Paradises by Iosi Havilio, trans. by Beth Fowler - book review: 'Haunting tale set in the aftermath of an apocalypse'


Iosi Havilio has caused a literary storm in Argentina, and attracted recommendations from authors as distinct as Rodolfo Fogwill and Beatriz Sarlo. This third volume of a trilogy which began in 2006 with Open Door is related in the voice of an unnamed single mother forced off land on the city outskirts by developers, who moves into downtown Buenos Aires, first into a hostel then a squat, to work double shifts as a carer and a zookeeper.

Change is prompted by loss: of a brutal older husband, Jaime, father of a toddler, Simon; of homes, jobs, close companions, a stolen pet iguana. Her journey proves as labyrinthine as the reptile house inhabited by the curvaceous snakes that infect the "paradises" of the title. Paradises also refers to the little square near El Bulti, the squatted tower block, a graveyard as well as a playground.

The cast of human characters in El Bulti include Tosca, who has a grossly outsized body and a giant malignant tumour, and her encephalitic son. Herbert, Simon's older friend, is also his torturer. A gang of youths do brisk business in drugs and violence in an environment where crime and punishment are indistinguishable. Yessica and Canetti, her fellow zoo-keepers, echo the alternately laconic and aggressively predatory behaviour of their charges. And Eloisa, who first appeared in the prequel to Paradises, maintains her mission of seduction and corruption of the narrator.

She, however, has altered little since her previous appearances. In a mirror image of the earlier novels she returns from countryside to city, becoming attached to a good woman (Iris, a similarly displaced – Roumanian – character, who helps care for Simon) rather than a brutish man. Her story is related in a continuous present tense without reference to either past or future.

Life on the margins is illustrated by a game of dominos ending in two interrogation marks. The book is related in a questioning monotone, never either querulous or monotonous. "I carry on, to everyone else's rhythm: this is seemingly what I have to do." Such passivity entails high risks, but the alternative – decision, then action – appears even less attractive.

This slice of life offers no conclusive resolution. Havilio's creation is of an inverted "paradise", urban squalor a pole apart from the gardens of Paradise. It well reflects the inequalities and iniquities left by Argentina's financial collapse at the turn of this century. This is the aftermath of an apocalypse.