People in the Room by Norah Lange review – voyeurism and dreams in Buenos Aires

The first English translation of a 1950 work by the groundbreaking Argentinian author is darkly irresistible

A 17-year-old girl spends her days by her window, watching the house opposite in an affluent part of Buenos Aires. She is transfixed by a room where three women sit, the “pale clover” of their faces barely perceptible in the dim light. The unnamed narrator compiles a list of things they could be, or be made to be, in her imagination: spinsters, criminals, “wayward women”, “three governesses, with little joy in their lives” or “simply … three women who liked to pass the time in their drawing room”.

One day she intercepts an unsigned telegram addressed to the objects of her obsession. How does she guess the sender is a man? Why does she hate him straight away? As she spies on his visit to the room, her feelings – resulting, perhaps, from the fear of the unknown, of intimacy – strengthen: “Even though I knew I would hate him, I hated him even more when I saw him lean gently towards them.” Then a shared moment of beauty changes it all, “and it seemed as long as I was still young, nothing so complete or perfect could ever happen again”.

Born in 1905 in Buenos Aires, Norah Lange entered the Argentinian literary scene early, first as a poet; later, her novels and a childhood memoir became part of the Spanish-language canon. As César Aira says in his introduction to this first English translation of her work, she once told an interviewer that People in the Room had been inspired by the portrait of the three Brontë sisters painted by their brother, his own image erased from the canvas. Combining painterly qualities with poetic imagery, Lange’s prose is rich in metaphor, self-absorbed and, at its best, darkly irresistible.

Lange’s inspiration … Portrait of the Bronte Sisters, c.1834 (oil on canvas) by Patrick Branwell Bronte.
Lange’s inspiration … Portrait of the Bronte Sisters, c1834 (oil on canvas) by Patrick Branwell Bronte. Photograph: Getty Images/Art Images

The narrator is playing the favourite game of all lonely girls and boys, inventing imaginary friends. Despite being part of what appears to be a large family, she is mostly alone, wanting to keep her secret from “them” and at the same time disappointed that they are oblivious to her preoccupation. Sitting at the family table, all she registers is “a pleasant silence, as if we were happy”, while the house opposite is a place “where perhaps I was loved”.

The narrator is simultaneously a needy child, a young woman drowning in her fantasies, and a writer with no one but her creations to play with. Possibly Lange’s fictional alter ego, she often sees herself as a double of one of her characters. Hearing the woman speak, she recognises her own voice and then cannot bring herself to repeat the banal words. Her lack of confidence, often manifest in her attempts “to say something mysterious”, is hardly justified, for the voice captured by the translator Charlotte Whittle is distinct, its fanciful cadences ringing true.

Read on another level, the book, first published in 1950, anticipates the nouveau roman, an “anti-novel” style where the narrator is given full control over the plot and characters. It is particularly reminiscent of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel La Jalousie, with its central motif of spying and control, and some of the more original works by Marguerite Duras. As for its literary precedents, they can be traced to Jorge Luis Borges’ 1940s short stories, which similarly occur “in a Buenos Aires of dreams” and hinge on observation within tightly constructed spaces. When searching for “something possessed by other women, men, and abandoned houses; something that might be easily added to certain days and certain nights; something that might exist without a why”, the narrator is wandering around her own “invisible labyrinth”, as if following the characters of The Garden of Forking Paths.

The book’s main theme is the narrator’s obsession with death: her own and her characters’. Unable to breathe more life into them, she starts losing them: “Everything became a blur, and, little by little, the scant pieces of their foreheads became a mouth that emerged from the side of an elevated cheekbone … and I could only reach their hands, trying, for the last time – though briefly – to grasp at some eyelashes, a chin unstained by tears … but not even the shape of their dresses, floating, salvaged, was left.”

The narrator, impressionable and impulsive, sometimes overplays the romantic mystery of imagined events (‘the small, secret fire of white paper, with an “I love you” that blackened no sooner than it was consumed by flames’) or trivialises important subjects (“death always comes when it’s least expected”). When mere observation is no longer enough, the dose of magic realism has to be boosted, and the girl’s fantasies grow more feverish, revolving around “slit wrists underwater” and “hands with the tingling ants”. There are moments when this unceasing hallucinatory state resembles someone else’s dreams, compulsively recounted, but the sheer drive of imagery compels you to listen.

If Lange’s heroine, with her “constant, addicted gaze”, has any analogue in contemporary British literature, it is the protagonist of Tom McCarthy’s 2005 novel Remainder, another compiler of minute details for the sake of art alone. Like him, this narrator is happiest when being a voyeur – escaping her fear of growing up, of dying, of failing to find the right words, to utter them in an authentic voice. “As long as they’re here, nothing will happen,” she keeps reassuring herself, until finally admitting that “the only thing to have happened was my fear”. If she is to overcome this fear, she must find her own way of bringing it to the page.

People in the Room by Norah Lange, translated by Charlotte Whittle, is published by And Other Stories. To order a copy for £8.60 (RRP £10) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Anna Aslanyan

The GuardianTramp

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