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Forging A Different Way Of Being – A Review Of Romina Paula’s August

By Rebecca Schuh.

August by Romina Paula

Romina Paula, August, translated by Jennifer Croft (Feminist Press, 2017)

Romina Paula begins August with an epigraph: “The girl returns with a rodent’s face, disfigured by not wanting anything to do with being young.” The quote is from Hospital Britanico by Hector Viel Temperley, but it evoked in my mind Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, another slim volume of autofiction that grapples intimately with the questions of youth, age and time. With how to hold onto the past while also struggling to leave youth’s entrapments behind—with what to keep and what to discard. The characters in August also occupy this limbo, a space where they yearn to move forward but dance intimately with the temptation of living in the past.

The narrator, Emilia returns to her hometown in rural Patagonia. Five years after the death of her best friend, Andrea, Emilia receives a vague invitation from Andrea’s parents to attend a gathering around her cremation. The girl’s friends and family end up in a strange sort of reunion as they gather to scatter Andrea’s ashes. Emilia’s been living a cosmopolitan life in Buenos Aires with a lover who is unconnected from her past, and the return to the life she left behind is like a crash, a reckoning with things she thought she’d recovered from. Emilia says, “If it weren’t for the sneakers I’m wearing that I definitely purchased this year, I might doubt my age, doubt my historical moment, the point on the line of my life where I am currently positioned—I’d doubt the line.” Emilia’s return to her hometown is a kind of time travel—as diving into our past lives always is. Her family, ex-boyfriend and other friends exist as they once were—of course, with the conspicuous absence of her beloved dead friend.

The city persists as though the girls never made their respective departures—Andrea for death and Emilia for her new life. The reader sees the comparison of Emilia’s parallel lives, the one that she’s re-entering in Patagonia and the one that she’s been living in Buenos Aires, where she was trying to create something separate and new. The lives exist in concert, and she’s forced to compare and reckon with them. When chatting with another old friend about her new lifestyle, the narrator speculates, “She assumes, I think, that I love my life of a free agent in the city, believes it’s a life I wouldn’t trade for anything, which I guess is what I have been trying to convey to her since her arrival, what I’ve led her to believe.” But Paula’s musings don’t veer into the syrupy or nostalgic, rather the narrator wryly confronts the past: “As no time has passed, like an idiot, clingy,” she writes, and steps back into her old life like a shed skin.

It’s a case study in how a life unfolds only to collapse back in on itself, a ceaseless grappling with the choices one made and pondering the age old questions: Does love get you anywhere? Who are we once we’ve left everything we know behind? How do the ghosts of our loved ones go on living through the prism of our memories?

Romina Paula is better known as an actress, and, curiously, it makes sense here: her skills in creating a persona of her narrator are extensive and well honed. Actors and authors in some ways have a similar job: they need to convince us of the viability of a personality, make us know the character in ways that go beyond seeing and reading. I felt that way immediately with Emilia, her voice casual but endearing, charming, thoughtful and, most of all, real: the way women really talk to each other and themselves, rather than nostalgic caricatures based in overwrought stereotypes. When Emilia sorts through Andrea’s belongings: “Today I snooped around in your stuff, but like, just because, like demelancholized, like my eyes were dry, as I was snooping, just checking things out, taking a look. I came across that drawer you keep filled with scraps of paper and things, the one that has all sorts of movie tickets and little invites and little notes, a million of my little notes, pure nonsense on them, so much nonsense written down, the reconstruction of a history of stupidity, basically, of silliness, of whatever.” The tone is youthful, naïve, which has traditionally been looked down upon by men of letters, but by inhabiting it without apology, it is reclaimed and made legitimate, giving women permission to write as they think. The book is phrased as a letter to the dead best friend, and as the reader we become as familiar with Emilia’s addresses to Andrea as the people who we’re closest with. It is how brains work when they’re not worried about who is watching: not pontificating, not posturing—this is how we get to the truth of depicting women.

Romina Paula

Emilia says, “My life is not what one would term heroic.” But through this lens it is heroic, it’s heroic for being itself and not changing for the masses, or the male gaze. The tone is also deceptive—its casualness can be mistaken for a lack of effort, when in actuality the words are carefully considered, the flow poetic. She uses slashes when deciding between two feelings—someone “seems far away/removed”—reflecting how emotions are not definitive, rather a consistent excavation into how human interactions affect us.

Emilia is also, simply put, very funny. When her boyfriend is trying to get mice out of their apartment, “He bought a mousetrap (ugh, an inquisition),” and she continues, “My humble household has quickly been transformed into a site of terror.” It’s humorous in its tone and turns of phrase, but also in situations and scenes. Paula demonstrates an eye for comedic detail, like when Emilia is lying down in the shower while a cat looks on, or an unfortunate incident with a cumbersome pad while running into her ex at a bar.

The narrator is able to simultaneously judge the behaviours other humans engage in, while never straying from a deep love for the people she’s returning to. Her unique way of relating to others is exhibited primarily through her interactions with her ex, Julian—now the father of another woman’s child. When greeting him for the first time after their years apart: “The hey is absolutely false.” We’ve all said and observed the “false hey”. Paula puts the communal social interactions that we all engage in and perpetuate on display, makes fun of them and questions why we act the way we do. 

The ostensible centre of the novel is the death of the best friend, but instead of examining it in a straightforward manner, it shows how people talk about death when it actually happened in their lives—as a bemused reckoning, rather than manufactured faux-artfulness. Andrea is not presented as a monument, rather as a static memory that is as complex and flawed as the narrator herself.

On many occasions the narrator is glib about death, intentionally invoking the average person’s cognitive dissonance between the gorge of actual death and the colloquial referencing: “I feel like I would like to die, or else like I would like to kill this messenger… I could and would prefer to die right now.” But this flippancy isn’t a turn off, it succeeds because it’s so unabashed and authentic it acknowledges its own absurdity. We don’t stop talking the way we normally talk when someone dies, instead we must learn to reckon how we speak casually with the reality that death does exist in our midst. Emilia’s way of speaking about death is so genuine that it makes you wonder if the cliches people say about death are even emotionally sound at all, or just posturing to say how you think you should feel when something ends.

We don’t ever really get to know Andrea except through Emilia, but that felt painfully accurate: our closest friends often shape who we become, and our interactions with them are mirrors of how we behave in the world. Their friendship is threaded through the book, present even when the narrator isn’t referring explicitly to it, because such a close friendship permeates everything about one’s life. In Julie Buntin’s recent novel Marlena, she writes: “I begin to see the outline of the best friend, the girl she shaped herself around, according to. For so many women, the process of becoming requires two. It’s not hard to make out the marks the other one left.” We see the outlines of Andrea on Emilia, and thus we get to know her even though she’s not alive within the timeline of the book. Their friendship is the biggest mark on Emilia’s life, “undying friendship, the purest form of love over tables at bars” and it is so pure because friendship doesn’t rely on social status or sex or role fulfilment. Rather, it lives in the pure joy of companionship, of two people being together for no other reason than enjoying each other’s company and building a specific intimacy.

The narrator is less sure of her allegiance to any of her romantic partners. She expresses ambivalence toward the live-in boyfriend in Buenos Aires, and is unsparing in her judgement of her former lover in Patagonia, even as she feels herself sexually drawn to him. With these struggles, it asks how we choose the people we are romantically involved with, if it was even a choice at all, or nothing but chance. Emilia’s bond to Andrea is so much stronger than with her current beau or Julian it forces us to question the social prioritisation of romance over friendship.

Amidst the exhumation, scattering Andrea’s ashes, and rekindling relationships with family and friends, Emilia is still obsessive about her past with Julian, and thus the book confronts our inability to let go of our obsessions amidst tragedy. For one, how sexual desire clouds and distracts us even when confronted with death. Is this evidence of the importance of sex, or just evidence that humans are biologically animals? Paula is able to pinpoint the space created between two people, the electric charge, how bonds become more than the sum of their people, the connections created are impossible to erase with time, distance, breakups and death.

Paula captures the spectrum of ways of being hurt by our exes: from the acute pain of an encounter that ends with a “take care” after years of “I love yous” to the largesse despair of spending an hour with the child your ex-lover has with another woman. It accumulates the minute and terrible ways two human beings can stab each other over and over.

Depicted here are the relationships with the self, with lovers, with a dead friend, but within this is a statement about what makes a family: the families we create and destroy in the process of living a life. As the family and friends of Emilia gather in this belated wake of her death, Emilia says: “All of us drunk, almost a family.” Death and funerals are a reunion, albeit a morose one, but they’re a revival of the family, biologically and otherwise, illustrating how we create our own families when biology is not enough. When musing on the cultural death of the extended family, Kurt Vonnegut wrote:

Why are so many people getting divorced today? It’s because most of us don’t have extended families anymore. It used to be that when a man and a woman got married, the bride got a lot more people to talk to about everything. The groom got a lot more pals to tell dumb jokes to. When a couple has an argument, they may think it’s about money or power or sex, or how to raise the kids, or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though, without realising it, is this: ‘You are not enough people!’

Though Paula’s argument is stated less overtly, the objectives are similar: both authors are arguing that we need community over coupledom, that it is the extended family who helps us through death and loss. By trying to exist on an island after a tragedy, we engender more suffering. But by diving back into the wreck with the support of certain family members, friends and art, a different way of being can be forged.

 

Becca Schuh

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rebecca Schuh is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts and literary criticism has recently been published in Bookforum and the Village Voice. She is working on a book about alternative education and intimacy, based on her time at the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies. Twitter: @TamingofdeSchuh

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 21st, 2017.