:: Article

Fading in and out at the end of life

By Maks Sipowicz.


Bruno Lloret, Nancy (Giramondo, 2020)

When we’re dying, our lives flash before our eyes, the cliché goes. If so, Chilean author Bruno Lloret’s début novel, Nancy, is a book about dying. It begins as it ends, with the protagonist on her deathbed—alone after her husband’s death in an accident on a deep-sea trawler, left with only her neighbour for company. Nancy reminisces about how she got to this point.

However, Nancy is not that easy to define. It is, indeed, a book about dying, but it is also a book about memory. Beyond the obvious observation that the vast majority of the novel is taken up with one woman’s account of her life, the narrative is fragmented and incomplete in the way our memories are. Nancy is an unreliable narrator, jumping across time, creating confusion around the time frame of the story. Lloret highlights this disorientation with the inventive use of crosses as a form of punctuation. They function as the blurred-out sections of memories. Sometimes they appear individually, to mark the end of a thought. Other times they take up entire paragraphs. In the end, as readers we are left to fill in the gaps ourselves. The story fades in, as it were, with a parenthesis of crosses, and it fades out in the same fashion, as if it were transmitted on a radio that we have to tune into. Sometimes, they also serve to highlight Nancy’s pain and disillusionment with life:

x I thought: no motherfucker should have to die alone like this x x x

If only the world had ended in 2012 like everyone said it would, that would have been perfect x x x x x x x x x x I was twelve that year – I had Pato, and my mama wasn’t so crazy, or at least I felt I could handle her x x x x x  And now? What have you got left, Nancy?  x x x x x x Hope? x x x x x

In an author’s note accompanying my review copy, Lloret comments that he “wanted a spoken, fluent, intermittent transcription of [Nancy’s] voice.” Indeed we are subjected to a blurring of the boundary between the written and spoken word. Nancy narrates her life to us as she remembers it. There are gaps in her recollections, and they are often fraught with the emotional baggage that comes with living. Lloret, in granting Nancy a voice as she nears the end of her days, paints a painful and irresistible portrait of a life.

But if this is the story of a life, told through memories, then what kind of life does Nancy have?

It is one punctuated with violence. Nancy and her brother, Pato, grow up in a household with a physically abusive mother and an emotionally absent and unavailable father.  When they are young, the only solace the two find is in each other, “shooting each other terrified glances, anticipating a smack round the head,” then going outside and suffering together. However, when, Pato leaves the home under opaque circumstances, disappearing from Nancy’s life completely, the illusion of security she held is shattered.

Lloret illustrates the cycle of family violence through the breakdown of Nancy’s family. Her violent mother becomes the victim of violence at the hands of a lover, something Nancy experiences as well. Her father, in turn, is emotionally withdrawn, and through his detachment he abets the violence. Incapable of maintaining a relationship with his daughter, he turns to God to the exclusion of everything else. With all her supports gone, Nancy retreats into herself.

Her life will be marked by relationships with men who are absent in one way or another, a pattern that extends to her romantic relationships with Jesulé, the local man to whom she loses her virginity, and Tim, the gringo she marries. But each of these men also mark an important transition for Nancy. Jesulé is the object of her childhood fantasies, and she uses him as much as he uses her. Through him, she is able to experience a life outside of the confines of her family home, and as such he brings her into adulthood—not through their sexual encounters, but by literally helping her get out of her father’s house. Tim, on the other hand, is a violent and brutal man, however, with him Nancy is able to complete her escape, first by living Chile for Ecuador, and then coming back, though never returning to her home town. Nancy describes their story briefly:

x x x x Judging by his looks, I reckon Tim couldn’t have been more than thirty-five at the time. I was seventeen x x x x x I said yes then and there and we went to live in Guayaquil, until one day we realized, out walking in a tropical rainstorm, that we didn’t belong there but in Chile x x x We decided to move back and settle in this disgusting port town, where rum and Teletrak betting took my husband from me x

The end of their relationship with his death also marks the beginning of the end of Nancy’s life, which in turn serves as our introduction to it.

Despite the unrelenting brutality of Nancy’s life-story, there is peace to be found in it as well. Throughout she is sustained by a hope that things might improve in one way or another, the kind of hope that makes life bearable, but death tragic. As she admits near the beginning of the novel (that is, at the end of her life): “Knowing you’re going to die is horrible not just because you don’t want to die, but also because there’s always some residual surviving doubt. It survived in me alright, a fledgling hope, hiding behind the eyes.”

Nancy never stops wishing for a number of things in her life, even if none of them ever offer the kind of steady improvement that would see her into an easier reality. She refuses to lose faith that she might find her brother, or to give up on her relationship to her father who seems to constantly vacillate between holiness and alcohol, work and desperate unemployment, or even just emotional presence and absence. The lack of stability is, perhaps, the only constant in Nancy’s life.

Another reviewer remarked that this book’s brevity is a relief, stopping just before it can overwhelm the reader’s capacity to endure a world where despair is so endemic and ordinary. Indeed, in a sense it is a relief—the brevity seeming to suggest that there isn’t much left of Nancy’s suffering. However, this is not a small book. Lloret succeeds in creating a world that is alive and complete, inhabited by characters whose lives are so possible that they feel real. The incompleteness, mirroring the incompleteness of Nancy’s memories, underlines this further. In the real world we have to navigate equally between uncertainty and fear.

Nancy is a work of great emotional and intellectual maturity. It is surprising that it is a debut novel. With it, Bruno Lloret announces himself as a writer who is unafraid to explore life at the margins of society, but who is sensitive to the complexity of his subject. The stark, brutal simplicity of the prose, rendered in translation by Ellen Jones, highlights the brutality of the world created on these pages. The words acquire a feverish urgency, as if to underscore Nancy’s situation, and to help us to quickly become immersed in the story.  This book is the latest in Australian publisher Giramondo’s Southern Latitudes series which aims to bring to our attention the complex and rich literary traditions of the global South. Nancy not only continues the series’ project of introducing original and vital works to an English reading audience, but highlights how much we stand to gain by giving them our attention.

Maks Sipowicz
is a writer and academic living in Melbourne, Australia. His writing has appeared in Ink, Sweat, and Tears, Australian Book Review, Colloquy, and Parergon, among others. He blogs at Philosophy After Dark and tweets @callmesipo.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 21st, 2020.