I start this review by stating that I am a Brazilian woman, reviewing, in English, a book by an Argentinian author, about a Peruvian woman living in the United States and attending a literary ceremony in Sweden. As someone who plunges into different kinds of writing in different languages — just like Mona, the protagonist of the Pola Oxaraic’s latest work, Monda — I understand a thing or two about how her character feels, as a South American woman living at the intersection of a lot of places (literally and figuratively).
Despite what brings me and the fictional Mona together, it’s also true that there’s no universal experience of a woman, of a South American person (South America being “the most loosely defined region in the world” according to Mona), nor the South American woman writer. No matter how many intersectional nodes there may be between two individuals (real or fictional), neither experience is the same.
The individual experience can be even more peculiar when that person holds considerable control over how much they disclose and absorb from the world around them. This is what a woman writer like Mona does during her days at Stockholm, where the Basske-Wortz Prize, a renowned literary award, takes place.
Mona is a citizen of the world, ”gliding freely through her very own ocean, feeling special and unique”. She speaks many languages, her friends and lovers are from many nationalities. When she arrives in Stockholm, what she finds is pretty much her life in a nutshell: a composite of writers speaking different languages, lots of discourse, words, and more words. This is a world she can explore as she pleases.
There’s a curious swing in Mona between wanting and not wanting to be understood. It’s a feeling that’s certainly not exclusive to the protagonist, and it’s not just connected to the parts of her identity that don’t match the Europe/US White heterosexual male standard. But it’s interesting to see how Mona handles that swing.
Sometimes she’ll get annoyed whenever the Latina/Amazonian stereotypes are played on her, and sometimes she’ll use them in her favor, or solely for her amusement. Sometimes she’ll set her responses on autopilot while a fellow writer digresses about politics or what it means to be a writer. Still, she’s also capable of living in the moment in full, as when she opens up about a burning shame. She confesses this shame to a fellow woman writer who assures Mona of her pure heart — a rare thing in the literary world, she says.
Mona catches sight of a fox wandering about. In her first days in Stockholm, Mona catches the fox observing her, and in the latter days, she finds the fox dead. She seems to be the only one who sees the fox and the only one who cares about it.
Metaphorically, the fox is just like the things that get lost in translation or are deliberately ignored in all the dialogues spoken at the literary ceremony. One of the writers even tells Mona that conviviality between peers is only possible because they don’t know all of each other’s languages. In Mona’s book, it might be true, especially regarding the intercultural semantics that plays between writers. Because when the characters of Mona — writers from Armenia, Italy, Israel, Japan, Korea, and more — converse, there are many languages at play: idioms, but also cultural, personal, literary layers, and semantic tricks. Writers are expected to use such when they write. But are these things useful in their daily lives?
Who among them will be brave enough to not think of themselves as a character in their own story? Who will make an effort to see the fox? In Mona, or in Mona’s eyes, not many, and it may be a form of defense for Mona to purposely play down or highlight some of her own layers. For example, when applying for a Ph.D. in the United States, Mona is asked about her ethnicity, to which she responds: “Hispanic, Indigenous”, and more specifically, “Inca” (the indigenous empire reigning in Peru before colonization). “Anchoring her identity to a brutal and exquisite empire”, she thought, “would provide her with an ideal costume for the university’s tribal masquerade”. But “claiming indigenous ancestry in any other context would’ve been outrageous”.
When it comes to the lives and identities of the characters Mona writes about, describing them is no less challenging. The feedback she receives from her editor about the manuscript of her latest book is one of the best moments in Mona; her questions are meant for Mona, but also for Oloixarac’s reader: “Am I really expected to make an effort to understand? Seriously? Why do I have to make such an effort? If I don’t make the effort, am I just stupid, according to this book? Mind you, it’s the novel that’s posing these questions, not me”.
For a person to be understood, how much depends on the care and effort one puts into it? How much lies in their effort to make themselves understood? That such matters are brought to a book about people who write books is a metalinguistic provocation that leads us to empathize with Mona. You feel bad for the amount of bore and arrogance she has to bear from the self-absorbed writers around her, but you may also question how much she is or isn’t like them.
There’s more to Mona than her life as a writer. She has a past she can’t escape, which she is vividly reminded of by the bruises on her body. She has a present she can escape, however, and does, by using drugs. But by centering the story on the peak of Mona’s life as a writer, that is: the days when the Basske-Wortz Prize occur, Oloixarac verbally “pokes” writers for their habit of turning everything into metaphors. She turns the Prize into a metaphor too. The characters in Mona compete not only for who wrote the best novel, but also who is, by virtue of their story and how they present themselves, the best novel.
An apocalyptic scene at the award ceremony is a representation of how writers can think too much of themselves. Why, of all places on Earth, would a serpent monster arise at a fancy ceremony filled with the best writers in the world? Are writers so important that the beginning of the end of the world would happen only where they are? It’s no coincidence that after days of being observed by a fox everybody else ignores, Mona’s apocalypse takes the form of a giant serpent from the Nordic mythology, a monster the writers can’t ignore.
But the event can also be just Mona’s personal apocalypse. Oloixarac’s best writing here occurs when she describes Mona’s desire to access the core of her own thoughts and feelings: the “mental life of such moments”, “the private life of my unconscious thoughts”. Whether the mysterious fox and the terrifying serpent are a product of Mona’s hallucinations or not, seeing them is the closest she comes to finally reaching the “private life” of her “unconscious thoughts”.
Because, of course, at the core of all the symbols we use to read the world, there are more symbols, and as Mona hints at, they’re as infinite as one cares to dive into. As a writer, Mona has the freedom to explore her characters’ dreams and demons the way she likes, but first, she has to deal with her own.
Indeed, the titular has a spiritual side, as well as other entertaining characters that raise provocative questions. Oloixarac is thoughtful and also hilarious in her writing: her multilingual wordplays are iconic (especially the one she makes to refer to Mona’s unshaved groin), and her wittiness lightens the weight in between the prolix unfolding of events and the big topics the story raises.
Mona’s characters try to turn every conversation into a story but that they don’t always have to. The writer’s task is to identify which are the moments when the bigger thoughts and literary devices are welcome, and which are the moments when just being present and having some empathy is the better thing to do.
It’s an act of love from the writer to treasure literature just enough to let it be a means to an end. It’s also an act of love between people to actually care about what the other says, rather than thinking them a potentially interesting character in one’s narrative. This is how the greatest stories happen and are written. As Mona says in one of her most sincere moments, “the history of ideas has also got to be the history of people liking each other.”
In writing, as in life, the true challenge facing anyone with something to say is to challenge the interlocutor just enough. Oloixarac’s story is brilliant because it makes you wonder how much is enough.