A WORKING WOMAN
by Elvira Navarro
translated by Christina MacSweeney
Two Lines Press, 189 pages
reviewed by Melanie Erspamer
“She wanted […] the location of her madness to be now the location of her art.”
This is how the narrator of The Working Woman analyzes her roommate, but the same can be said of the narrator herself, and perhaps as well of the only figure in this postmodernist novel who actually “speaks:” the author, Elvira Navarro. The text becomes the conjunction of madness and art, which share one abstract and yet delineated “location,” madness needing expression through art, or art uniquely poised to express madness.
I may have gotten ahead of myself; I haven’t introduced the novel properly. The work itself forfeits any loyalty to structure or linearity in favor of a narrative that prioritizes aesthetic backways and internality. It is a quiet, decisively not flashy postmodernist masterpiece, a book packed with subtlety and originality that still manages to give insight into contemporary society.
Navarro has received various honors in Spain and around the world, including the IV Premia Tormenta for best new author and inclusion on Granta’s list of the 22 best writers in the Spanish language under 35-years-old. She is praised both for her original, avant-garde writing style and her dealing with important issues in contemporary Spain. In fact, her mixing of the two distinguishes her and makes this novel such a multi-faceted pleasure.
There is a sense in which postmodernism is associated with the deconstruction of fixed meaning, the absence of a recognizable truth. Although Navarro’s writing style certainly embraces this element, the topics she explores also craft a narrative of structural problems—job insecurity, mental health, the abandonment of urban peripheries—that need to be addressed. Navarro’s Madrid, a crucial presence in the novel, is a city of many cities formed internally and externally by each person’s experience, an apt metaphor then for the possibility of deconstructing what seems stable while not denying the presence of a certain overriding construct(ion) we must all live with.
In this case, the translator of the novel, Christina MacSweeney, also deserves praise. The English version of this precious novel flows easily and is packed with such original, creative, and insightful uses of language; I can hardly imagine the Spanish version being superior. Here is just one example of the informal, poetic, and pleasantly surprising prose that never falls into cliché or background noise:
Neither had I taken my medication, and that did matter, although not enough for me to abandon my observation post over the wasteland where pale yellow hedge mustard grew in spring, and which allowed me a Tetris-scale view of the Palacio Real, the ugly Almudena Cathedral, the dome of the Basílica San Francisco el Grande, the Moncloa transmission tower with its restaurant that no one patronized on the observation deck, the unimpressive buildings of the University City. I went on unconsciously interrogating the cityscape, just as it manifested itself to me from the balcony in some way that was impossible to gauge. From there everything fit in the palm of my hand, extended toward an illusory sky.
The book’s plot is, however, harder to trace. Navarro divides her story into three uneven parts, each written from a slightly different perspective, though all three are also literally “written” by the same narrator: Elisa Nuñez, a young writer in Madrid barely scraping by financially as an independent contractor in a publishing company. Her sharing of initials with Navarro is a sneaky move revealed halfway through the novel the single time her full name appears. This not wholly original maneuver only increases the desire to see the entire book as a smokescreen for Navarro’s exploration of herself, the ultimate postmodernist gesture the narrator Elisa admits to doing as a way of achieving catharsis. But it also reminds us of the futility of these conjectures; while Navarro may purposefully be trying to lead us to think about her backstage role with this use of initials and narrative framing, as readers we can see only the text and not the person beneath it (and Barthes has already told us we shouldn’t care about the author anyway). Thus we are left with a text that proudly asserts its rejection of fact or knowledge—a “flimsy construction,” Elisa announces—and an embrace of madness.
The first part of the book is told from the perspective of Elisa’s roommate, Susana, though it becomes clear during the second part that in actuality Elisa has written it based on stories Susana had told her about her old life in Madrid, specifically, about the time when she focused her “desire [on] finding someone to suck [her] pussy while [she] was having [her] period,” and ended up having as lover a dwarf called Fabio with exceptional olfactory powers. Occasional italic segments—Elisa’s reflections on Susana’s stories—interrupt the otherwise fluid, semi-stream of consciousness, first-person narrative. It all does sound a bit absurd. And the fact that Susana reveals she was taking various medications for mental illness increases the reader’s skepticism. Elisa also admits to her doubt in the italicized interruptions but ultimately she wonders why she shouldn’t just “accept [Susana] did whatever she liked with the story of her life, that she reinvented herself whatever way she felt sounded best?”
The second (and longest) part is from Elisa’s own perspective. She talks about her job insecurity, her long nocturnal walks through Madrid, her own struggles with mental health, and her relationship with and curiosity about Susana. Elisa’s story is not as absurd or as unbelievable as Susana’s, but it seems similarly difficult to trust the account of someone who, like Susana, is searching catharsis, and who does this not through constant reinvention but through writing. The third and final part, a mere three pages, is entirely set in a dialogue, and functions to cast a shadow of doubt over the last almost 200 pages. Writing, Navarro suggests in typical postmodern fashion, is an unreliable speech act often expressed, not to impart truth to a reader, but out of a writer’s own desire for structure and release. The reader, however, can take such a speech act and recast it for herself, as Elisa herself does with Susana’s speech act, which she rewrites with her interjections in the first part of the novel.
There were times while reading the text that I was reminded of écriture feminine, the idea, introduced in the 1970s largely by French feminists, that there is a certain stylistic quality that determines whether writing should be considered women’s writing, i.e. the gender of the author is irrelevant. James Joyce, for instance, is often given as an example of écriture feminine. This women’s writing is characterized by an opposition to traditional plot structures and linear narratives, which are seen as representing hegemony and patriarchy. It involves tying “femaleness” with “otherness” in our patriarchal culture; so that writing that is proudly “other” becomes a way of inscribing the female onto language—this includes writing focused on interiority, stream-of-consciousness, illogical narratives. A Working Woman seems often to fit the paradigm of écriture feminine, with its rejection of literature as a way of gaining that flimsy construction that is knowledge, its meandering narrative voice. The novel, however, produces two ways in which to understand that term: there is its avant-garde, “other” writing style, but there is also the fact that it is a female-populated novel, written by a female writer and about a female writer and her roommate, who also deals with the stresses of life through art (in her case, miniature reorganized maps of cities). It is also about madness; Susana’s desire for oral sex on her period and during the full moon seems a nod to the kind of metaphors that adorn descriptions of écriture feminine as lunar, tapping into feminine hysteria and madness. Yet the novel is not so simple as a display of écriture feminine and female craziness. Writing becomes also a way to structure life and improve mental health; art more generally becomes a way to order and curb unwanted madness.
The need for some kind of structure to heal and deal with life is necessary because of the very real topics the novel discusses. The structure of the narration is not taken as an excuse to deal exclusively with interiority and characterization at the expense of making social points. Primarily, what she portrays are the difficulties of a demographic that is not, by far, one in dire distress—her two protagonists are Western and relatively privileged. Yet what she depicts is also a reality that is increasing in Spain and in other Western countries: the loss of security that comes when young people leave the relative security of family or education and enter the job market. In a certain sense Navarro is taking issue with the very structure of Western society—neoliberalism—although in a subtle roundabout way. The book’s title in Spanish is La Trabajadora, which translates to “The Working Woman,” but the word is more essential than that. “La trabajadora” is like a feminized version of “worker,” so the emphasis is more squarely on an entity defined by being a worker. The irony is apparent; although often the worth of someone in Western societies is determined in part by their job, jobs themselves are slipping away, people going, like Elisa, from part-time to independent contractor, to eventually, perhaps, unemployment. This is not just a stressful period of youth—as the novel shows through Susana, who is in roughly the same position as Elisa but about twenty years older, financial insecurity is becoming more and more of a permanent state-of-being, even among those who started off privileged. Mental health seems inextricably bound with this mode of existence. The idea, as some suppose, that mental health can be extricated from social and economic causes and blamed simply on genetics becomes an excuse not to deal with those problems.
The setting here—and simultaneously a focus of the novel—is the sprawling city of Madrid, but not the Madrid of the Prado or the Royal Palace, which appears only in the distance: this is a Madrid of back-alleys and endless peripheries. It is no surprise that Navarro herself ran a blog called Madrid is periphery. In one way this is a continuation of Navarro’s preoccupation with insecurity and instability of contemporary life: she sets her novel on the fringe. Elisa, appropriately, is a walker. She enjoys walking through these peripheries, observing abandonment or the sneaking of a fat cat that indicates a squat among the ruin. She walks almost every night, searching for squats and signs “to confirm [her] theory of the existence of another city.” But perhaps Elisa is overthinking it: there are plenty of clues in the novel to suggest that the city is hardly a uniform entity, that each person’s experience of it—each person’s journey through it by bus and foot and metro—creates a different version of it. Would it be too much to say that there are as many Madrids as there are people in Madrid? In “Walking in the City,” a chapter in The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau compares walking to a speech act that “speaks” the city into being. Cities become, therefore, a series of discourses in which different citizens take part. Susana seems to intuit something of this kind with her devotion to miniature clippings. She sits in her room or the living room cutting out all the shapes—trees, cars, buildings—from maps of Madrid until only the street grid is left. She wants “to relocate the buildings. Her aim [is] for the map to be just the same in terms of structure, but with all the various elements transposed.”
Of course, the city is also a deep and recurring metaphor for the psyche. Elisa and Susana live in the peripheries of Madrid and they also have to wrestle with the peripheries of their own minds, their repressed desires and fears, the parts of them that are falling apart. Elisa, like Madrid, may not be one consistent uniform entity either: she writes from Susana’s perspective, she writes from her own, she feels a kinship to Susana, she wants her out. There is certainly an underlying structure to all her moods—even she admits the “similarity between [her] voice […] and Susana’s” when she writes from Susana’s perspective—and yet the complexities of the mind, like those of the city, seem to shrug away from a simple bounded characterization like that found in canonical literature.
But this all speaks to the beauty of the novel—writing, walking, these become ways to organize and come to terms with oneself and the world around one. Art and exploration become not simple cures to madness but ways to make that madness productive, ways to channel it for beauty and surprise, for healing.
Melanie Erspamer studies English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. She is half-Italian and half-American and has lived most of her life near Boston. Her work has been published in The Purple Breakfast Review, Nomad Magazine and Unknown Magazine, and her one-act play was performed at the University of Edinburgh. With her sister, she also has been running an anonymous literary magazine based in bathroom stalls, called Bathruminations.
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