Roberto Bolaño called novelist Alan Pauls from Argentina “one of the best living Latin American writers.” The Past, first published in the UK in Nick Caistor’s English translation, is about obsessive love, addiction and self-destruction, played out against a bewitching backdrop: Buenos Aires. It is a strange, unsettling read.
Protagonist Rimini is good looking and easy going; his partner Sofia is eccentric and strong. Their relationship seems inviolable and eternal to their friends, but “occasionally Rimini faltered. He wavered, ran away from Sofia, and then was enraged at his own weakness.” They split up after twelve years, but Sofia refuses to accept that they are no longer a couple, “two people like us cannot separate”. She writes letters and leaves messages on Rimini’s answering machine, obsessing about the importance of sorting through the hundreds of photos of their time together, but he is scared to look at them, “for fear of being sucked into an emotional whirlpool and drowning in it.” Sofia’s presence becomes ominous like that of a stalker. She clings on as he struggles to let go and make a new life.
Rimini meets Vera, a sexy, wild, volatile young woman who moves in with him. He is a professional translator with a steady flow of work. All seems well. But the past clings to Rimini like a limpet. When Vera is at her shop, he spends the day alone in the apartment and alternately translates, snorts cocaine and masturbates. “Cocaine acted as a brutal piston that cleared his head of everything there had been in it the last time he had taken the drug the previous evening.”
During a University lecture by a visiting academic star, Rimini meets and seduces Carmen, a fellow interpreter. They move in together and have a baby boy, Lucio. Carmen is the breadwinner as Rimini increasingly blanks out words, destroying his ability to translate. Bunny-boiler Sofia had shattered Rimini’s relationship with Vera, and now she proceeds to do the same all over again as she destroys his relationship with Carmen. Sofia kidnaps little Lucio, later returning the toddler with a letter: “Lucio is new and adorable … I had to keep something of yours.” Carmen divorces Rimini and bans him from going anywhere near their child.
Rimini’s odyssey takes a hellish turn now that he has lost his new family. He becomes a recluse, and is something of a dead man walking, but is rescued by his father’s personal trainer who is “used to dealing with fallen people.” Rimini gets a job as a tennis coach at a chic tennis club, where he services one of his wealthy fifty-something clients like a gigolo, “Nancy seemed to have suffered from that kind of thorough scraping that surgeons sometimes give to women’s infected uteruses. Not her body, whose vitality, despite being very forced, was genuine enough, but her soul, which some monstrous knife, (far worse than any surgeon’s implement), seemed to have scraped every corner of. She was like a bare pouch, with nothing inside, condemned to a relentless aging process. And since she had no secrets, nothing she could keep from the surface of the world, the only thing Nancy could do was multiply: she replaced discretion, reticence and a sense of shame with a logic of greed and possession …” Rimini spots a small painting in Nancy’s bathroom. It is by Riltse, a pioneer of ‘Sick Art,’ whom Rimini and Sofia had known and revered. Rimini cannot help himself and he steals it. He is rescued from prison by Sofia and through this act she finally gets him back . . .
Copyright © Georgia de Chamberet 2008, 2017
The Past by Alan Pauls translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor | Vintage, 6 March, 2008 | 474pp £7.99 PB | ISBN: 978-0099481270 | The book has been made into a film starring Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal.