translated by Julia Sanches
And Other Stories ($15.95)
by Jenny Apostol
If you, like many people during this pandemic period, have felt too distracted to read anything longer than a post on social media, let Permafrost provide the cure. Eva Baltasar’s well-paced, debut novel opens with a glimmering scene of existential crisis: the narrator is standing on the roof of a building, contemplating suicide. As she peers over the edge, she wonders what holds her here, ideas spilling from her mind in exhilarating detail. She begins to think about how cells are reproducing themselves “independent of me,” trapping her inside her own body. Even the air exerts pressure upon her.
In a voice simultaneously raucous and icy with end-of-life clarity, Permafrost lays bare the narrator’s personal history. Women, many of whom she adores, are parsed and picked at like an aggravated skin affliction. Nothing is held back, neither her two-faced relationships with her mother and sister nor the vivid qualities of various love affairs. This attitude makes sense coming from a character who evinces conflict wherever she trains her bristly awareness, confessing her philosophy early on: “If surviving is what it’s all about, maybe resistance is the only way to live intensely.” Live intensely she does, no doubt one reason why Permafrost quickly became a best-seller in Barcelona, where the story is set, and internationally soon after.
The author, Eva Baltasar, is a highly regarded Catalan writer who has published ten poetry collections. In this new work, she has crafted a filter-free voice that commands language as if it were an arsenal of sensation. Words and images collide in scenes that alternate past and present tense in brisk, dynamic chapters built for breakneck reading. The novel is far from circumspect; the narrator’s amusement with her surroundings comes through in many big and small moments, such as when her sister repeatedly asks for a description of sex with women and the narrator offers the memorable analogy of splatter canvasses by Jackson Pollock: “A sophisticated concern below the surface, an interest in process —life’s immensity concentrated in that process.” This also turns out to be a pretty good description of the profound and urgent thrills of this compact novel.
“Like love, death catches the body,” the narrator declares from the rooftop, highlighting the twin themes that run like blood, oxygenating her story. Both love and death can bring liberation, entrapment, or joy. Yet only one is felt acutely by incarnated beings. Maintaining a protective coating of permafrost may be the only sane response to a world listing toward self-destruction, a way to regulate the internal climate crisis we all sense is beyond our control.