Barrelhouse Reviews: The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán, trans. Sophie Hughes

Review by Katie Smith


Coffee House Press / August, 2019 / 240 pp

The Remainder begins impossibly: Our then-unnamed narrator manically recounts all of the lifeless bodies they encounter in their waking life. It’s a two-page stream-of-consciousness rant that takes up a single sentence. There are simply too many bodies to count them all up; the narrator would prefer to subtract them, count down, from the total population: 

just as I take out my pad to make a note of him, there, in the distance is that unbearable wailing, the ambulance accelerating furiously, hurrying me as I subtract him, because adding them up is a big mistake, yeah, counting up is not the answer: how can I square the number of dead and the number of graves? how will I work out how many are born and how many remain? how can I reconcile the death toll with the actual sum of the dead? by deducting, tearing apart, rending bodies, that’s it, by using this apocalyptic maths to finally, once and for all, wake up on that last day, grit my teeth, and subtract them: sixteen million three hundred and forty-one thousand nine hundred and twenty-eight, minus three thousand and something, minus the one hundred and nineteen, minus one. 

So Alia Trabucco Zerán concludes the first chapter. The titular remainder, we learn, are the living, those left over. It is a horrifying, surreal way to begin a novel. And then, in a flash, it’s October 5, 1988. The narrator, now, is a young girl (and later, we learn she is not the same narrator we met a page ago) on the night of Chile’s national referendum against 16-year dictator Augusto Pinochet. Adults nervously clink glasses and crowd hopefully around the radio as the vote count comes in, and Iquela, our narrator, steals away with a new friend named Paloma. It was in that narrative 180-degree turn that I realized: Holy shit, I’ve read this before.

That’s impossible, I know. This book just came out in English in its first pressing. But the text’s original Spanish (La Resta) was published by Demipage in 2014, and I, a restless undergraduate student studying Latin American dictators, read it (and promptly forgot about it, as with many college classes). Much like Paloma takes Iquela by the hand and drags her around the party on that first night, smoking cigarettes and throwing back forgotten cocktails, allow me to dip your toes ever so briefly into Sophie Hughes’s English translation of The Remainder, as well as its Spanish counterpart.

Both novels tell the story of Iquela, the child now grown up; Paloma; and Felipe, whose rantings about subtracting dead bodies open the book and alternate with Iquela’s chapters. (Felipe’s chapters begin at 11 and count backward; Iquela’s are marked with a set of empty parentheses.) The three are united by the shared legacy of Chile’s dictatorship: Their parents are former anti-Pinochet militants, and the years of danger, plotting, torture, and running manifest for each character in distinct, but equally horrible, ways. Paloma’s parents were exiled to Germany. Felipe’s father was betrayed by a fellow revolutionary and executed. Iquela’s father died after a long illness, leaving her mother housebound and desperate for Iquela’s attention and safety. 

If Felipe’s chapters are a continuous thought, the constant anxious musings of a tireless mathematician, then Iquela’s — full of parentheticals with other speakers’ thoughts and her own memories — are the closest we’re going to get to cogent narration. Through her, we learn that Paloma’s mother Ingrid has died in Berlin and wanted her body to be repatriated, buried in free Chile. When the plane carrying her coffin is grounded in Argentina, the three make the trip in a rented hearse to retrieve her, turning The Remainder into a dark, offbeat road novel.

Zerán’s central question, as Lina Meruane writes in the novel’s introduction, is “How can they, the young characters in The Remainder, escape the heavy political inheritance passed down by their mothers and fathers?” The remainder, then, is not just the living, but their descendants. The shadow that Pinochet casts is dark and, as the novel argues, eternal.

The gravity of this thesis is not misplaced; Pinochet levered one of Latin America’s most brutal dictatorships, sponsored by a U.S.-backed coup on September 11, 1973. (You could replace the details, and the same would be true about most regimes that have terrorized Spanish-speaking countries.) He persecuted socialists, leftists and generally all dissenters. Ultimately, Pinochet was responsible for nearly over 3,000 executions or what Chileans call “the disappeared,” along with 80,000 jailed and tens of thousands tortured

Zerán’s back-and-forth narration, often at odds with itself, mirrors the experience of our characters living under and after dictatorship. So much of the text, even in Iquela’s chapters — again, denoted as parentheticals — has been disappeared, undermined with a contradiction. As ash rains down on the city of Santiago — an apparently common problem — Felipe narrates a nighttime walk, full of anxious counting. He meets a man in the dark, and the two have a tumultuous, one-sided sexual encounter as the ash piles up and the sky begins to cave in around them. Yet Zerán writes on the next page, “(But nothing’s blazing. Nothing’s collapsing. Nothing’s burning.)” All three of our narrators, Iquela, Felipe, and the author, could be unreliable here; there’s no use placing your trust in anyone.

A particularly successful moment of narrative chaos comes when our three heroes down a vial of unnamed medicine that Paloma’s mother had needed as she was dying, and trip in a bar bathroom. In these sections, the author unloads some of the most convincing writing about psychedelics I’ve ever read: “[Paloma] came over to me, took my hand, held it up to her face, and slipped two of my fingers in her mouth. I should have felt her soft tongue, the slippery steel of the barbell buried there, but what I felt was the opposite: her fingers inside my mouth, that screw driving into my tongue,” Iquela narrates. “I floated toward that mirror...desperate to see myself, convinced that I would find myself locked inside that mirror: my taut black mane, my drowsy eyes, my sad eyes observing me from the other side of that mirror. And, despite my dread, I moved in closer still...I opened my eyes (I longed to count myself, take stock of myself, to reinvent myself). But I wasn’t there. There was nobody looking back at me.”

In both English and Spanish, Zerán’s writing is self-aware, bordering on metalinguistic at times. A native German speaker, Paloma’s curiosities and errors in Spanish make for a delightful way for the author to play with language and its intricacies: “She told me that she and Ingrid had stopped speaking German when Hans walked out. And so, slowly but surely, listening to her mother’s conversations, those phone calls she would make at odd hours, Paloma gradually began to recognize those silent s’s in Spanish, and the nouns that shrink things (‘Paloma,’ ‘Palomita’; ‘mama,’ ‘mamaita’; ‘cuestión,’ ‘cuestioncita’).” The language here refers to the Spanish suffix “-ito” or “-ita,” meaning “little” and often changing a name like Paloma into a term of endearment.

Zerán later builds on this linguistic play during Felipe’s narration: “[L]ight people tend to see the lighter things in life, and Paloma weighs less than a pack of popcorn, not for nothing did they name her Paloma.” The word for popcorn in Spanish is “palomita,” arguably also meaning “my dear little Paloma.”

Hughes’ translation is masterful, considering the challenging language and surreal scenarios that Zerán relishes deploying. Yet, a crucial difference between the two versions of The Remainder are the titles. In Spanish, La Resta (a false cognate of the English “the rest”) means the subtraction, the action of removing a part from the whole. Sure, the idea of a “remainder” is equally mathematical, calling to mind memories of second-grade long division. But a remainder is what’s left over, the stuff that’s left behind after the action, after the more important part. Subtraction is a violent act, a definitive removal. 

When the novel closes, Felipe has stolen Paloma’s mother’s body, convinced hers is the body he has been counting down to all along — but it’s not enough. He subtracts her and nothing changes; his need remains. And so, in his delusion, he concludes that he must be the next one to be subtracted, and jumps off a bridge. Zerán closes the novel with Felipe’s last thoughts: “my final sum, minus one, minus one, minus one.” I can’t help but think about the power of the Spanish title. The answer to her central question — Can we escape our inherited trauma? — is no. We all must be subtracted, too, in the end.

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer and immigration paralegal. Find her on Instagram at @realmoaningmyrtle for cat pics.