Melodrome by Marcelo Cohen

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Melodrome is the third title in the Giramondo’s Southern Latitude series.  The purpose of the series is to bring to the attention of Australian readers books authored by writers from elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere.  One such writer is Marcelo Cohen who is an award-winning Argentinian writer.  Melodrome is his 14th book.

The title of this book – which at first glance gives no hint to its contents – comes from the combination of two Greek roots: ‘melos’ meaning song and ‘dromos’ meaning course.  It seems appropriate for a book about a road trip in search of a folk singer.  Set in a future world remarkably similar to our own, but with some creative differences in culture, language and experience, the book charts a road trip undertaken by the two protagonists.

But Melodrome is not a dystopian novel in the vein of Brave New World or The Handmaid’s Tale – ‘this is a story of desire and sacrifice’ [1].  The novel centres on Lerena Dost a successful and strong woman and Dr Suano Botilecue a psychoanalyst.  In different ways, both are undone by their affair launched while Lerena was a patient of Suano.

The consequence of the affair for Suano was to lose his licence to practise as a psychoanalyst.  In addition, he was required by government order to provide free counselling to the homeless and disadvantaged people who congregate each evening in a courtyard outside a homeless shelter.  For Lerena, she believes that her recent sacking by her employer for being too assertive and harsh towards her staff was more attributable to the affair than to her behaviour to her staff.  She also lost her home through her lease being terminated by the building’s rental manager.

The story is narrated by an unnamed but observant person who lives in the shelter and watches from the shadows the interaction between Lerena and Suano – and quite remarkably is able to describe the events which occur away from the courtyard.  There are elements of magical writing in Melodrome.

When leaving her employer’s office after her sacking, Lerena has a chance encounter with Dielsi Munava – a spell-binding folksinger who has now left the music industry and created a spiritual commune some distance from the city.  In a conversation with her entourage, Munava mentions the number 29.  Lerena believes that is an omen and buys a lottery ticket.  She wins and overnight becomes substantially rich.

Convinced that she must show her gratitude to Munava by sharing her win with her, Lerena seeks out her erstwhile therapist and lover Suano to ask for his assistance.

Thus begins the road trip, albeit with a rather reluctant Suano as the driver and escort.

The author cleverly and seamlessly interweaves these two strands in his story.  First, the gradual rediscovery of each other by Lerena and Suano and the re-establishment of their relationship; and second, the revealing of the nation state in which the action takes place.

The state is the Panoramic Delta in which the currency is ‘panoramics’ and the language is largely similar to ours.  However, there are many words – or neologisms – not known in English.  With the use of neologisms such as ‘mincar’, ‘milokis’, ‘farfonette’ and ‘padlet’, the novel creates a futuristic world – a speculative world of the future brought about by cultural change rather than by technological advances.  The author describes his fiction as ‘fantastic sociology’ – a crossover between fantasy and realism.

By the way, the neologisms above could mean, respectively, ‘car’, ‘miles’, ‘car phone’, and ‘tablet’ [as in iPad].

The neologisms and the almost dream-like state in which the action takes place creates a surreal milieu where nothing is quite as it seems.  Strange behaviour occurs not always in context as in the following examples:

There they find a little volcano of loose earth and, protruding from its summit, a man’s head with a swollen nose and vacant eyes.  The kayfra joint placed between his lips looks like an offering. [56]

As now, when a man on the road up ahead tries to stop them with a closed umbrella and an open hand, no doubt to show them a dung beetle and accuse them of having run over it.  [108]

Within this milieu, Lerena and Suano slowly work their way to some resolution of their earlier relationship which had hurtful consequences for both, and to the creation of a perhaps a more equal relationship.  However, at the end of their road trip and on their return to the homeless shelter where the adventure began, ‘they still have a way to go together’ [141].

They cover those metres like a sparking fuse.  And since everything in their path catches fire, they seem to be losing everything, but they still have the path, the night coming on, and the darkness behind them that does not extinguish but kindles the flame.  [141]

‘The darkness behind them’ can be read as a metaphor for their troubled shared past.  It can be presumed that their as yet unresolved issues will not hinder or destroy what is yet to come for them.

Melodrome is a fascinating book and one that easily engages the reader as she/he follows the protagonists navigating their way around the Panoramic Delta while at the same time negotiating the terms of their renewing relationship.  There is no final resolution but there is hope.

The book is translated from Spanish by Chris Andrews who is a prize-winning poet as well a translator.  Andrews teaches at the Western Sydney University where he is a member of the Writing and Society Research Centre.

Melodrome

[2018]

by Marcelo Cohen

Giramondo Publishing

ISBN 978 1 92533 677 1

142pp; $24.95

 

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