Paola Kaufmann was a biologist by profession and a novelist by choice. She would write in the early dawn, after returning from a night at the lab, crafting her enigmatic stories with an immaculate precision. In an interview given shortly before her death last year at the age of 37, the Argentinian writer said that: "True ideas are those that arrive unaccompanied... If something turns up that one really has to do, the idea always comes back. The ephemeral isn't worth the trouble, it's just a dead-end street."
Kaufmann seems intent on applying the scientific method to her own creative process, just as her protagonist in The Lake, Ana, tells how she applies the same method to all her affairs. If this rather empirical approach gives the impression that her writing might be drily analytic, then the reader is in for a pleasant surprise.
The novel winner of the Planeta Prize in Spain begins with the account of an expedition in 1922 to attempt the capture of a Patagonian monster, a half-mythic or even conjectural sort of creature that allegedly inhabits the lake of the title.
The monster, it seems, means different things to different people, and the obsession with its capture, in the flesh or on film, is complicated by the its elusive nature. The lake is on territory staked out by the German Viktor Mullin, a grizzled, pathological loner.
The expedition fails to find its monster, as the organisers know it must, but the quest is taken up more than half a century later by Ana, Viktor's daughter. In this remote, haunted landscape, she shares the interminable solitude of the far south with Lanz and Ilse, Hungarian refugees from Nazi Europe.
Lanz suffers from Korsakov's Syndrome, and his memory is not what it was; or rather, his memory is fixed precisely on what once was. He relives selected sequences of his past interminably, and for much of the time they represent his only reality. Scenes from the Holocaust and a forced march over central Europe become assimilated in his vision with the sights that he witnesses on and around the lake.
Through Lanz's delirium, through Ana's delicately fragmented reconstruction of her own odyssey, and in the story's insistence on uncovering monsters of all varieties, we are confronted both with our own forgetting, and the parallel, terrifying need to remember.
When Ana and Lanz witness a body being thrown from a moving car, the novel shifts to a more urgent, inquiring tone. A little later, while on her climactic trip to Buenos Aires, Ana's coach is stopped and searched by an army patrol, heralding in the new junta.
Throughout, the novel contains fine evocations of these windswept and remote surroundings, and their melancholic place names. Kaufmann also displays a subtle expressionism. When, for example, Ana is told of her father's leukaemia, she has to hold back her laughter, as though such a simplistic diagnosis could account for the real cause of Viktor's sickness which was germinated, as she believes, "by the loneliness he felt when the monster disappeared". Kaufmann has left us a gleaming, eerie, moving book that charts the sediment of memory as surely as the monster in the lake ploughs the silt in its sunless home.
Richard Gwyn's latest novel, 'Deep Hanging Out', is published by Snowbooks
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