Relationships can be long and snaking, cutting like train tracks through the varied landscapes of a life, and they can be short, stuttering, brief and intense. But their most compelling literary, emotional and mythologising potential lies at their beginnings, and at their ends. There is a body of astrological, psychological, romantic, legal and fictional texts devoted to these opposite points of a relationship, testament to the scrutiny and energy poured into attempting to capture the superload of feelings wrapped up in them. Tropes related to the making and breaking of relationships often, through the conceit of ‘soul mates’ or ‘love at first sight’, suggest an element of cosmic provision – what we might call fate – but rarely is the concept of fate itself explored. Jorge Consiglio’s slim novel Fate is an intense, enigmatic consideration of fate in love, and of fate as a force in human life.
Fate follows two couples in Buenos Aires: Karl and Marina, whose marriage is falling apart, and Amer and Clara, whose romance is beginning. They barely intersect but their similarities, parallels and profound differences read, in Consiglio’s hands, like necessary reflections, even when their stories are profoundly separate. Karl and Marina have a son, Simón: the jaw-clenching psychodrama of their marital collapse is mirrored by Simón in small, sniping, heartfelt rebellions (refusing to look up from computer games, refusing to eat). Amer and Clara meet at a support group for people trying to quit smoking and tumble headlong into heady passion and discombobulating arguments. Even though one experience could be straightforwardly described as ‘bad’ (break-up) and one experience could be straightforwardly described as ‘good’ (new romance), neither relationship is exactly delineated by total happiness or unhappiness; instead, Consiglio succeeds in capturing the turbulent molecular specifics of emotions, moment to moment.
This is only Consiglio’s second book to be translated and published into English (the first, the collection of short stories Southerly (Villa del Parque), has also been published by Charco Press). Consiglio is a prolific and prize-winning author in Argentina and in Spain, with five novels and three short story collections behind him. For Fate, Consiglio writes cleanly, quietly, exactly, because a study of fate (or the nonexistence of fate) needs to be finely delineated to avoid vague symbolism or acerbic cynicism at the level of the line, but this exacting mastery over the prose is a deliberate stylistic choice, suggesting a master of the craft.
In the author note that serves as a foreword, Consiglio reassures us that Orloff and Petch’s translation of Fate is ‘impeccable and captures every nuance of the original’. I only have the facility to comment on the English translation, but it is a beautiful, forensic thing, tender towards its characters in its attempts to convey emotion with chiselled exactitude. Take the scene where Karl, a professional oboist and a German who moved to Argentina for his wife Marina, walks back home after admitting to the conductor of his orchestra that something is fragmenting in his marriage – his excuse for a shoddy performance at a rehearsal, or so he chooses to excuse himself, hardly able to believe the truth of what he says:
It was a bright day, neither hot nor cold, so he decided not to take the subway. He walked until he reached Sarmiento and halted at the window of a shop that sold musical instruments. He hesitated for three seconds then walked in. He purchased a hand-painted set of Andean pan-pipes for his son[…] For the first time, he felt that as he moved away from music – which lately had meant the orchestra – he plunged into life more fully, as if he were diving into a strong, alluring sea. There was nothing like the warmth of the afternoon sun on your face: a freedom tarnished by the memory of what had happened earlier in the day.
The precision of those three seconds, the careful listing of the minutiae of movement and temperature, followed, within sentences, by an equally measured and precise description of the intensely sensory transliteration of an emotional experience (freedom as swimming, choice as direction), push the reader to consider every element of the narrative as having equal weight. And this is how we find ourselves considering the beginning, and the end, of a relationship, superstitious and scrupulous: if I hadn’t stopped in at that bar for a nightcap I would never have met you, if I hadn’t missed that phone call I would never have lost you, if I had only, if I had only, if I had only…
To what extent are we moving along predestined grooves, and to what extent is everything we do a free-form act of will? This interrogation is at the the heart of this novel. Consiglio opens Fate with an author’s note that begins, ‘The key question is: fate or chance?’ Within the framework of the novel itself, it’s a marvellous work of metatextual provocation. As well as being an introduction to the text, and a sort of programme note on the process of the creation (‘I was mulling over how to capture the intimacy of poetry… the meshing of meanings evoked by the opacity of language…’), it reflects the narrative through a trick mirror. Does Consiglio intend us to see Marina’s affair with a colleague named Zárate as foretold, magnetic? Or does Marina compel herself into his arms, subconsciously attempting to trigger a crisis in her marriage? Erotic charge can sometimes have the dimensions of inevitability, so powerful that it warps us, distorting our ability to choose; or else we might use this to excuse betrayal and any other transgressions.
Re-reading Fate, I find myself looking for clues to the characters, and trying to second-guess what my recognition of those clues might mean. I have learned to recognise in myself, as if a paragraph pulled from an early date between Amer and Clara might be a tarot card:
A few weeks earlier, Amer had walked out of a cinema fifteen minutes into the movie. It was something that had never happened to him before: the main character was so much like him that the film had become unbearable to watch[…] You’re crazy. I wouldn’t go to the movie with you even if they paid me, said Clara with a forced smile. Just then, she was distracted by a brightly coloured bird perched on a branch. It opened its wings and folded them again. Its nervous eyes darted over its surroundings. Three seconds passed.
I see the three-second motif repeated and wonder, was this written to catch my eye? And if it was, what particular lesson should I learn from the scenes that follow? The temptation to look for portents is irresistible – Consiglio has set us up for it. Is the bird just a bird, or is the bird a messenger ex machina? Would the progress of the film have given Amer, and the reader, a clue for how his relationship with Clara would unfold? At the same time, there is an endearing emotional veracity to Amer’s walk-out and Clara’s reaction to his recounting of it. The simple record of their actions is an unspeakably intimate thing. I find myself looking for myself in every character, not because I believe us to be fundamentally similar in any way, but because I have drawn so close to them, and been privy to such particulate detail, that they seem to move through the pages carrying some fundamental truth about being human.
‘It’s inevitable that we put some sort of faith in sign and symbols, dense and mysterious as theorems. What else is there in this slippery world? We all want to be told how the story will end,’ writes Sophie Mackintosh in her essay ‘Alignment’. In the realm of fiction, an author has total authority over their characters, and they can inject interactions with meaning and pattern-play in a way therapists warn us not to in our day to day lives. It takes a particular level of craftsmanship to do this at the level of the sentence, with the effortlessness that Consiglio seamlessly achieves, and to sweep a reader so tenderly into the progress.