ROCK, by Eva Baltasar. Translated by Julia Sanches.
In “Boulder,” the second novel in a triptych exploring the lives of women in first-person perspective, Spanish poet and writer Eva Baltasar introduces us to a horny, chain-smoking cook working on a merchant ship off the coast of southern Chile. Silence comes as easily as rough seas to our restless protagonist, until she meets and falls in love with Samsa, a woman who affectionately nicknames her “Boulder.”
Boulder isn’t a fan of structure and will likely erupt in ecstasy if he ever gets a daily planner. Boulder gives up his life at sea for a small apartment in Reykjavik, where the couple moves after Samsa accepts a job offer. While Samsa works 10 hour days, Boulder struggles to adjust to the routine of a daily life that is at odds with her comforting solitude. Yet the language of desire never stops vibrating from the page; Baltasar mines the mundane for gold and offers those nuggets—those morsels of intimacy—in a way that grabs and fills. They’re enough to make Boulder stay, even if they remove her from a life without shackles.
But what happens when her love of samsa and her longing for freedom – an already precarious balance for Boulder – collide? After almost eight years together and nearly 40, Samsa decides she wants a child. To the she to have a child For Boulder, this is an anchor, once thrown, that cannot be recovered, but she is afraid of losing Samsa. “I’m not telling her I don’t want to be a mother.”
As Samsa prepares her body for the birth—vitamins, hormones, injections, blood tests, antenatal classes, prenatal aquatics—Boulder watches as her partner transforms into a total stranger: “There’s nothing left of her for me, she’s transformed. She begins to question her place in Samsa’s life and allays her fears with Brennivín at a local pub. Samsa gives birth to a baby girl, Tinna, and Boulder finds himself outside looking inside.
While motherhood comes naturally to Samsa, Boulder feels like the cans hauling a newlywed’s getaway car: “It has nothing to do with me; I was exiled.” The emptiness that Boulder feels begins to consume her, and soon she seeks solace in the company of another woman, a regular who comes to her food truck for lunch.
Their tryst is just ending when Boulder begins to feel trapped by her new lover’s demands for domesticity. At the same time, the physical proximity to Tinna – holding her, feeding her, dancing with her in the mornings of the one day of the week that Samsa tries to cram all of her free time into – evokes a novelty and strangeness to Boulder surrenders the intimacy. Despite the repression and separation endured by a delightfully complex protagonist whose anxiety-induced quips would surely kill on Twitter, the novel tugs at your heart. Boulder isn’t a mother or a mother, but plants roots in the space between the noun and the verb. Motherhood changed Boulder, just not hers – and therein lies the source of the novel’s appeal.
In Sanches’ translation, Baltasar conjures up a version of motherhood that eschews the word. Instead, it is an approximation that asks us to move away from scholarly language, from the exact. And maybe it shouldn’t have a name; Maybe some things – like love – are hard to define.
Greg Mania is the author of the memoir Born to Be Public.
ROCK, by Eva Baltasar | Translated by Julia Sanches | 112 p. | And Other Stories | Paper, $17.95