Monday, 8 September 2008

Änderunsgschneiderei Los Milagros

This book smiled at me from a table in a chainstore. It's a beautiful hardback, illustrated with full-page colour pictures at the end of each chapter, like samples or patches of cloth. The story is set in Buenos Aires, where Mariana works in her aunt's tailor shop - the Milagros of the title. It starts off conventionally enough - Mariana, her workmates, her mother, her home, her late father. Then along comes Analía to get her mother's wedding dress altered. And we learn about Gerardo, the boyfriend. Then the narrative gradually spins out of control.

Written in German although the author is Argentinian, it's María Cecilia Barbetta's debut novel, and it's all about women. So the settings are all very female - hairdresser's, homes, tailor shops, with occasional outings to more mystical places like a planetarium and a fortune teller's office. The women chat, play the piano, sew, mend, dress and undress, read, drink tea and walk in the park. For the most part, the plot could be taking place in 1928 or 2008 - the women's lives, thoughts and opinions are strangely antiquated. Men are mainly conspicuous by their absence - the dead father, the errant boyfriend, the strangely slippery fiancé - but there are a couple of chapters that bring us straight up to the present day. Gerardo and his pals share joints and jokes at someone's house, planning to fly to the Bermuda Triangle to find the island home of the mythical Amazons. But then again, it might be the 70s...

Like the pictures, the writing itself seems to leave clues at every turn. Castor and Pollux, the praying mantis, witchcraft, Wonder Woman, love potions. Even the ending is guesswork for the reader, implied by the previous chapters, anagrams and pictures. We have to draw our own conclusions, like gossip that never speaks the final truth, all conjecture and over-ripe imagination. By this point, Mariana herself seems to have lost control, and the confused ending reflects her emotional state.

What I really enjoyed was the often rather experimental writing. One chapter is set out in three columns - one for the nagging mother, one for Mariana and her sewing machine and one for a radio programme on that Bermuda Triangle again. Be fun to translate, I suspect. In general, though, I felt Barbetta was trying slightly too hard. It was often too much, impossible to spot even a fraction of the pointers in text and image. And I felt the plot was not sewn together tightly enough - what was intended as a patchwork stayed more of a ragbag, the mixture of patterns and textures fraying at the edges. In the end, I did have that wonderful elated moment of comprehension that a great conclusion can sometimes bring. But I also felt slightly inadequate, confused and disappointed.

I decided to write up the book nevertheless, because it was a genuine pleasure to read - and because it's such a beautiful book. I had a crowd of female translators cooing over it at my workshop the week before last. I hope Barbetta carries on in this vein, maybe packing her stories a little lighter in future. You can read the first chapter (in German) here or listen to the author reading it here.

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