Navidad & Matanza
by Carlos Labbe
translation by Will Vanderhyden
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In How Literature Saved My Life, David Shields argues for a pastiche, or collage form, in the personal essay. The logic is that a personal essay represents real life, which occurs in bits, pieces, interruptions, associations, contingencies, and the best-laid plans—and so the writing about real life should represent the battle between chaos and order. If that’s a fair argument, then how does it apply to the fiction of pastiche? Fiction is not answerable to real life, and so what is the point, exactly, of mirroring life’s chaos?
Navidad & Matanza, Chilean novelist Carlos Labbé’s first book in English translation, wreaks havoc on narrative rules from the start and keeps doing it pretty much constantly. The chapters are numbered, for example, from one to a hundred, but there are seventy-one chapters missing from the count. The narrator introduces himself in the first chapter: His “password” is Domingo. Then in the second chapter he explains that the whole book is written in code (meaning, among other things, that his password isn’t really Domingo). “Also,” he adds, “I’ll probably insert pieces of pure, hard reality into the story I’m going to tell you. Does that sound okay?” It looks like a shell game but isn’t. It’s a fictional world where the story gets told in bits, pieces, interruptions, associations, and contingencies.
There are at least nine different ways to explain what Navidad & Matanza is about—each version equally accurate and equally inadequate. Here’s one version: The story starts in the middle of a behaviorist experiment. Seven biology students, who also