Marcelo Cohen’s novella Melodrome is the third book in Giramondo’s Southern Latitudes series of work from writers in the southern hemisphere. It is also the second from an Argentinian, demonstrating how Latin America has continued to shine in world literature, well beyond the “Boom” years associated with Gabriel García Márquez.
Melodrome’s ingenuity is in ample evidence in this superb translation by Chris Andrews (known for his translations of Roberto Bolaño). The opening scene sets up its enigmatic and comic tenor, parodying the conventions associated with noir while also giving them a dystopian context. The action begins with the sound of Lerena Dost’s footsteps – “Tock paff. Tock fff. Tack paff. Tack fff.” – as she walks down an illuminated street, a Chandleresque femme fatale, wearing high-heeled boots with a missing heel. She seeks Dr Suano Botilecue, a public-health psychotherapist, who provides free consultations to the homeless gathered in the courtyard of a guesthouse. Dost and Botilecue have a romantic history to settle – a romance that began when Botilecue was treating Dost, costing Botilecue his career as a private practitioner.
The first-person omniscient narrator is one of the homeless people, who observe and overhear Dost’s and Botilecue’s interactions in the courtyard. Dost has been sacked from her job in real estate because her “attitude, with its combination of arrogance, pride, intimidation, assertiveness, moral blackmail and manipulative skill … had been extremely harmful to the company’s human resources”. However, the narrator is also intriguingly able to recount the bizarre road trip that Dost and Botilecue subsequently take in search of the mysterious Dona Munava. Here the plot and mise en scène become increasingly bizarre and conspiratorial, recalling Thomas Pynchon’s classic postmodern novella The Crying of Lot 49.
The use of neologisms – bitcards, mincar, melowater, farfonette – adds to the defamiliarisation of modernity, as does the striking poetry and incongruity of the action: “a man on the road up ahead tries to stop them with a closed umbrella and an open hand, no doubt to show them a dung beetle and accuse them of having run over it”.
Melodrome delivers a surreal ride, prompting reflection on issues from climate change to neoliberal capitalism. It also provides an exciting model for Australian writers and readers when it comes to the literary rewards that can be found by taking stylistic risks. KN
Giramondo, 160pp, $24.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 15, 2018 as "Marcelo Cohen, Melodrome". Subscribe here.