Iosi Havilio (trans. Beth Fowler)
216 pp., And Other Stories, £10.
An undefinable illness permeates the unreal landscape of Iosi Havilio’s debut novel. Named after the small Argentine town just fifty miles outside Buenos Aires, Open Door touches upon a wide variety of subjects and themes, toying with them in a vague and unreliable manner that quickly becomes a defining characteristic of the unnamed narrator. One of these themes is place, or rather, our mental perception of place. In both real life and in the novel, the town Open Door is based around a psychiatric institution with an open-door policy: inmates are free to come and go as they please. We hear how
‘Instead of being on top of each other, getting worked up, over-excited, here they are free to come and go, to be alone, to work, to walk about; they don’t think about escaping (we only have one breakout per hundred patients), nor rebelling, nor shouting, nor fighting: they are free!’
The institution is always lurking in the periphery of the narrator’s mind as she goes about her business between countryside and city; though she comes close, she never seems to fully confront its nature head on.
The novel itself mirrors a dream sequence: neither its locations nor its characters feel entirely there, and little justification is given for some of the narrator’s actions. Even by the end of the novel, we barely know anything about the speaker – she starts out as a vet based in Buenos Aires, but seems to willfully surrender her identity as the plot goes on. The opening passage of the novel sets the scene: ‘When the owner of the veterinary surgery told me to go to Open Door to examine a horse, I didn’t argue with her. The idea appealed to me. Open Door. It sounded strange.’ There she meets Jaime, the sick horse, and Jaime, the horse’s unhappy owner (names double up in this novel). Back in Buenos Aires, the narrator’s girlfriend, Aida, inexplicably goes missing and is presumed to have committed suicide. The narrator comes back to Open Door, settles down with Jaime and becomes infatuated with the teenage Eloisa, an ‘uncouth little brat, beautiful and elemental’. Throughout the novel, the narrator remains passive – seemingly bored and apathetic – and almost obstinately provides anticlimax after anticlimax as we are presented with cadavers, love and rediscovered historical memoir. The narrator’s inability to sustain her own interests becomes a subject and a style of the novel itself: Havilio handles this listlessness with remarkable dexterity and maintains the reader’s attention throughout.
Everyone we meet in Open Door is ill on some level, even the animals. Both Jaimes seem to suffer from the same malady: ‘Equine scans are very expensive and I don’t feel it’s worth it, I think to myself without saying anything. Jaime’s eyes melt into those of the animal, becoming straw-coloured and sickly.’ As Oscar Guardiola-Rivera states in his afterword, sacrifice and substitution resonate throughout this novel: who is giving up what for whom, and what will be exchanged in return? Eloisa is a character who rails against her sickness: she is in no way stable, but she has a vibrancy and an energy which feel unique in this town. Instead of waiting for the inevitable flat cycle of self-sacrifice and exchange, she heads out of Open Door and into Buenos Aires where she finds boyfriends who haven’t grown up breathing the same diseased air as herself – though of course, she can’t ever shake off her childhood environment completely.
The narrator never fully reveals what is wrong with her – the reader sees that even she is unable to pin this down. At times, we are given moments loaded with understated emotion:
‘It was my birthday yesterday and Jaime gave me a Walkman. I wasn’t going to tell him, but later it occurred to me that perhaps it would improve the relationship […] We ate our picnic by the lake and I told myself again that, despite everything, he was a good man and if I wanted to I could still fall in love with him.’
Birthday presents feel almost ridiculously real in unreal Open Door and this scene is all the more affecting for it, as are the sad and sarcastic moments of muted humour: ‘My face is squashed up against his solid, hairy chest. It’s no use, I end up having to make way with my own hand. I guide him. He’s a terrible lover, with no technique.’
This is a novel which will flourish under many re-readings: the ambiguity of the author, the strange relevance of the setting and the loose-ended plot mean that this story can exist in different ways on many different levels. In fact, as Guardiola-Rivera says, you begin to wonder if the entire narrative could just be ‘[the fantasy] of a patient interned in Open Door.’ This is a skillfully crafted novel which, without the intervention of Beth Fowler’s masterful translation, would easily be overlooked by the English-speaking community. Havilio plays with psychological readjustment throughout – ‘I had forgotten that sensation of cosmic plenitude that you get when you walk to your own music’ – and the effect is both melancholy and striking.