:: Article

Porcelain Remains: a review of All My Goodbyes by Mariana Dimópulos

By Anna MacDonald.

All My Goodbyes review

Mariana Dimópulos, All My Goodbyes, translated by Alice Whitmore (Giramondo, 2017)

“Reminiscences of self are reminiscences of place,” writes Susan Sontag in her essay on Walter Benjamin, ‘Under the Sign of Saturn’. “The work of memory,” she goes on, “collapses time.” It makes a ruin of chronology, creates the space for a topographical and forever fragmented reading of what has passed.

Buenos Aires, Madrid, Málaga, La Mancha, Almagro, Barcelona, Heilbronn, Heidelberg, Berlin, Athens, Los Golondrinas. In All My Goodbyes (trans. Alice Whitmore), a novella by Mariana Dimópulos (who has herself written a critical study of Walter Benjamin’s work), each of these sites of memory is cut loose from chronology, becoming a piece of a puzzle from which reader and narrator attempt to decipher the history here described.

For Sontag, via Benjamin, “a book is not only a fragment of the world but itself a little world … [and] the best way to understand [it] is also to enter [its] space”. To enter the space of All My Goodbyes is to cross a threshold into a broken world. “I had as many pieces as a broken vase,” relates the book’s unnamed narrator, “and I never found a way to put them back together or even to number my porcelain remains.” Like forensic archaeologists, we sift through the debris left behind by the narrator’s restless European years: the people and the places; the serial, menial jobs; the budding relationships; the houses that could have been made a home. All abandoned. “These are all my crimes: all my goodbyes.”

 

‘And to the very last: doubt.’i
A young woman leaves her home and family in Buenos Aires and spends the next decade travelling across Europe. “Why, or to what end? Sometimes I don’t know.” The daughter of a physicist – “a well-intentioned butcher of innocence” – she is instructed by him in the habit of scepticism: “The blue of the sky? Just an effect of the Earth’s atmospheric gases and the light of the sun; “Precambrian stones are fundamentally no different to the wings of a fly. … [Stone] simply holds its form for a longer period of time”; “Rest is a form of movement”; “[S]trictly speaking, nowhere existed anywhere.”

All My Goodbyes is, in part, an interrogation of the relationship between time and space. As such it captures the paradox inherent in the physical world as we currently understand it. Carlo Rovelli describes this in his Seven Brief Lessons on Physics:

A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools … In the morning the world is curved space where everything is continuous; in the afternoon it is a flat space where quanta of energy leap.

The paradox is that both theories work remarkably well.

The structure of All My Goodbyes echoes that of quantum mechanics, in which the flow of time and the curvature of space give way to quanta, or “grains of space and matter [that] no longer contain the variable ‘time’”. According to Rovelli, these  “materialize in a place … [only] when colliding headlong with something else”. Hence the narrator’s father’s insistence that, “strictly speaking”, nowhere exists and that rest is a form of movement. Reality – space and time – takes shape in movement, via interaction.

By this reading, the fragmented nature of All My Goodbyes is not simply that of a postmodern non-linear narrative. There is nothing simple about this novella. Its narrative is not fragmented only because the work of memory makes a ruin of the forward flow of time. Yes, the narrator is remembering what she describes as her “pilgrim years”. Yes, she is working to piece together her “porcelain remains”. But the brokenness of her narrative is not solely a reflection of the frailty of memory. Reality is broken, in the sense that it is composed of grains of space that, in Rovelli’s words, “cannot be ordered in a common succession of ‘instants’”. This novella captures the unnerving experience of scientific doubt – a contagious sense, which the narrator learned early from her father, that the world is not what it seems. Dimópulos’s protagonist has not found a way to restore the instants of her experience, to make her history whole again, because there is no chronology – only leaps from one event to another and suggestive interactions between them. Only arrival and departure.

 

‘My pilgrim years’
A young woman leaves her home and family in Buenos Aires and spends the next decade travelling across Europe. “I … regarded myself as incapable of sleeping in a bed, sitting in a chair, inhabiting a room, for too long.” Over the course of her pilgrim years, the narrator of All My Goodbyes moves restlessly between cities, jobs, relationships. Playing first at being an artist (“what young people do when they’re in Madrid and they’re Latin American”), and then (briefly) a tourist, she becomes in her restlessness a kind of secular pilgrim, a perpetual foreigner who – according to the logic of global capital with its insatiable demand for cheap migrant labour – works as a shelf-stacker at Ikea, a parts-sorter at a used-car factory, a maid-of-all work at a hotel et cetera.

In her book, Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit argues that pilgrimage is “one of the fundamental structures a journey can take – the search for something, if only one’s own transformation”. Citing anthropologists Nancy Frey and Victor and Edith Turner, Solnit is particularly interested in the ways in which the experience of pilgrimage affects the pilgrim’s perceptions of time, space and self. According to Frey, pilgrims “develop a changing sense of time”. Likewise, for the Turners, as paraphrased by Solnit, pilgrimage is “a state of being between one’s past and future identities and thus outside the established order, in a state of possibility”.

The liminality of the pilgrim’s experience, that state of being between – including, perhaps, mid-leap between one quanta event and another – is similar in important ways to Valeria Luiselli’s experience of being permanently “alien”, a “non-resident in New York”. In ‘Other Rooms’, one of the essays in her collection Sidewalks, Luiselli relates conversations with doormen who “are usually emigrants of some kind, metaphorically, if not literally”. These men inhabit the threshold of residential buildings across New York, the kind of liminal space and time that pilgrims take to the road in search of. As such, and like the narrator of All My Goodbyes, they understand the need to keep moving, the imperative to interpose oneself between strange places. As Luiselli tells it:

What you have to do, [the doorman] said … is to get out of here as often as you can. That way you get to know yourself better. Only come back to have a bath and eat, never to sleep, because the more often you spend the night in different places – rooms, pensions, hotels, borrowed couches, other people’s beds – the better. … We should all participate in a certain amount of housing polygamy if we want to be true to the millenarian edict: Know thyself.

The possibilities of liminal space – of being at the threshold between arrival and departure – are, it seems, a contributing factor in the desire for perpetual movement. This threshold space cannot be pinned down in time – it hasn’t happened, as such, but is always in a state of becoming. Hence, Benjamin’s celebration of being in movement. Like those other rooms of Luiselli’s essay, for Benjamin, “space is … teeming with possibilities, positions, intersections, passages, detours”.ii Cross the threshold, decide to stay put in place, and time works its dark magic. What was possible instead becomes a constraint.

Reminiscing about the cities in which she resided during her European years, the narrator of All My Goodbyes describes the effect of time on her experience of a place:

The arrival – from dinner, say, or from the supermarket. The setting of the handbag on the floor. The glance around the room. What is that chest of drawers, that bed? What is that rug (if there is a rug)? What are those curtains? Suddenly the chair is archaic, there is no use for it. The bedroom is abandoned, the bathroom and its mirrors incomprehensible. How can it be abandoned, I wonder, if until so recently it was my very own room? […] And yet, it has all become unfathomable to me. Did I really think I’d been living within these four walls this whole time? It was just an illusion. A lacklustre magic trick, utterly profane.

Time alienates the narrator from place perhaps because, even when she has come to rest, it continues to move relentlessly forward. And yet, her reminiscences, which move against the forward flow of time, collapse chronology and position the narrator in a way her physicist father would have considered impossible.

Throughout the novella, the narrator and the people with whom she interacts attempt to make sense of her perpetual movement. As she tells it:

If I stay, I stay. If I go, I go. This thought was soothing in the beginning, but then it wasn’t anymore. In the beginning I’d just think something logical, and it would calm me down. In the beginning I’d just say ‘it’s logical’, and I’d feel perfectly fine. I moved around logically, from one new city to the next, one new bedroom to the next. And it worked the other way, too: if I stayed, I stayed because it was rational to do so. But soon my reasons grew like a bouquet. In Berlin and Heilbronn, I spent my time contemplating all the rational flowers, morning and night. I call them flowers, but I am suspicious of my own words; if I’d really had a bouquet of reasons, I would have wanted to count them and pull all their petals off. But my reasons had no petals, and no perfume.

What are these reasons with neither petals nor perfume that the narrator seeks to identify and then destroy? Several are suggested throughout the novella: the need to leave home; the desire to avoid the “rodent wheel of real life”; the inability, as Blaise Pascal would have it (in the epigraph with which the book begins), that human beings are ill-equipped to “stay quietly in their own chamber”; the narrator’s “mean spirit”, her avoidance of introspection, her compulsion to move on to the next thing and the next and the next; and the fact of our elemental make-up, “we know from our hydrogen and our oxygen that we are water as well as dust. And water runs.”

Mariana Dimópulos

In Berlin, Julia – a trauma therapist with whom the narrator lives – diagnoses her “suitcase syndrome”. In Heidelberg, the narrator marries Alexander and ‘imagined that he could be reason enough [to stay]. … Those imaginings cost me nothing. And sometimes I delighted in them secretly, like a stowaway, knowing full well they would never become a reality.” Ultimately, and in keeping with the novella’s sceptical strain, the quest for finding a reason, for making reliable sense out of the narrator’s restlessness, is itself rendered doubtful. “What is ‘solved’?” asks Benjamin in his 1928 essay, One-Way Street.

Do not all the questions of our lives, as we live, remain behind us like foliage obstructing our view? To uproot this foliage, even to thin it out, does not occur to us. We stride on, leave it behind, and from a distance it is indeed open to view, but indistinct, shadowy, and all the more enigmatically entangled.

Returned to Buenos Aires, recalling her pilgrim years, the narrator of All my Goodbyes would pluck the petals, thin the shadowy foliage of the view of her past, number and restore the pieces of her porcelain remains. But if there was a solution to the question of her perpetual movement, she’s left it behind. And because there is no way of reordering her history chronologically, the events of her life, as she has lived it, must remain puzzlingly entangled.

 

‘A good slave’ 
A young woman leaves her home and family in Buenos Aires and spends the next decade travelling across Europe. She plays at being an artist, then a tourist, but eventually becomes that cornerstone of global capital, a (female) migrant worker from the South in service to the North. Employed as a maid-of-all-work in Berlin, the narrator of All My Goodbyes tries “to wipe that sad, servile smile off [her] face … in vain”. In Heidelberg, where she is one of many Ikea shelf-stackers (confined, as her Turkish co-worker would have it, by the laws of “modern slavery”), she comes to understand that

we were Ikea shelf-stackers. We behaved like obedient planets each spinning in our own orbit, according to the gravitational laws of our boss. From kitchenware to interior decoration, from the arrangement of plates to sheets, via every imaginable prerequisite for the perfect European home.

Again, at an auto-parts factory – which was, in keeping with the experience of Southern and feminised labour, a forty kilometre bus ride from the city of Heidelberg – a Polish co-worker describes the narrator as “a good slave”, to which: “First I’m offended, then I defend myself; much later, I concede defeat.”

The emphasis throughout All My Goodbyes upon the fraught relationship between the North and the South makes this novella an apposite commencement to Sydney-based Giramondo Publishing’s new ‘Southern Latitudes’ series. According to the Publisher’s Note, this series “bring[s] together writers from the southern hemisphere”, among them Ashleigh Young (NZ) and Marcelo Cohen (who, like Dimópulos, is from Argentina).

In this novella there are numerous threads to the interrogation of the North-South dynamic. The question of labour is central to the narrative and extends beyond the hemispheric to incorporate economic migrants from the Global South – Eastern European, Turkish, Southeast Asian et cetera. Of one of her lovers, Stefan (via whom she eventually returns to Buenos Aires), the narrator reports:

He talked about how they manufactured teacups in Cambodia which sold for a pittance in Australia and Singapore. About the Australians who bought them in the supermarket, and then donate[d] twenty cents to a UNICEF campaign at the register. Didn’t I think this was magnificent? Wasn’t our world a work of art?

The persistence of colonial conceptions about – and uses of – the South also resonates throughout the book.  At a picnic in Heidelberg, the narrator encounters a man “who apparently hadn’t been informed of my origins (‘aren’t you Turkish?’) [and] was busy disparaging the politics of Latin America.” She goes on:

He’d travelled to several countries in the Americas and had confirmed for himself the backwardness of our ideas and the corruption of our institutions. … In the wake of my cultural superior’s comments, a very civilised discussion unfolded on the triumphs of liberty and reason, and although a few of them revealed, like an unstitched hem, the guilt behind their Nazi past and the misdeeds of colonialism, to which Europe still owed a great deal of its wealth and progress, the group as a whole seemed terribly satisfied with themselves and with their cordial, democratic world.

According to this logic, Europe continues to stand for freedom, reason and civilised enlightenment; the South for corruption, emotion and stunted development. The narrator sees through this. She can see the burden of Europe “weighing heavily” upon Alexander’s shoulders, the way that, when he speaks of “European traditionalism”, of freedom and social security, he uses words “that [crawl] out of his mouth like tiny insects”, and is forced to “rub his lips to prevent them from stinging him”. She sees this because she understands the true relation of freedom to slavery: “My freedom always implies the slavery of another. So, my heart asks (and at heart I’m no good): if I enslave myself, does that mean someone else is set free?”

There is, over the course of the narrator’s pilgrim years, a curious form of self-enslavement. Unlike many migrant workers from the South, she is not bound by the need to send money home. She is trained as a biologist, has a job in the family business back in Buenos Aires and, in Germany, is frequently offered the opportunity to find work at a university or in a research laboratory. Is she slumming it? This is one of the novella’s questions that remains unsolved. Certainly, the narrator is keen to assure the reader of her “mean spirit” and the narrative is stitched together by her persistent refrain that “at heart, I’m no good”. There is in her need for perpetual movement a suggestion of Benjamin’s melancholic temperament, that particular “faithlessness” that leads to “eternal voyaging”.iii Likewise, there is a suggestion of the pilgrim’s desire “to make their journey harder, recalling the origin of the word travel in travail, which means work [and] suffering”.iv

As much as she labours alongside other foreign workers, the narrator remains separate from them. At Ikea, her Turkish and Latvian co-workers subvert their enslavement via escalating acts of sabotage – they break plates, stain sheets, rip the ears from soft toys. “Many mornings,” the narrator remembers, “on my way to work, I resolved to join forces with the Turk and the Latvian, to praise their sabotage with my primordial tongue and convince them of my potential work. I tried and I could not.” Thus, the narrator is “a good slave”. She enslaves herself and finds a kind of freedom of movement in the uncertainty of migrant labour. Unlike the Turk and the Latvian, and the makers of teacups in Cambodia, the narrator is free to be in perpetual movement, in the leap between this event and the next. In Berlin, at the point of becoming “sealed and approved”, she throws her residency card into the river. “[T]hat night,” she later recalls, “was the most triumphant of all, because I had nothing in my pockets, not even my own name.” Being bad at heart, she chooses to remain undocumented at the threshold of arrival and departure.

 

‘Place exists’ 
And yet, a woman, no longer young, returns to Buenos Aires after a decade spent travelling across Europe. Her father has died, but she is unable to remain among her brothers and their families and continues to move, this time to Patagonia, to a farm near Los Golandrinas. Here she takes a job as a fruit-picker and falls in love with Marco, a man “happily tied down” to “his life on the mountain”.

In One-Way Street, Benjamin suggests that “in a love affair, most people seek an eternal homeland”, and it is in love that the narrator of All My Goodbyes believes that she has “finally found [her] place”. “The planet has stopped spinning. And I’ve stopped with it.” Love counters physics and scientific scepticism. Come to rest, the narrator comes also to believe that

my father had lied to me. The little house [on the mountain] … was irrefutable proof of this. For the first time in my life I could sit and recline without a shred of scepticism, trusting completely in the resilience of chairs and beds. Anyone could come along with their science now and refute the evidence of my nights and days. … Because love exists and the place exists.

Reality takes shape in interaction. Not, in this instance, the interaction of perpetual movement, but the interaction of the event of love. In this place, time – the past and the future – also exist. In love, Marco and the narrator “promise each other something akin to the future” and at Los Golondrinas the narrator begins to look back upon all her goodbyes. “I was there,” she says, “to swallow the bitter pill of my love for those distant people I’d left for dead, so many years ago.”

In love, come to rest at Los Golondrinas, the narrator believes that she has become “whole”, that she has a chronological past, present and future. But the world is granular. It takes shape via the perpetual movement between “all [her] crimes: all [her] goodbyes”. And, given that this is a narrative reminiscence, the narrator’s world ultimately takes shape in the violent light cast by the brutal crime that is committed at Los Golondrinas:

After all my travels, all those years lost and won and lost again; after testing a thousand times the raw stock of my being, which never seemed to cook; when at last I had found a man and I had loved him, they called me up so I could see how the story ended: the living room covered in blood from wall to wall, the ransacked house, the abandoned axe.

 

‘An eternal homeland’ 
A woman rests in an apartment in Buenos Aires. Having “lost [her] flair for the art of flight”, she finds a home in “the atomic number for silicone, … the properties of butane gas”, in which she can “relax and stretch out … as if in a great armchair”. She takes solace from copying out the periodic table, which, unlike her broken vase, gives a reliable order to the interactions between elements. And from her armchair – in her state of rest, which is also a form of movement – she remembers herself in place. She tries to find a way to restore the pieces of a puzzle about time and space and pilgrimage and slavery and freedom and love and violence. A puzzle about arrival and departure.

 

i. Carlo Rovelli (2016). Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. Trans. Simon Carnell and Erica Segre. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 
ii. Susan Sontag (1978). ‘Under the Sign of Saturn’ in Under the Sign of Saturn. New York: The Noonday Press. 
iii. Walter Benjamin (1928). ‘One-Way Street’. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. In Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (eds), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings: Volume 1, 1913-1926. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP. 
iv. Rebecca Solnit (2001). Wanderlust: A history of walking. London & New York: Verso.

 

Anna MacDonald

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna MacDonald is a writer and bookseller. She lives in Melbourne.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 21st, 2017.