[21 May 2013]
Santiago Roncagliolo’s Hi, This Is Conchita is an audacious novel—novella, really—that is made up solely of telephone conversations. The Peruvian-born Roncagliolo, who now lives in Barcelona, eschews not only descriptive passages and narration, but also any sort of attribution (“he said”, “she replied”) or non-dialogue information whatsoever.
The trick comes off as slightly gimmicky at first, but soon reveals itself as a clever, engaging way to convey the necessary information without superfluity. The passages read fast and the conversations snap back and forth, and this, combined with the story’s brief 132 pages, makes Hi, This is Conchita a fast read as well as a satisfying one. Then again, this is the kind of story one might want to immediately start over again upon finishing, so maybe it’s not as quick as it seems.
A number of disconnected voices provide narrative thrust, and if they seem at first entirely unrelated, well, that changes by the end. In fact, by the midway point the reader is starting to make connections, as details and character names crop up in different situations, weaving a subtle but inescapable net of associations among the different voices. This is a story that the reader must pay attention to, however; lose your concentration and confusion will swiftly follow.
The titular Conchita works as a phone-sex operator, and the opening chapter consists of a conversation with an apparently random caller. As the story progresses, this customer’s calls become increasingly erratic. Meanwhile, a customer service representative at (I think) a bank takes a series of calls from an irate customer; another man leaves long, meandering, vitriolic messages on an ex-girlfriend’s answering machine; and a married man arranges with an assassin to have his lover murdered. These disparate threads appear united at first only by certain themes—sex, commerce, the threat of violence—but become progressively enmeshed in ways both clever and disturbing.
Roncagliolo keeps the story chugging along, as one might expect, primarily through snappy dialogue. Exchanges such as this are frequent:
“—You like it?
—Ohhh, yeah, yeah…
—Ohhh… What did you say?
—I said that’s brilliant, Conchita.
—Are you doing it?
—What do you mean what? What are we talking about?
—About whether I’m sticking it in you?
—Well, yeah. Are you doing it?
The personalities of the characters are revealed, to the extent that they are revealed at all, solely through their interactions with one another. They are defined by the roles they play with each other and nothing more. There is no sense of Conchita as a person outside of her role as phone sex worker, or of customer-service rep Jorge as anything other than a cog in the corporate machine. This changes a bit as the fragments of story become more closely entwined, but in general the characters remain flat, instruments of plot more than anything else.
This is a daring choice on the part of the author. Contemporary literature (especially in the United States and Britain) is almost solely concerned with character, to the point where many readers—and writers—of “literary fiction” don’t even think to question the assumption that psychological exploration is the sole reason for the story. (It’s different for genre stuff, of course. Mystery novels and fantasy epics are largely plot-driven.) Europeans are far more likely to put other elements of a story in the foreground: in this case, structure. The fragmentary, incomplete, dialogue-only approach to “Hi, This Is Conchita” (the titular story) is an acknowledgment that the manner of telling a story can be just as important as the particulars of plot or character.
The exception to this tendency are the sections with a jilted lover (names are few here) who leaves a series of long-winded, sometimes hilarious, often disturbing messages on his ex-girlfriend’s answering machine. These messages veer from desolation to vindictiveness in the blink of an eye, and they would be more funny than brutal were it not for the violence against women that is being mooted elsewhere in the story.
Ultimately, Hi, This Is Conchita resolves its proceedings in a way both satisfying and unpredictable, all the while keeping the reader engaged. It’s a neat trick for a writer who is working under such strict, self-imposed limitations.
As mentioned, Hi, This Is Conchita is a novella rather than a novel, and a trio of short stories rounds out the volume. These stories are reasonably interesting, but hardly cruicial. If anything, they are interesting primarily for their structural differences from the novella. The stories are quite traditional: “Despoiler” is the tale of an ordinary woman turning 40, while “Butterflies Fastened with Pins” is a first-person account of a young man whose numerous friends have committed suicide. Only the last story in the book, the six-page “The Passenger Beside You”, plays with anything resembling unorthodoxy, in this case, a second-person narrative style that places “you”, the reader, squarely in the action. It’s effective enough, but can’t help feeling a bit anticlimactic.
Readers curious about contemporary European lit, or who have a penchant for formal experimentation, or who are just looking to read something a bit different, may well find themselves taken by Roncagliolo’s playful nonconformity. Borges he ain’t—which is fine with me—but Hi, This Is Conchita is still enough of a curveball to usurp reader expectations. That in itself makes it worth reading.