January 27, 2011

a review of DRAINING THE SEA

Micheline Aharonian Marcom. Draining the Sea. Riverhead Books, 2008. 339 pp. Cloth: $26.95.

In her third novel, Draining the Sea, Marcom constructs a bizarre relationship between an American man, the progeny of genocide survivors, and Marta, a young Guatemalan woman whose terrible fate is somehow connected to the narrator’s nightmarish existence. Racked by memories of the Guatemalan civil war, and the violent death of Marta, the unnamed man spends his nights driving the freeways of Los Angeles and “essaying himself from ether.” The narrator, who seems to be involved in her treacherous death, is at the same time claiming to be her faithful lover. In an unconscious attempt to redeem himself, he methodically collects dead animal corpses from the roadside and buries them in his garden. With Draining the Sea, Marcom continues her quest to trace the effects of genocide over the course of three generations, but unlike her previous novels, this book is set in the Americas and follows one of the darkest episodes of modern history. In her distinctive voice that brilliantly represents the bleak and hallucinatory world of her characters, the story unfolds through the “unhistories” of humanity, reaching us as though from an underworld of torture. The memories that are slowly deteriorating the narrator’s sanity and driving him to madness include images of lynched Ixil peasants, torture cells in Guatemala City, and a “bone-boy”—a bone collector in the Syrian desert. Stylistically Marcom’s prose reenacts trauma through non-linearity, compulsive repetition and negation: “This is an essay against Progress (it is not a progressive story), this essay does not do it, but like the maze of days of thoughts of memories and notmemories, like the phrases which tumbled willy-nilly from a mother’s mouth, or an invocation, a song;—repeat themselves endlessly, without form or with it?” Language is deliberately broken down, it often doesn’t make any sense. Words that become inadequate are reformulated in new negative forms: “These the books we unwrite unread: unthought books, a prewritten kind of text: the interstitial books: the sort of narrative that makes loops in the mind, like ribbons and flood rivers that leave only a trace of the before.” The essaying of such sordid things is difficult, yet Marcom’s book is articulate and relentless in its search for optimism and beauty. [Shushan Avagyan]

—from the Review of Contemporary Fiction 28.2 (Summer 2008).

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