[Charco Press; 2023]

Tr. from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

Often, when we speak of translation, we refer to a movement between two languages. Spanish to English, English to Spanish—a pendulum swinging between discrete bodies of words. Each language is assumed to be a stable, known quantity. Something definite, and singular.

But in Margarita García Robayo’s most recent novel, translated as The Delivery by Megan McDowell, languages are not internally coherent, fixed entities. Instead of assuming that all speakers of a language can understand each other with perfect ease, The Delivery reveals the fissures, gaps, and spaces of incomprehension that can exist between speakers of the same language.

That is to say, in The Delivery, all of the characters speak Spanish, but none of them seem to quite understand one another.

This internal polyphony greets us in the book’s Spanish-language title: La encomienda. Across the Hispanic world, this noun carries different meanings. In Mexico, as the author Jazmina Barrera points out in her review of the novel, the word immediately connotes the Spanish colonial system, in which colonizers “entrusted” Indigenous people to them (se les encomendaban) to work the land. But in another part of Spanish-speaking Latin America—Colombia, where García Robayo was born and raised—the word refers to a package, a delivery of goods by mail.

And so a Spanish-language reader might come to the novel expecting to read about gold, forced labor, and Christian colonial ideology, or . . . a tale involving a cardboard box. And it’s the distance between what is said and what is understood—the journey of a word, or a package, from one place to another—that so preoccupies the narrator of The Delivery.

The novel’s unnamed narrator is a writer, a job she caustically thinks of as a “residual profession.” For her, writing is insignificant in comparison to “important” jobs, like being an engineer. No one will care if she turns in that piece of copy on blue corn flour; the great machinery of the universe will grind on. She senses her peripherality and precarity in the “global map of jobs,” but this awareness only makes her resentful, stingy, and apathetic, too focused on her own survival to reimagine the world otherwise. Perhaps if she built bridges, she thinks, she could afford to be more magnanimous.

As things stand, the narrator must make ends meet. She’s assigned to write a piece about the death of a “happy cow” for an organic beef company—she is in Argentina, after all. This is the land of asado barbeque, a nation whose foundational literary text—“El matadero” (“The Slaughteryard”)—presents a scene of bovine butchery as a microcosm of the Southern American country. In this context, to talk about meat is to invoke the motherland.

Except that the narrator is a foreigner, and she can’t forget it. The minimalist Buenos Aires apartment that she now inhabits is five thousand three hundred kilometers away from the creeping plants, creaking floors, and fears of her Cartagena childhood home. And although she aims to camouflage her “provincial” roots with fancy thrifted furniture and austere interior decor, this attempt at self-rebranding never quite feels complete.

Our Colombian narrator is assailed by Argentinian vocabulary—bichitos de luz, crotos, chauchas, vos—that strikes her ear strangely and continually reminds her of her foreignness. She speaks Spanish, but not this Spanish. The so-called español porteño of the Argentinian capital is unlike the español caribeño cartagenero of her youth. Even after years spent living in Buenos Aires, she still isn’t quite in on the jokes. In a room full of people laughing, she writes, she is the “only one grimacing.”

And this lack of understanding, born of exhaustion or incapacity, seems to characterize all of her relationships—not just the ones with dialectically distinct Argentinians. The narrator is no longer in contact with her mother, but forces herself to have stilted video calls with her sister every other week. Their joyless sororal bond is just another piece of evidence for the narrator’s pessimistic theory about the “fallacy of kinship.” She notes that their imagined filial tie is only maintained through “toughness, toiling, and torturous tenacity” (de tenacidad, de tozudez, de trabajo tortuoso—a jaunty if somewhat grim alliteration in both English and Spanish). The sister pretends to tolerate the narrator’s eccentric “life of exile,” and in return, the narrator refrains from commenting on her sister’s clothes, those “shades of beige like she’s dressed for a baptism.”

To make up for the awkward pauses and mutual incomprehension in their fortnightly chats, the narrator’s sister sends her massive packages filled with pulped fruit and photos, to simulate closeness when words cannot. But when the crates arrive at the narrator’s door, the fruit is rotten, and the photos are blurred by putrid, leaking juice.

While reading García Robayo’s novel, I came to think of the narrator as the apartment building’s antisocial bat. None of her interactions with other humans seem to go well. Máximo, the doorman, is still mad about the narrator’s oversized Chesterfield sofa, the risky operation it took to hoist it up into the apartment with ropes and maneuver it through the terrace doors. “It’s not even a nice sofa,” he reminds her. The married couple who lives next door accuse the narrator of throwing trash and dead rats onto their balcony, and she senses that the other tenants blame her for the absence of the building’s cat, a gata named Agatha. There are uncomfortable conversations in the hallway, wooden nods in the elevator. A neighbor’s child is less circumspect: “My mom says you ate the cat.”

The cat saga is a roundabout way for García Robayo to bring up what she has elsewhere called “the great Latin American theme”: inequality. Ever since the narrator moved into the apartment building, Agatha has roamed around from terrace to terrace, a sort of collective “property pet.” But as time goes on, it becomes apparent that the cat prefers the narrator’s terrace. At a building meeting, someone tries to pressure her into officially adopting the cat as her own, claiming that a cat only needs food, water, and an old rag to sleep on. “Same as a bum,” the narrator thinks to herself, “and yet no one would ask you to take care of one.” Material inequality, like the vagrant cat, is a problem for which neither the narrator nor her housed neighbors will take responsibility. When a homeless man in a nearby park asks the narrator for a cigarette, she runs away from him.

But, alas, the narrator’s desire to, as she puts it, “take a machete and slice the floor to mark the line between the outside world and the inside one, and for that line to sprout a wall of fire that only I can cross,” will never come to pass. The homeless man in the park continues to scream at her, demanding a smoke. The narrator’s boyfriend, boss, and friends fill her phone with messages. Her erratic, somewhat feral mother makes a disorienting appearance in the apartment. People keep arriving at her door, spouting incomprehensible words, demanding that she reckon with her relationship to them.

Do we have an ethical responsibility to try to make sense of other people’s words? Is it immoral to put distance between ourselves and others? When the narrator sees Máximo knocking at her door, and steps into the shadows before he can see her, is she backing away from a better version of herself?

Throughout the novel, I kept waiting for the narrator to acknowledge some sort of affinity with those around her, at least in material terms, if not in filial, national, or linguistic ones. Doesn’t Máximo also have a “residual profession”? Aren’t the other tenants also constrained by the building’s narrow, “proletarian” hallways? But the narrator stays adamantly alienated, entrenched in her belief that she is an island alone. The narrator resents the volatility of her job, and her precarious material conditions, but this feeling of bitterness doesn’t lead her towards bonds of solidarity. Instead, her resentment remains anodyne, a pithy undercurrent in the copy she writes for the agency.

She ends up turning in the text about the death of the happy cow—told, drumroll please, from the perspective of the cow. Her disruptive gesture falls short. Only her boss, Eloy, skims it over and comments:  “A little metaphysical, maybe.” The message goes undelivered. And so the narrator’s work remains a mere dot on the “global map of jobs,” and the words she sends journeying off—into conversations, or onto the page—almost never arrive in the manner she intended.

In English, the noun “delivery” has multiple definitions. Like encomienda, it can mean the arrival of a package. It can also, curiously, refer to the act of giving birth. Over the course of her literary translation career, McDowell has recreated the work of contemporary Southern Cone writers like Alejandro Zambra, Mariana Enríquez, and Samanta Schweblin in English. In an interview, McDowell says that, while one part of her job is to make a text in Spanish comprehensible to an anglophone reader, the other part lies in maintaining “the ambiguity that’s in the original.” McDowell asks copious questions of the living authors she translates, but does not provide their answers as footnotes. Words remain unstable, generative, in the editions in both languages.

In McDowell’s rendition of García Robayo’s novel, then, new dimensions are added to the words of the Spanish text in English. Through translation, additional meanings are born. The Delivery may not transfer all possible connotations that the Spanish words in La encomienda might carry into English, but the point is that there was never one meaning of the Spanish words to begin with.

Anna Learn is a PhD student at the University of Washington, where she studies Persian, South Asian, and Hispanic literature.

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