Embedded Queerness: A Review of Alia Trabucco Zerán’s ‘The Remainder’

Santiago is sweltering and it’s raining ash when Felipe, Iquela, and Paloma set off through the cordillera in a borrowed hearse. Their parents were all friends back in the ‘70s, comrades in the resistance movement against Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship, but only Paloma’s family made it out of Chile, fleeing into exile in Berlin. Now Paloma is back to bury her mother in her homeland, but there’s just one problem, the ash has caused country-wide chaos and the corpse is lost in transit. The Remainder, written by Alia Trabucco Zerán and translated by Sophie Hughes (Coffee House Press), follows this eccentric trio living in the aftermath of their parents’ tragedies, setting out on a journey that they hope—each in their own way—will set them free.

Felipe, whose father was disappeared by the military junta when he was still a baby, spends most of his time wandering Santiago compulsively counting the dead, obsessed with reconciling a loss that has come to define him. Everywhere he turns there are new corpses to account for and in his frenzy to subtract each death from the likes of the living, he gets lost in the treacherous landscape of his own mind; a place where time collapses in on itself in raving run-on sentences.

Iquela counts too. The eight blocks to her mother’s house. The “exactly forty four reliable steps” up to the door of her apartment. She even tallies the discarded artichoke leaves, wine glasses, and nonexistent child at the dining table where her ex-revolutionary mother tells a story she knows by heart, urging her to listen carefully. “One day you’ll be telling your children all my stories and you won’t have the first idea,” her mother insists. “Because these are the stories they’ll want to hear, Iquela. My stories.”

Paloma is the odd one out. Self-assured and unsentimental, she’s a chain-smoking food photographer who travels often and doesn’t appear to be trapped by the pain of her parents’ generation. On the one hand, Iquela is turned on by how free Paloma seems, fantasizing about an escape of her own. On the other, she resents Paloma’s ability to come and go, to regard Santiago and even her mother’s stories of the resistance days with a vague curiosity while she is stuck living amongst the rubble of an old disaster. When they’re gathered at Iquela’s mother’s house for a meal, Iquela notices Paloma looking at a black-and-white photo that’s been hanging on the wall for as long as she can remember. It’s a shot of the day when their parents first met.

Maybe Paloma would decide to capture that old photo with her vintage camera, choose a frame, get it into focus, and capture it (and I would be left with the remains, with everything around the image). 

Iquela is a translator, so naturally, she spends a lot of time thinking about language. So much time, in fact, that she wonders if life is best measured by a finite number of words rather than years. It’s fitting, then, that when Paloma shows up in Santiago for the first time in decades, Iquela quickly notices the holes in her Spanish, analyzing her word choices and the slight lisp revealed by her S’s.

Chilean Spanish is its own language, so packed with peculiar idioms and an infamously slack jawed lack of enunciation, it’s easy to spot an outsider. I’m Chilean American and visit Chile often, but my Spanish has been irrevocably shaped by the diaspora I live in. Even though other Latinos mark the shape of my speech as distinctively Chilean—the silent “s” at the end of my gracias, the extra long “aaa” in my claro—native born Chilenos know better, easily picking out inconsistencies or pointing out my failure to master the ever-evolving slang. Angsty immigrant’s kid that I am, for years I considered this a personal failure,  but now I understand that it has nothing to do with how well I communicate and everything to do with the fact that, embedded in my speech, are sign-posts that I’m from Elsewhere. Forced insularity is one of the consequences of dictatorship, and like Paloma, when I open my mouth, I reveal that I have not had to live inside its vacuum, have not had to carry the same grief or suffer the same narrowing of my world.

So it isn’t just Paloma’s imperfect Spanish that makes her such a source of fascination for Iquela and Felipe, who later take to quizzing her in their apartment’s living room, but more so her very essence as a foreigner, the way the out-of-date expressions and slang terms she learned from her exiled mother form a vocabulary frozen in time. In this sense, translator Sophie Hughes masters a uniquely difficult feat in the translation of The Remainder. She captures not only the distinctly Chilean rhythm of the characters’ speech, but also the cultural lexicon embedded in it, the layers of meaning inside the novel’s fascination with words.

In a panel discussion at the FLAWA festival in London this past May, Trabucco Zerán commented that writing about trauma is tricky because it is rarely a straightforward task. Rather, it must capture that “strange tension between being unable to remember and unable to forget.” This is precisely the limbo Iquela and Felipe find themselves in. As kids, a morbid fascination infused their playtime. They poked each other in the eyes, cut off circulation in their fingertips, even got into full-blown fist fights. But the violence, though cringe-worthy, wasn’t completely random. Simply put, the friends were haunted and acting out of a deep longing to feel a pain that belonged uniquely to them, rather than continuing to nurse the wounds of a tragedy they had not directly lived. As adults, the pair are anxious and stuck, leaning heavily on the routines they have always used to cope and struggling to imagine a world outside their own.

Although the 1973 military coup that ousted Salvador Allende’s socialist government and the long period of death and disappearances that followed it are not rendered in any kind of detailed exposition in the novel, the legacy of the dictatorship is ever-present in the characters’ lives, hanging over them like a storm cloud. All around them are echoes of the past: in the muggy dark of Iquela’s mother’s house, where the stubborn vinegary smell of death is trapped in the guest room and in the worn stories she tells again and again; in the borrowed hearse—a 1979 clunker conspicuously nicknamed “The General”—that the trio drives across the border with Argentina; even in the outdated map Paloma attempts to navigate them through the cordillera with, a relic outlining a Santiago geography that no longer exists.

The Remainder is a queer coming-of-age story, a novel that not only deals with the simple fact of sexual desire between Iquela and Paloma or between Felipe and several strangers, but, more broadly, centers itself around the acts of noticing that are embedded in queerness. The protagonists consistently pick up on a stream of hidden cues and codes that others miss, revealing to the reader, a rich underlayer of the unsaid. And this is precisely where the heart of the novel lives, not in its plot, but in its keen sense for the thing behind the thing, its grounding in a realm governed more by intuition than intellect.

Trabucco Zerán also queers the conventional through her craft choices. Splitting the narration between Felipe and Iquela’s points of view keeps us constantly straddling different planes. Felipe is ghost-like, occupying his own private mental dimension and picking up on what everyone around him (including Iquela) fails to see. The chapters he narrates begin at eleven and wind down to zero, mirroring his quest to settle death’s debt. With each chapter, his narrations grow ever more frenzied and unrestrained, muddying the reader’s sense of reality. Iquela’s chapters, rather than numbered, are each marked by empty parentheses as though to indicate an aside or afterthought. Her narration includes many confessional parentheticals, which reveal the rawest, most honest parts of Iquela’s mind.

Both structurally and thematically, the novel leans into contradiction and uncertainty. “That night it rained ash,” Iquela recalls about the night she and Paloma first met as kids, the night of the historic 1989 plebiscite that would decide the end of the seventeen-year-long dictatorship. “Or perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps the gray is just the backdrop of my memory and the rain I recall was, quite simply, rain.” Infusing the story with doubt, dissolving the binary between past or present, and real or imagined, Trabucco Zerán urges readers to value subtext just as much as the “official” narrative.

The dictatorship has been over for almost thirty years now but the damage it caused is embedded deep within the Chilean psyche. The violent military repression that President Piñera has unleashed on protestors has been a sinister déjà vu for those who lived under Pinochet and a wake up call for the many who’d retreated into a self-protective numbness amidst sweeping privatization of public services like transportation and healthcare and growing inequality. “La alegría nunca llegó” (The joy never came) laments one of the slogans of the movement now calling for a new constitution; a reference to the promise of future happiness made by the campaign to remove Pinochet from power in 1989. In short, what we’re seeing in Chile right now is not new, but an echo of an old discontent that has long been stifled by fear. Trabucco Zeran exquisitely captures that echo in The Remainder, revealing the history that lives in our bodies in a smart, vivid, and richly layered story.


Claire Calderón

Claire Calderón is an Oakland-based writer and curator at work on her first novel. The recipient of fellowships from Hedgebrook, VONA, Tin House, and The San Francisco Writers Grotto, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. Claire is the co-producer of the New American Story Project and manager of The Ruby, a collective and gathering space for women and non-binary artists in San Francisco.

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