See You at Breakfast?
What is the value of a human life? This is the question at the heart of this brief, moving novel by Guillermo Fadanelli, who has published 24 Spanish-language books but is largely unknown outside Mexico. It’s rare for a local publisher to commission a new translation – life is short, books are long, translation is expensive – and this one is by Alice Whitmore, an Australian poet. The translation is balanced between precision and lushness, with many long sentences built upon detail after detail that push the reader towards a whip-crack ending.
The book has simple parameters – four characters, Mexico City – but Fadanelli works hard with the materials at hand. We follow the fates of friends since childhood Ulises and Adolfo. As disenfranchised adults, they embark on twinned love stories: for Ulises, with Cristina, a clever, funny prostitute, and for Adolfo, Olivia, a sheltered neighbour who displays an enviable “camel-like peace” in her eyes.
Each of the men, and less so the women, who are cannier here, has arrived at their present lives as if by accident. Adolfo hasn’t meant to learn the most intimate details of Olivia’s routine, his “patient voyeurism” growing like one of those “private manias one cultivates with no apparent objective, only to find that, at the end of the day, they are impossible to eradicate”. Like many adult men, he has one day woken up and realised he is not the person he thought he would be.
As for Ulises, “he felt a certain pride at being the kind of mature man who could go out with whores any night of the week and not come home until the following morning”. The characters’ attitudes sometimes blend into a blanket jadedness, especially directed towards domestic life. Mainly though, they are complex and fascinating people, and the book depends upon their elaborate, interlocking points of view.
A crucial scene midway is unbelievably upsetting, more so because it’s interleaved with the description of a man retrieving a glass of milk from a refrigerator. This scene, one of the author’s many sharp effects of contrast, reveals that our fate often depends on ugly chance. Perhaps this is why, when the novel ends in a state of apparent calm, the reader knows to treat this chapter only as a pause. In Fadanelli’s world, good things are always accompanied by their opposites. The relationship between them is what drives this novel forward. CR
Giramondo, 180pp, $19.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 5, 2016 as "Guillermo Fadanelli, See You at Breakfast?". Subscribe here.