The Remainder

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The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran, and Sophie Hughes

By Alia Trabucco Zeran, and and, Sophie Hughes

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Santiago, Chile. The city is covered in ash. Three children of ex-militants are facing a past they can neither remember nor forget. Felipe sees dead bodies on every corner of the city, counting them up in an obsessive quest to square these figures with the official death toll. He is searching for the perfect zero, a life with no remainder. Iquela and Paloma, too, are searching for a way to live on. When the body of Paloma’s mother is lost in transit, the three take a hearse and a bottle of pisco up the cordillera for a road trip with a difference.Intense, intelligent, and extraordinarily sensitive to the shape and weight of words, this remarkable debut presents a new way to count the cost of a pain that stretches across generations.

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07 Jun 2019

ReaderReviews

Morag: I felt the novel had many strengths but I did not particularly enjoy it. For one reason the subject matter was so painful and there were many descriptions of violence and hurting which were difficult to read; for another, I found trying to make sense of the characters’ past lives annoying ( I wanted more information) and some of the stream of consciousness sections of the dual narrative went on a bit! However, starting with the positive I found it an extremely powerful and ambitious novel which didn’t quite realise its potential. Some of the writing was stunning and I will certainly be looking out for what Zeran writes next. The translation also seemed to me very strong and I was interested in the way first and foreign language and translation was often explored. I think it’s great that someone born post-Pinochet should take on his legacy in terms of the children of his victims, particularly those who bravely fought against him. The example of Iquela and her mother showed how negatively the past affects the present; it was not just different generations seeing things differently, but the three protagonists from the same generation, as well. While Felipe is clearly disturbed by the past with his need to label and catalogue death, counting backwards to zero, Iquela is obsessed in a different way by trying to blot it out and avoid feeling - often through giving or receiving pain. Those images of raining ash will stay with me a long time. I read somewhere ‘more sensation than narrative’ - very true. The sensation was brilliantly done if too visceral for me, but the story seemed to me not fully realised or finished. A worthy shortlisted novel but not a winner in my opinion - yet. Certainly a writer to look out for.

Susan:“The Remainder” is a difficult novel. To a reader with no experience of a murderous dictatorship it is both horrifying and incredible, due in large part to the absence of any explanatory description of the wider political context of events. On the other hand, the story is told by two young people who seem to lack political awareness.
The narrators, Iquela and the younger Felipe, are not siblings though they were raised together. They are joined by Paloma, a third young relative, who arrives in Santiago, Chile, from Berlin. She has returned with the remains of her deceased mother hoping to bury her in the country of her birth. Iquela and Felipe join her in the attempt to accomplish this constantly frustrated enterprise.
Iquela and Felipe record two clearly separate through overlapping descriptions. The separation is not only literary but physical. Those chapters narrated by Iquela are un- numbered. (labelled chapter 11) while Felipe counts bodies all over Santiago. We meet Iquela, several chapters later where family relations, including Paloma are introduced and a hint of politics intrudes with references to the growing percentages of votes counted, though with no information as to who might be elected.
Felipe’s obsession with counting is part of his attempt to subtract a number of the dead from the living; an arithmetic “remainder”. Similarly, the body which the three young people are trying to bury is a “remainder”. Finally, the ultimate fate of the three is not revealed to the reader, thus creating new remainders.

Stephen: The book was well written and well translated, and although I found it ultimately dissatisfying, I admired the author’s spirit, breaking a lot of the rules and not explaining much. These were clearly damaged characters, but the sources and mechanisms of the damage were not gone into in any detail. I enjoyed Ique’s narrative, particularly the early material and the journey to Mendoza, although I didn’t really get to grips with her as a character. I found Felipe’s narrative a bit repetitive and Felipe himself a pain in the neck. The Felipe chapters reminded me of William Burroughs in style, and Iain Banks in content- although Frank in The Wasp Factory complained that there wasn’t enough death to go round, whereas for Felipe there was too much. As I say, however, I got a bit fed up with Felipe’s company after a relatively short while. As with some other material we have read recently, I would probably have liked it better when I was younger.

The theme of the more experienced or worldly relative or friend being introduced to the child, in the form of Paloma to Ique, is a well worked one, but I thought the author brought her own angle to it quite nicely. And I liked the fact that the history, the Pinochet coup and the savagery of the subsequent repression, hovered in the background over the previous generation with no detail in the narrative.
I suppose the main reason I found it dissatisfying was that I couldn’t see what made the characters tick, even Ique, who I found the most engaging. She seemed to be terribly passive, and the only time she was active was when she made negative decisions, such as not to phone her mother, and of course not getting into the van at the end.

I don’t know what the cancer drug was that they took, but it came as a bit of news to me. The sort of drugs cancer patients get given are pretty unpleasant, and nobody would take them for recreation purposes. It may have been an opiate, but if so I think the effect is exaggerated

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