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Brenda Lozano: Cuaderno ideal (Loop)

The great epics tend to focus on men – men fighting, men searching, men travelling and even men in love. Women, if they get a role, are all too often wives/girlfriends, mothers and, on occasion, evil spirits. The Odyssey is very much a case in point. We follow Odysseus and his men as they return home from Troy. When they do meet women, it is generally someone like Circe, a witch. There is one exception to this rule in thie Odyssey and that is Penelope. Yes, she is a wife (to Odysseus) and mother (to Telemachus) but she also plays a key role, primarily in keeping at the bay her numerous suitors. She remains faithful to Odysseus. She is known for her weaving. She is apparently weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus and says she cannot make any decision till it is finished. During the day she weaves and at night she unravels it, thereby never finishing it. Both Penelope and Circe have been given more prominence by modern feminist writers, Penelope in Margaret Atwood‘s The Penelopiad and Circe in Madeline Miller‘s Circe.

The novel under review has Penelope as a modern Mexican woman. The thirty-year old is not named in the book so I shall call her Penelope. She has had had an accident – we are not given details – which was apparently quite serious and led to gall bladder problems. As part of her recovery, her doctor urged her to go out walking, as much for the sun as for the exercise and, on one of these walks, she visits her friend Tania. Visiting Tania is Jonás. As she laconically puts it, one month later they were living together.

Jonás has had his problems as his mother had recently died. His mother Ana, possibly so-called after Anticlea, Odysseus’ mother, was Spanish. Accordingly, Jonás, his father and his sister decide to visit Spain to find her roots. Jonás, in particular, is absent longer, as he takes advantage of his trip to Europe to travel around a bit. Penelope is left home in their flat, weaving away.

Our Penelope, however, is not besieged by suitors and her weaving does not involve shrouds but writing. It does, however, involve waiting. This issue comes up on many occasions she states she is waiting, that she is missing him, that she wonders whether he will come back. I wonder what will happen when Jonás returns from his trip. Sometimes I worry that when he comes back this will all be over.

We get other examples of waiting. We see her waiting in an airport lounge. She mentions waiting in a doctor’s waiting room. Life is more like the waiting room than the doctor’s surgery She uses it in one of her political comments: This is the country of waiting. Waiting for peace on the streets, peace at bedtime. One of her favourite writers is Samuel Beckett – because of Waiting for Godot. She does not like waiting. Waiting. It never starts, never ends. We never arrive. We arrive somewhere, somewhere like Lisbon, but never at a conclusion..

The Spanish title of the book is Ideal Notebook. Yes, she wants the ideal notebook to write her notes in, the notes that are this novel, which is more of a notebook of random jottings than a plot-based novel. However, she also wants an Ideal notebook, Ideal being a brand of notebook. Just as it is difficult to find the ideal in life, Penelope has great difficulty in finding an Ideal notebook, as they do not seem to be manufactured any more.

As I said this notebook/novel is more or less random jottings. Planning is an abomination to the omniscient narrator and improvising is her delight. She jumps from topic to topic. She has favourite writers. I have mentioned Beckett but there are many others. She regularly sees Pessoa in the shops (the real Pessoa died in 1935). She even sees Oscar Wilde out shopping. For much of the book she is eager to get hold of a copy of Emmanuel Bove‘s Mes Amis as much for the title as anything else. One of her themes is metamorphosis, primarily metamorphosis into an animal (hers is a swallow) so Ovid pops up. Proust is a favourite and there are others.

A good book should have a theme tune and hers is David Bowie’s version of Wild Is the Wind. The Beatles and Shakira also put in an appearance. She even steals a copy of the George Harrison Bangladesh concert.

Don’t be alarmed if this isn’t going anywhere. Don’t expect theories, reliable facts or conclusions. Don’t take any of this too seriously, she tells us. However, what she is doing is clearly, as we all do in our own way, focussing on what it is in her life that keeps her grounded, her anchors in other words. These can be important things such as books and music and friends and family, all of which preoccupy her, but they can be trivial things or even useless things.

I’m fascinated by anything useless, she tells us while the book is described as the work in progress, the story with no beginning or end, useless things. But useless also has a purpose. The more useless something is, the more subversive…The more useless something is, the more independent it is from reality. But there are the various things that interest her – dwarves (not sinister but friendly like Snow White’s) and swallows, family and friends, typefaces and notebook styles and colours, Juan de la Cosa and swimming diagonally, the Most Important Artist and the longest rivers in the world, and her cat, called, of course, Telemachus. (Lozano’s Twitter name is @heraclesmigato, i.e. Hercules My Cat, so I suspect Lozano likes cats.)

Death and loss are also key, as they are in The Odyssey. Several deaths are mentioned in passing, as well, of course, as Jonás’ mother’s. At the end of the book, her uncle seems to be dying and she, of course, was very ill. However, we see or hear of these deaths but they are not obtrusive or threatening, just a part of the tapestry of life she is weaving.

And so she weaves not a shroud but a tapestry of her life, a written one in an Ideal notebook. And, yes she does unravel it a bit. Unlearning yourself is more important than knowing yourself, she tells us. However, much of it is to describe what it is that keeps her grounded while she waits for her Odysseus to return. If this notebook had an ideal ending it would be a trip to the beach with Jonás and The Odyssey has a happy ending. But I wonder what’s in store here, what’s in store for the two of us.Come back, so everything can carry on happily.

Publishing history

First published in 2014 by Alfaguara
First English publication in 2019 by Charco Press
Translated by Annie McDermott