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Norah Lange: Personas en la sala (People in the Room)

Lange said that this book was inspired by the famous portrait of the Brontë sisters, painted by their brother, Branwell, in which you can just about see the painted-out, ghostly figure of Branwell himself. She also said that it was inspired by her passion for spying on people.

Our unnamed seventeen-year old narrator and her family are living in a house in the Belgrano district of Buenos Aires. She spends much of her time sitting in the drawing room, reading. Initially, she thought the house opposite was unoccupied. Eventually, it seemed to her that there was someone there. Finally she could faintly make out three women sitting at the window, as in the Brontë portrait and as with Charlotte in the Brontë portrait, one of the three sitting slightly separately from the other two. In particular, she saw them when they were illuminated by a storm.

She now pretends to be reading but, in fact, is watching them the whole time. They seem passive, almost tragic, each with their own loneliness. Soon her imagination takes over. She imagines talking to them but she also imagines them dead. They seem to be around thirty years old but she cannot be sure.

She worries that they might move without her having met them but she also worries that, were she to bump into them in the street, she would not recognise them. Who are they? She imagines that the one sitting slightly apart might be a criminal and when one of her family comments on them and wonders who they are, she offers this suggestion.

She plans to somehow meet them but none of her plans comes to fruition. One day she is at the post office, when she hears a voice behind ask for a telegram form. The voice sounds just like her own. She looks and sees the three sisters, sending a telegram. She hurries home so that she can see them returning, which she does. The result of the telegram is a man who visits them, stays a while, leaves a package and themselves.

She does get to visit them, in a somewhat devious way. Indeed, she sort of gets to know them but gets very little out of them about their lives and, it would seem, tells them very little about her life.

What makes this book so interesting is that we know exactly what happens. A young woman spies on her neighbours and subsequently gets to know them. Nothing much else happens. Nearly all the action takes place in their house, her house or the space in-between.

At the same time, we do not have the faintest idea what is going on. Who are these women? Why are they living alone at the age of thirty? What happened to their parents? Were they married before? What is the source of their income? Why do they have no visitors? Why do they almost never leave their house? Who was the man who brought the package and what was it?

At the same time, we do no know much more about our narrator. We do not know her name. Is she still at school? Is the two months she spends at the window watching her neighbours her summer holidays? And who are her family? Her parents are mentioned once. While there is evidence of a family in the house, we do not know who the family is. Are there siblings, other relatives, maids and other staff? And how come, as seems to be the case, that they do not know that our narrator is visiting the neighbours across the street almost every day, once she gets to know them?

Of course, much of this is irrelevant. The story is almost entirely hermetic, sealed up in its box, and the box is the drawing room where the narrator reads, the room where the three sisters sit and the space in-between. Nothing else matters.

In his introduction to this book, César Aira suggests that the three sisters do not exist but are merely a figment of thenarrator’s imagination. While this is possible and would explain why her family seem to be unaware of the narrator’s visits, I think it fails, not least because a family member has seen them and mentions it early in the book.

Another aspect to the story, which may support Aira’s thesis, is that there is an element of death hanging over the sisters at all times. Our narrator imagines them dead, wishes them dead and fears they are dead at various points in the book. There is the perception that the sisters have had a death in their family, possibly their father. Could they be ghosts? I don’t think so but…

This is generally agreed by by Argentinian critics to be Lange’s best book and it is not difficult to see why. With what appears to be a fairly basic plot, she tells a superb story, a story where what is not told is as important if not more important than what is said. She conveys a sense of mystery, of death and of lives lived in the world but yet very separate from it. Sixty-eight years after it was first published in Spanish, it is wonderful to finally have it in English.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish by Editorial Sudamericana in 1950
First published in English by And Other Stories in 2018