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Borderless Book Club – Brickmakers

20 January 2022

Brickmakers by Selva Almada, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Annie McDermott, (2021) Charco Press

Unfortunately I didn’t manage to keep up with the Borderless Book Club in the autumn, and I sorely missed the Thursday-evening chats about great new fiction in translation from across the world. Thankfully, Maddie prepared a great programme to kick off 2022—the perfect start to my literary new year!

First up was Brickmakers by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott and published by Charco Press in 2021. Set in a dry, dusty, extremely bleak part of Argentina, the story was a sweltering contrast to the cold winter where I was. Almada takes readers into a man’s world and, more precisely, into the heart of the feud between Pájaro Tamai and Marciano Miranda. Right from the start, we know it doesn’t end well: both men lie sprawled on their backs, dying. The mysterious, presumably violent, end to their lives is just a taste of what is to come. The short two- to three-page chapters, set the pace, moving back and forth in time. Almada gradually recreates the bigger picture, exploring the tensions that led to the feud—a feud that started with their fathers and one that the mothers and wives try to stay out of yet also occasionally fuel. The changing perspectives in terms of time and character created a feeling of disorientation as I followed the highs and lows of the characters, trapped and frustrated as they were in their relationships, communities and circumstances. The many cultural references—skilfully retained in the English by translator McDermott—were new to me, so I couldn’t wait to hear more about the context in which Brickmakers was written and how it had been carefully crafted into the copy I had in my hands!

As usual, enthusiastic host Maddie warmly welcomed Charco Press senior editor Fionn Petch and translator Annie McDermott. Based in Edinburgh, indie publisher Charco Press is passionate about bringing new voices in contemporary Latin American literature into English. Until now, all of Charco’s books have been translations, but Fionn shared the exciting news that this year they’ll be publishing not only Spanish-language originals, but also two books in a new ‘untranslated’ series: a translation diary by Daniel Hahn and a memoir by Jennifer Croft, also a translator.

Brickmakers is the third book by Selva Almada—a prominent Argentinian writer and influential feminist intellectual—to be published by Charco, and the second one Annie has translated. It was no surprise, therefore, that Maddie was keen to ask Annie about Dead Girls, a journalistic non-fiction record of three feminicides in 1980s Argentina. Almada wrote the book 20 years later as a way to try and understand society and how the murderer could have come to commit those horrible crimes. It was also a way for the author to process her own memories, realising how lucky she had been to have survived the violence prevalent in the society in which she lived. Annie agreed a comparison of the two books was helpful, because whilst Brickmakers depicts a very male world and is clearly fiction, both books are firmly rooted in everyday realities.

When asked what it was like as a translator to work on such graphic descriptions of violence, Annie explained that it felt strange working on Dead Girls because of the way art had been made out of the violence, whether real or imagined. Working on Brickmakers had been different, however. It was more like a melodrama, more poetic, and the violence wasn’t as harrowing. It was the sad moments that moved her more, even occasionally making her cry as she read her translation aloud. The structure of the novel added to the sadness, the more you learn, the sadder it all seems.

The focus on male characters and the inclusion of a gay relationship was a specific choice Almada had made. She wanted the book to be entirely about questions of maleness or masculinity, she didn’t want that particular explosive scene to have been sparked by a fight over a woman who would only have been a trophy. She also wanted to try find greater nuance to the way in which violence is presented in the news.

The gender perspective also played an interesting role when it came to editing the translation. Annie had assumed the narrator was female, like the author, while Fionn suggested it wasn’t necessarily that obvious. Annie had also had to work hard to recreate the language specific to the area of Argentina in which the story is set. It was a combination of Buenos Aires slang, literary language, language used by teenagers and more! She needed to create something that worked, that sounded natural and right. The translation also retains the Guarani words used in the original, terms that would also have been unfamiliar to Spanish readers. Maddie suggested that the text felt timeless, an effect created by a few archaic words, but Annie pointed out the use of modern acronyms, such as MILF or PDA, that she had ‘fought’ hard to persuade Fionn to keep, keen to make sure the teenagers sounded different to their fathers.

There was time for a couple of questions from the group before the breakout rooms were opened. What had inspired the title? Fionn suggested that it both echoed the shaping of the clay in the literal sense of the plot and the general theme of the characters hardening over time. Annie also explained how they had decided to keep some of the Spanish words, such as mencho which was so intrinsically related to Gaucho culture that she and Fionn thought it was best to keep it and allow the readers to learn the word as they went. Fionn had even suggested adding the word in one more time to really give readers the chance to understand it!

It was then time to head into the small breakout rooms to hear what others thought and make some new friends all over the world. Maddie always does a great job of sharing a few links with interviews and articles in the invitation, along with questions to help guide the conversation in the breakout rooms.

Our room spanned several countries and two continents! With such a fascinating novel, it’s no surprise that we had a lot to talk about: the palpable anger throughout the book; the dogs and what they represented; the setting that was so specific yet universal in many ways; and the intriguing role played by spirits. We were still going strong when it was time to be zoomed back into the main room to hear from the other groups and ask Annie and Fionn a few more questions.

All in all, I was thankful for the chance to hear more about the context of Selva Almada’s work. I can only imagine how much work Annie must have had to put into the translation to create that wonderful prose that felt timeless, yet modern, all the while artfully weaving in a wealth of cultural references and keeping them accessible to readers far removed from the original setting. Time to get my hands on a copy of Dead Girls asap!

Curious about the backstory to a book that has been translated into English? Fancy meeting fellow bookworms from across the world. Then why not join us? The Borderless Book Club meets on Zoom at 8 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month. No charge. And don’t worry if you haven’t read the book (I admit I haven’t always finished in time!). Just sign up for the Borderless Book Club mailing list here and you’ll receive the invitations!

And if you feel like supporting the Borderless Book Club in a practical way, you can buy a crowdfund Ko-fi here.

Johanna McCalmont is a bookworm and literary translator based in Brussels, Belgium. She translates from French, German, Dutch and Italian and also works as an interpreter.

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