You Are in the Middle of Time: An Interview with Mariana Dimópulos

Mariana Dimópulos

Mariana Dimópulos’s novel All My Goodbyes, translated by Alice Whitmore, is a tale of murder in Patagonia and of wanderlust, or rather, a lust for an arrival that never quite happens. In crisp prose that is often as catchy as a pop song, the narrator jumps between Buenos Aires, Berlin, Heidelberg, and Málaga, and between maturity and youth, lovers and friends. The novel is written in bursts varying in length from a paragraph to a few pages, moving through time and place. These vignettes, or snapshots, or ruminations, or lines of dialogue, are linked not by chronology or geography but by theme—sometimes obliquely. The result is a powerfully propulsive journey that is both circular and suspenseful. I read the whole (admittedly slim) book without putting it down, on a flight from New York to Los Angeles.

I got in touch with Dimópulos over email in order to ask her some questions about her work. We did the preliminaries in Spanish and agreed to do the rest in English; Mariana is an accomplished translator from German and evidently something of a polyglot.

INTERVIEWER

In this book, you write: “My freedom always implies the slavery of another. So, my heart asks (and at heart I’m no good): if I enslave myself, does that mean someone else is set free?” Can you talk a little bit about what this means?

DIMÓPULOS

Since my early years, I’ve been interested in how people live and how the social differences between people come to be. The world is far from being a fair place. The sentence you are pointing at is an intended fallacy, and its answer is no. There is no perfect balance between two constants—free people and enslaved people—and there is no personal, isolated solution to the problem of inequality. But if you are young, like the protagonist, and you have a critical vision about how our world is built, with its contradictions and conformism, then you may think in this way.

INTERVIEWER

Later you spend quite a bit of time discussing work, immigrant labor in particular, as well as the inextricability of work and identity. The narrator works at a bakery in Heidelberg, and later at an IKEA. You write: “When we worked as IKEA shelf-stackers, we were IKEA shelf-stackers. We behaved like obedient planets each spinning in our own orbit, according to the gravitational laws of our boss.” A Turkish man calls this “modern slavery,” while a Polish man tells the narrator she is too good a slave, and that she therefore is “not helping the cause.” She says: “First I’m offended, then I defend myself; much later, I concede defeat.” How do you think about work? Have you written elsewhere about the role of employment in people’s lives? What is the relationship between the emotional slavery you bring up in the beginning and the economic dependency you go on to describe?

DIMÓPULOS

Well, it’s difficult to cut emotional slavery off from economic dependence. The position she adopts is strange because it begins at the other end of the logical chain. It seems that her slavery is first emotional and then becomes real and economic. But in her case, I would say that the constant changing jobs are a way of freeing herself of the burden of class identity, and a way of surviving in Europe for a young woman who intentionally left behind a profession and a “good life” in her home country. This is not my personal story, but I knew firsthand some of the jobs and places described in the book. I worked at an IKEA in Heidelberg, for example. It was a wonderful picture of German society, with both its triumphs and double-standard morals.

The idea that your identity is linked to the work you do is an old one in philosophy and social science. Of course, it is a critical idea about how our world functions, because many, many people spend most of their time being something they don’t like to be.

By the way, the sentence about modern slavery is a quotation. I heard it from a Turkish worker while I was working at IKEA.

INTERVIEWER

On the second page of this book, the narrator tells us that after all her travels, she decided to settle down with a man only to have him be murdered in the most gruesome way imaginable. The whole rest of the novel is her retracing her steps to get to that terrible point. Why a murder? And why this juxtaposition between homemaking and death?

DIMÓPULOS

Tragedy announces itself on the first page. Crime stories usually begin with the murder scene as well. I think the book has a double ambition to benefit from both the classical suspense and the structure of tragedy. With this view, her story must end in something negative and her search for a place to live must be a failure. But she achieves something—she obtains her own story, and that’s her victory.

INTERVIEWER

By being in multiple places and multiple moments simultaneously, the narrative accomplishes what the character can’t. How did you come to this structure?

DIMÓPULOS

I adopted this kind of storytelling as a writing style only later on. I discovered that this kind of structure has a natural link to our present modes of daily communication. Today, we generally read in very short bursts. The structure of the book was a necessity. I wanted to avoid the additive, temporal structure of all narration. When you use language to speak, you are in the middle of time. Compared with a picture, where everything is simultaneous, a story, or even a linguistic description, has a temporal shape. The book’s structure was a result of my need to create a story in which time was not as important as place, and was a way of increasing suspense as well.

INTERVIEWER

Near the end of the book, the narrator lists all the people she has said goodbye to. All these crimes of abandonment she has committed make it seem as though she might even deserve the murder of her lover in the pages that follow. And yet, what immediately follows this list in the book is this:

It’s turned out to be a perfect evening—it’s snowing, I’m rugged up in sheepskin, and there is a white path stretching before me. I’ve just left my job, thrown my personal documents into the sea, and walked out of my room. I’ve left a suitcase in Hamburg Square, accumulating damp. I hope someone steals it, out of pity. With every step I bury a sentence, a name, until I’ve buried them all. I am twenty-six years old and I am brand new. Now that I have nothing, I think everything belongs to me.

Is she not right to believe that everything belongs to her in that moment?

DIMÓPULOS

She is right. The book is a personal as well as a social inquiry. We are accustomed to thinking of building an identity as a process of accumulation. The narrator discovers that the inverse is equally possible. Of course, it’s rather a speculative idea. We need food, shelter, and a hospital when we are sick. Poverty is an old and absolute disgrace in our society, and we are responsible for that. But if you are young, and you are not poor, and you don’t need to feed someone back at home then you realize that most of the rules of our world are there to be questioned. That’s what she does. It comes at a cost.

Jennifer Croft won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her translation from the Polish of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. She has also received NEA, Cullman, PEN, Fulbright, and MacDowell fellowships and grants. She is the author of Homesick, an illustrated memoir coming from Unnamed Press on September 10.

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