A review of The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
It opens with a level of cool detachment, The Wind That Lays Waste. A mechanic and a car owner, between them a vehicle, above them the sky. The first page is all heat and desultory conversation, words poised heavily as though something is about to happen. It does, in the second-last line, when two names are introduced – Tapioca and Gringo Bauer – and from that point onwards the wheels of this small but remarkable novel begin to turn.
Turn they do, but only slowly – this is a novel that gathers speed as it goes. It does so in a way that you’d hardly even notice, displaying astonishing talent and understanding of the way in which words shape pace on the part of the author, Selva Almada. One of Argentina’s most highly acclaimed contemporary writers, this is her first translation into English, published by the go-to address for literature of this sort: Charco Press. Translator Chris Andrews has done an outstanding job of conveying the luminous depth of her prose, which is so perfectly balanced that at times I forgot I was reading – instead, it felt more like being inside a film set.
Some of the most impressive novels are also the quietest, and in The Wind That Lays Waste not an awful lot happens. Itinerant preacher Reverend Pearson and his moody daughter, Leni, are in the middle of the desert landscape of northern Argentina when their car breaks down, bringing them to the door of mechanic Gringo Bauer and his young ‘assistant’, Tapioca. Over the course of one sweltering day the mechanic attempts to fix the car, the four characters circling one another warily like the stray dogs that congregate in the yard. By the end of the afternoon, when the steadily gathering heat erupts with momentous force into a violent storm, mindsets have shifted and the boundaries of relationships have been redrawn. At a length of just 114 pages there isn’t much space for lots of action, but the events that do occur are precisely drawn and powerful.
As well as writing tellingly about human convictions and their effect on our relationships, Almada is in her element when it comes to creating a sense of place. As I read I could see the windswept mechanic’s yard, filled with piles of junk and rusting cars, populated by a shifting pack of howling dogs and, for a few brief moments, the novel’s two most porous characters, Leni and Tapioca. I could sense the heaviness of the heat, the vast loneliness of the desert, and the way that time hangs limp in the air. The sense of despair that overwhelms this provincial backwater is undeniable, articulated sometimes very clearly – ‘God too had forsaken that place’ – and at others merely implied, as in the overgrown chassis of a long-abandoned car. And yet there is a trace of hope, not just in the eternal (though seemingly misplaced) optimism promulgated by Reverend Pearson, but in the sense that everything in the novel is moving towards a foregone conclusion: the storm and the rapid-fire consequences that it brings.
When the storm breaks, late on in the novel, is when things really start to happen. Almada’s writing keeps pace with the weather, refreshing the world and our understanding of it. Yet throughout it all the reader is left on the outside, required to watch but not to judge. Not even the ending – entirely ambiguous – seems to be looking to us to draw a specific conclusion. Almada simply allows her writing to ask of us the same thing the Reverend demands of his congregation: ‘consider this and bear witness’.
Reading The Wind That Lays Waste is a haunting experience, in the best possible way. Almada’s characters are so real, her setting so vivid, that it is easy to get sucked in and wish to stay. At one point she describes the world through a dog’s sense of smell, moving from the close at hand – feathers, earth, insects – to the faint scents of the forest, drying washing, food on distant stoves. The sense of scale conjured by this brief yet mesmerising passage is exquisite, making me see how our perception of the world is indeed caught up with how and where we feel ourselves to be within it. There is nearness and there is distance, and Almada plays with this contrast beautifully.
It is a difficult thing to describe, this novel, but there is no doubting that Selva Almada is a shining talent and important literary voice. By looking at the small scale she manages to relay big ideas about humanity, the natural world and the complex nature of faith. In The Wind That Lays Waste, the Reverend describes the word of God thus: ‘powerful and alive and sharper than any double-edged sword, and it plunges deep into the soul and the spirit’. I couldn’t think of a better or more fitting description for the words of Selva Almada herself.
Returning to the small-town setting but an enormous issue, Almada’s journalistic novel Dead Girls, an unflinching examination of femicide, is published by Charco Press in September 2020.