Grief and Stasis: Review of “August”

by Jaclyn Kershaw

August, by Romina Paula and translated by Jennifer Croft, might be difficult to read for downloadsome: it is a stream of conscious style of writing wherein the protagonist, who suffers from anxiety and depression, herself has trouble distinguishing what is actually going on and what is only going on in her head. However, the words themselves do not add to this possible difficulty; rather, they fit perfectly in the setting of Emilia in her stage of life.

Our protagonist, Emilia, spends the book  talking to her best friend, Andrea, almost like she is writing in a diary or a letter. Andrea, however, committed suicide 5 years ago; Emilia left her home town soon after that.  This book is the story of her difficult return. Seeing her family and childhood friends after all this time is surreal to Emilia, and she writes—or thinks—everything she feels. It is hard for her to grasp how it seems that everyone has moved on but her (her father has a new family with her stepmother; her former flame has a family of his own; etc.). She admits to feeling ‘in-between’ the dream world and real life, stuck in a stasis:

“… all this silence, brings you back, materializes your presence, or your absence, or the fact that you’re not here or your never going to be here again, so clear, so definitive. Then I think about the afternoons at the Percy or here in your room or in the living/dining and I kind of waver, I get weak. I realize, I think I realize that I want to leave, but I also know I want to take you with me, and it’s impossible because you’re here, very here, I just now fully understood that. From there, from Buenos Aires, I can miss you very contemplatively, look at you, at us, as though through a glass in a shop window, our common/shared past, behind glass, get into a funk about it but at a safe remove, removed by that window pane. There, on the shelf, there’s a weak light that calms things down even further, and it gives it a halo of unreality, or something that happened far away and a long time ago, something one can step back from to observe, observe from afar, something one attends, as though it were something else, far away, removed from the body. But here it isn’t like that, I get here and you’re everywhere.” (101-102)

Instances like this occur throughout the book; sometimes she realizes she isn’t moving on and sometimes she just insinuates it:

“I hang up and realize I’m in the same place as before, that I have completely failed to move forward, that I have not evolved. That for God’s sake someone please tell me what I need to do.” (95)

She doesn’t find solace in other relationships either, instead labeling them as “necessary outgrowths”.

“I feel like I already miss him, which happens with those relationships where you see the other person so much they become a necessary outgrowth, which is the thing about them that’s not good … is he the person I choose, would I choose him now, from scratch? Could I in fact now choose not to choose him? Did I choose him, did I choose all this at some stage?” (14-15)

The death of her best friend Andrea sets the stage for death to be ever-present in Emilia’s life afterward. Not that it wasn’t already — it is more that Emilia is more aware of all the types of death around her. She seems to be obsessed with death and imprints this obsession onto everything. Mice in her apartment, the weather, and ‘normal’ daily interactions all have connotations of death to her:

“I can see them multiply before my very eyes, there are more of them each second, forcing me to think about the rodent, about our rodent. IS there just one of them or are there more of them? Maybe it’s a family. Making themselves at home, I mean making their home our pantry. I’m resigned, I want to leave the mouse the house, I don’t want to kill it, I don’t want to poison it; if it winds up dying in the kitchen I’ll still want to leave. It’s so revolting, it’s done now, the havoc has been wreaked; the mouse is there, we’ve seen each other now, we’ve looked each other in the eyes, now I can neither kill it nor have it killed, even less so live with it. So I surrender the kitchen.” (7-8)

Emilia’s mind almost hasn’t grown since the death of Andrea. She can’t move forward in her grief or her life, and it is exemplified in almost every interaction she has with other people or things. Emilia often comments how specific people or things are ‘exactly like himself/herself/itself’, as though nothing and no one ever changes. She has these memories of people and things and expects them to be exactly like that. She notices changes, but the past is superimposed over every chance of progress into the future.  Simply put, she doesn’t understand that things have changed, that they could change, because she can’t move on.

The story reminds me of an Oscar Wilde quote from The Picture of Dorian Gray: “… nothing cures the soul but the senses, just like nothing cures the senses but the soul.” I say this because the paragraphs seemed to oscillate between her describing social interactions or her describing what her senses were telling her, and the symbiotic but absent relationship between the two sends her into a loop of madness. Her stasis prevented her social interactions from helping ground her, thus her senses were overwhelmed and you could almost see her mind spinning as it tries to find purchase in her environment.

The wonderful translator Jennifer Croft gives us the ability to read this insightful story in English.  Thanks to her, the story reads smoothly and seamlessly, allowing the reader to perceive the world as Emilia does. Croft introduces just enough foreignization to remind the reader that it happened in another country, but Emilia’s voice comes through so strongly it could be any small town in the world. Emilia’s suffering is not limited to the Spanish world; her loose grip of reality following the death of a friend, the paralysis of grief, is an ultimately universal experience.

August is an engaging, thought-provoking story of how one young woman copes, or doesn’t cope, with loss and grief, and how it forever alters her perception of the world. Emilia gives us an inside view of what many people go through in their lives and how we can better understand and help those that go through this kind of tragedy.

20170503_083128Jaclyn Kershaw is a blog contributor for the ALTA. She earned two Bachelor’s, one in Biology and one in Spanish, at Arcadia University, and is currently earning her MS in
Translation at New York University. Her dream is to be a literary translator and translate books and video games. She lives in Philadelphia, and you can usually find her buried in a book somewhere outside.

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