In the opening pages of Chilean author Bruno Lloret’s stifling, slim novel, translated into English by Ellen Jones, Nancy leaves her father and travels to Santa Cruz, where she meets “a stooped old gringo”. Years later, Nancy, now in her 30s, is slowly dying of cancer, her body riddled with tumours. Her husband, the gringo Tim, an absent drunk who disappears for months at a time on offshore fishing trawlers, is inevitably sucked into a tuna processor. In the delirium of her sickness, made bearable only by morphine and the kindness of a woman as sick as she is, Nancy begins to relive her childhood in dreamlike detail.
It is here that the novel’s central conceit comes into focus – this is an arid, deeply scarred portrait of life at the edges of existence. The narrative is broken up by crosses, X marking the borders between life and death, between one sentence and another, prefiguring and making real a biblically unsentimental tale of loss and abandonment. In the barren towns on the outskirts of Chile’s metropolises, industry poisons the land, young women show up dead on beaches, and the machinations of capitalism imbue in the very atmosphere a potent capacity for ruination. Nancy grows up in the shadow of her brother’s mysterious death, her abusive mother’s tirades and the spectre of predatory men. Eventually, it’s only her and her father, a small, shrivelled man who finds refuge in his simple piety.
Nancy is a perfect vehicle for Lloret’s preoccupations as a writer – rather than being a passive character to whom things happen, she sinks herself in her own alienation. The reader understands this as a valid strategy to survive in the vast systems of exploitation the novel only hints at. In the depths of her illness, Nancy reflects that “X After a while, silence is worse than actually dying X Maybe even worse than hope X”.
In a novel as unrelenting as Nancy, its brevity is a relief: Lloret achieves an impressionistic quality that stops just short of overwhelming the reader’s capacity to endure a world where despair is endemic and ordinary. Indeed, were the book any longer, it would be close to unreadable, but as it is, it attains a state of almost grace – a profound and disturbing meditation on the nature of belief, poverty and the human detritus of global capital.
Giramondo, 144pp, $26.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 14, 2020 as "Bruno Lloret, Nancy".
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