Fiction November 21, 2017
Tracey Rose performs at the Graft exhibition, Cape Town, 1997
© Anna Zieminski/AFP/Getty Images

See through

ANNIE McDERMOTT

When “the deportations began” and his children’s nursemaid was taken away, the protagonist of Ray Loriga’s new novel Rendición (Surrender) didn’t think it was his place to object. After all, he says, the war had just broken out and she was from “the enemies’ country”. “It’s easy for a man to be trusting, but a government needs to start worrying in time, and even before it’s time, about anything that might hurt us. That’s why I didn’t resist . . .” (my translation). The nursemaid later dies in a refugee camp near the border.

At the opening of the novel, the war has been going on for a decade, though no one seems entirely sure what it’s about. The two sons of the protagonist have been away fighting at the front for years; he and his wife are living in their farmhouse with a mysterious mute child who turned up unexpectedly one day and has been with them ever since. The world they used to know is gradually disintegrating: “every bomb that falls in this war leaves a crater we’ll never be able to refill”. The water has almost run out, the animals have disappeared from the surrounding woodlands, and “there’s been no bread ever since they arrested the baker”. (The disappearance of the bread, to the protagonist, seems at least as significant as the disappearance of the baker himself.)

Bombs are drawing closer by the day. The announcement comes that the local residents are to be evacuated (forcibly – but in com­fortable, air-conditioned buses) to a new, “cleaner” place, “enclosed and translucent . . . where nothing bad can hide away or do us any harm”. The first sight we have of this place, called the Transparent City, is of an enormous glass dome rising out of the dusty landscape, shining brightly in the sun. Within it are “countless roads and buildings and trains and avenues and warehouses . . . all made of glass or some other transparent material”. The protagonist, his wife and their silent child are moved into one of the hundreds of transparent blocks of flats where, “if you looked to either side or above or below you could see all your neighbours, which was strange but also entertaining”. The city seems to be at once a disquieting version of our age of online oversharing and a kind of communist utopia. There is enough of everything to go round, no money and no consumerism; everyone dresses in identical outfits, is a member of a trade union and does useful work for the benefit of society as a whole. A chemical is pumped through the city’s water supply to ensure that the inhabitants remain cheerful at all times, even in the face of their partners having affairs, or having to spend every day working in a sewage plant.

This is a very different novel from the author’s previous works. Loriga, who published his first book twenty-five years ago at the age of twenty-five, enjoyed for some time a reputation as Spain’s enfant terrible. Indeed, in the promotional interviews for Rendición he has often been asked to explain why he has suddenly written a book containing no sex, drugs or rock and roll. Rendición’s simple, affable farmer-turned-landlord protagonist is a far cry from the devastatingly handsome teenager on a nihilistic killing spree in My Brother’s Gun (1995; English translation 1998), for example, or the jaded, urbane salesman of memory-erasing chemicals in Tokyo Doesn’t Love Us Any More (1999; English translation 2003). The sparse, direct prose and anonymous surroundings of Rendición also mark it out from Loriga’s other work – in Tokyo, for example, we always know in which building on which street in downtown Bangkok the narrator is taking high-quality cocaine, whereas we are not even told the country in which the new novel is set.

Rendición has elements in common with the rest of Loriga’s work, however, starting with the effective narrative voice. Loriga’s narrators are always brilliantly convincing, and this one is no exception. He begins the novel as a down-to-earth man of few words who wants the best for himself and his family – in other words, an all too credible exemplar of compliance and complicity in the face of government oppression. He listens to people he considers his superiors without questioning what they say – as, for instance, when he has begun to learn about the goings-on in the Transparent City:

Anyone who didn’t do as they were told would be considered an enemy and hung from the post in the entrance. There was no need to worry about the smell of rotting flesh, though, because the city used a cleaning method that meant nothing anywhere inside it had a smell, whether it was dead or alive.

At moments like this, it is difficult to tell whether the narrator is simply repeating something he has been told or whether he truly believes what he’s saying. Indeed, we begin to suspect that he doesn’t always know himself – and that perhaps there is less difference than we think between the two. As the novel progresses, we watch him gradually become less accepting of his surroundings. His development as a character is expertly portrayed.

The novel’s second great success – which is also common to Loriga’s other work – is its set design. The Transparent City is a magnificent visual metaphor. It allows for striking cinematic moments which remind us that Loriga is a screenwriter and film director as well as a novelist. Night, for example, never falls in the city, and so everyone wears a mask to sleep. One night, when the protagonist is suffering from insomnia, he sits up in bed, looks around and sees “all those people sleeping, hundreds of thousands of strangers sleeping so peacefully”, contented behind their masks in their transparent blocks of flats. It is a haunting picture of one man’s isolation from a society to which he does not belong – something Loriga has, in a way, been writing about all his life.

Neither the protagonist nor his wife, nor any of these hundreds of thousands of sleeping strangers, is named in the novel. The nameless country is at war with another nameless country, run by a nameless “provisional government” that acts through equally nameless “regional agents”. This, combined with the shortness of the novel, the simple prose and the Everyman narrator, gives Rendición the quality of a fable. However, the plot of this fable plays second fiddle to the topography and narrative voice – and this does ultimately make it somewhat unsatisfying, as well as muddled. Rendición is a skilful portrayal of a protagonist torn between resistance and surrender, but it is never entirely clear what surrender would mean. The Transparent City is so many things at once that it risks becoming somewhat incoherent.

Novels about alternative futures have different ways of making their points. They can alarm us by demonstrating how easily our world can slip into a dystopia (as in The Handmaid’s Tale); they can show us how plausibly and effectively the nightmarish new society can operate (as in Nineteen Eighty-four); and they can pose disquieting questions about people consenting to their own oppression (as with the Soma-scoffing populace in Brave New World). None of these things happens in Rendición: it is difficult to imagine how or why the Transparent City came to be, and we are given little information about how it functions (there is more breezy telling than showing in this regard – “Nobody here is different or better than anyone else, and nobody gives orders . . . . We ourselves are the provisional government”, we learn, though without seeing how this collective authority works in practice).

It may be that Rendición does not set out to do any of these things – after all, Loriga has never been a writer who likes to give away the answers. But the novel is puzzling not because it asks difficult questions but because it is unclear exactly what questions it is asking at all. It is enjoyable, funny and genuinely moving, but, perhaps appropriately for a book full of transparent but sound-proofed walls, what it looks like turns out to be more memorable than what it has to say.