June 7, 2017
Fall fiction preview: A Beautiful Young Woman
by Melville House
This week, as we turn to the early-June ritual of youtubing “how to install an air conditioner,” we’re taking a look at some of the books we have forthcoming in the next few months.
In A Beautiful Young Woman, Julián López tells the moving story of a small family caught up in chaos of Argentina’s military dictatorship, jumping between a past in which the protagonist enjoys a happy childhood with his single mother in Buenos Aires and a future in which, as a man, he wrestles with the burden of her fate at the hands of a vicious regime.
It’s a powerful debut from one of the most exciting voices in Argentine fiction today, and it’ll be out on November 14. In the meantime, here’s a peek at the novel’s opening pages.
My mother was a beautiful woman. Her skin was pale and opaque, I could almost say it was bluish, and it had a luster that made it unique, of a natural aristocracy, removed from mundane trivialities. Her hair was black, of course, I already said she was a beautiful woman, her hair was straight but heavy and she wore it in a way that I haven’t seen seen since. I’m not talking about her hairstyle: no matter what she did with it, her hair fell gracefully and in shape, it always seemed tidily cut. I’m talking about the outline of her shock of hair, of the linear sketch of that ocean of flexible antennae rushing out into the sea of her face. Her hair began symmetrical and visible in its contrast, each of its tubular holograms powerful, and it traced a subtle heart at the top of her head that hollowed out as it flowed down over her elegant temples.
My mother was a beautiful woman and she was voluptuously delicate; even as we spent our lives in almost total solitude, she had an extraordinarily sensual way of being, just for herself, and of course, I was there too, just seven years old, and she was like that just for me.
She spoke in a way that was profound and at the same time stripped of the pretension of those who seek to impress, or to appear intellectual, or even to seduce. In the middle of pronouncing an unusual word, she loved to linger in her own language amongst verbal insects that kept her lively, she would pull her heavy head of hair from one side to the other, like the sumptuous cape of a bullfighter; she would lock her brown eyes on the ground—have I already said that my mother was a very beautiful woman?—and then slowly raise them to meet mine, starting again quickly with her lines of argument that were almost always indignant, almost always offensive, almost always naïve.
We lived in a two room apartment with a bright kitchen that looked out into the lightwell of a modest but sophisticated building, one of those constructions from the 1950s with no more than three floors and no elevator, cool in summer and then freezing once autumn arrives. Our home had a bathroom festooned with black mosaic tiles with pale green joints and once-grand bathroom fittings that had worn down faster than one turns the pages of a fashion magazine from several seasons ago. The apartment had a balcony that was unusable, because just by opening the sliding door the moldings crumbled off in chunks. My mother hated the soot that came in from the avenue two blocks away and she also hated the noise that came from even further away, from the auto shop and the circulation of trucks, and she was afraid of the birds that made their nests in the ash trees that shaded our two windows. One time I saw her in my bedroom hiding from a pigeon chick still without its feathers that the mother bird had thrown out of the nest for its imperfections. It lay dying on the edge of our balcony. With a stick I finished pushing it out over the edge, so that my mother could come out of her hiding place and the tiny monster could end its gasping directly on the street below.
For a while I kept an eye on the chick to try to see the exact moment the gelatinous mass would settle, the exact second of the final death rattle. It had no feathers and its eyelids were still sealed but it had been snubbed by its own mother and feared by mine: it deserved to die quickly.
The house was a living room with red walls that ran up to plastered ceilings hiding fluorescent tubes that tended to flicker in rhythmic agony, rather than light up the room. A few adornments hung from the walls: a Mexican sombrero, made of silver, about the size of the palm of a small hand, a bronze casting of an Aztec sun, with a sour expression a colorful woven beard with a handful of bells on the end, a framed photograph of Anouk Aimée and Jean-Louis Trintignant that my uncle had sent from Paris, a photograph of Che Guevara, whom my mother called “her boyfriend,” stuck to the wall with a pin, a reproduction of a graffiti by Alonso—a woman sitting on the ground, her back arched and seemingly naked—and a few other postcards.
My mother liked postcards from Holland in tulip season; she bought them herself, wrote little travel tales on the back of them and put them in the post so that I would receive them, about forty days later. Then we would get together in the kitchen to drink tea and eat fruitcake and she would tell me everything she hadn’t been able to write in the small space of the postcard. My mother loved describing all the tiny details of the journey: the red valleys where poppies grew spontaneously, the measured comforts of the carriage in the train that arrived from the Urals, skirting around the Danube or that took her first to Pest and then Buda, or the delicious violet sweets that were sold in the Patisserie Sachel, in Vienna. My mother’s dark pupils grew large with fascination, and she made the most of the storytelling to instruct me on a range of matters, from the geography of daydreams to the anthropology of imprecise European exaggerations.
At least until that point, my mother had never left the country and had only visited Chapadmalal, the Río Tercero Dam, Córdoba, Necochea, Tandil, La Reja, Highway 12 and El Etrusco, a little hotel in Paraná.
Nonetheless, every time that for some reason she visited a new neighborhood she returned home like a Marco Polo exhausted by the excitement of his journey and told me about the strange customs of our neighbors in Floresta or in Villa Real, the types of trees they had by their sidewalks, if she had seen packs of street dogs, or discovered libraries or museums, or if she had seen an old man urinating in a drain.
We loved to travel and I took the opportunity to pick out the pieces of shiny fruit from the cake and peep through the holes they made while my mother, completely engrossed by her stories, gathered them up with surprising dexterity and ate them without noticing and without scolding me.
At night-time the living room became a bedroom. That’s where she slept, on a sofa that folded out and provided laborious comfort after a complex set-up process. My mother complained that she could never find sheets that would fit her stretcher, they were either too long or too wide, and even small sheets weren’t the right size for her bed. One time she came home with a shopping bag filled with a measure of white percale, a huge pair of silver-colored scissors, some needles and a spool of thread. The first thing she did was get out her thimble, a porcelain treasure handed down from the diluted women of who knows which generation of the family on her father’s side. A jewel that no one used, beautiful but uncomfortable, loaded with an unbearable power: the smudged portrait of those women who arrived to us all mordant, defeated and mutilated through my grandfather’s line.
I watched her face as she unfolded the handkerchief in which she kept the miniature and I never knew which word I had to spell out in the air of the moment to understand the scene before me.
“Tomorrow I’ll make them,” she said, with enthusiasm.
The bag with the white percale in it transformed into a cat, with each new day it became more and more comfortable between the cushions of the sofa until it became an unnoticed bundle. Each time night fell and living room needed to be turned into a bedroom, I heard her rediscover the bundle and mew softly to herself: tomorrow…
Then one day I stopped seeing the bag altogether, and the percale became a stuffed animal perched high up on a shelf.
Our house wasn’t a good place for pets.
A Beautiful Young Woman by Julián López
ON SALE: November 14, 2017