Where can the line between historical memories and personal memories be found? Chilean author Alia Trabucco Zerán explores that question in her novel, “The Remainder,” newly translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes. In her introduction, Lina Meruane describes Chile as “a country still beset by the dictatorship’s dark shadows.”
Iquela and Felipe, the two central characters of “The Remainder,” live in the wake of history, but that remains a haunted place. Over the course of the novel, these characters’ experiences and their relative coping mechanisms will be pushed to their respective limits.
The novel’s chapters are told from the alternating perspectives of Iquela and Felipe, two friends residing in Santiago. Felipe’s chapters begin when he is 11 and gradually descend from there, while Iquela’s are prefaced by an empty pair of parentheses. In one case, there’s an absence; in the other, there’s a countdown — both suggesting something ominous.
Felipe’s chapters have a hallucinatory quality: As he walks the streets of Santiago, the deaths of decades past merge with signs of present-day violence to create a haunting tapestry of death. Iquela’s narration is more restrained, but it also has impossibilities of its own: She writes of “translating an untranslatable sentence into Spanish,” and later states that “the best of Santiago is outside Santiago.”
The death of Ingrid, a friend of Iquela’s mother, sets the book’s plot into motion. Ingrid’s daughter Paloma, a young German woman to whom Iquela finds herself drawn, arrives in Santiago. Soon, they learn that Ingrid’s body has been delivered to the wrong location, and a road trip begins. But even then, the past isn’t far behind. As Iquela listens to Paloma read directions, she notices a gulf between those directions and the landscape around then: “I followed her instructions until I noticed the incorrect names, the altered distances, the geography of a bygone city (she was directing us out of a city from another time).”
The road trip on which Felipe, Iquela and Paloma embark is, like many of its literary forebears, a fraught one, with constantly shifting interpersonal dynamics and conflicts real and imagined. In a novel where the past is constantly breaking the surface of the present, and where memory and language fail to do justice to the events before one’s face, there exists a high potential for the whole enterprise to collapse into chaos — especially with the reminder of their own mortality awaiting at the end of the road. “The Remainder” is a haunted novel, awash with sinister and elegiac moods. It stands as a testament to the way the past can unsettle us, and the way distant or vanished lives can be as present as the person next door.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1, Brooklyn. He lives in New York.