Paradises by Iosi Havilio, tr. Beth Fowler

My reading for Summer Reads reviews has so far focussed largely on translated titles, a lot of them from And Other Stories, and that’s not changed here. Paradises by Iosi Havilio, translated by Beth Fowler (And Other Stories, 2013), is the follow up to Open Door. I hadn’t immediately picked up on that, or I might not have started on it having not read the previous book. It’s not exactly a sequel though, and read well as a stand-alone novel. I don’t know what effect having read it first will have on Open Door if/when I get round to that, though. So what’s it about?

The Caminito in La Boca, Buenos Aires.

The Caminito in La Boca, Buenos Aires. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently widowed, a young woman leaves the countryside for Buenos Aires with her four-year-old son to build a new life. She finds work in the zoo and moves into a squatted tower block at the invitation of one of its residents. Is this life in the shadows, an underworld of cut-price Christmasses, drugs and dealers, or is this simply life? And why do snakes seem to be invading every aspect of it?

I really enjoyed this book, although I’m not quite sure why or what it’s really all about. It’s beautifully written and translated with a compelling voice from the unnamed narrator that pulled me into the story and made me want to know what would happen next. Beth Fowler has found a good balance between maintaing a foreign flavour and disconcerting the English-language reader. I found that I was constantly startled, however, by the contrast between my expectations and the reality of the book. On the one hand, I had subconsciously assumed that a girl coming up to the city from the country in South America wouldn’t know how to use a computer when actually she seems to be very well educated. Again, this contrasts with her life among squatters and junkies and the way she seems to both care for and neglect her son. Perhaps the similarity in name and age with my own fils cadet made me hyper-aware of him, but I was constantly worried about the little boy in this rather dark world.

Simarouba glauca 8407

Simarouba glauca, the paradise tree
By Primejyothi (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The title is said to refer to the city’s paradise trees although according to the author, “this is what the novel is about: the many kinds of paradise and the poisons that inhabit them.” Make of that what you will. Meanwhile the publisher says: “Paradises might be a reimagining of Camus’ Outsider – but in female form and living in 21st-century Buenos Aires.” Perhaps if I’d read the Outsider that would mean more to me – another shameful admission…

Overall, a highly readable book but one that I found almost impossible to pin down. After I’d finished, I found myself struggling to remember what happened in it, but it’s certainly not uneventful! Don’t expect any easy answers, or indeed any answers at all. I still don’t know what the snakes have got to do with anything.

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About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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