[Veliz Books; 2024]

Tr. from Spanish by Denise Kripper

There is a short story by Naiyer Masud in which a man thinks back on a weathervane that sat on the rooftop of his childhood home. The vane, which looked partly like a fish, and partly like a bird, was an enduring feature of his family’s house. Even when it stopped correctly indicating the direction of the wind, beginning its “inexorable decline,” the vane remained stridently in its place, the quirky crown jewel of the family’s abode. When the man was a child, the vane’s erratic movements were a source of anxiety, leading him to try to alter the apparatus from time to time. However, throughout the majority of the short story, fittingly titled “Weathervane” in Muhammad Umar Memon’s English translation from Urdu, the vane remained impervious to the boy’s efforts to reorient it with his hands. The weathervane continued to list off in mysterious directions, eluding control.

Argentinian author Adriana Riva’s 2019 novel La sal, translated as Salt by Denise Kripper, similarly opens with a meditation on a weathervane. Riva’s narrator recalls the Santa sleigh weathervane that was affixed to the mossy tiled roof of her grandparents’ house in Mar del Plata, Argentina. The vane, as she remembers it, was a rusty, bulky thing, “arbitrarily pointing East.” One Christmas, when she is eleven years old, the narrator decides to decorate the vane with garlands. She climbs up a ladder leaning against the towering house, the hydrangeas slowly shrinking below her as she ascends. “I was excited about the change in perspective,” she remembers, determined to be unfazed by the height of the ladder, swaying in the wind. She never reaches the weathervane, however, instead plummeting to a fall that leaves her mummified in casts for months, three of her dorsal vertebrae shattered. The vane is left untouched.

These two children experience a magnetic pull towards the weathervanes that adorn their houses and are compelled by a need to adjust those vanes, to reorient them somehow. As outgrowths of their family homes, the weathervanes stand in for the important familial figures in their lives. The man in Masud’s story sees an imprint of his father in the fish-bird weathervane; the narrator of Salt, Ema, embarks on a reckless, ill-fated attempt to alter the Santa weathervane that parallels her self-destructive obsession with her ever-distant mother.

As so much of Salt’s paratext indicates, the mother-daughter relationship is meant to be the crux of the story. There is Rivas’s acknowledgment page (“For mom”) and the epigraphs: “These mothers, curled up and hidden in the depths of our lives . . . so influential over us!” (Natalia Ginzburg), and “Half of what I say is meaningless / But I say it just to reach you” (John Lennon). In her translator’s note, Kripper writes plainly: “The questions at the core of the book” are “about being a mother . . . and being a daughter.” The reader’s journey is to be straightforward: we are to witness a daughter try to reach her mother, that ever-elusive weathervane.

Salt is divided into three parts, each a different act in this mother-daughter drama. The first act provides the precipitating event—the childhood ladder fall—and the latter two sections jump decades forward in time, when Ema herself has become a mother. Ema and her mother, along with their respective sisters, take a road trip back to her mother’s hometown of Macachín, in La Pampa. Like everything associated with Ema’s mother, Macachín is described as remote, a hard-to-reach ghost town. As the trip goes on, Ema becomes more and more frustrated with her inability to access her mother’s true self. They don’t touch, don’t kiss. “We barely know each other,” Ema tells us through first person narration, “Mom is that unreachable stretch of skin between my shoulder blades, the one itchy itch I can’t scratch.”

Ema’s mother is not only emotionally unavailable to her daughter but has created distance between her former self—a poor, orphaned Jewish girl named Raquel—and her new persona, a blonde, “synthetic”-skinned bourgeois housewife named Elena. She secretly goes to get dental implants, “covering an old rot,” never leaves the house with a bare face, and maintains perfectly manicured hands at all times. On one trip to Jordan with her husband, Elena proudly recounts that she crossed half a desert to have “three women in burqas straighten her hair” in a cave.

Ema understands her mother’s elaborate and expensive forms of grooming as a type of “lying,” yet another way in which she is unwilling to be vulnerable in their relationship. “It’s really upsetting to live with a mother who never lets her guard down,” Ema tells the reader. Over time, Ema’s unrelenting litany against her mother becomes exhausting. The repetition of the absent-mother plaint becomes the story’s chorus, the refrain that, at times, made me want to shut off the narrative entirely. Even though Ema herself seems to grow weary of the mater abscondita loop, I became increasingly exasperated at her unswerving belief that “family roles are indestructible,” that this chorus is set to repeat forever.

Despite Ema’s fixation on her mother, it was her relationship to Juvencia, the Paraguayan maid hired to take care of Ema after her childhood fall, that became the most intriguing dynamic to me in the novel. “Juvencia will be available to you 24/7,” her mother tells child-Ema, as she rushes out of the room where her daughter lays, bedridden. Ema feels a “gravitational pull” towards her mother, but when she pushes the button installed by her bed so that she can call for help, it is Juvencia, flip-flop-clad, who hurries to her bedside. Juvencia bathes the immobile Ema, sings her soft lullabies in the indigenous South American language of Guaraní, tells her stories when she is sad, and warms Ema, gently, with the whirr of a blow dryer when she is cold. When it comes time for Ema to finally try to sit up after months of remaining horizontal, it is Juvencia who acts as her anchor; her mother stands to the side of the room and cries.

Juvencia’s voice in the story is minimal. Ema mainly remembers select phrases in Guaraní that Juvencia would incant to her, phrases that appear italicized in the text, the letters angled like shadows: che mitãkuña, che mitãkuña (my girl, my girl). Ema’s mother eventually fires Juvencia, for reasons unsaid. Juvencia, the other mother; the shadow mother. Juvencia, the one who provides the intimacy that Elena does not, an intimacy evoked through softened sounds, murmurs, and footfalls.

The relationship between a loving-domestic-worker and a lonely-bourgeois-child has been explored in several recent works of literary fiction, like Leïla Slimani’s The Nanny (trans. Sam Taylor), Keily Reid’s Such a Fun Age, María Fernanda Ampuero’s “Pietà” in her collection Human Sacrifices (trans. Frances Riddle), and Pilar Quintana’s Abyss (trans. Lisa Dilman). In Quintana’s novel, the eight-year-old narrator tries to hold onto her depressed mother as she teeters close to the precipice of suicide, while other, hired women step in to take care of the apartment, the plants, and the child. A string of female domestic workers—Yesenia, Lucila, Anita—act as temporary stand-ins for the drifting mother. When Abyss’s narrator becomes a “mother” herself, to a doll she names Paulina, she ultimately enacts the same distancing gesture her mother has modeled for her time and again.

When the narrator of Salt becomes a mother, she similarly replicates her own mother’s practices of detachment and distancing. When her son Antonio was first born, Ema recounts that “while I loved his newborn smell and soft skin, surrendering to him didn’t come naturally. I stayed as far as possible from baby talk, using language designed for keeping my distance.” She comes to understand how a mother might shake her baby to the point of bleeding: “You must stay alert to avoid crossing the line.” As he grows older, Ema puts more distance between herself and Antonio, plopping her son in front of the TV, feeding him junk food and chocolates to keep him occupied. She used to watch over him as he breathed, but then, as she bluntly states, “I got over it.” At one point, Ema admits to thinking that Antonio would be better off with just his father. “If we ever get separated,” she thinks, “Lucas should keep him.”

The novel’s final scene is perhaps the most tragic enactment of this ongoing mother-child schism. Having just given birth to her second child, Juana, Ema doesn’t waste time pressing the button on the side of her hospital bed, summoning the nurse to her side. Just as her mother did, Ema displaces the gestures of maternal care onto other women, who are paid to watch over the children of others. When the nurse asks Ema if she would like a reprieve from holding Juana, Ema readily agrees. “She held out her arms,” Ema writes, “and I gave her my daughter.”

Written in another tone or time, Salt might have read as a story about Elena and Ema’s emancipation from the drudgery of domestic labor. But, in Riva’s telling, the primary effect of this aversion to the often messy intimacies of maternal care work seems to be a devastating hollowness between mother and child. “Mom and I,” Ema says, “are two unaffiliated units tied together circumstantially.” Capitalist modernity renders mothers and daughters as autonomy-desiring “units”; Salt reveals the ache of this separation.

Earlier in the book, Elena tells Ema that she saw her climbing the ladder towards the weathervane before that fateful fall and decided not to intervene. Upon hearing this, Ema feels a “galloping sadness” that morphs into rage and the desire to hurt her mother. I also felt a “galloping sadness” upon reaching the end of Salt. I wish that Ema had reached the weathervane in that opening scene. Perhaps then she would have been able to reorient her relationship with her mother, to redirect the winds for her future relationships to her own children.

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

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