False Calm by María Sonia Cristoff (tr. Katherine Silver). Transit Books. 248 pp, $16.95.
María Sonia Cristoff has often recounted one of her formative reading experiences. Hired to translate the diaries of Thomas Bridges—a nineteenth-century Anglican missionary in Argentina—she traveled from Buenos Aires to his family’s farm outside of Ushaia, which sits at the southern edge of Patagonia in the Tierra del Fuego province. There she was given a room with a window overlooking the Beagle Channel and a stack of papers with a pencil mark indicating where she should begin. She lacked any access to the rest of the diary since Bridges’ heirs, insisting on a neutral voice for the new rendering of his work, replaced translators every two months, assigning each one a single section of the work.
After working on the translation during the day, Cristoff occupied herself on this far-flung farm by reading through the collection of travel writings its small library contained. As she consumed the accounts of Francis Drake, Charles Darwin, Ernest Shackleton, and others who had passed through those lands and the nearby waters, Cristoff was struck by the similarities between traveler and translator. “In the tale of a traveler in a foreign land,” she recalled, “I found the resources, the torments, and the joys of a translator in her travels through a foreign language.”
For Cristoff, Patagonia was hardly a foreign land. Born in Trelew, a town in its northern half that had been founded by Welsh settlers and where her Bulgarian grandparents had decided to establish a new home, she escaped to Argentina’s capital in the early ’80s. She had been longing to leave behind Patagonian distance and detachment, or what she calls its “nightmarish logic, where I could walk and walk but still remain in the same place.” Two decades later, however, she returned, determined to discover the current forms of this isolation that she had personally encountered and that she had located in nearly everything she had read about that vast territory that traverses two countries as the continent trails off at its southern end.
False Calm, recently released by Transit Books in Katherine Silver’s unfailingly adroit translation, is the stunning result of that trip that was not so much a homecoming as a series of sojourns in towns scattered across the region. First published in Spanish in 2005, this nonfiction work by a writer who is also an exceptional novelist offers us a portrait of Patagonia that both resists the urge to overtheorize and remains alert to the risks of underestimating its inhabitants. Cristoff sought to provide a new perspective, as she has edited and introduced a handful of collections about Argentines traveling abroad and travelers in Argentina and is an expert in representations of Patagonia. “I started to look for towns that for one reason or another—not solely based on census data—could be called ghost towns,” she explains. Yet she became the specter as she haunted these islands of isolation: “I had at my disposal an infinite number of hours to roam around towns whose perimeters can be walked in a single hour. I sat on street corners and watched the dogs amble by. I wholly surrendered to the daze generated by the excess of light or wind or silence.”
Although such an approach might seem passive, it is instead perceptive and receptive. “I turned into a kind of lightning rod, a receiving antenna,” Cristoff says. “I was constantly trying to maintain control, but I must acknowledge that there were moments when the atmosphere spoke through me.” Never falling into a facile determinism, she recognizes that approaching these distant and disparate places with a preconceived thesis would prove to be both uninformative and uninteresting.
Cristoff instead exhibits a practiced patience throughout the ten chapters of False Calm as she follows the stories of various figures she meets in five Patagonian locales. When producing these ethnographies of isolation, she occasionally confronts reticence, reluctance, and even resistance. “For a writer,” she suggests, “it’s not always easy to determine the precise moment when the boundaries surrounding a place, which define it, begin to shut her out—like the tissue that produces pus as a barrier against a foreign object—and finally expel her.” Acutely aware of overstaying her welcome, Cristoff nevertheless knows that sticking around is sometimes the only way to find that story that sticks with you.
The ninth chapter, for example, reads like a masterfully compact and compelling novella as it chronicles the difficult life of a woman in Las Heras. Although she had attempted suicide three times before turning twelve, Martina later located a necessary yet fragile sense of resilience as she put up with a string of abandonments and betrayals: first, from her parents, and then from a second-rate pop star with whom she had four children. Remarkably, providing for those children—both as a gambler and as a mason’s assistant, where she was forced to dress as a man to keep the job—does not prevent Martina from writing two unpublished novels, one of which Cristoff quotes from while serving as an attentive and skilled biographer capable of distilling her lifetime of struggles into thirty stirring pages.
Only in passing does Cristoff note that she spent just a single day with Martina. That detail is essentially the extent of the information that she provides about how she met her subject, and this restraint governs many of the other chapters as she eschews tedious attention to an I who is, in the end, not the center of the story. Of course, she does not erase her own presence entirely—she understands all too well the artificiality of such a gesture—but she also knows that writing often entails ceding control and subsequently organizing loose threads rather than initially dictating which ones might be spun together. Her interest, in other words, lies not in articulating a quick diagnosis but in letting her subjects explain their symptoms.
It is a refreshing approach to nonfiction that roars into the U.S. like a gust of glacial Patagonian air. At a time when the publishing industry frequently foregrounds Appalachia and how its abandonment or isolation might have led to our present political predicament, Cristoff offers a desperately needed contrast. Even as she explores the effects of the changes wrought by the privatization and down-sizing of YPF—the state-owned oil company that, much like the coal industry in Appalachia, had provided many jobs in the region—she avoids an elegiac tone. Although she visits ghost towns, she does so to vividly depict the life that persists amidst and in spite of the Patagonian isolation rather than perishing in it.
She does this by portraying figures like a schizophrenic store owner in Cañadón Seco, whose dusty shelves include merchandise from past decades and whose meager sales often consist of tickets for the buses that do not even always stop in that out-of-the-way town. Elsewhere, she speaks with a seminarian who shares some semi-stale biscuits, along with his doubts about whether he has made the right choice to pursue this spiritual path. Cristoff becomes the confessor, just as she does when riding with a former oil worker in his Ford F100, encountering “the quality of remoteness in its pure state, applied to nothing or nobody in particular.” And in the final chapter, she weaves one woman’s account of a conspiracy involving dreams and the lottery in Las Heras together with details about a spate of suicides in the town that had drawn national and international attention.
To track down these stories, Cristoff adapts to the rhythms of the towns. In one case, she sits at the table of a town’s sole restaurant, using it as her office. Elsewhere, since there are no other lodging options available in El Caín, she spends her nights in a school along with its students, who stay there because its distance from their homes is too great for a daily commute. Her long walks in this town form a kind of cartography that becomes explicit as she outlines her seven circuits.
Yet alongside the conversations with these figures, Cristoff also seeks out a range of documents, occasionally even inserting these bits of other discourses directly into the text. Offering a tentative definition in “Nonfiction Today: An Alternative,” the prologue to a new edition of False Calm that came out in Spanish in 2016, Cristoff emphasizes that this relationship to other works is crucial: for her, nonfiction “is a literary form where elements of autobiography, working with documents in a way that does not exclude imagination, and the trace of a writer who is above all a reader come together.” As she resists the idea that nonfiction should simply follow journalism’s emphasis on verifiable truth with a few literary details or strategies stirred in, she insists on the importance of articulating a hypothesis, of using documents but not being limited by them.
That prologue begins with Cristoff revisiting a document of her own: a notebook where she had been recording the references, quotations, ideas, and hypotheses she had come across since False Calm had been published ten years earlier. These lead her to recall the period in Tierra del Fuego translating a diary by day and reading the works of explorers by night. Yet now, rather than noting the similarities between translator and traveler, she stresses the significance of shifting between those documents. “That combination was so strange that it transformed my writing,” she explains, “or rather defined it, made it possible, because ever since then those nonfiction forms are at work in everything I write, and in what I think while I write.” One hopes False Calm will now prove as transformative for English readers of nonfiction.
Sam Carter is an editor at Asymptote. His reviews have appeared online at Public Books, Music & Literature, Full Stop, and elsewhere.
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