment is described as being ‘as crucial as fingernails.’ These metaphors are striking enough to justify their indulgence, though there are moments when the poeticism strains a little too hard (‘I lather my head and body, rinse, wring my hair, and towel-dry my conscience’). Baltasar should be commended for her linguistic experimentalism, but with lines like ‘[i]nside I smelled of a parking lot,’ she presupposes a receptive reader with a high threshold for opacity.

In speaking of opacity, it is important to recognise the daring and dexterity by which Sanches, through her translation work, distils Permafrost’s lyrical essence. As she explains in her translator’s afterword, certain aspects of the Baltasar’s writing (such as use of the Catalan diminutive) bely direct translation, forcing an emphasis on ‘sound and rhythm and on the sheer musical materiality of language.’ Sanches’ attentiveness to stress and intonation is impressive: it marks a commitment to the linguistic-affective frame through which our experience of internal conflict is mediated and expressed.

The novel is at its strongest when it focuses on said conflict: the desire to simultaneously ward off and participate in everyday engagement. The prospect of death offers the narrator a perverse form of comfort, with its imminent possibility — and continuous postponement — hinting at a nihilistic form of agency that makes her navigation of the world more tolerable: ‘I think a lot about sex, but I also think about heights, train tracks, Gillette razor blades, Swiss Army knives, and kitchen knives.’ The unexpected prospect of guardianship — the fact that ‘[c]hildren are tiny archives of unconditionality, and that love is an absolute’ — fosters a material interdependency with the power to disrupt this line of thinking, resulting in the realisation that we are never quite as alone as it may seem. ‘Smiling like this thaws the permafrost,’ the narrator tells us, finally aware that ‘the savagery that stalks and besieges us — is life.’

For all its talk of suicide, it is the promise of living — the beauty of our immanence to the world and to others — that forms the novel’s lasting message. If Butler is right to suggest that ‘we are, from the start, given over to the other,’ we should follow Baltasar’s lead in coming to terms with this predicament, and seek out the bonds that lie in waiting at the edges of our being.

Josh Weeks is a writer based in Madrid. He is currently researching a PhD on Roberto Bolaño.