[And Other Stories; 2021]
Tr. from the Spanish by Julia Sanches
“I’ve settled on an edge, I live on this edge and wait for the moment when I’ll leave the edge, my temporary home. Temporary — like any home, in fact, or like a body,” says the unnamed narrator of Eva Baltasar’s debut novel, Permafrost. “It’s not that I want to die, but that I have to. It’s my truth. Life belongs to others. It always has. I am here and I see it passing, life passes by other lives; life is a mirage that is real and unfathomable, and it flows through the lives of others, sating them with water, bloating them into double chins. The fact that my turn had come was an accident.”
As the translator Julia Sanches points out, central to Baltasar’s Permafrost is the theme of searching. The unnamed protagonist is “always seeking to find a home for herself on the margins of a conventional life,” Sanches writes. She is teetering on an edge, wondering if life is even meant for her, unsure of exactly what she wants, but certain of what she doesn’t want. She doesn’t want the life that has been prescribed to her by society, the conventional route that her parents and sister have taken: marriage, work and kids. So then, what does she want?
She seems to want freedom, but is unsure of how to attain it. Perhaps through travel? Or sex? Maybe death? Similar to the pessimistic protagonist, Elyria, of Catherine Lacey’s novel Nobody Is Ever Missing — who leaves everything, her husband, her life, and flies to New Zealand, wandering around the country, trying to lose herself — the narrator of Permafrost travels to Scotland and Belgium, consumes biographies, has lots of sex, and entertains suicide. “Freedom in death is an outstanding slogan,” she says. Baltasar has written a protagonist whom essayist Leslie Jamison would refer to as a “post-wounded woman.” Post-wounded women, Jamison writes in The Empathy Exams, are “wary of melodrama so they stay numb or clever instead,” and they seem to reflect the growing dissatisfaction among postmodern women who “no longer own their feelings.” By staying numb, the protagonist of Permafrost preempts any messy, self-pitying moments that might split the layer of frost encapsulating her.
Born in Barcelona, the narrator describes herself as “fifty-two kilos of loneliness and lamentation” with a “rodent heart.” Before enrolling in college, she wanted to major in fine arts, but her mother convinced her to study art history instead (“you can’t even draw a face out of a six and four”), which upon graduation, sends her into a spiral over “the sadness of a life unlived.” She then goes on to sublet rooms to students to make ends meet without having to get a job. She mostly spends her days sitting on the sofa reading fat biographies and having sex with women in every room of the house. When her aunt tells her that she needs her apartment back, the narrator considers throwing herself off the balcony but decides against it, because, knowing her luck, she’ll end up squashing a cat and that “wouldn’t do” at all. Instead, she becomes an au pair in Scotland, where the indulgent green scenery makes her nauseous. She leaves Scotland and later moves to Belgium, where she meets Veronika, a woman “with the bearing of a Viking” who becomes her lover and asks the narrator to marry her.
Throughout the book, the narrator expresses disdain for her mother, father, and sister. In particular, she begrudges their self-medication. Despite her own ideation of suicide, she refuses to take any medication because she believes it is “a permanent temporary solution, like the low-watt bulb hanging in the hall.” She doesn’t want chemicals to restrict her and slow her pace, yet paradoxically, she throws up a thick layer of icy permafrost to insulate her inner life from the outside world. She simultaneously wants to experience the intensity of the outside world and keep it at bay, that is why, as the translator Julia Sanchez points out, she fixates on sex — it allows her to safely bridge the two. Sex exists on the edge of love, a precursor to that intense emotional intimacy and commitment that the narrator fears will melt, disrupt and destabilize her. It is also why she lies to Veronika, telling her that she can’t marry her because there is another woman. A quote from Nobody Is Ever Missing may shine light on the tensions that the Permafrost protagonist feels between love and apathy: “I want to part of a respectable people, but I also want nothing to do with being people, because to be people is to be breakable, to know that your breaking is coming, any day now.” Like Elyria, the unnamed protagonist may be afraid of being breakable, of acknowledging her fragility. To be in love means to be vulnerable and to be vulnerable means to be susceptible to emotional attack or harm, which would lead to chinks in the permafrost around her.
To distract from her many lost chances at love and happiness, the narrator buries herself in reading, sex and thoughts of death. The French expression “la petite mort” comes to mind, which means ‘little death’ and refers to the sensation one feels post-orgasm. Literary critic Roland Barthes also spoke of la petite mort as the feeling one should feel when experiencing great literature. This intertwining of books, sex and death speak to the narrator’s desire to transcend and resist her surroundings: “Sex distances me from death, though it doesn’t bring me closer to life.”
These activities seem to fill the space that love would occupy. The narrator awaits death like someone else might await love, patiently at first and then forcing it, racking up many botched suicide attempts. And, for her, reading seems wildly intimate, almost like pillow-talk with a loved one. She feels indescribable pleasure in sinking into the biographized lives of others: “[It] was the best I could aspire to, the closest I could get to neither coming to an end nor arriving at a beginning.” And perhaps, in this way, these actions — reading, sex and attempted suicide — are simultaneously the protagonist’s methods of escapism and her best attempts to break out from beneath the permafrost. Maybe reading biographies and having sex are her idiosyncratic form of connecting with other people, or at least baby steps that may lead to deeper, longer-term relationships with others. And perhaps the suicide attempts, which are always handled humorously, are her unconscious way of waking herself up and reminding herself that she is in fact alive and still on the edge of life, not death.
Of course, the protagonist is human, so her permafrost layer is not completely impermeable. Throughout the book, doubt creates chinks in the ice that allows the warmth of connection to slip through. She’s aware of this warmth that exists deep within, understanding that “this icy firmness stores a world that is habitable, yet dormant.” When her sister, who is happily married with kids, and who the narrator purports to pity — “the poor thing is wingless and naïve” — goes through a bad breakup, the narrator is the one who is there to comfort her. She buys her Chinese food and wine and even takes the time to pick out tissues with hearts, flowers and kisses. But it’s not until the very end of the book, when her six-year-old niece is admitted to the hospital for acute anterior uveitis in both eyes and may lose her vision, that the narrator’s permafrost completely melts. She discovers that her niece Claudia is extraordinary and “humanly flawless.” She sits with Claudia, applies eye drops and goes to the bathroom and cries. This is the moment that changes her: “Claudia puts her ear to my chest and listens to my heart, which is spurred by her to deepen its beat. A hard-rock lullaby grows inside me, cracking the permafrost. I break, and as I break the only thing I want to do is bury my face in Claudia’s hair.”
The protagonist’s affinity for children brings to mind George Eliot’s 1861 novel, Silas Marner: only when a toddler walks into his home is the reclusive weaver able to let go of his isolation, his troubled past and his unhealthy obsession with gold, and dedicate his life to loving his adopted daughter and rejoining society for her sake — “The child created fresh and fresh links between his life and the lives from which he had hitherto shrunk continually into narrower isolation.” In the same vein, Claudia helps guide the resistant narrator into a place of thawing, softening and vulnerability. Through this, Baltasar shows that sometimes it takes caring for a child to pull us out of depression: what we may not be willing to do for ourselves, we are willing to do for our children.
Yet, Permafrost isn’t the conventional, happily-ever-after fairytale-esque story that Silas Marner is. The unconventional structure of the book — spliced into short non-chronological chapters — reflects the unconventionality of the protagonist. The chapters that consist of her sister asking her what it’s like to be with a woman are interrupted by chapters of scenes with lovers, juxtaposing the lived reality with the verbally expressed reality. This unordered unfurling of a life is almost like an anti-biography; the reader isn’t privy to specific dates or locations, the title of the job the narrator gets or even the narrator’s name because “names are our first possession and they’re as painful, if not more, than a piercing.” Instead, the reader is just plodding along in this amorphous universe of the narrator’s mind and body, which exist in semi-isolation from society.
Only near the end of the book, does she begin to place herself in time, marking the days since Claudia’s admittance to the hospital, and offering the reader the names of her niece and sister. She finally puts the date at the beginning of the chapter, which shows that she’s adhering to society’s confines and conventions, not because she wants to, but because she has no other choice. Without spoiling the ending, the protagonist is forced, from a surprising and chilling turn of events, to suddenly take on more responsibility than she was prepared for, which in turn hints at her adherence to societal conventions and a hope for the future, a future in which she can finally come out from beneath the permafrost to love and be loved in return. To choose to end the novel in such a way, Baltasar shows that although life may be grim and cruel, one must carry on and entrust that there is a glimmer of hope to be found somewhere. “The savagery that stalks and besieges us,” Baltasar writes, “is life.”
Jacqueline Knirnschild currently lives in Western Massachusetts, where she works on a permaculture farm and substitute teaches. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Mississippi, and her writing has been published, or is forthcoming, in Hakai Magazine, Ninth Letter, Product Magazine, Number: Inc, The Key Reporter, Burnaway, and The Cleveland Review of Books.