Imagine if death were as obsolete as an old dial-up modem, those noisy protractions from the internet’s Middle Ages, twenty or so years ago, in the days when you would not be able to take phone calls while surfing all four of your favourite sites. These were days of no wifi, social media, or flashing screens shining in everyone’s hands or wrists — the future was a faraway land. Today the future is in a constant flight from the present, just a couple of steps ahead. The next life-altering technology could be announced tomorrow. It might even justify the hype.
Martín Felipe Castagnet’s Bodies of Summer imagines such an uncannily familiar time. In this not too distant future there are no flying cars, no trips to other planets, no dystopian or utopian societies, no aliens. Everything is business as usual, with the small detail that here death is no longer an issue, at least in the way we know it. Without need for miracles it is now possible for someone’s mind to survive the death of the body by “floating freely along the web”. And for this mind to be in time “burned” into a new body.
The story takes place in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires and focuses on Ramiro. He has been burned into a female body after floating for a long time and goes now by the name of Rama, an overweight ageing woman who does not take the city’s heat and humidity very well. We follow his discovery of her female body, the process of his coming to terms with this new existence, his attempts to accommodate to life in his grandson’s house and the tensions that arise. Much in the same way some families nowadays care for their relations, Ramiro’s family has put some money into burning him back into the only body they could afford. The burden of the family now stretches beyond death, in what is the story’s darkest turn. Just imagine that relative respawning over and over.
As Ramiro’s new life normalises he starts to dwell in the past, looking for the stories left open from his previous life and the paths these have continued to trace away from him. The internet now being a completely public sphere where no hint of privacy remains, this is not only feasible but rather straight forward. Ramiro soon finds his ruins in this vast public archive, much like we sometimes find an abandoned MySpace account. As he trawls his past, more deaths and resurrections in new bodies occur. These returns allow Castagnet to tackle problems as varied as the impact of technology on everyday life, the commodification of the body in a world where even life can be bought, the workings of power, and the perpetually uncomfortable topics of race and class in Argentina. Here enter the panchamas, those who due to lack of money have been burned into their own bodies, a caste of lesser humans condemned to a lesser life and to doing more or less the same tasks the Argentine poor are condemned to do today. This is the closest Bodies of Summer ever gets to a political commentary: suggesting possible critical points that are up to the reader to decode.
Without having to resort to a blown-up depiction of a hyper-technological and brutal future full of lost souls, Castagnet asks very piercing questions.
Central to the book is also an existential exploration of the meaninglessness that results from eternal life, a subversion of the natural order. Without having to resort to a blown-up depiction of a hyper-technological and brutal future full of lost souls, Castagnet asks very piercing questions about our ability to find peace in this kind of world. The possibilities of this exploration should be incommensurate and yet the author prefers to concentrate on the point where these become measurable and mundane. This is a book about personal stories as much as it is one about grand questions, but it is in the personal where the answers are found. Without resorting to mystical or moralistic cheap shots, Bodies of Summer surprises from beginning to end. Its beautiful closing paragraphs suggest a way out: perhaps the answer to the aporia of an always meaningless finite or infinite life lies beyond our humanity?
This translation, by Frances Riddle, greatly preserves the pace and style of the original: Castagnet’s droll humour and clean and precise prose live in Riddle’s version, pretty much like Ramiro lives in Rama.
It has taken five years for Castagnet’s opera prima to reach English-speaking readers. This short novel — for Anglophone standards — was first published in Argentina in 2012 and was soon awarded by the Maison des Écrivains Étrangers et des Traducteurs (MEET) and translated into French. It has received justified attention and outstanding reviews both in Argentina, France, and Latin America and in 2016 it was edited in Spanish a second time – not a small feat for a debut. This translation, by Frances Riddle, greatly preserves the pace and style of the original: Castagnet’s droll humour and clean and precise prose live in Riddle’s version, pretty much like Ramiro lives in Rama.
It is refreshing to read an Argentine writer cross the linguistic divide between Spanish and English without having to resort to the usual topics of the last dictatorship, Perón and Evita, or the Malvinas, while remaining faithful to its place in the world. Castagnet’s novel is inscribed within an Argentine tradition of fantastic literature that plugs into universal motifs: there is a direct line between this work and that of masters like Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Julio Cortázar. This is not only from a thematic point of view, but also as a claim as to what Latin American letters are, what they deal with, how they are performed, and who should read them.
Bodies of Summer is an Argentine novel to the extent that it was written by an Argentine author. Its appeal, nevertheless, is universal.
Martín Felipe Castagnet was born in La Plata, Argentina, in May 1986. He holds a PhD in Literature from the National University of La Plata and is currently Associate Editor of The Buenos Aires Review. Bodies of Summer, his first novel, won the Saint-Nazaire MEET Young Latin American Literature Award and has also been translated into French and Hebrew. @mobymartin.
Fernando Sdrigotti was born in Rosario, Argentina, in 1977. He writes and edits Minor Literature[s]. @f_sd.
Bodies of Summer, by Martín Felipe Castagnet (translated by Frances Riddle) is published by Dalkey Press Archive.