It’s rare to read a book that feels like it’s articulating things you already know, scraping your heart open to reveal your secret lonely worries. A Poison Apple is a book that understands. It feels like a stone that’s been rubbed smooth from being held so tightly for so long. This sense of inhabiting a living memory, of being looped back and forward through real and imagined places with real and imagined people, is powerfully affecting. Michel Laub understands how everyday people think about celebrity, and how young people can idolize a handsome star like Kurt Cobain in spite of themselves. (The title is a Nirvana lyric.)
This is a book that knows about pain, and how much it hurts when the pain is self-inflicted, but also how much worse it is when the pain comes from people who are supposed to be kind to you. It knows about how young people hook into music for a sense of identity, and how certain acts and certain stars are catapulted to fame and glory not because of their talent, but because of what they represent to others. It knows how overwhelming it is to be a teenager and not know exactly how to make the choices that add up to a life, and it knows how hard it can be to choose a positive direction in the face of the world’s indifference. And it knows that none of that is an excuse.
In April 1994 the unnamed narrator is living a lonely life in London, working as a deliveryman for a coffee shop and dossing in a share house with so little money he even has to share a travel card. The narrator was in London after recovering from a car accident that damaged his spine and left him flat on his back in his parents’ house for months. He was in the car accident after getting a postcard from a former girlfriend. And he lost the girlfriend after he was unable to attend a Nirvana concert in São Paolo in 1993.
The narrator’s life, and that of his girlfriend Valéria, is encompassed by two real ones: Cobain’s, and Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza’s. It’s impossible to tell if this story is fiction or not; Laub’s style has the close attention to detail and sense memory of the best kind of memoir, which is high praise. While it feels oddly intrusive to speculate, as with so-called ‘faction’ memoirs by experimentalists such as Luc Sante or Pam Houston, it’s unfair to dwell on these specifics. Perhaps that’s because the emotional impact of the story matters more than the line on the blending of truth and fiction.
And HOW A Poison Apple serves up the emotional truths, especially for people who remember the mid-90s and the dream of peace and prosperity they offered the world – and who also remember how the suicide of Kurt Cobain and the Rwandan genocide helped shatter that dream into the world we live in now.
One explanation for what happened in April 1994; Kurt Cobain had a wife, a daughter one year and seven months old, the money and fame to do successfully just what he had always enjoyed doing, as well as the option of giving this up at any moment and living however he chose, far from the press, the audiences, in any city he wanted, in a house he could get built for him, surrounded by the people he liked and with decades of material comfort ahead of him, and yet he still pulled the trigger. Whereas Immaculée Ilibagiza went into a three-foot-by-four bathroom and spent ninety-one days eating the leftovers brought by the pastor, sleeping and using the toilet in front of seven other women, and seeing the other seven doing the same, each one’s noises and her metabolism, a rota of who stood and who slept and who cried and who fell ill, and during that time she knew or imagined she would lose her house, her city, her country, her language, her family and all the reference points that make a person who she is, but at no time did she ever contemplate anything but survival.
That is, in its entirety, one of the hundred and one chapters that make up the book. A few are shorter, some are much longer. The style is so emotionally raw, like a late-night conversation where everyone is drunk but trying very sincerely to make a real connection, that if the sections were any longer it would be too overwhelming. The translation by Daniel Hahn feels fresh and organic; readers (like this reviewer) who know very little about Brazil are not pandered to but aren’t closed out, either. The chapters circle back and forth between London, the journalistic interview with Ms Ilibagiza, the youthful obsession with Kurt Cobain, and the time in the military service that separated the narrator from his comfortable middle-class life.
But before it all went wrong the narrator, aged 18, met Valéria in a sweaty club and fell head over heels in love. While Valéria is the central figure of the book, she is also an enigma – the narrator and her were together for less than a year and during that time they were in a band together, experimenting with drugs and first love together until his mandatory military service got in the way.
One of the songs we used to play with Valéria was a cover of ‘Drain You.’ She asked for the pacing to be slower and she sang in an ironic tone that would later become common with Richard Cheese and others. Her talent was obvious, and two minutes into the first practice it was clear that the band would depend on the vocals, but this feeling may have been due to the fact that no woman like her had ever come close to me before. It’s hard to assess someone like Valéria, at least to begin with, because beauty is an obstruction that makes us look at whoever’s standing at the microphone as though the rest of the band doesn’t exist, or the rest of the world.
Of course the rest of the world exists. It’s only people who are developing the tunnel vision peculiar to new adults learning how and why choices get made who find themselves closed off to it.
The narrator’s love for Valéria closed himself off to a great deal of the world. She was his first, and in many important ways that it would be a spoiler to reveal, she was also his last. The memory of their time together haunts him completely, and it’s clear that in telling the story he is seeing things in his memories that he didn’t understand when they were happening to him. But Valéria is too damaged a person to be the stereotypical manic pixie – she lost her mother aged four, and had attempted suicide more than once before meeting the narrator. Throughout their relationship she tested him, in big ways and small, to see if she could really trust him with her feelings, her self. And of course, since they were in a band together, there were always other temptations around, which neither of them could shut themselves away from.
The luxury of age gives you the chance to reflect on your blind early steps into adulthood and see how you ended up where you are. And if you’re very lucky you haven’t made too many mistakes, and it’s not too painful living with those choices.
But the book smashes the whole world right open. It’s so, so good. It’s taken the narrator twenty-ish years to tell the story, to understand what he really learned in the run-up to the Nirvana concert. The luxury of age gives you the chance to reflect on your blind early steps into adulthood and see how you ended up where you are. And if you’re very lucky you haven’t made too many mistakes, and it’s not too painful living with those choices.
The empty time in London hangs for the narrator, but it was also a necessary mistake for him to make. That life – of dead-end work, no friends and gray drudgery – would be all that he has unless he chose another way. In telling the story, perhaps the narrator has made his own choice. Any immigrant who has joked the first ten years are the hardest will understand why the narrator chose to turn around and leave. All immigrants will understand his relentless sensation that there is no longer a home to return to. And anyone who has had their life go off the rails will understand the time it takes to get it back on track – and how compelling the impulse at first to smash it up irreparably can be.
A Poison Apple feels important for right now in a way that few books do. The world is buckling under the pressure of insane leadership; late capitalism is stripping people for parts; fascists everywhere are emboldened to take to the streets; an average person can and does live on more than one continent in their lifetime, with varying levels of success; the middle classes wring their hands and focus on their skincare regime rather than risk their comfort. The people in A Poison Apple have been there before, and worse. They’ve lived in pain and fear, in a cage of their own body or of other’s prejudices or in a cage to stay alive. This book is their howl – it’s our scream into the void – of the things we know and the scars we’ve earned that meant our bleeding has stopped and our heart is still beating.
Why has this English translation gotten so little attention? My guess is that it, like the memoirs of Ms Ilibagiza, tells a little too much truth. We are facing up to so many crises on so many fronts that the urge to blind ourselves with reassuring fairy tales is strong. But where does that leave youths like Valéria, who needs so much love but doesn’t feel like she can trust anybody? Or the narrator, who has to keep on living a life he can no longer recognize? We need to tell the truth and shame the devil. And listening to the message of A Poison Apple will only help.
Michel Laub was born in Porto Alegre and currently lives in Sao Paulo. He is a writer and journalist, and was named one of Granta’s twenty ‘Best of Young Brazilian Novelists’. Diary of the Fall, which received the Brasilia Award, was his first novel to appear in English. It won the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Literary Prize 2015 and was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2016.
Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor and translator with more than fifty books to his name. His work has won him the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the Blue Peter Book Award and the International Dublin Literary Award, among others.
Sarah Manvel lives in London and is looking for an agent for her own novel. She reviews films for criticsnotebook.com and can be found on twitter as @typewritersarah.