Permafrost is the debut prose novel by Spanish Catalan poet Eva Baltasar, and it combines the best literary qualities of modern cynicism with a deeply poetic sensibility. Its young lesbian protagonist – jaded, sarcastic, and deeply self-aware – winds her way through life in a series of brief episodic chapters, each of which bears the unmistakable echo of a stand-alone piece of spoken word poetry. There is a profoundly dark humour to the text – the narrator attempts suicide numerous times but invariably gets sidetracked by her own musings on death – to the point that I couldn’t help but laugh aloud on a few occasions.
The story skips around chronologically, its narrator reflecting at random on past lovers, childhood sexual explorations, and her fraught relationship with family. Her ennui with the expectations of modern life – her parents’ insistence she find a job, while she would rather sit around and read; her sister’s barely suppressed envy at her lesbianism – ought to resonate well with contemporary readers.
But above all, Permafrost is an aesthetic novel that underscores the magnificence of a poet successfully translating poetic awareness into prose. One doesn’t read the book with a desire to know how things will turn out but simply for the pleasure of immersing oneself in Baltasar’s rhythmic prose and indulging in her darkly sardonic outlook on life. The unrestrained cynicism, coupled with the free narrative form, permits a deeper honesty than is possible for writers constrained by more conventional approaches. Safety precautions all over the place,” laments Permafrost’s perpetually suicidal protagonist.
Precautions enacted without rhyme or reason. Safety precautions in the form of guardrails, bulletproof windows, no-trespassing signs, seat belts, helmets, alarm buttons, and blockades. Precautions that are active or passive, whatever. Knee pads, for example, or foam floor tiles, zippers, condoms, riot police, and football. Unemployment benefits and medication. Precautions that are subtle or obvious. Electromagnetic brakes, prisons, banners, social integration initiatives, scaffolding, valves, fireproof cladding, harnesses, and carabiners. And again, medication, hard hats, 2% milk. Medication, medication, and medication. A successful suicide, these days, is heroic. The world is full of unscrupulous people certified in first aid; they’re everywhere, gray and unassuming like female pigeons but aggressive like mothers. They foil death with cardiac massages and careful Heimlich maneuvers. They’re a pack of thieves.
Permafrost lays bare the double standards and contradictions of contemporary society, and the reader enjoys a shared sense of disdain with the narrator as she surveys this modern landscape of paradoxes and inconsistencies. It wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying without Baltasar’s careful attention to prose construction and the rhythm of her narrative, which produces a deep aesthetic pleasure as the reader works through it.
The story delivers a sort of gut-punch at the end that I was not expecting. It forced me to reevaluate my impressions of some characters and their relationships in a fairly major way. This plot twist is less about the plot, and more about aesthetic denouement, generating an emotional climax at the end of a deeply felt book. But it also reveals the hidden depths that lie within the secondary characters in our lives, whom we rarely know as well as we think we do.
There is an important feminist quality to the story. It gazes in a searing way at women’s burden in a still deeply patriarchal society: the struggle of the narrator’s sister to cope with a growing family; her aunt’s struggle for a viable heterosexual marriage; the socially respectable rut that entraps her mother. But also, and crucially, the story is a paean to freedom in all its forms: freedom from the tyranny of work; from the tyranny of relationships with men; from the tyranny of social obligations.
The narrator’s fixation with suicide underscores her right to death as the absolute form of freedom, and one senses an awareness of this in her rumination on the subject. Death is always there, reliable, an escape hatch to prevent her from falling into the unsavoury traps that have snared the women she sees around her. Freedom isn’t always shiny and bright, and while there is a jaunty, irrepressible sense of dark humour to the book, Permafrost conveys this deeply pointed message as well. There’s a reason the book was such a hit when it was published in the original Catalan: it resonates. Deliciously. Sensuously. Honestly.
Located at the end of the book – but not to be overlooked! – is an absorbing essay by translator Julia Sanches. Presented in the form of an afterword reflecting on the process of translating Permafrost, Sanches addresses in some depth the musical quality of translation. Quoting French novelist and playwright Marguerite Duras – “translation is not a matter of the literal exactitude of a text…it is more of a musical approach” – Sanches delights us with the information that Baltasar’s “only condition during edits [of the original text] was that the word in question be replaced with one that was similarly stressed or unstressed, as the case may be.” (I’ve squirreled that line away in memory, in the hope I may one day have the opportunity to unleash it on an unsuspecting editor).
Sanches walks us through the inevitable conclusion: to translate Baltasar, whose prose is irrevocably tinged with a poetic musicality, required Sanches to deploy a musical sensibility herself, combining an ear for rhythm with the cognitive duality of textual narrative meaning and form. If Baltasar’s original Spanish-language editor had to struggle only to retain the rhythm of the text, Sanches had a far tougher task: retain the rhythm yet render it comprehensible to readers in an entirely different language.