mon 29/11/2021

Selva Almada: Brickmakers review – men dying for love | reviews, news & interviews

Selva Almada: Brickmakers review – men dying for love

Selva Almada: Brickmakers review – men dying for love

A mesmeric revenger's tragedy from hardscrabble Argentina

Vendettas in the dust: Selva Almada

To make bricks you torment the soft, moist and fluid material of clay and sand in a prison of fire until it becomes dry, hard and unyielding. In Selva Almada’s rural Argentina, that’s also how you make – and break – men.

Brickmakers is the third of her books translated as part of the expertly-curated series of contemporary Latin American literature published by the Edinburgh-based Charco Press. Its predecessor, Dead Girls, took the form of a non-fiction novel that investigated the killing of a trio of young women in provincial Argentina in the 1980s. Those three, all-too-typical, cases represented the casual violence inflicted, and tolerated, by a society that treats female lives as inferior and those of the poorest women as most worthless of all.

Brickmakers works in a rather different way. Over its 200 relentless, galloping pages, the novel traces two generations of a family vendetta in the heat-strafed badlands of northern Argentina. First we see its outcome, in the bleeding bodies of two mortally-wounded young men who lie underneath a Ferris wheel at a travelling fair. Classic Argentinian literature began, back in the 1870s, with the feuding gauchos of José Hernández’s epic poem Martín Fierro, a work that obsessed none other than Jorge-Luis Borges. Almada nods to that cowboy tradition – the Wild West’s counterpart in the Southern Cone – even as she upends and dissects it. This succinct and pulsating revengers’ tragedy (which the publishers compare to William Faulkner) shows the masculine flip-side to Dead Girls. Almada doesn’t need to use words like patriarchy, machismo or homophobia. Here, ideas crystallise into pure, hard-driving narrative that leaves no space for editorialising; the cop who collects the kids’ corpses merely mutters “What a fucking waste”. Yet the stark, swift prose of Brickmakers – beautifully translated again by Annie McDermott – depicts poor men conditioned to take out their rage on women, children, animals, and on one another. They father sons raised and goaded to repeat the same fatal cycle of misdirected wrath. Not for nothing does that big fairground wheel, which promises the thrill of escape but merely goes round in futile circles, loom over the final carnage. 

As in Dead Girls, minor distinctions and gradations within a broad landscape of oppression may make a huge difference. We begin with the two youngsters, Pájaro and Marciano, as their life-blood trickles out into the dust at dawn among the stalls. Flashbacks, adroitly managed, follow that moment back to its origins over the preceding months, years and decades. Pájaro’s father Oscar Tamai, with his “indio eyes”, sombrero and gunslinger’s cowboy boots, is a volatile, charismatic drifter. He takes over a brick kiln to lift himself up in the world when he marries the bar-keeper’s daughter, Celina. Elvio Miranda, Marciano’s dad, has inherited his brickworks but, “a gambler, a charmer, and a slacker”, struggles to run the family business after he weds the carnival-queen Estela. Piqued by needling disparities of class and race (to the local police, Tamai will always be a “no-good indio”), the feud between the kiln-minding neighbours escalates. Ominously, its first victim is a prized greyhound puppy. On Almada’s terrain, the suffering of animals heralds the evil men will do to one another. 

Both dying sons experience ghostly visits from their fathers; episodes which add an eerie Gothic tinge to the terse, brisk flow of Almada’s prose. In one crisply etched, cinematically precise scene after another, we see how each boy grows into “a chip off the old block” as elements of their humanity burn away in the brick-kiln of barrio masculinity. At school, Pájaro and Marciano initially bond, and buck their legacy of rivalry. Pájaro saves his hatred for his moodily cruel father, always ready with a lashing belt, and hopes that “one day his body will be big enough for the fury he’s lived with all his life”. But grudges and suspicions poison their friendship; they relapse into being “irreconcilable enemies”. Miranda senior is mysteriously murdered – first shot, he then has his throat sliced “like a dog” – though not, we understand, by Tamai. As for Tamai himself, he reverts to his vagabond ways and vanishes from his wife and son’s life. More abandonment; more rage. Teenage gang loyalty – with its competition for status, wheels, gadgets, girls – drives the kids further apart. They spar too over sexual conquests (both “liked the married milf type”) but Marciano hits the brick wall of class when he falls for the posh, and Protestant, Yani.

The fuse that ignites their showdown is not lit, at least directly, by the slow burn of the fathers’ mutual hatred. It starts to fizz when, against every article of the macho code, Pájaro finds himself attracted to Marciano’s younger brother, Ángel. In literature, and indeed life, tough-guy cultures have thrown a queer shadow ever since Homer’s Greece. Almada lets Marciano’s desire emerge fitfully, obliquely, via the pretexts that sex with Ángel was either just a drunken one-off or else meant “getting revenge” on Marciano. Eventually, though, something like romance does blossom. Together on a motorbike, as Pájaro senses “The hot wind in his face, the asphalt shining in the clear night”, he and Ángel at last feel – in this novel peopled by the trapped, the dominated – like “masters of their destiny”.

Can you unmake a sun-hardened brick? In Almada’s parched towns, destiny arrives with the same remorseless tread you find in peasant tragedies of honour and vengeance from an earlier age. The closing fight begins with an evocation of the half-hidden eroticism that has always lain behind Pájaro and Marciano’s tussles, from childhood scraps until “One day they each came face-to-face with a man”. Now knives glint in their hands, soft flesh yields to hard steel, and the Ferris wheel of fate swings around again. In other hands, this archaic catastrophe might sound corny or portentous. But such is Almada’s command of shape and pace, and the clean-edged vigour of the style McDermott voices with such skill, that we take Brickmakers on its own uncompromising terms – as pulp, tragedy and epic all at once. In this scorched soil, death grows where men’s love – for themselves, their women, their children, for each other – never can.

  • Brickmakers by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott (Charco Press, £9.99)
In literature, and indeed life, tough-guy cultures have thrown a queer shadow ever since Homer’s Greece

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