Ana María del Río: Carmen’s Rust
It’s thanks to a slurry of comments on Chilean literature in my review of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, that I come to Ana María del Río’s Carmen’s Rust (1986). The main recommendation was to read Diamela Eltit’s Sacred Cow, who, incidentally, provides an afterword to this slim volume, but nico’s comment that del Río was also “an important writer”, in light of Chile’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, piqued my interest.
In reading Carmen’s Rust, I was reminded of my experience reading Ismail Kadare’s Agamemnon’s Daugher, where much passed me by due to a lack of knowledge of the subject. Reading up on Enver Hoxha’s Albania solidified my appreciation of the book, so having read this novel once, it seemed right that I understand the subtexts, and return ready to spot the allusions to the Pinochet era. Where Agamemnon’s Daughter was quite explicit, Carmen’s Rust takes a more allegorical approach, namely Pinochet in a dress.
The novel distances itself from its contemporary regime, uncomfortably setting itself in the 1950s, during another dictatorship, represented by the confines of a huge house with seemingly endless rooms, and other nooks and crannies. At the beginning, the narrator’s Aunt Malva, having been abandoned by her husband, comes to live in the upstairs of the Grandmother’s house, where the matriarchs rule supreme and the great room is often opened for “celebrations that abounded with turkeys, truffles, wine, and senators.”
It took her a week to move in. We watched as she penetrated the house like a fateful tempest of black trunks and brown paper packages tied up with strong rope – ropes that were like invisible nooses being slipped over our little heads.
Others living in the house include Carlitos, Malva’s son, nicknamed President of the Republic; the eponymous Carmen, the narrator’s half-sister – same father, different mothers -; and Meche, the maid with a dictatorial streak not unlike her mistress’. That only covers those given, to some degree, free reign to move around as, in order to save face, this bourgeoisie household hides a few secrets of its own. Tucked away in a back room is Carmen’s mother, a woman of lower social standing, stolen away and “cloistered for life”. In another room is Uncle Ascanio – “that stupid dimwit, as Aunt Malva would say” – who has never worked, probably because he’s been mentally worn down to the point of lobotomy:
Uncle Ascanio lived in what he and Grandmother called his Bird Store. In reality, his room had all the trapping, as well as the smells, of a primitive henhouse. Apparently Uncle Ascanio began by collecting baby chicks in his room – future egg-layers – with the intention of raising them to lay eggs for sale. He was never able to convince them though; and later, his mother, never one to give up, and praying upon the family’s coat-of-arms, brought him eggs arranged in a multitude of purple cartons. But the capital quickly turned rancid because Uncle Ascanio never sold anything. He just filed his nails endlessly, staring straight ahead, mesmerized by everything, as though an invisible door were about to open.
The main focus of the novel is the days when the narrator and Carmen became dissidents within the house. While the matriarchs would oversee their activities and try to control them in every way, to ensure their way of life continues as it always has been. Where there are cracks, these are papered over with fixes, but the rebellious nature of the young ones ultimately reveals them once more. Piano lessons, for example, by the best teacher in the region see the teacher seduced by the Carmen’s burgeoning sexuality, “his ceremonious kisses deposited in deep cavities – kisses that lasted longer than the silence of a domestic servant.”
Carmen’s attentions also extend to her half-brother, a relationship which blossoms through the novel, with repeated attempts to stamp it out from the powers that be.
To spice up our lives a little in that huge house, a few games would be left sitting on top of Grandmother’s green tablecloth just after lunch, although by that time we were already making overtures under the table – rolling up napkins and playing footsie.
The problem faced when living in such an atmosphere is the danger of being watched. Here, in the Grandmother’s house, eyes are everywhere and careless actions eventually lead to unjust punishments. The shock of the novel is the utter hopelessness of whichever path one takes through such rule. Where Carmen fails to be shaped and controlled by the regime, the narrator all too readily submits, leaving neither with a happy ending.
What’s good about Carmen’s Rust is how little the author has to offer to get her story across. Small details reveal larger implications and what goes unsaid tends to give away more than anything that can be said. The cover of the book, in declaring this economy, also makes note of the “searing humour”, which failed to materialise, although such humour is no doubt reserved for those better able to recognise the brutal absurdity of the novel’s situations.
In his heart, the narrator carries the memories of Carmen, a source of delight in bringing back those days, but also a painful reminder that he is no longer with her. (“She was my love, my only love, my ever-deepening, hellish sadness. She was everything to me.”). The psychological cost of having loved and lost remains with him, and in never letting her memory die out, he opens it up, airs it – to remember once more, to let it rust.
January 18, 2009