JUNE 28, 2021
By the time her first novel, Permafrost, came out in 2018, Catalan writer Eva Baltasar had already published 10 poetry collections in 10 years. Like the narrator in Permafrost, Baltasar is a wanderer from Barcelona. Baltasar’s English translator, Julia Sanches, writes, “In her early twenties, Eva moved to the mountains of Catalonia with her two-year-old daughter. Her nearest neighbor was a shepherd who lived three kilometers away. […] She would write on the computers of her daughter’s school.”
As Sanches highlights, there is similar idiosyncrasy to the way Baltasar and Permafrost’s narrator navigate the world, “always seeking to find a home on the margins of a conventional life.” In Permafrost, most of the trademarks of a novel — a series of struggles, a protagonist aspiring toward other circumstances — do exist, and they give stakes and structure to the lesbian narrator’s peripatetic journey from Barcelona to rural Scotland to Brussels. But each numbered chapter also works just as exquisitely as a self-contained prose poem. Each passage anchors and propels the story while achieving a succinct and cutting completeness of its own.
For example, “36”, in its entirety:
Fucking cell phone. Every time it rings, I think: I’ll take it down with me. Take my contacts down too while I’m at it. It’s my sister. “Hello?” “Hi, honey!” Mom? “It’s a girl! She’s here! Your little niece has come into the world. Let me put your sister on.” Being the bearer of important news: the only climax Mom has ever known.
At a recent event featuring a conversation between Sanches and writer Amina Cain, Cain noted the propulsive and addictive speed of Permafrost, which happens not from scene and event, but through its sentences. “I feel drawn to the sound of the narrative voice,” Cain said, “which is biting and funny and rhythmic.” Sanches said, “A through line that I see is almost tonal. It’s not claustrophobic but the words always feel really close together and fast-moving.”
Quickly, Baltasar’s narrator renders the world and herself within it in acute and savage terms. “My subconscious seems only to want to travel and to fuck,” she says. “I spend nights in hotel rooms, camping tents, caravans, cars, and stagecoaches. Never on planes. I have a lot of sex with strangers, and, funnily, these women and I are impressively in tune throughout.” Reflecting on her sister, who has degrees in pharmacology and physical therapy, and her brother-in-law, an engineer, she says: “Sometimes it feels possible to do as they do, to live bloodlessly and gallop toward the yellow evening horizon, like a dead man tied to a stake.”
A primary delight of Permafrost is its uninhibited churlishness. Sanches notes that “There are moments of almost high-register poetry that have to blend in with that,” and continues, “I found myself struggling with trying to make the logic of the prose work while also making the logic of the poetry work. Because they sometimes operate in consonance but not always.” Yet, crisply rendered, even that dissonance gives each phrase its own sonic pleasure.
Baltasar is in incredible hands with Sanches, who hits each unexpected beat with deft clarity and concision. “What I wanted was to live effortlessly,” the two of them write, “like a little worm-eaten branch that floats downstream with no ambition other than to drift along, bowing to every change in direction and embracing its weathering.” It’s a thrill to know that the collaborative pair have more ahead: Permafrost is the first in a triptych of novels about women who thrive on solitude and live on the margins of conventional life. Up next comes Boulder, which starts with another lesbian loner on a freight ship where she works as a cook.
Permafrost’s narrator’s spiritually floundering sister asks her again and again what it’s like to fuck a woman. Finally, over Chinese food, the narrator tells her, asking her sister to remember The Great Escape, a movie they watched seven or eight times with their father about American prisoners in a German POW camp who dig a long tunnel the length of the compound. On the night of the escape, the prisoners realize their tunnel is actually six meters short of the forest — they have to make a run for it in plain view of the guards. “What I’m trying to say is,” the narrator says, “Being with a woman is like sticking your head out of the tunnel and discovering that you’ve actually dug through those last few meters.”
Definitively and rapidly, Permafrost takes readers the entire way.
Nathan Scott McNamara is a nonfiction and fiction writer whose work has also been published at The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Poetry Foundation, Literary Hub, and more.