By Gabriela Ponce
Translated by Sarah Booker
In writing her first novel, Gabriela Ponce must have known it would have been impossible to stage. Ponce, a professor of performing arts at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, is a playwright, and part of Mitómana, a performing arts collective. Besides its imaginative scope, Blood Red (Spanish: /Sanguínea/) is filled with a stream of consciousness narrative impossible to translate into theater, and of course lots of foreplay, sex, drugs, and surreal scenes that probably would have been weaker if they were physically presented. This eldritch novel—originally published in 2019, and her first work to be translated into English–thrives in its otherworldliness, its blurring of the lines of reality, feeling, and the imagination.
After her marriage falls apart, the unnamed narrator of Blood Red is roller skating at a club in Ecuador. That night, she goes home with a man who she met that night. She quickly falls for him; he lives in a place she dubs “the cave,” which is next to an auto repair shop and smells of “mud, drugs, cat piss.” With a seemingly impossible organic interior, Ponce renders the cave in a way that reminds one of Jeff VanderMeer’s so-called “weird fiction,” and the relentlessness of the biological environment creeping up around humans’ domesticity.
This a book you can almost smell and taste: so vivid and visceral is the language. Sarah Booker’s translation renders Ponce’s prose hypnotic, with sentences carrying on, further into the mind of the narrator, bending and twisting back on themselves. Despite the vividness, there is also something dreamlike about it all—if at the end of the novel the narrator had claimed the whole thing to be a dream, I would have believed it. (Don’t worry, this does not happen.) Perhaps it’s a bit like a nightmare that you have woken up from, with your heart racing, and even though none of it happened, you still feel stressed about it. Samanta Schweblin’s fiction, especially Fever Dream, come to mind.
Indeed, the narrator is, oversimplify it, stressed out. She still mourns a dead brother, and the way her marriage ended is something she dwells upon constantly. Her trypophobia—a fear of holes, especially clusters of holes—is also a constant presence. It’s this fear that animates nearly every part of Blood Red. Holes are, of course, everywhere, if you’re looking for them.
Afraid of the holes in her very own body—menstruation inspires the title of the book—the narrator seeks in many ways to fill them, and fill herself up, sex only being one of the most obvious. She drinks a lot. She does drugs, although does seem addicted to them. She has affairs and intimate encounters of all kinds, even beyond the man in the cave; she is quick to become attached: “For me,” she says, “anything that isn’t falling in love has never merited much attention.” Yet, she also manages to be dissatisfied with it all. “Meeting the man from the cave neither alleviated nor erased the pain. It was proof of the possibilities of love, heartbreak, desire.” Go digging and you only get more holes.
She is filled with contradictions, and is at once extremely perceptive about herself and startlingly confused: “The marriage had crumbled because I sensed that I had the strength to survive the natural disintegration or because of the naive idea of a better life or because I ignored the fatal pain of that loss.” One has the sense that she does not even know, or lacks some ability to discern her feelings—or, perhaps, it’s that she understands that defining one of these would just be a story she told herself. There is a lot of guilt inside her (“The guilt is no longer just a throb in my stomach, it’s also a throb in my throat, my groin, and an icy sweat on my hands”) but the vacuum is existential.
During one night in the cave, the man receives a call from his daughter. Still in bed, the narrator listens to one half of the conversation, and it provokes a storm of feeling: “I felt the loneliness fall over me: smack my ears, open my chest, penetrate my holes, and then I felt the water, the deluge, the hail pours from my tear ducts, my nose, and start flooding me, drowning me as the wetness took over everything and my body got smaller and smaller, diminishing.” The prose here is doing a lot of work, reinforcing all of her behavior—the sex, the drugs, the lurching from one feeling to the next—but also the physicality of her pain. This isn’t simply loneliness; she is already spending many of her nights with the man, and it’s clear the narrator does not lack the ability or charm to find many lovers. No, her emptiness is fundamental. “How do survive this…” she asks another lover at one point. “I feel an unprecedented pain and a relief similar only to that pain.” The novel’s plot then takes off when something happens to jar the narrator out of this routine, or “amorous grind” as she memorably refers to it. That eventually takes her across the Atlantic.
The best parts of “Blood Red” are the ones that would make many people blush when reading them, and that’s why it would seem difficult to stage the book without angry puritan mobs knocking down the door. Ponce pushes past the lines and boundaries and getting up in the reader’s face, showing what something—in this case the misery in a character study—feels like. But it’s more than just one woman’s floundering. Readers of all kinds should be able to take something, even if there are elements, such as the narrator’s particular fears, that not everyone shares—trypophobia makes a lucid metaphor for the search for meaning.
It’s hard to find a short novel that manages to be as felt as this one—Ponce’s pathos is sometimes so acute it makes your stomach sink. “I try to understand,” the narrator says at one point. “but everything I do is a surprise even to me.”
Greg Walklin is an attorney and writer living in Lincoln, Nebraska. His book reviews have appeared in The Millions, Necessary Fiction, The Colorado Review, and the Lincoln Journal-Star, among other publications. He has also published several pieces of short fiction. Twitter: @gwalklin
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Posted: September 19, 2022 at 8:47 pm