Although it is common to speak of the “voice” of a novel, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (Los ingrávidos, 2011; tr. from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, 2014) defies such singularity, dissolving into a multiplicity of voices which slip in and out of one another in a deftly braided narrative. Luiselli’s ventriloquism thereby subverts the notion of a unified self, a single identity which may be shaped and reshaped over time but nevertheless bear the imprints of all our life experiences in one aggregate lump of clay. Are we not, instead, a confused, scattered commingling of self and other, past and present, a replicated series of identities which have the capacity to feel more affinity with strangers than with distant selves?
The novel concerns an unnamed narrator who lives in Mexico City with her husband and two young children and is writing a book about her past life in New York City as a young translator wearing gray tights and a red coat. Or is she writing a book about the Mexican poet, Gilberto Owen, who “haunted” her Harlem neighborhood in the 1920s and whom she, as a young translator, was obsessed with trying to publish in English translation? The narrative slides between the two plotlines, constantly referring back to itself so that the reader is ever aware of the words as written — in fact, written at great cost to a tired mother at odds with her husband. The husband, meanwhile, (who may or may not be leaving her to move in with his mistress in Philadelphia) is obsessed with reading her manuscript — the manuscript that we, too, are reading — and takes umbrage at those episodes of her past which she insists are fictional, just part of the novel. As we read his reactions, his attempts to edit (both her manuscript and her self), the narrative changes, and reality slips further between our fingers.
Soon another voice emerges from this tangle of stories, that of Owen himself. Yet it, too, is multiplied: Owen as a middle-aged, Philadelphia divorcé, descending into blindness and drunkenness who, with a touch of the surreal, observes himself losing so much weight that he is quite literally disappearing; and Owen as a young Harlem poet, serving as interpreter for some of the major Spanish-language writers of his era. His days in New York are marked by rides on the subway in which he glimpses a young woman wearing gray tights and a red coat, as well as by philosophical conversations with a friend who helps him develop his theory about memory of the future.
Such an intricately interleaved narrative rewards the attentive reader, because details, particularly objects, take on a life of their own and seem, in some passages, more real and solid than the continuously shifting voices. Indeed, recurring details anchor the narrative, orient us in what would otherwise be a house of mirrors. And yet, the book is decidedly minimalist, so that every voice resounds with its own register, its own obsessions and erudite references which serve as a map charting the journey of self, that complex concatenation of books we have read, places we have lived and people we have met which forms our fragmented being.
It is significant that both the unnamed narrator and Owen are translators and live as expatriates. Caught between cultures, between languages, their stories more acutely foreground the sense of dissociation or severance that everyone feels when remembering a past self. The novel is rife with allusions to multiple worlds and duplicative (or perhaps duplicitous?), splintered imagery:
In the kitchen, Dakota’s ex-boyfriend asked me why I was just up and leaving like that. I told him that I’d turned into a ghost; or maybe that I was the only living girl in a city of ghosts; that, in any case, I didn’t like dying all the time. […] I could have told him I was going because I was incapable of sustaining and inhabiting the worlds I myself had fabricated, that I also had a scar splitting my face in two.
Also significant is the fact that translation is the thread which ties these manifold voices together. The text is attentive to the nuance of language, its power to shade in the otherwise hazy outlines of the self. Christina MacSweeney’s translation rose to the daunting challenge posed by this novel, not only in its diversity of registers and translations of translations, but in its stripped-bare prose which nevertheless is packed full of emotional punch, underlain with a silence which says everything. Consider this exchange between the narrator and her husband, only a few short lines, and yet in it is distilled the entirety of their present relationship:
My husband stands behind me as I write. He massages my shoulders, too hard, and reads what’s on The screen.
Is it him saying that or you?
Him — she barely speaks now.
And what about you, how many men have you slept with?
Only four, or perhaps five.
No one else. What about you?
Faces in the Crowd was recently shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, and deservedly so. In MacSweeney’s hands, the English text flows with a remarkable elegance, punctuated by the intermingling currents of each voice. The result is a haunting, intelligent masterpiece that dances nimbly among childlike neologisms, metafictional and metapoetical layering, and spiraling plotlines which coil into one final knot, one that is sure to leave you breathless, ready to flip to the beginning and trace that confoundingly entangled narrative yet again.