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‘The light comes in cautiously’ [book review]

A review of Never Did the Fire by Diamela Eltit, translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn

In Diamela Eltit’s novel Never Did the Fire, the two main characters, an unnamed man and woman, spend most of their time in a room. In a bed, to be even more specific. Sometimes they lie in it, sometimes on it; they cough and dream and fidget and trace fingertips across the rough plaster of the walls. The man in particular complains of pains in various parts of his body, rarely leaving the bed itself and certainly never venturing beyond their small apartment. The world of the woman, our narrator, is wider, though hardly by much. For this novel, it becomes apparent, is concerned with interiors, opening out only at certain moments into external views so strikingly clear and sudden they cannot fail to shock.

Cover image – Never Did the Fire

Translated with immense care by Daniel Hahn (a claim that can be confidently made having read Catching Fire, the superb ‘translation diary’ published as a companion piece to this book), Eltit’s Never Did the Fire is a dense, precisely crafted novel that evokes a sense of crushing claustrophobia and quite frankly bewildering ambiguity. While certain elements of the narrative are made crystal clear to us – the bed, the people in it, their rice and bread and tea, the details of their failing bodies – much of it is hazy, composed of fragmented scenes and half-suppressed memories that swirl around in our narrator’s thoughts. Gradually, a picture begins to emerge, but it is like the outline of a distant tree seen across a field in thick fog.

The moments at which our narrator’s thoughts and emotions do seem most lucid are when she makes her rare forays out of the apartment; when she is inside, she is chiefly concerned with her partner’s health, their shared past, the neat columns of her accounts, the death of Franco, and a traumatic memory which she occasionally dares to probe. Outside, moving through the city – beyond the room, the novel’s setting is ruthlessly urban, giving a strong sense of people stacked on top of one another – she is a care worker, visiting the houses of bedbound patients to wash them, change their sheets and nappies, rub cream into their flaking skin. These scenes are physical, extremely so, and the catalogue of bodily fluids they contain is later joined by other disturbingly vivid moments in which human flesh is perforated and mangled in a bank robbery and car accident. Recounted in horrifying detail yet seen from a seemingly unbridgeable distance – though the narrator seems to relish describing them to us, she makes it clear that they have no real bearing on her life – these episodes of violence are intense, shocking, bringing home the frailty of our bodies and displaying the unnerving richness of Eltit’s prose.

Never Did the Fire is a novel about bodies, but its relentless textual layering is such that this cannot possibly mean just human bodies. Political bodies loom large as well: our two main characters were once (indeed, probably still are) left-wing revolutionaries, members of an underground cell so deeply buried that they felt unable to leave their home even when they most needed to. The crucial moment at which their own fear and the flat detained them seems to have involved the death of a small child, though like most of the memories around which our narrator constantly circles, this is somewhat abstract. Perhaps a child died, perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps it never existed at all. Perhaps, like the man and the woman themselves, it could be seen as just another metaphor for a failing state, a dying revolutionary movement, political entities made flesh on the page.

Once the reader has accepted Eltit’s unwavering determination to be ambiguous – spoiler alert: there are no answers in this novel – Never Did the Fire becomes an intriguing and engrossing read, a thick stream of language that seems to pin the reader in place, reminiscent (though decidedly less furious and expletive-ridden) of Fernanda Melchor’s work. Peeling back the layers of imagery, there is much to be discovered here; for all its confusion, it is a haunting novel, and one that would certainly bear reading again.

Lying in bed in a darkened room, our narrator makes repeated reference to a faint light, which at various points ‘comes in cautiously, a light that is altogether blocked.’ This light is different to the electric light, to which the man seems increasingly averse, providing a kind of opaque illumination that wonderfully reflects the experience of reading the novel. At certain moments – usually involving mention of some past significance – the narrative suddenly seems flooded with light, albeit weak, and we can be fooled into believing we have finally understood what it is all about. Then, on the turn of a word, with unusual phrasing or a half-formed image, Eltit snatches it all away again, and we are once more plunged into the darkness of ambiguity.

As an exercise in how to use language with such precision that it tells us almost nothing at all, Never Did the Fire is a masterpiece. Filled with subtleties, layered metaphors and stark, driving contrasts between the insides and outsides of bodies, between surface lives and deep emotions, it is an ambitious, intelligent novel that succeeds in wholly unsettling the reader. A simple story this is not. And again: it has no answers. Yet to read it is to experience something, to contend with – and maybe come to accept – the many unnameabilities of living.

Never Did the Fire by Diamela Eltit, translated by Daniel Hahn, is published by Charco Press. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.


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