Humiliation by Paulina Flores (trans. Megan McDowell) — Harry Gallon

Absent fathers and abusive fathers. Jobless fathers and unfaithful fathers. Trying fathers and suicidal fathers. For Paulina Flores, these men are staid, lingering dictators in their own domicile kingdoms. Tiny versions of Chile wandering through the 90s, whose subjects are dejected male heirs, lovelorn daughters with fragile hearts, and mothers and wives who keep the dream of the household alive, simply because they must.

Winner of multiple awards, including the Roberto Bolaño Prize, Humiliation is an intensely political debut. They read as though impatient, and the thing that these nine stories share most prominently is longing. For change. For approval. For affection. For direction, to, apparently, almost anywhere but the Chile of Post-Pinochet’s rule: a country of parched soil, high poverty and low employment. Prospects are weak. Hope is weaker.

In its namesake story, young Simona tries to help her father find work. Circling a casting call for a publicity campaign in the classifieds, she convinces him to apply. He agrees, and Simona and her younger sister accompany their father to the interview at a house in a nearby neighbourhood. The nature of the campaign is not disclosed, and the father behaves as anxiously as someone being pressed into doing porn.

With the realisation that the agency is more interested in his daughters, comes a paralysing embarrassment. “My daughters?” the father repeats, as they dejectedly leave the house. Simona is dismayed at having let him down, and can’t help but take his chant of “What an idiot! How stupid! How humiliating!” personally. The fact that she “instinctively… glanced at his leather belt” stings more than her hurt feelings, though, because it doesn’t matter whether he blames her or not; whether he is calling himself, or his young daughter, stupid. Every story is underpinned by a masculinity backed into a corner: vulnerable, threatening, willing to lash out as the only form of expression. Flores does not shy from offering a disturbing insight into its volatility right from the beginning: whether she is to blame or not, Simona, the little girl who idolises her father and just wanted to help him, understands that she will be punished.

Recently, discontent at the cost of living and class inequality have tipped Chileans over the edge. Mass protests have seen the most serious civil unrest since the fall of Augusto Pinochet. The Chilean government’s response has towed his line: police and soldiers using extreme force. Protesters beaten, mutilated and murdered. It is a brutality that echoes the Junta’s use of uniformed men to curtail Chile’s populace through violence, and in Flores’s Chile, those men are now unemployed.

It is a Chile of the late 90s, dehydrated in its hangover after the last dying days of the dictatorship, still bereft of empathy for its poverty-stricken; a Chile sparse and dry, where men exist in limbo between duty of service and the humiliation of not being needed anymore. Boys seek to rebel, hatching plans on stoops, stealing cigarettes and eating watermelon for every meal, while girls try to decipher the emotionally stunted behaviour of their fathers, fearing and loving them simultaneously, just like their mothers.

In Last Vacation, Nico says goodbye to his unemployed, drunk mother, and goes on holiday with his cousins. While camping beside a lake, his aunt, Veronica, introduces him to a world he thought impossible – one of education and potential, curated and shaped by parental support. “It was seductive to think of myself as a different person”, Nico explains. But when he maintains the illusion by telling another boy that Veronica is his mother, an unshakable sense of betrayal overcomes him. His mother and he “shared an intimacy that… comes from poverty”, and that intimacy, and his unwillingness to ever betray his mother again, are what will, eventually, prevent him from meeting the potential his aunt was trying to nurture.

Throughout the collection, neighbourhoods are ruinous and “desert-like”. Communal identities are forged on boundaries of concrete and asphalt. There is no greenery, there is no natural life, only man-made servitude and toil. And yet these communities are full of people, “teeming and sonorous” and “never dead.” On holiday, surrounded by forests and beaches and open water, Nico’s cousin nicknames him Nicolai, “for the characters in the Chekov stories she was reading. ‘It’s a glorious name,’ she said. ‘It means victory of the people.’” Here Flores asks us where that victory lies: is it in solidarity with your brethren, whilst being part of a rigged system, or is it in knowing where you’ve come from, whilst daring to imagine something different?

It feels like Flores’s message is the latter: that a different, better life is possible. But it also feels like she is torn. Her characters’ desire to start over is reflected in Chile’s relentless fight against oppression, and whilst forgetting, and saying goodbye, to a hurtful past might be the best mode of personal self-care, acknowledging the lawlessness and hypocrisy of contemporary government is key to, eventually, being able to put that hurt in the nation’s past once more.

However, this is not a simple task. Those who want change to deliver them from social stasis are held back by a generation so inherently boot-trodden, that they cannot envision a different life for anyone. In Talcahuano, the young narrator knows that his father does not want change; that he will go on languishing in self-pity, looking back longingly at the days he wore the uniform of Chile’s military and wondering how he can provide for his family without it. The narrator will cast away his days like the seeds of the watermelons he and his friends eat, and they will sit at the foot of steps “putting half moons of rind over [their] faces to flash brazen grins at the ruinous place [they] called home.” That place is the Santa Julia neighbourhood of the port town of Talcahuano: grey, industrial, stinking of fish, where “unemployed people would wander the streets with servile and defeated expressions, as if they belonged to a vanquished battalion of soldiers.”

They have already been forgotten, and their sons are set to follow the same path as Chile drifts through its post-Junta transition to become a country unable, or unwilling, if the recent unrest is anything to go by, to support those left behind.

With his friends Camilo, Pancho and Marquito, the narrator spends his days daydreaming, play-fighting and listening to The Smiths. Education is low on their list of priorities, whilst the idea of leaving town and moving elsewhere comes to them only as a fantasy, if, indeed, at all. To the battalions of soldiers, the ghosts of the old regime, change does not factor. They have already been forgotten, and their sons are set to follow the same path as Chile drifts through its post-Junta transition to become a country unable, or unwilling, if the recent unrest is anything to go by, to support those left behind.

In an act of minor rebellion, the boys concoct a plan to steal instruments from a church and start their own band: the raid must be at night, and to carry it out they train themselves as ninjas. They devour the taste for romance, fiction, and the tools of escape that pretending they are highly-skilled martial artists brings them. What they are doing is robbing the world they have been born into, to steal the chance of a freedom within their reach. The boys choose ninjas rather than samurai, because the latter assume their role through birthright and status, whereas “the only condition for becoming a ninja was that you had nothing to lose.”

In preparation for the raid, the narrator remains oblivious to the disintegration of his family. His mother leaves, taking his sisters with her and reducing his father to a mannequin whose authority, which existed by association to a regime that no longer exists, is gone.

Still, the presence of the father, passed out drunk on the sofa, outweighs by far the narrator’s ambitions. Yet this is not about the weight that parents put on their children. It is about the lengths that men will go to in order to steal attention. A temper. An outburst. A suicide attempt which threatens to swallows all that is left of the boy’s, and his family’s, aspirations.

The raid cannot go ahead because the son is not a ninja. He is a samurai, and by birthright must inherit his father’s role as the doomed figure. He may end up going to school and getting out of Talcahuano, but he will still have to become a servile cog in a machine that will just as likely forget about him, when his children are fighting classism on the streets of Santiago in 2019.

To sons, the father represents their own inevitable downfall, but to daughters, he is an updraft. An idol. A confusion. In Lucky Me, the collection’s finale, the narrative is split between Denise, a woman living in shared accommodation, who harbours the voyeuristic habit of spying on her roommate while she’s having sex, and Nicole, a schoolgirl who befriends Caro, from the class above, and her mother, Raquel. Nicole’s home life is lonely and isolated: she must adhere to strict rules, under a father who works nights and a mother frightened of waking him.

Throughout Humiliation, Men treat women as either sexual objects, stroking their hair as they do their daughters, or as bothersome anchors. Raquel is raised on a pedestal by Nicole’s father, whose giddiness when around her betrays a childishness that reflects his true maturity, while Nicole’s mother is punished with expulsion to the realms of irrelevance. When Nicole fails to confront her father, she becomes complicit, but her need to feel there, to feel involved in her father’s happiness, is too strong. Nicole desperately needs him to love her, but in the end “the brash and shameless happiness [he and Raquel] shared” becomes too much. In Raquel, Nicole sees herself: someone so desiring of affection from a man that she will lie to his wife to obtain it.

Flores writes without decoration or fanfare: her pros are balances and forthright. The Chile she describes permeates with a disturbing loneliness and perverse sense of shame, which leaves the reader feeling used up, spent and even bereft. Through unemployment, domestic abuse and complicity, Flores’s men stand for a poisonous idea, achingly digested and expelled with urgency. Finally played-out, the fact that its redundancy has not stopped the people of Chile from being used and mistreated leaves the reader reeling in an anger that teeters on the edge of hopelessness.

Fall into the abyss we do not, though. In Humiliation, every family is a populace, their self-built homes are little kingdoms sinking into the mire of a land that has yet to forge a new identity and establish a direction for its inhabitants. Every man is a king, but, like Pinochet, they must eventually give way to the voters of democracy. Paulina Flores is writing for those voters: the lost sons and heartbroken daughters. The bored kids in tired neighbourhoods, trying to hustle, trying to escape, trying to be everywhere, and everyone, else, and make their homes, their country, a place they can actually live.

Paulina Flores was born in Chile in 1988. Humiliation is her first book. In its Spanish-language editions, it won the Roberto Bolaño Prize, the Circle of Art Critics Prize, the Municipal Literature Prize, and was selected as one of the ten best books of the year by the newspaper El País.

Megan McDowell has translated many contemporary authors from Latin America and Spain, including Alejandro Zambra, Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez, Gonzalo Torné, Lina Meruane, Diego Zuñiga, and Carlos Fonseca. Her translations have been published in The New Yorker, Tin House, The Paris Review, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, Words Without Borders, and Vice, among others. Her translation of Alejandro Zambra’s novel Ways of Going Home won the 2013 English PEN Award for writing in translation, and her English version of Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin was short-listed for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

Harry Gallon’s work features in numerous publications and has won (and almost won), several competitions. His debut novel, The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, was runner-up for Best Novella at the 2016 Saboteur Awards, and was longlisted for Not the Booker Prize. His second, Every Fox is a Rabid Fox, was published in 2017. He lives in London and is writing his third. @hcagallon