Dorothy Poulopoulos reviews All My Goodbyes by Mariana Dimόpulos

Mariana Dimόpulos, All My Goodbyes. Translated by Alice Whitmore. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2017. ISBN: 9781925336412

 

Dorothy Poulopoulos

 

Argentinian-born author, Mariana Dimόpulos has created a riveting story about identity, life’s journey and our relationship to others, places within and outside of ourselves, and she tells it poetically and laconically in All My Goodbyes (Cada Despedida). The beauty of the language and the brevity make for an in intense and fast-paced novella. The heroine is both ancient and contemporary as she engages in introspection and self-analysis in her quest to get to know thyself (Socrates) and ‘trawls the web’ for a place to stay as quickly as one can say ‘google it’.

‘I arrive, and I want to stay, and then I leave.’ (1) The protagonist and narrator of All My Goodbyes confesses her conundrum from the start of her story. We are hooked and want to know why. So does she: ‘When you go to lift the suitcase and realise it makes no sense, you just put it back down, unpack the clothes and hang them up in the wardrobe again. Then you … write down all the reasons why you shouldn’t leave. You read over it. Learn it by heart. And that’s it. You don’t go.’ (4) It wasn’t that easy. I was never able to name a single reason for staying in that house or in that city, the place that was the cause of so much pain in my head, my stomach, my eyes during the insomnia at night, and my shoes during the day.’ (4) The protagonist seeks to escape from the pain and discomfort she feels in Madrid, Málaga, Barcelona, Berlin and Heidelberg, among other places, not necessarily in that order. Time, in All of My Goodbyes, is mnemonic, not linear, and we learn about the people and the places as they are remembered.

‘In Málaga, I called myself Luisa: in Barcelona, Lola.’ (4) This is the only reference we have to the protagonist’s name and from the beginning, we are not convinced that these are different versions of her given name because in this instance, she assigns a different name to herself in different cities. She paints a picture of living a life in transience, where what she does is strikingly ephemeral to her. In her own words: ‘All I knew was flight.’ (81) By the time she got to Berlin, she had ‘inhabited seven, eight, nine different bedrooms, and in each one I’d fantasise about overstaying my welcome, because I didn’t know myself well enough, I still wasn’t convinced about who I was.’ (39) We don’t find out her name from anybody else either as nobody is described as uttering her name: not even Marco (her boyfriend), Julia (her friend), or her father, in dialogue or any other form. She is a blank slate, in this regard. As for her outward appearance, we don’t really get any insight into that either. We don’t know what she looked like. The only inkling we get about her physical appearance is from another person’s perspective: Alexander’s, and that is a subjective one: ‘I looked splendid, he told me.’ (1)

‘I lived in Heidelberg. I never went up to the castle, nor did I feel the need to … Such things simply didn’t interest me.’  Places are not of interest to the protagonist in terms of the still geographic topography and hold no beauty or romance for her: The sea is ‘the same stain it has always been’ and the snow is ‘insufficient’. She seems more at home inside buildings with synchronised and familiar processes. She is aware that in a world of globalisation, an IKEA store in one country would resemble an IKEA store in any other but seems to enjoy the safety of the sameness in her work. Nevertheless, she is also aware of the dehumanising and mechanising effects that repetition and standardised delivery service can have on a person in a job where tasks are repeated over and over again: ‘I was taken to the warehouse … I followed him up and down the looming aisles of shelves with their thousands of boxes, stepping in time with the rhythm of his machine so that he didn’t have to waste a single second on me.’ (29) When she travels back to Retiro, the place where she had fallen in love with Marco, she says, ‘I craved repetition down to the finest detail: I wanted to get off the bus, walk to the fire station, cross the road, continue past the cabins, then walk up to the little house on the patio, even if it had already been knocked down.’ (134) The people she connects with become the landmarks of a place for the protagonist. Alexander was ‘Heidelberg’ and ‘Julia and her son Kolya’ were Berlin … as for herself, she was hard to pin down: ‘I had always been hard to categorise, like a stray dog.’ (59) Her self- esteem is low and sorrow is often inherent in the tone.

‘Where’s the dog?’ (21) Luisa asks Stefan, a man she has just met on the beach in Málaga. This is like an echo of, ‘Where’s the cat?’ in the classic film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) where the heroine avoids giving her pet cat a name since she does not know her own identity, let alone the cat’s! In All My Goodbyes, Luisa first sees Stefan ‘from afar walking with a certain nonchalance. A dog was following him, shoulders pressed forward, back heavy, exuding that radiant resignation particular to men walking with their dogs.’ (19) Stefan says, ‘There was a dog following me but it’s not mine.’ Luisa seems more interested in animals than she is in people. He asks her about family: ‘One brother,’ she tells him but tells the reader that she has two. ‘He lives in Chile. He’s an architect.’ Stefan tries to find out more. ‘No opinion. He’s tall. He writes poems in a little book.’ (19) He later introduces Luisa to his young son, Andrei and asks, ‘Do you like children?’ Luisa does not answer but just refers to him as ‘the kid’ in her subsequent descriptions of him. She seems more sensitive and partial to dogs than some people: ‘I could smell the night, heard the complaint of a frightened dog.’ (37)

‘Peering through the latticework of pretend cakes and decorations piled up in the shop window of the Haupstraβe Bakery in Heidelberg, I was safe from the treacherous mud of my own thoughts.’ (28) With freed up time to think, the protagonist says, ‘slowly, the empty lot of my head filled back up with volatile and unstable things, like methane gas.’ She is emotionally fragile and seems to walk a tightrope at times between life and death but knows herself well enough ‘not to drift too far towards melancholy’. (28)  She feigns cheerfulness and describes herself as ‘mean-spirited’ but we know that she cared about her friend Julia, a trauma therapist, when she got punched in face. She describes Julia as a ‘good’ person, ‘unlike me’. She is reflective and analytical too: ‘I leave because I cannot stay, I leave so that I cannot stay.’ (23) She tells us outright that she ‘lies’ and promises Julia and Kolya that she’ll ‘stay in touch’ even though she knows she would not. Despite lying, she is likeable to the reader as the protagonist and narrator because she is honest with us and we think of her because she thinks so little of herself: ‘Now in the planetary system that was Heidelberg, everybody went about completing their individual elliptical orbits, glimmering in lazy rotations, and I was nothing more than a distant star, barely a reflection of the others’ light.’ (10)

‘Curious George wanted to know if I … was really a biologist or was I a used-car-parts sorter.’ (48) The protagonist tells us that jobs like the latter, ‘spared us from the perils of meditation’. (28) She spends many a night discussing these and boyfriends with Julia: ‘I told Julia in Berlin about my odd jobs and love affairs as we stood around in the kitchen not eating dinner, nibbling on bread like a pair of sleepy birds, leaning first on one leg and then the other’. (26) Julia found it hard to believe that she had been through 11 different jobs already: a ‘shelf-stacker’ for IKEA, ‘spare parts sorter, patisserie, attendant, greengrocer, waitress … grudgingly’ and more. As a naturalist, the protagonist’s father had wanted her to pursue work in science as she had studied biology in university. After her father’s death, she feels guilty about the science lab that they did not build together and for not attending his funeral. While he had been alive, she had ‘loved him biblically, perhaps even more than that’. (11) Her brothers remind her that she had missed his funeral ‘again and again’. (36)

‘Camellia Sinesis’ are two of the first words she utters to Alexander, her first boyfriend who is described in some detail. ‘Calendula officinalis,’ he dares to utter back (59). They are having tea in a café and are ‘in sync’ with one another. Despite falling in love with him and everything about him, including his apartment which he asked her to move into and share with him, she had declined and left Heidelberg because as she explains, ‘at heart I’m no good’. She had been afraid of living a life of familiarity and predictability in her personal life unlike in the workplace. ‘If I were to accept Alexander’s offer of living together, we would eventually go shopping to places like IKEA or another department store … to find a piece of furniture or any other mundane thing …  I thought about how it would always and forever more be the same curtains, the same stove’. (46)

‘You should have stayed,’ says Julia. She advised that it would have been the best decision to stay with ‘a man who loves you that much’. The protagonist realised that Julia thought that Alexander may have cured her of her ‘suitcase syndrome’. That same night, she decided to move out: ‘my room in Julia and Kolya’s house seemed to compress suddenly into a tiny cube and I was forced to leave, regardless of what I had on … if only for a few minutes, I could breathe once more the seemingly free air’. (31) ‘Back in Argentina, years later, I understood what Julia had tried to tell me … “There is Marco’s house” and just beyond that, his mother’s house’. Marco is the man that she had fallen in love with. He had awakened all of her senses. ‘They called me up to see how the story ended: The living room covered in blood from wall to wall, the ransacked house … I stated that I had loved him … What was I supposed to say? I extracted a tear from my eye and handed it to them, but they didn’t want it. They wanted serious words. I stated that I had loved him … That I didn’t kill him. All of this was true’ and we believe her but we know that she can also lie.

The main motifs of ‘flight’ and ‘place’ bring to mind the classic poem: ‘The City’, by Constantine P. Cavafy where the hero tries to escape by going from city to city but keeps running into himself. In the Edmund Keeley translation we read: ‘I’ll go to another country, go to another shore, find another city better than this one’ and then, ‘You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore. This city will always pursue you.’

All my Goodbyes is also a translation. It is translated by Alice Whitmore into English from the Spanish and although I am not familiar with Spanish, as a writer and translator, I can say that it appears that Whitmore has struck a beautiful balance between what is referred to as ‘indigenisation’ in the world of translation and ‘foreignisation’. That is, she seems to have blended the idiom that embodies all the meaning recognisable by an English reader while maintaining the aroma, spirit and poetry of the source language and another place.

All My Goodbyes, by Marianna  Dimόpulos, is the first of what promises to be a compelling series by Giramondo about ‘Literature of the South’ by writers of the southern hemisphere.

 

Reference

P. Cavafy, ‘The City’ from C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Translation Copyright © 1975, 1992 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Reproduced with permission of Princeton University Press

Source: C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (Princeton University Press, 1975).

 

Dorothy Poulopoulos is an award-winning Melbourne-born poet, art critic, sociologist and translator. Her writing delves into love, death and identity and she is the author of A Brushstroke of The Soul, a collection of poems in Greek and The Art of Finding, a collection of poems in English.

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