A review of Permafrost by Eva Baltasar, translated from the Catalan by Julia Sanches
A translator’s note is something that really ought to be included in every work of translated literature. Though I have come across more recently, it seems still to be an uncommon practice, yet even the shortest one can offer the reader a far more profound experience of a book. Translator Julia Sanches’s afterword to Permafrost by Eva Baltasar is a fantastic example, a few pages that discuss direction and cadence, compare translation to pottery and, in revealing the ‘heart-keys’ that aided her, themselves provide a key to understanding the novel. Sanches writes about translation with elegant lyricism, and a keen ear for rhythm that has clearly informed her work.
The debut work of fiction by Catalan poet Eva Baltasar, Permafrost is a shooting star of a novel: a brief yet brilliant story that leaves a strong impression. The first-person narrator is prickly-voiced and supremely intelligent, describing her life with refreshing honesty that is applied just as strongly to her accounts of the women she sleeps with as it is to her thorny relationship with her mother or her regularly recurring thoughts of suicide. Juxtaposing the inner life with external appearances to devastating effect, and nipping in the bud any hint of mawkishness with a wry sense of humour, Baltasar proves herself to be a fresh and powerful voice in the realm of fiction as well as poetry.
As Julia Sanches writes about so engagingly in her afterword, a certain sense of poetry does indeed pervade Permafrost: this is a book that moves to its own rhythm, certainly in English. Subtle word choices and sentence structures that often seem to unfurl over the course of a paragraph add an element of compulsion to a plot that otherwise seems to be drifting, much like our narrator herself. Uncertain what to do with her life and uncomfortable in the ordered spheres of her parents and sister, she leaves and then returns to her home city of Barcelona, searching for purpose and a place in which her sense of self can be reconciled with the world around her. Near the beginning of the novel, she delivers a warning, ‘I’ve settled on an edge . . . my temporary home’, and over the course of the next 120 pages the reader herself will always be slightly on edge, wondering at which point the narrator – with whom it is impossible not to empathise – might decide to tip herself over. The end, which is shocking, does indeed mark a tipping point, but not in the way I had expected. It could read like a cruel joke on the part of the author – or, more likely, a sobering reflection of how life enjoys dealing unexpected hands.
Despite in many ways seeming in control of her life – our narrator is confident in her sexuality, determined not to be like her mother, and unafraid to sever herself from ties of responsibility or family (‘some individuals,’ she tells us, ‘can only grow as amputations’) – Baltasar simultaneously presents us with an unsettling portrait of a woman who isn’t sure she wants to live. ‘I am done. I won’t waste another minute. I’ll do it from my roof terrace’ is a typical sequence of sentences, yet her careful considerations and even a botched attempt with a plastic-covered razor blade twist the subject of suicide with a strangely black humour. It may sound like a dangerous game for an author to be playing, but Baltasar succeeds in never trivialising the matter – rather, she confronts the reader with it, refusing to let up. The rapid switches from the highs of new relationships or unexpected professional fulfilment to the deepest of lows create an emotional seesaw that requires our full attention. Showing that what is on the outside by no means reflects the inside, Baltasar’s narrator is both strong and immensely fragile, a woman who takes a hard-to-discuss subject and drags it firmly into the light.
Although Permafrost is a novel of the mind – the title refers to the emotional barrier our narrator has erected around herself – it hinges almost entirely on the body. Frank about sex, unsparing when it comes to detailing the functions and failures of human limbs and organs, Baltasar takes on both ends of the spectrum, writing about terminal illness and carnal desire within the same paragraph. She is irreverent, too, in her discussion of how obsessed with health and safety we have become as a society: after listing a series of common ‘precautions’ including ‘seat belts, helmets, alarm buttons, and blockades . . . foam floor tiles, zippers, condoms, riot police, and football’, which she views as working against her attempts to take control of her own life – and indeed its end – our narrator wraps up her lecture with the weary conclusion, ‘God bless sedation’. But if she, or possibly Baltasar, sees a society dependent on sedatives to keep it happy, then Permafrost is surely a novel to shake us all from our trance.
‘Fresh as seashells’ (and with a correspondingly inspired line in poetic imagery), Permafrost defies categorisation and presents us with a complex yet somehow charming challenge. Buoyed by the liberties it takes as it engages on a deep level with selfhood, sex, mental health and female freedom, it is a blisteringly sharp and witty novel that forces the reader into a new mode of thinking. Already a highly regarded poet, Baltasar has revealed a formidable talent for fiction – and if the tone of Permafrost is anything to go by, there is clearly a lot more simmering just below the surface.
Permafrost by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches, is published by And Other Stories in digital and paperback on 6 April 2021. The cover pictured is a limited early edition for subscribers.