FERNANDA TRIAS Pink Slime. Reviewed by Ann Skea
The new novel from Uruguayan writer Fernanda Trias is set in a dystopian city and has unsettling echoes of recent events.
When the fog rolled in, the port turned into a swamp. Shadows fell across the plaza, filtering between the trees and leaving the long marks of their fingers on all they touched. Under each unbroken surface, mould cleaved silent through wood, rust bored into metal. Everything was rotting. We were, too.
The unnamed narrator of this story once wrote ‘filler pieces’ for a ‘Ministry’ magazine that her ex-husband, Max, called ‘The Good Lie’, deliberately losing the ‘f’ from ‘Life’. Truly, it contained ‘optimistic articles about how well river drainage and upgrades at Clinics were going’, plus ‘recommendations for safety protocols, success stories from the migration inland’: all essential for ‘gilding reality’ and designed to ‘distract people from what was happening’. What is still happening, as she tells the story, is an ongoing catastrophe. When the grey fogs lift, the red winds carrying deadly algae regularly sweep through the city, alarms sound, people lock down in their homes, and security cars patrol the streets picking up any stragglers. Many become sick. Those with money move to the country, houses become derelict, and food supplies dwindle.
Everything she describes – the slow awareness of the epidemic, the ‘Ministry’ responses, the ‘Clinic’ that provides quarantine and critical care for those who contract the disease, food shortages, power blackouts, and uncertainty about the future – all this is worryingly familiar.
‘If I am going to tell this story,’ she writes now, ‘I should choose a starting point, begin somewhere. But where?’
The beginning is never the beginning. What we often mistake for the beginning is just the moment we realise something has changed. One day, the fish appeared; that was one beginning. We woke up to find the beaches covered with silvery fish, like a carpet made of bottle caps or shards of glass. The light glinting off it was painfully intense …
She is a good writer and a gentle but determined woman, and her care for others, her memories, her lucid dreams, and her descriptions of the beauty amongst the devastation, lighten the darkness of her story:
A few months later, the algae would spread across the river and turn its surface a deep burgundy … The river used to be brown or green, depending on an optical illusion produced by the sky; now, entire sections of it looked red – sometimes in a long strip extending along the horizon, sometimes a crimson circle like a fiery tongue emerging from the water. Our river was suddenly a patchwork quilt, a light show.
Each ending, however, is a new beginning. Her awareness of borders – of the perpetual flow of change – permeates her story and she is a lover of paradoxes and Buddhist koans. She and Max (who is ‘always absorbed in his search for himself’) used to ‘spend the whole night talking and then, as birds announced the dawn … we [would lie] exhausted from digging around inside ourselves with words’. Fragments of their talks intersperse the chapters of this book, often puzzlingly, but they create pauses in her story, and her fluctuating emotions, and the difficulties she lives through, are soothed by her beautiful imaginative prose.
She has given up her writing work in order to care for a child named Mauro whenever his parents drop him at her flat, having ‘drained their reserves of guilt’ by looking after him for a month. Mauro suffers from a rare genetic disorder that causes insatiable hunger. He is ‘a child who can’t tell the difference between a finger and a sausage’, and, left by himself, Mauro will eat anything he can find, including garbage. But he is a child who needs the care and affection she gives him when he is with her, and the relationship between them is almost love, although Mauro is not capable of such long-term feelings.
Although she and Max are divorced, they have known each other since childhood and her relationship with him is still, as she puts it, like ‘an elastic band that shot you toward him with the same force you exerted trying to get away’. Max’s unconcern for his body has meant that he exposed himself to the red wind (‘El Principe’ the Ministry has called it) and contracted this infection, which has flu-like symptoms and causes skin to peel off exposing the muscles. She visits Max in ‘Clinics’, where he is among ‘the chosen few’ – the ‘exceptions, maybe even miracles’ – who have ‘made it out of the critical care wing’ and moved to ‘Chronic Care’:
That’s where the statistical improbabilities slept, the ones who couldn’t manage to get better or lose ground. Maybe that’s what stoicism gave Max: the ability to stay alive by virtue of incredulity or indifference.
She visits her mother, too, with whom she has a scratchy relationship and who nags her to leave the city. She has promised that the two of them will go as soon as she has saved enough money, but secretly she already has the money and does not want to leave.
Her accounts of these visits, and of her own thoughts and emotions, are complex and moving:
My straight line gets tangled; I feel my penstroke waver and my drawing is suddenly a rope I’m tying around my own neck. Past, present, and future pass through the grinder of memory and fall mingled into a sterile vat.
Past, present and future are woven into her story and tenses get confused as moments of crisis become more frequent, but this is never really a problem. The ‘sterile vat’, too, is a fragment of memory, something she recalls from being taken, as a child, to visit her carer’s husband, don Omar, who is in charge of the factory producing the artificial food ‘Meatrite’. She sees the product being extruded from the machines like ‘enormous swirls of meat toothpaste’ that remind her of ‘pink slime’, or ‘a piece of strawberry gum with all the flavour chewed out’. It is needed to feed the population and, on TV, a man in a surgical cap and latex gloves calls it ‘a safe, complete, nutritious meal’: ‘He said: safety. He said: bioengineering. He said: superbacteria.’
The narrator, Mauro and Max are fully realised characters. So, to a lesser extent, are the narrator’s mother and Defla, the woman who cared for her as a child because her mother ‘never got off the couch when she was home’. Her memories of Defla are full of love, but
Memory is a broken urn: a thousand shards and fragments of dried mud. What parts of you remain intact? You slip in the mud, lose your balance. And it has been such a delicate balance, one you tried so hard to keep, only to fall flat on your ass.
In spite of the grim scenario in Pink Slime, there is much beauty in the words of Fernanda Trias’s narrator and in her sensitive, questioning nature. What may be difficult for those who have lived through the recent Covid 19 pandemic are the memories this book will evoke. Towards the end, too, there are hints of more sinister events, as the Ministry begins the forced evacuation of everyone from the crippled city, and the narrator sees ‘thin lines of people’ climbing into trucks, ‘their heads bowed, like schoolchildren who’d gotten into trouble and knew it’, their suitcases left on the sidewalk.
In spite of all her losses, in true Buddhist fashion, living from moment to moment, her thoughts circle back to what she said about beginnings being ‘just the moment when we realise something had changed’. As one of the brief puzzles between the chapters puts it:
Everything has an edge; even the ocean is contained by continents / Is an edge the border of itself? / An edge is the beginning of another edge.
And the edge ‘of the mind’ is? ‘Forgetting.’
Pink Slime is a remarkable book, and Heather Cleary’s translation does full justice to the poetic prose which conveys the resilience, love and hope of the narrator: something, surely, that we all need in this ever-changing world.
Fernanda Trias Pink Slime, translated by Heather Cleary, Scribe Publications 2023 PB 224pp $29.99
Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.
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