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Pola Oloixarac: Mona (Mona)

Our heroine/narrator is Mona Tarrile-Byrne. She is Peruvian and later tells us my family is Irish and Portuguese on my father’s side, and native Peruvian on my mother’s side. Mona is a writer. She has published one well-received novel and is now trying – not very successfully – to write a second. She’d started writing one of those terrifying, brilliant, and dangerous books… And now the book was starting to eat her alive. When she finally submits a copy to her French translator, the translator savages it. The dialogue is practically incomprehensible. It made me ask myself, Am I really expected to make an effort to understand? Seriously?

Mona is currently doing a doctoral thesis at Stanford. The success of her novel had been helped by a review from the great Cuban critic, Jorge Rufini who referred to its “vital commitment”… its marriage of politics and literature, the sancta sanctorum of the Latin American Boom. Wittily sancta sanctorum will later be used to describe her vagina. She was helped by being designated a woman of colour and putting Inca as her ethnicity on her application form. As you can already see, part of this novel is mocking the literature industry and we will get a lot more mockery down the line. However, Oloixarac is far too good a novelist just to write a satire of the literary world.

However, things are not going particularly well for Mona. She takes drug – cannabis, Valium and Ambien. She engages in casual sex and watches porn while masturbating. She has casual boyfriends. As mentioned her new novel is not going well. She seems adrift, lost. Sometimes Mona ended up at the Palo Alto Caltrain station, where trains to San Francisco stopped. She’d sit on a bench and watch people get on and off the trains, stare at the empty tracks, and ruminate over the details of her possible death.

Indeed, early in the book, we will find her at the Caltrain station, where she wakes up from a total blackout. She is badly bruised. It is only because she has a plane to catch as her phone reminds her, that she rapidly comes around. She does not recall how she got the bruises but she will later recall and we will learn about the incident.

The plane she has to catch is to Sweden, where the prestigious Basske-Wortz Prize is to be awarded. There are fourteen nominees and she is one. All fourteen nominees are invited to a literary festival in Sweden, at the end of which the prize will be awarded.

There are several novels about literary conferences. The best-known may well be César Aira‘s El congreso de literatura (The Literary Conference) which, apart from the fact that both are by Argentinian writers, bears little in common with this novel. However, Iván ThaysLa disciplina de la vanidad [The Discipline of Vanity] is more relevant. Thays is Peruvian like Mona. The conference is in Spain not Sweden, but, as in this book, Thays mocks various writers and writing styles and also shows that the extramural activities – primarily eating and sex – are often what the conference is really about. Thays had a website called Moleskine (now discontinued). Mona and others use Moleskines whch may or may not be an oblique reference to Thays.

Mona is, like most of her generation, wedded to her phone and she continually gets messages, Skype requests and the like from two men – Antonio and Franco. Franco is Italian and she is turned on by the sound of the Italian language so they occasionally indulge in phone sex during the conference. Antonio is blocked.

She arrives in Sweden and they are taken to a camp and lodged in log cabins. The agenda involves each participant giving a talk and Oloixarac has great fun mocking the various writers and their works – the Iranian writer who moved to Denmark and has to learn Danish to write in that language and now claims firstly that people from his part of the world are going to take over and secondly that he is there to represent the oppressed. He gets criticised for the latter. The mad Icelander talking about the Etruscans and death and the Colombian about his Marxist soul are just two of the others she mocks.

However, Oloixarac is also a serious writer and she makes some serious points. Firstly, more and more, writers are not always monolithic in terms of their nationality. Mona has Irish and Portuguese blood as well as Peruvian, Abdullah, as we have seen, is from Iran but writes in Danish. Carmina is a Jewish Albanian-Italian. Many writers belong to more than one culture. Moreover, this exposure to different cultures is a good thing. She mentions a writer from Hawaii she had met before (not at this conference) who had never read a translated work and, indeed, seems to be almost entirely focussed on writing from Hawaii. Mona clearly thinks this is not a good thing. She herself says that she is much more interested in Japanese lyrics of terror and Nigerian poetry written in Hausa than she was in reading about rich narcos, rich intellectuals, and intellectuals who got rich writing about the poor in Miraflores, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, or Santiago.

A Nordic writer comments Well, you know, the past thirty years have been peaceful in Europe, and obviously we have to remain on the path to peace. The Macedonian writer is somewhat surprised by this statement. We – and not just writers – live too much in our own bubble.

This may well apply to the French writer Philippe Laval, for me the best of the various writers she mocks. His name recalls Pierre Laval, the Frenchman who collaborated with the Germans in the war. He himself is a pathetic Houellebecquian figure. His speech is plagiarised and he exposes himself to Mona. The lecherous Frenchman thing was beyond cliché — nobody could outdo DSK.

Given the comments made by Mona’s French translator and the fact that Oloixarac’s first novel has been published in French but not her second one or this one I wonder if she has issues with the French. or maybe the French are just so easy to mock.

Another topic which she mocks but also makes a serious point about is political correctness. Now that leftist culture is mainstream, it means absolutely nothing. Think about it: What does it mean to be a leftist? Eating vegan? Marching against the banks and then posting about it online with your iPad? The only truly untenable position is to be a militant member of the KKK, or to declare you’re a proud homophobe

One of the writers makes the point that artificial intelligence and soon AI will be writing the best novels. One writer goes further and says that the great novel already exists and it is Google. It organises and indexes everything you’ve ever done, and catalogue your desires — even the things you still don’t know you’ll desire. It keeps statistics on your loves and your hates, the various possibilities for your future. I would wholeheartedly disagree but it is an interesting point.

While the conference is going on with its talks, its eating and drinking, its sex and, as this is Sweden, its saunas (with the obligatory nudity), outside life keeps peeking in. There are seven blond men wandering round, silent. Who are they? Are they some sort of symbol? Mona finds them somewhat disturbing. She sees two dead animals – a fox with its throat slit and another unspecified animal bludgeoned. More than once she feels threatened.

Sex is ubiquitous. In reviewing her Las constelaciones oscuras (Dark Constellations). I mentioned that Oloixarac was a candidate for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. She certainly enhances her credentials here and more than once. I will just mention the awful Marco took a long swig of whiskey and got right down to eating her sushi, which has nothing to do with Japanese cuisine.

And there are Mona’s bruises. While I was reading this book, the investigation into the death of Sarah Everard was taking place. Everard was a woman who was abducted from a London street by a serving police officer and brutally murdered. This led to an outpouring of comments in England over violence to women. Violence to women is, of course, common in Latin America and probably in virtually every country in the world. A survey in the UK revealed that almost every young woman has been harassed. This turns out to be a key issue in this book, though only appearing at the end. Mona has been beaten by a man, hence her bruising. As mentioned above, more than once she has felt threatened.

This is superb novel, mixing the funny and the mocking with many interesting and serious points, from why writers write, who they write for, who they are to death and destruction and how we cannot evade it. Oloixarac has shown herself to be one of the foremost Latin American novelists. I hope the French can appreciate her skills and translate this and her previous novel into their language.

Publishing history

First published in 2019 by Literatura Random House
First English translation in 2021 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Translated by Adam Morris