Sam Carter reviews The German Room by Carla Maliandi

Translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle (Charco Press, 2018)

“I came to Germany to sleep soundly,” declares the unnamed narrator of Carla Maliandi’s The German Room, recently released by Charco Press in Frances Riddle’s agile translation. To be precise, the narrator has returned to Heidelberg, the fabled university town where her family lived for five years to escape the nightmarish dictatorship in Argentina. She was only a young girl then; now, some thirty years later, she echoes her parents’ exile by seeking refuge across the Atlantic. Yet while they left for political reasons, she is fleeing a sense of unease that afflicted her in Buenos Aires and whose source is neither fully explained to us nor entirely understood by her.

Stuck in a semi-somnambulant state yet adamant about the need for a change, she settles on this sojourn to a city she once knew in order to flee one she knows all too well. Yet, as she readily admits, aside from the comfort of the familiar, she lacks any compass for determining what should come next. “Simply returning to your childhood home is not much better than having no plan at all,” she concedes. With its Philosophenweg or Philosophers’ Walk where Hegel and Hölderlin once trod, Heidelberg is perhaps uniquely conducive to introspection, but the narrator seems unwilling to indulge in any inward reflection. Instead, she fumbles forward in a “desperate attempt to find peace.”

Shortly after her arrival, though, she learns that won’t be possible. She discovers that an unexpected passenger has accompanied her on the journey to the German city: a pregnancy. This umbilical attachment to her time in Argentina does not dissuade her from continuing with the hastily hatched escape plan. She decides to rent a room in a student residence, thereby surrounding herself with people several years younger. Owned and operated by a Hungarian, it is a space where the trajectories of various transient people intersect. One of her first acquaintances is Miguel Javier, a student of political economy hailing from the northern Argentine city of Tucumán. Her de facto guide to all that Heidelberg offers, he has an eager intensity matched by his breathless speech—which, like that of other tucumanos, elides the spaces between words so that an entire sentence ends up sounding like a single word. (Maliandi has said that she kept hearing this character’s incessant voice as she wrote, and Riddle’s sensitive ear allows us to experience the same rhythmic urgency.) Shanice, a young woman from Japan, is the only other student the narrator befriends. This partly results from the similarity of their situations: “I realize her stay here is also an escape, but a better organized one,” she explains. “For a Japanese student, a semester in Germany is like a holiday.”

One night, Shanice hosts a costume party where the narrator flirts with an Albanian student. Although he is dressed as Subcomandante Marcos, he finds the Zapatistas less interesting than Maradona and peronismo—or at least that is what he professes when speaking to an Argentine. He also claims to be fascinated by pregnant women after the narrator apprises him that she is in the family way, and the brief amorous interlude that ensues comes to a sudden halt when Miguel Javier drunkenly calls for his compatriot, accidentally revealing her condition to the whole residence as he demands that “the other Argentinian who’s knocked up” join him in singing a typical folk song. The narrator, however, hardly seems to care, considering the pregnancy more of an inconvenience than a life-changing event.

In much the same way, The German Room is never all that concerned with either childbirth or motherhood. (Who the father might be remains uncertain, and an appointment to explore the possibility of an abortion leaves the narrator discouraged when the German doctor seems unwilling to even entertain such a possibility.) Instead, Maliandi’s novel addresses the broader category of expectations and the strange temporalities that unfold as they are created, frustrated, sometimes met, and only rarely exceeded. After all, expectations can be nursed by previous successes or the hopes of others, and can develop over long periods; on the other hand, antagonism or failure can quickly dispel them. In most cases, though, they bring past and future together to bear heavily on the present, producing mixed responses. Miguel Javier, for instance, remains largely unfazed by his family’s expectations partly because he has established such high ones for himself and what he will accomplish. The narrator, on the other hand, displays little interest in what she ought to expect when unexpectedly expecting. She only anticipates rediscovering a past that might make an uncertain future more palatable.

Shanice comes to Heidelberg with another set of expectations but finds that everything falls short of them. She takes her own life the night after the costume party, leaving behind shocked students and two notes. One specifies that everything in her room—the expensive electronics, the elegant clothing, the German-Japanese dictionary, the Hello Kitty doll—now belongs to the narrator, who is ever closer to being broke. Shanice’s room, like all the other spaces in this novel, both is and is not a German room, and the same holds true of the narrator’s when she inherits her friend’s possessions.

Along with this surprising bequest, the narrator also ends up with another unanticipated one: Mrs. Takahashi, Shanice’s mother. Although both parents travel to Heidelberg to bury their daughter in the city where unhappiness overcame her, Mr. Takahashi departs after a few days while his wife stays behind. She becomes a spectral presence who frequently shows up unannounced: at the student residence, in a restaurant where the narrator and Miguel Javier are sharing a meal, even at the opening reception for an art exhibition. The mourning Mrs. Takahashi, in other words, latches onto the melancholic narrator.

Through Mrs. Takahashi, Maliandi deftly portrays another side of motherhood, the unimaginable one where a parent survives a child. Mrs. Takahashi masks her pain with a manic energy, intent on living out the life her daughter cut short. In Heidelberg, she does what she imagines Shanice once did—eats in the best restaurants, casually flirts with German men, and dreams of traveling to other places, including Buenos Aires. The narrator, however, seems spooked by Mrs. Takahashi’s intensity and is unwilling to register or accept her pain. Although the women have in common a desire to escape, the narrator summons little sympathy for the one other person who could have uttered the same words she did soon after arriving: “Even if I crossed the whole world looking for a place to feel at home, I wouldn’t belong anywhere.”

The only one to find a sense of belonging in Germany is Mario, a former student of the narrator’s father who now teaches at the university. She runs into him one day when trying to enroll in a short course. He is a connection to the remembered Heidelberg of her childhood, someone who helps her recall its appeal after she begins to think of it as a “conservative storybook city” in a “repulsively perfect country.” Unlike the narrator’s family, Mario never found his way back to Argentina. The possibility of returning to a home where his lover had been disappeared during the dictatorship was too painful to even contemplate. He is the only one not passing through, but only because he cannot bring himself to consider going back.

While he is away for work, Mario offers the narrator his home, just as her parents had offered him theirs. It becomes a refuge from the residence, allowing her to avoid not only the increasingly clingy Mrs. Takahashi but also Miguel Javier. His presence, reassuring during pregnancy-related incidents, often annoys her when there is no crisis to be confronted. One night, though, he shows up because his sister Marta Paula, who is back in Tucumán, has gone missing. The narrator had struck up a curious friendship with Marta Paula after sending her a pair of Shanice’s shoes in a care package. In a routinely cryptic correspondence carried out over email and on the phone, Marta Paula had kept the narrator informed about her interactions with a psychic surprisingly attuned to what is happening in Heidelberg—including with Mrs. Takahashi. After two days without contacting anyone, Marta Paula finally calls Shanice’s old cell phone to reassure the narrator that she’s all right. She also shares the psychic’s most recent revelation: the narrator will be having a girl.

These are just some of the many interactions among the novel’s small cast of characters crisscrossing continents. Maliandi, an accomplished playwright, fashions characters with an admirable economy, and yet each of her fascinating figures is given sufficient space to develop. This novel of dislocation also displaces expectations in the best possible sense by taking the topic of exile in a new direction. Like Julián Fuks’s Resistance, also recently published by Charco Press in Daniel Hahn’s translation, it questions how much one generation’s experience of exile can be inherited by another, while also reminding us of the vastly different forms it can take.

Maliandi, born in Venezuela to a pair of philosophers who fled Argentina during the dictatorship, spent some of her own childhood in Heidelberg. Yet there is no mistaking her novel for the occasionally alienating and grating solipsism of autofiction. Instead, we witness insights afforded by the imaginative leap beyond the blinders of the self. It is a move echoed in one of the few changes requested by the editor after Maliandi handed in the manuscript: that she change its original title, Heidelberg. In contrast, the new title The German Room creates a space of possibility in the contrast between its definite article and generic adjective. It is this “deliberate imprecision” that the critic Beatriz Sarlo praised in her prominent early review of this widely celebrated 2017 novel. An ostensible contradiction, Sarlo’s phrase nevertheless perfectly captures what the novel accomplishes as it constellates characters united in a search for something that eludes definition.

Before meeting Mario at the university one day, the narrator listens attentively to the end of his lecture as he cites the Argentine philosopher Carlos Astrada. Mario quotes, “Man must always confront the immensity of earthly uncertainty,” words that stick with her and that she later repeats in the hope that they “might somehow explain my directionless wandering, the parenthesis I’ve opened in my life.” It is not difficult to imagine others in similar circumstances, whether adrift in exile or attempting another sort of escape, turning to The German Room and finding something there to hold onto—something that might allow them to sleep soundly.