“To travel is to say goodbye”, Michelle de Kretser writes in Questions of Travel. Yet the unnamed protagonist of Mariana Dimópulos' All My Goodbyes barely bids farewell. She leaves, and leaves, and leaves again.
She leaves home to escape her father. He is “a butcher of innocence” whose scientific explanations, bereft of sentimentality, drain the world of its wonder. The blue sky is simply light and gas. We never stop moving, even in rest; the world turns on its axis but this is simple physics, unremarkable because it can be explained.
She leaves home in Buenos Aires to go to Madrid, Barcelona, Heidelberg, Berlin. “I wander, I wander, I wander: I dream of Bedouins and tides.” She leaves home because conventional wisdom grated. With her degrees in biology and chemistry, she gives up her chance to participate in the “rodent wheel of real life: earn money, have children, earn more money.” Instead she takes a series of menial jobs as a factory worker, a strawberry picker, a shop assistant in a bakery.
She leaves home, and she keeps leaving. She stays long enough to save money for a ticket elsewhere, a packed suitcase always waiting. She moves on when the room becomes “archaic”, when the curve of the chair become “unfathomable”, when the colour of the walls no longer make sense.
One of the wonders of wandering far from home is acknowledging the unending consciousness of the Other. To meet a partner in crime in a hostel, experiment in wildness for one ecstatic evening, and be met with only a stripped bunk come morning because they took the red eye to Berlin. To drop into a community, momentarily, and glimpse the energy, the undercurrents, the humour and trials, before moving on.
Moments of sparkling intimacy – brief, or perhaps a little longer – that cause the traveller to marvel at the brilliance of people encountered. How could they have existed, for all this time, before I came along? These questions are filled with marvel, but also the pain of loss. And how can they possibly continue existing, without my witnessing, when I am gone?
The style: vignettes. Ten years, three countries, many homes; all are collapsed. Chronology is a puzzle, which makes reading active work. Memories of packing suitcases press up against the laugh of a lover, and the jobs, servile and monotonous, bleed into one another.
Her story is a broken vase and is fed to us in shards. We are forced to remake its shape, to build it piece by piece.
A notion of pursuit compels her movement. Every time she packs up and moves on, there is the sense that she has narrowly escaped the jaws of a monster. On reflection, she realises, “I thought I was fleeing. In reality nobody was chasing me.”
But she is relentlessly followed by her own self-disgust. She approaches her mean-spiritedness with a dismayed realism, and is convinced that she must absolve herself through trial: “always I took the hardest path. That used to redeem me. Not anymore.” With melancholic resignation, she reveals: she left behind a sick father, when she should have stayed.
We never know her name. She is a silhouette, a black figure smoking out a window with a busy city street below. “In Málaga, I called myself Luisa; in Barcelona, Lola.” When she goes to Madrid, she smokes hashish, wears a headscarf and plays at an artist's life. She shifts identity in each place, inhabits a different part of her self. We never get a deep sense of her character, only glimpses.
She arms herself with white lies wherever she goes. Even in her role as narrator, her words are peppered with untruths: “the last bit was a lie”, she confesses. With this remove, it is hard to know her. It is hard to see the outline of her shape.
Hidden in these pages: a murder. She finds rest in a house on Del Monje farm, at the foot of a mountain in Patagonia. The world stops turning on its axis ten years after she left home and she truly doesn't want to leave. Although he isn't a man of science, Marco is like her father: “Watching him cut wood or pull up a plant is the same as understanding a very complicated formula, or a long chemical reaction.”
Over and over, she circles and returns to this image: a farmhouse dripping with blood. At the police station, she “cried in all the right places”, and we can never be sure. She is a silhouette against a window, and we cannot see her face.
Dimópulos is an Argentinean writer, who herself lived in Heidelberg for six years. Her other novels in Spanish – Anis and Pendiente – similarly question philosophies of moving through the world, and create dreamy scenes pervaded by melancholy and irony. She has translated Susan Sontag and Walter Benjamin, themselves partial to the art of wondering and wandering.
All My Goodbyes is the first in Giramondo’s Southern Latitudes series, which publishes innovative texts by writers from the southern hemisphere. To approach a work in translation is to know there are two authors; the second transposes the magic of the prose into a recognisable form. Alice Whitmore is a lecturer in Spanish and Latin American studies, and Translations Editor at Cordite Poetry Review.
Her language is at once stark and poetic. It is bereft of the long and whimsical phrases, the fabulous and colourful expositions, that marked my encounter with Spanish in university. Instead there is a strict economy of words that brims with withheld emotion, and it is this constant tension between want and remove that makes this work haunting.
“A vision of the future: a perfectly white, empty page.” She runs on the springtime energy of possibility; when all is fresh and new and yet to unfurl. In this place there is no disappointment, no cost. And love is yet to arrive.
“I leave because I cannot stay, or I leave so that I cannot stay.” Love is frightening; a relationship requires us to reveal ourselves, to remove the veil. It is such deep relief to be seen, understood, loved; it may even be the primary longing of the human heart. But the veil, once removed, can no longer protect us from the anguish, terror, and hurt that is risked when interacting with other flawed beings.
And so once the veil begins to slip, she leaves. In her first home beyond Argentina, she is welcomed by a warm older woman who holds her in great esteem. “When I said goodbye and embraced her thick body, warmed by the La Mancha sun, I understood that it would be the last time. She no longer mattered to me. With that same embrace, doña Carmen dissolved into nothing.”
While travel photos on Tinder and Facebook show humans at the peak of mountains and tops of castles, our experience of place is marked by people. When we stay a while, when movement halts long enough to create a relationship, a deeper intimacy unfolds. Irish poet John O'Donohue claims that this love and deep knowing of the Other is “the deepest language and presence of our soul”, a shelter that transfigures our loneliness. Once vulnerability has been unearthed in a relationship – romantic or friendly – there is something of an unspoken law: to continue to listen, be present, give.
What agony, then, when a partner – platonic or otherwise – decides that time together is over, and they no longer wish to return to that sacred shelter. Is this a violation of the unwritten? Does this destroy all value the relationship once had?
As we piece together the shards of the broken vase, we discover a narrative of place and its scale of intimacy. From lovers and friends in Spain, to a family and a partner in Germany, she forms lasting bonds; every time she flees, it costs more.
In Berlin she shares an apartment with a mother and her son. As the boy sleeps, she and Julia nibble pieces of bread and fruit like birds in a darkening apartment, chewing over former love lives. She falls in love with them both, and they fill up “a whole box of good intentions” for the future. Until one day it is too much. Julia invites her into her arms, and in her refusal, her longing is revealed to herself: “I didn't cross the kitchen and go to her.” And like a bird, she takes flight.
Perhaps when you don't have love for yourself, it can be too much to bear to inflict your unveiled self on another. In Heidelberg, Alexander becomes her reason to stay. They are dedicated, committed, fall into the coupledom of convention. She promises to be with him, “but promises are made of an undecipherable substance, whose atomic and molecular structures are extremely fickle and unstable.” She is afraid of the long nights of winter by his side. “What is one to do, when faced with oneself? Cut and run, if that's what you know best.”
“Choose Heidelberg! Alexander said. Choose Berlin! Julia said.” Instead of confronting her deepest self, revealed by the light of a partner's love, she packs her bags and moves on. She throws “blankets of disdain” on sentimentality because she is safe only when true emotion is veiled. The habit of fleeing intimacy – from Madrid to Barcelona to Berlin to Patagonia – is the fear of vulnerability made physical. It’s a common tactic of the human heart, revealed to us only in reflection: we might ghost when a new lover gets too close; we might become too busy for a friend after revealing a secret. Or we might leave home, and keep moving. She suffers, this silhouette floating from place to place, person to person. This detached sorrow pervades the text. There is no romance of place. Snow is “dirty and insufficient”. The ocean “the same stain it had always been”.
Like her father, she is unable to embrace wonder, even as she canoes over a deep transparent lake where the “green peaks of a long lost forest” wave three hundred metres below. The depth of emotional intimacy – being fully known and fully loved, and acting generously in return – is a lush, verdant place. But these subterranean delights of the soul are lost to her. She is stuck on the glassy surface; her canoe, of course, means she is free to leave.
She is adept at extricating herself, but always returns to an embrace. The safety of loneliness against love’s frightening adventure is a battle every soul must face. In Elena Ferrante's second Neapolitan novel, The Story of A New Name, the protagonist Elena fears the violence of her true feelings. On a beachside holiday, her best friend, Lila, is having an affair with Nino, whom Elena has loved for years but never pursued. Together, Lila and Nino swim far from the sand, the lovers’ heads specks from the shoreline. Elena witnesses their depth and attempts to swim out, but is overcome by terror:
I glanced down, and it was a mistake. The azure immediately turned bluer, darkened like night...I perceived the abyss, I sensed its liquidness, with nothing to hold on to, I felt it as a pit of the dead from which anything might rise up in a flash, touch me, grab me, sink its teeth into me, drag me to the bottom.
After returning to Argentina for her father’s funeral, she rents a house in Patagonia on Marco’s farm. A simple country man who tends the earth with silent pragmatism, he nurtures a violent feud with a neighbour. In this place of few words she decides that for once she doesn’t want to leave. His death is suspicious. Nevertheless, in him dying, he is the one who leaves.
In All My Goodbyes, the unnamed protagonist travels, it seems, so that she can leave. She looks back with a cold stare: “I didn't leave a trace, didn't feel a trace of remorse.” She claims detachment but we receive glimpses of the heartsickness that comes with leaving people behind: “These are all my crimes: my goodbyes.”
To travel is to say goodbye. Over and over, she abandons intimacy to escape vulnerability. Every new place is an empty page. In every new place she renews her veil.
Lou Heinrich is a writer and critic whose work has been published in The Australian, The Guardian, The Saturday Paper and Kill Your Darlings. A Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship recipient in 2017, she was also shortlisted for the 2017 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. She writes on women and religion, and is currently working on her first book, Holy Woman.