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‘The reverse of the world.’ A review of Fate by Jorge Consiglio, translated from the Spanish by Carolina Orloff and Fionn Petch

I often wonder what effect the world around me has on my reading. Almost as soon as I opened Fate by Jorge Consiglio, I was blown away by how many timely pieces of sagacity the author had to offer. This started right from the Author’s Note, which opens with the words ‘The key question is: fate or chance?’ and goes on to say that ‘every human being stands face-to-face with the unknown. This is the distinctive and most genuine characteristic of our species.’ This pretty much hits the nail on the head when it comes to how I – and probably most of us – feel right now, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have paid less attention to the inherent wisdom in this book had I not read it when I myself was standing before a great unknown.

A slim yet eye-catching novel from Charco Press (their books really are things of beauty to handle – always buy the print version if you can), Fate is the second novel by acclaimed Argentinian author Jorge Consiglio to be translated into English. Following the lives of four men and women living in modern Buenos Aires – married couple Karl and Marina, taxidermist Amer and his young lover Clara – it is a hugely insightful depiction of the transient moments that make human life what it is. There is an air of fleetingness to the entire novel, which is peppered with objects and moments that disappear: brief exchanges of glances, passing buses, bars of music, feelings of intense anger, food consumed. The brevity of the chapters, which flit from character to character, gives a surrealist edge to the story, which always seems to be hovering on the verge of becoming fully formed.

Despite the rapid changes in point of view and setting, I never found the novel difficult to follow. Consiglio’s moments are well-chosen and perfectly defined, telling us exactly what they need to about each of his characters and the decisions and emotions that drive their existence – or, quite often, don’t. Because fate is, I felt, the main character in this novel. Chance meetings, passing acquaintances, missed opportunities and slips in the ordinary routine of things tumble our characters on to paths they might never otherwise have chosen. But do any of us ever choose to do anything, or does fate decide it all for us? It’s a question Consiglio – rightly – never answers, but one that his novel seriously ponders.

Aside from his philosophical musings – ‘There are things that start by chance but never come to an end’; ‘Storms encouraged idleness, offered a time outside of time’ – Consiglio is adept at conjuring moments of surprising beauty that reveal the human condition in all its murky glory. I found this particularly when it came to Karl, the German oboist, who suffers not only from an unfaithful wife but a condition with which I am familiar: being emotionally at sea in a foreign land. Even when you have lived somewhere for a while and feel at home there, as Karl does in Buenos Aires, events that knock your personal life off course can suddenly make you feel a stranger in your adopted country. When his wife leaves him, ‘his loneliness reinforced his status as a foreigner’, to the extent that he gets physically lost in the city.

Other moments are less symbolic but deeply poignant. A professional triumph loses its significance for Karl when he tells it to his wife, who clearly has no interest: ‘it had found no echo in the only person who could confirm the value of his experience’. And later, looking at his fragile young son standing by a window through which a storm is building, Karl observes that ‘Simón was the reverse of the world’.

The sense of alienation from life is deep and lasting, something that all the characters feel at one point or another and perhaps the element that made the novel ring so true for me right now. As the life he knows disintegrates around him, Karl finds himself talking to the director of his orchestra, both of them ‘performing roles in a scene that wasn’t entirely real’. This sense of playing a bit part in one’s own life is underscored by the way Consiglio choses to talk about his characters, often choosing ‘the German’ for Karl and only ever referring to his wife by her full name, Marina Kezelman, or, less classically, simply Kezelman.

While I found a lot to think about in the story of Karl and Marina, the second narrative strand, involving Amer’s relationship with Clara, did fall a little bit flat for me in places. Perhaps it was the one-sidedness of it (Clara, though an important character, is never given her own point of view) and in the hapless, retiring figure of Amer, Consiglio perhaps takes his theme of distance a bit too far, causing his character to alienate himself from the novel altogether. Though clearly not a side event – the novel both opens and closes with chapters on Amer’s life – I did find myself feeling less engaged with this half of the story.

A final – and, I think, crucial – element of Fate is the inclusion of Buenos Aires as more than just a setting. The city, which is lovingly detailed in the mention of street names, neighbourhoods, monuments and buildings, is always there in the background, breathing life into every page. Very early on, Consiglio writes that ‘the city adapted to even the most intimate moments’, a thought that struck and stayed with me throughout. Buenos Aires – a city with which I recently fell in love and was thrilled to meet again in the pages of this novel – does indeed shapeshift to suit the characters’ feelings, becoming by turns bright and possibility-rich or reserved and shadowy.

Fate was my first encounter with Jorge Consiglio, one of Argentina’s foremost writers and an author who without doubt deserves to be more widely read. Charco Press has, of course, produced a pitch-perfect rendition for the English-language market: co-translators Carolina Orloff and Fionn Petch have found a precise, consistent register that absolutely never misses its mark. With a weightiness that belies its trim figure, Fate is a rich tapestry of language, a sharp depiction of the vagaries of fate and a thoughtful meditation on the human condition.

My rating: 4.5/5

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