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In her first English-translated collection, Here Be Icebergs, Katya Adaui’s short stories draw the reader into an entangled knot of strained interpersonal relationships featuring cold mothers, elusive fathers, and creatures that may be real or spectres of the characters’ own discomfort made tangible. As translator Rosalind Harvey notes in her afterword – a phrase which rang in my head whilst reading – these stories exhibit Tolstoy’s axiom that ‘each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Yet rather than being a straightforward presentation of a series of familiar constraints, Adaui’s tone hovers between reality and the uncanny, making the reader question whether there is something vaguely familiar about how these psychodramas play out. Whilst these stories are idiosyncratic, including a near-crash on a return from a day at the beach, a doctor who performs consensual euthanasia on two identical twins, and the shooting of a beloved horse, they illustrate the everyday relational ties that bind us – for better or worse.
For each character, the object of their desire is something just out of reach, an elusive state of being never quite articulated. As such, the titular icebergs make an apt and transient metaphor for messy kinship ties, their fluctuation, and memories of how things play out. Much like the slow erosion of icebergs as they move through cold waters, Adaui’s characters are bound by a formative event, which the reader is only sometimes privy to, that seemingly dictates the current trajectory of their lives.
In “The Colour of Ice”, the narrator begins the story as a teenager on a road trip with friends and seemingly ends the story as a much older man with faltering memories. He observes, “Adulthood is an artificial beach the mind prolongs.” This beach, much like icebergs, has a surface appearance and unknown depths, ones that may be treacherous if examined too closely. The beginning establishes their juvenile friendship, an intimate portrait of burping the letters of the alphabet, beers, and pop philosophy musings, a friendship that has “survived all spaces.” Yet in the following sentences, something is already adrift, “My friends are a lump of ice floating in dark waters. I failed to see it coming.” The friends’ boredom results in a joyride to Ticlio – the highest point of the central road in Peru’s Andes mountains – the sign still proclaiming it to be the highest railway junction in the world, despite it being surpassed by one in China. There is a doubling at play here, but also earlier when the narrator references his mother’s favourite painting, The Destruction of Pompeii. As the narrator looks up at this sublime mountain, it has destructive consequences. He ages somehow and becomes fully unmoored from his sense of self and friends, reflecting, “The strongest ice is the part that held all that weight before it cracked. We couldn’t even agree on how we’d met. At a barbecue, yes. The time, the details, the weather, what we said to each other – what were they?” Pages earlier he introduced these details with certainty but, under the duress of the mountain and the passage of time, the memory becomes fractured and unreliable.
“Lovebird”, has wry, uncanny shades of Shirley Jackson, one of the few third-person narratives in the collection, which shows the heartache behind a nosy neighbor’s comedy of manners driven by the dissatisfactions in her own life. Prompted to kindness, or intrusiveness, when a new family arrives next door, Mrs Queta does everything to ingratiate herself but is dismissed. Her husband, too, is disinterested and takes to locking himself in the bathroom to play Tetris. He sees his wife as a piece without a place, who has simultaneously withdrawn from external life but taunts herself with desiring inclusion. From the toilet, he muses, “the known world had been exhausted, and the world to be worshipped was happening out in the street. Observing what went on beyond the living room window, swapping places with someone else: this made Queta a desiring being.” But is her desire to be included? It’s uncertain. Perhaps it’s an acknowledgement of the emotional hardship she witnessed that drives her eccentric behaviour. “Until the tree changed everything,” Mrs Queta was a relatively carefree woman, whereas now she “carried her sadnesses around like a bag she took with her everywhere. She called this bag ‘personal effects’.” It is unclear as to whether her husband is let into her past the same way the reader is, or, even if he is aware, he is unable or unwilling to help her.
“Gardening” feels like a natural pairing with “Lovebird,” which sees a political prisoner’s world become increasingly smaller under surveillance and the weight of his memories as a neglectful parent. Again, emotive states become tangible/intangible, as he worries that his enclosure results in the stripping of his identity, “And if compulsions are treasures from childhood, he was slowly losing them one by one.” Trees also recur. The prisoner has taken to growing pine trees, “Because they block unwanted views,” and he grimly fantasizes that he will be imprisoned “until the pines grew up past the wall.” While his saplings initially provide a space of nurturing, the therapeutic effects appear to have been commodified through leaked photos, which results in a visit from a fervent party supporter asking to purchase one.
Here Be Icebergs is a collection of malleable borders that are often crossed non-consensually. In many of the stories, characters are desperately trying to maintain a separation between their interior and external worlds but are unable to, either through intimate emotional neglect or unseen external threats. “Where the Hunt Takes Places” is captivating. Here, a family are terrorized by a creature that pelts their house with fruit from their trees at night and leaves havoc in its wake. Suspended between these attacks, the family are effectively trapped within the familiar turned unfamiliar, in a state of fight/flight: “The house had become an embassy, a dangerous country, a border, an exclusion zone. They would leave when they were granted permission.” Anonymised mother and father try to turn their predicament into an escapade for the children, while the scientific community tasked with finding the source of the disturbance is stumped. Even the lay-family knows that naming is power, so “Delving deep into the teachings of cryptozoology, the family invented a name for a beast. Naming is soothing.” Of course, this name is never shared with the reader. As the behaviour of each family member appears to unravel, the story asks if these acts of vandalism are caused by one of them, or indeed by a strange creature.
In these three, particular stories, psychic and physical space enmesh and protectionism reigns. But what exactly are the characters protecting? The nuclear family, neighbourly duties, or the right to self-determinism? Or neither? The obstacles in their path (a new neighbour, the threat to the home, and being removed from the external world) cause internal conflict that erodes the relationships that are the supposed foundations of these spaces.
What feels unusual in Adaui’s stories is that they never neatly resolve. Instead, they show how messy and dissatisfying life can be. Much like the desolation explored in lauded American writers Raymond Carver and Shirley Jackson, the reader is a voyeur to these worlds that are presented without judgement. The tonal shrug seems to say, sometimes that’s the way the chips fall. But while these stories appear to be a seemingly unconnected populace, little details indicate that this collection of seeming strangers may not be exactly that. For instance, in “Where the Hunting Takes Place”, the mother worries, “I’m scared of becoming like my aunt Queta. First she was afraid of confined spaces, and then of open spaces.” While we edge towards a shape of possible conclusion, it dissipates, instead gesturing towards a world in which we really look at the isolationism in how we enact care and matters of kinship.
As Harvey writes in her afterword, there is a sense of hope that these characters cling to, despite their dissatisfying circumstances. The possibility for change, for resolution, to begin again. Harvey comments that “Adaui has said that she tries to write in the same way that memory comes,” meaning her translation was a work of preservation: “it was important not to try and tidy up these seemingly unfinished fragments – their jagged nature is key to the jagged way memory works.” While there are no neat resolutions in Here Be Icebergs, the characters’ salvation or escape lies in the entangled relationships that underpin each story – either by liberation from “the psychological violence we witness caregivers perpetrating throughout the collection,” – or by choosing friendship or alternative structures of care beyond the nuclear familiar. While forgiveness is not always possible in this collection, the disparate shape of desire for alternatives is threaded through each interaction. While we may be icebergs floating past each other in a dark sea, seemingly similar but containing our own worlds, we are dependent upon the building and repairing of structures of care when they falter.
By Katya Adaui
Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey
Charco Press, 133 pages
Jennifer Brough is a slow writer from Birmingham, UK. Her work includes fiction and personal essays exploring the body, gender, pain and disability, art and literature. She is slowly writing her first essay collection and is a member of resting up collective, an interdisciplinary group of sick artists.