At the end of 2016 I realized, to my horror, that I hadn’t read a single book in Spanish, so one of my main reading goals for this year is to read more books in Spanish, preferably by women. And they can’t be translations, that would be cheating, the goal is to read more Hispanophone writers.
Enter Contigo en la distancia, by Chilean writer Carla Guelfenbein. This novel won one of the most famous literary prizes in the Spanish-speaking world, the Premio Alfaguara. And I say famous because I’m obviously not so sure about the quality of their choices… Anyway, I decided to read it as part of my personal “Escritoras hispanohablantes” challenge.
Where to begin? At the beginning I guess… This was sold to me as a “literary mystery”. I’m a sucker for mysteries so I figured this would be perfect for me. The story starts with our first narrator (there are three), Daniel, telling his friend about her accident. Yes, Daniel’s friend, whose name is Vera, had an accident and is in a coma. And Daniel is telling her about how he found her and everything that’s happened since. They’ve been friends forever but for some reason he feels compelled to tell her again about his wife and how they met and how she doesn’t understand him. Also Vera is a writer. Not a hugely famous one but critically acclaimed and with a cult following (apparently Vera’s character was partially inspired by Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector). I hated this narration from the start because I don’t like this literary device, whatever it’s called. However, the facts at this point looked interesting.
And now we meet the second narrator, Emilia, a student from France who travels to Chile to write a thesis about Vera. But Emilia’s narration starts before Vera’s accident. Her parents are successful scientists but somehow Emilia has no money to buy food while she researches her thesis and she finds a job delivering groceries, on a bicycle, for a small shop in her neighborhood… And I started wondering if this writer hasn’t lived in Chile in ages or is Goop-levels of clueless because that is not a job that allows you to make even half a living in Santiago de Chile! But OK, let’s just go with it. So Emilia spends her days doing research at the foundation where Vera’s archives are and when she’s not doing that she delivers groceries. OK, whatever. Oh and because apparently all Chileans in Europe know each other (not my words a character in the book basically says that), through a poet she met in France, Emilia gets invited to a lunch where Vera is one of the guests a few days before the accident.
The first part of the book alternates between Daniel and Emilia, and then in the second part we meet Horacio, the third narrator, who is an old friend of Vera’s and also (¡sorpresa!) the poet who invited Emilia to that lunch. Horacio tells us about meeting Vera for the first time and about their long friendship. I won’t say more about this in case one of you, brave readers, decides to have a go at this book whenever it’s published in your own language. And I say brave mostly because if you have put up with my incoherent rambling you deserve a gold star. But also because the book isn’t very good.
So on and on, the book alternates between Daniel, Emilia and Horacio’s narration and we start piecing together Vera’s life. Emilia makes an astonishing discovery regarding Vera’s work in relation to the stars and also about Horacio’s poetry. Daniel and Emilia meet by chance at the hospital where Vera is. Daniel’s wife is a b*tch because of course she is, how else could you make a cheating, mediocre guy a sympathetic character? Oh, that’s right I forgot to mention, and this really pissed me off. Daniel is an architect. But he doesn’t work. He allegedly won a major government contract to design a very important museum BY HIMSELF. Competing against international firms and famous architects. Are you kidding me? And he designed the project all by himself, he didn’t even have an assistant, in like 20 days! I mean, does the author even live in the real world?
We learn that Vera’s family escaped from the Nazis. But that has nothing to do with the mystery. We learn that Vera’s husband was very rich and influential and that he went against his own father, who was a Nazi supporter, to help Jewish families in Latin America. But that has nothing to do with the mystery. Vera had to face antisemitism in Chile her whole life. But that has nothing to do with the mystery. Vera spent time in jail during the Pinochet era and her cell mate died in mysterious circumstances. But that has nothing to do with the mystery. In the end, not even Vera’s accident and coma have anything to do with the mystery. I am not kidding! The mystery turns out to be something completely different and it’s so much the stuff of telenovelas that I am surprised Vera didn’t go blind or end up in a wheelchair for part of the novel!
I waited a few days to write this because I was too angry when I finished the book but obviously I’m still very angry. Two stars. On the positive side, my other picks for my “Escritoras hispanohablantes” challenge have a very low bar to clear…