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Spatiality and Emotionality in Hernan Diaz’s Novel In the Distance

By Gabriel Boudali.

Hernan Diaz, In the Distance (Coffee House Press, 2017)

Social theories of space have been vastly underrepresented throughout the evolution of critical discourse. From the Enlightenment to Marx, through to Foucault, most philosophers and critics have been primarily concerned with time and history, the sequential order of events and the effects of the timeline on human development. In his landmark 1989 work, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, Edward Soja sets out the arguments for how and why the consideration of space might provide the answers to some of the dogged questions about humanity. Building on the developing field of Geography, and citing the work of his contemporaries (David Harvey, Doreen Massey, even Foucault, et al.), Soja suggests that the evolution of societies might be understood through examining the consumption and production of space, and the ways this shapes human behavior and social structure. In art, this discourse has been percolating for the past few decades, influencing stories and renderings that display the ways space affects us. Hernan Diaz’s recent novel, In The Distance, does that and more, exploring the traumatic effects of the exploitation of space.

In the Distance is a historical novel which takes place during the uniquely American period defined by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Set in the plains, deserts, mountains and canyon regions of the western United States, Diaz portrays the vastness of the landscape, while shaping the mania it can cause. Håkan, the solitary main character, is a Swedish immigrant who immediately finds himself lost after landing in San Francisco as a young adult. With the money earned from the sale of a horse he had been lucky enough to procure for free, his poor tenant father had secured passage on a ship to New York for his sons, Håkan and Linus, who “had never even seen a picture of a city.” The boys are sent to America to find a better life and earn their fortunes in the proverbial land of opportunity.

Hernan Diaz was born in Argentina but grew up in Sweden after moving there as a young child. When his family decided to move back to Buenos Aires, he felt a certain foreignness that compelled him to move to London and finally to New York City where he has lived for almost twenty years. Currently he is the managing editor of RHM, a distinguished international periodical for academic research in Spanish, and an associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University. Diaz’s background played a large role in his writing of In the Distance. In an interview with the Paris Review he says, “The experience of foreignness has determined my entire life. I wanted to re-create that feeling…I tried to make genre and even language itself feel foreign.” Diaz accomplishes this with various tricks, such as silencing his protagonist for a long section of the narrative until he learns his first few words of English.

It doesn’t take long for Håkan to experience his first trauma away from home. The two brothers board a ship from Gothenburg to Portsmouth, where they are set to transfer to another ship destined for New York. On their journey, “they spoke no English, so the name of the city they were headed for was an abstract talisman to them.” Håkan and Linus are thrust into a newly globalised world when they land in Portsmouth. They find a milieu of multi-culturalism. With stylistic flair, Diaz paints this scene with a wonderful list:

…merchants, incense, tattoos, wagons, fiddlers, steeples, sailors, sledgehammers, flags, steam, beggars, turbans, goats, mandolin, cranes, jugglers, baskets, sailmakers, billboards, harlots, smokestacks, whistles, organ, weavers, hookahs, peddlers, peppers, puppets, fistfighst, cripples, feathers, conjuror, monkeys, soldiers…

The list goes on, effectively echoing the chaos of a major 19th century European port. It is here that Håkan loses Linus. Amidst the hubbub the two brothers become separated, and in a panic, without knowing the language, Håkan hurries onto a ship he thinks is set for New York hoping he’ll find Linus there. But as the ship sets sail, his brother is nowhere to be found. As the vessel makes its way into the Atlantic, Håkan  becomes feverish with despair. The Brennans, an Irish family on board, find him and care for him. After some time Håkan is able to communicate, learning the details of their journey:

…through signs and with the aid of a small piece of lead with which Eileen [Brennan] drew a rough map of the world, Håkan understood that they were an eternity away from New York–and getting farther from it every instant. He saw they were sailing to the end of the world, to get around Cape Horn, and then head up north. That was the first time he heard the word ‘California.’

In Postmodern Geographies Soja argues, “this emerging postmodern critical human geography must continue to be built upon a radical deconstruction, a deeper exploration of those critical silences in the texts, narratives and intellectual landscapes of the past, an attempt to reinscribe and resituate the meaning and significance of space in history.” Here, Soja is laying the foundation for a Marxist Geography within social theory, and in doing so, he creates the opportunity for literary scholars to develop a spatial reading. With this project in mind, one cannot ignore the ways in which Diaz constructs In the Distance that make such a reading possible. Throughout the novel Håkan barely speaks and so embodies the “critical silence,” allowing the reader to read the composition and influence of the landscape as it takes control of the narrative.

In the novel’s prologue, set in the present, we are initially presented with the image of a mature and very different Håkan, seen emerging from a swimming hole in the frozen sea. Diaz brilliantly introduces his protagonist as one who literally issues forth from the bleak landscape of a frozen wasteland, “only then did his colossal proportions, which the blank vastness had concealed, become apparent…he was as large as he could possibly be while still remaining human.” He is a chiseled, bearded, giant man who instills fear and respect in the men who meet him. Following his polar bear swim, Håkan makes his way back to the ice-bound schooner of which he is a passenger. Some wary fellow passengers have heard the legend of The Hawk, a name given to him due to the poor understanding of his name by English speakers. At the urging of a brave few, a crowd gathers around him to hear his story while the ship waits for the warming days to break up the ice. From there the narrative turns back in time to the point when Håkan and Linus leave Sweden.

What creates the legend of the Hawk? How does Håkan transform from lost boy aboard a ship to California to fearsome legend? As the novel progresses he falls into the paths of many people, and through each encounter he learns something new. His life is dominated by the aspirations of those undertaking the rugged quest of settling the western United States. In many ways Håkan symbolizes a vessel carrying the imperial burden of new territory. Work defines him. Once they land in San Francisco, his first assignment is to haul the belongings of the Brennans. He believes that as long as he heads eastward he will find his way to New York, where ultimately he might find his brother. Håkan finds hope in his ability to move across the unknown distance.

James Brennan, however, is bent on gold. He has uprooted his family from their native Ireland in order to strike it rich in the goldfields of the territories. As the small family, which now includes Håkan, moves east, their prospects of success seem as unlikely as finding a needle in a haystack. Until one fateful day when Håkan loses grip of the wheelbarrow which holds all their belongings, and it falls down a steep descent, “tumbling and flipping on itself, and finally turning somersaults and pirouetting with surprising grace until it smashed against a boulder, shattering beyond repair.” The family is forced to camp for the night. An outraged Brennan mindlessly goes to pan a small stream nearby while Eileen pitches camp and Håkan nurses his blistered and bleeding hands. Then, “when the pan came out, he stared at it, transfixed, as if he were looking into a mirror without recognizing the face that was supposed to be his.” James Brennan has struck gold.

Time and time again, Håkan suffers trauma while others find fortune in the “blank vastness” of a territory slowly being claimed. After his experience with the Brennans, he is kidnapped and held hostage as a sex slave by a powerful land-owning woman. Then he meets and joins an evolutionary biologist intent on finding the missing link in the expansive, and deadly, salt flats. Time passes and Håkan finds himself accompanying a small wagon train, serving as the head of security until they are overrun by bandits. Thrown into a violent rage, Håkan slays the entire murderous band of attackers. It is in this event that legend of the Hawk is born. The trauma of the attack sends him into a lonely saga of avoiding humanity, trapped in the endless landscape that seems to contain him no matter how long he travels. After being alone for years he re-enters society only to find that he is a wanted man, wrongly accused of murdering the families of the wagon train he had saved.

Håkan is like the wheelbarrow he once pushed, endlessly “tumbling and flipping” and “shattering beyond repair.” However, he is often able to discover something new and worthy, some effort which keeps him alive. Along the way he encounters wonders of science and medicine, and uses those skills to help himself and others. He fine-tunes his ability to hunt and live off the land. He learns the joys of gastronomy using the herbs, plants and fowl of the wilderness from someone who becomes very dear to him, only to see that person brutally murdered. Håkan is the trauma wanderer, suffering the psychosis-inducing terror of empire-building. Everywhere he goes seems to be a site of profit-extraction. For instance, not far from the remote location where James Brennan first finds gold, there exists the small outpost of Clangdon. It is here, in a typical Western setting of lawlessness, that Håkan is held hostage. Eventually he is able to escape and flee to other distant parts of the territories. Years later, he revisits the small town, only to find it a bustling urban environment. Håkan’s story is not the typical immigration story, nor does he fit into the traditional protagonist role of the American Western novel. Diaz shows us a man exploited and tortured by the processes of capitalist enterprises in the spatial ordering of the American landscape.

Using the Borges story The Aleph to frame his discussion about Los Angeles, Soja compares the most expansive urban environment of the contemporary American west to the unexplainable location described in the classic short story:

 …we still know too little about the descriptive grammar and syntax of human geographies, the phonemes and epistemes of spatial interpretation. We are constrained by language much more than we know, as Borges so knowingly admits: what we can see in Los Angeles and in the spatiality of social life is stubbornly simultaneous…the task of comprehensive, holistic regional description may therefore be impossible…there is hope nonetheless.

Soja’s hopefulness might spring from the feeling that great literature can give us a glimpse of the unexplainable. When we think about the American West, we must think about it spatially. We must  remember not only the timeline of events: When was this battle won or lost? Who purchased this land? Where did those people go? Instead we should focus on the atmosphere of space created under the efforts of claiming dominion: How did the site of battle determine its outcome? What gives land its value? Where might people flourish? This simple readjustment of inquiry invites a deeper reading into the consequences of social progress and development.

Diaz dispels the old myth of the West. In his novel, we see that even a giant white man can be taken advantage of amidst the setting of an emerging empire. Håkan interacts with very few Indigenous people throughout the novel, which might come as a surprise, but is fitting since those voices have been destroyed from the narrative of American progress. Håkan himself rarely speaks. Not due to the language barrier, because he picks up English easily. He actively avoids interacting with others after suffering the trauma caused by the actions of those he meets, affecting his navigation through an environment made hostile by human behavior. While the landscape and terrain itself proves uninviting and dangerous, it is the company of others that proves to be the most lethal. From the moment he sets foot in the New World, Håkan is used as a tool, exploited by various people and their enterprises. Labour shapes him. Even during his periods of isolation, he can’t resist mindlessly putting himself to work, almost as a way to ignore and suppress his emotions. And this work takes on an especially disturbing quality when he begins tunneling into the earth to escape the outside world.

In this novel, Diaz deftly creates the postmodern landscape, one filled with sites of profit-extraction and knowledge-digging. The main character experiences the mania of empire-building and is traumatized over and over again until he almost breaks. Like Borges, Diaz is unafraid to use formal tricks to express this. Towards the end of the novel, a certain passage is repeated several times to showcase the tedium of Håkan’s labors:

…Seasons went by and returned, and Håkan’s occupations never changed. A roof could leak less. Traps had to be set. A gutter overflowed. Tiles had slid out of place. An abandoned ditch had to be filled. The coat had to be mended. A trench had fallen into disrepair. Firewood had to be gathered. An extension to an old passageway was necessary. Drinking water was needed. A new tool had to be made. Some meat had to be jerked before it spoiled. Cobblestones had come loose. A leather flue was too decayed. More glue had to be boiled down. Before one of these tasks had been completed, the next one demanded his attention, so that at all times he was engaged in one of these chores, which, together, over time, formed a circle, or, rather, some sort of pattern that, though invisible to him, repeated itself, he was sure, at regular intervals…he did not even eat at regular hours. In fact, his diet had been reduced to the absolute, life-sustaining minimum.

This passage,which recurs three times within several pages, also exhibits some of the haunting, halting prose that Diaz uses to evoke the monotony and tortured emotionality of his protagonist. Håkan symbolizes the repetitive mechanics of a machine, a man divorced from any sense of fellow-feeling for humanity. He exists in survival mode.

In The Aleph, the narrator, who is identified as Borges himself, lists some mythical examples of mirrors throughout the history of literature, and determines that the Aleph he experienced in the Buenos Aires cellar is a false one, describing what he saw as an example of one of those “mere optical instruments.” With In the Distance, Diaz presents us with one of those optical instruments through which the reader might see a totalizing view of the settling of the American West. It is a dark and haunting landscape. Diaz wonderfully distills the sweeping clichés of the era and region into the heart and soul of a single man, showing the violence and chaos of the imperialist age. Håkan’s emotionality is mirrored by the social production of space. As much as it was true in the nineteenth century, it’s still true today. Human behavior can be defined not by the moment in time, but its point in space. By engaging spatial literacy, spatial readings of works can be explored. It is unwise to ignore the environment which contains us. We might experience the quest and thirst for understanding, but we must recall those visions of oases in the distance.


Gabriel Boudali is a writer living in Richmond, VA.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 5th, 2018.