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from the June–July 2019 issue

Lives and Deaths Imagined: A Review of Gabriela Ybarra’s “The Dinner Guest”

Reviewed by Craig Epplin

The Spanish author and Man Booker International nominee elides the distance between novel and memoir in a book that confronts the killing of her grandfather by the ETA and her mother's death from cancer.

I can feel that other day running underneath this one
like an old videotape . . .

—Anne Carson, “The Glass Essay”

Calendars add a particular cruelty to grief. The annual recurrence of a month crossing paths with a number can make the wounds of loss feel present again. Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest, translated by Natasha Wimmer and published by Transit Books, is full of such moments of remembrance. The past—personal and collective—haunts the present in this novel, returning dutifully on regular occasions. “I believe dates are important; anniversaries must be marked,” Ybarra writes. “My mother died on a Tuesday, and I remember her every Tuesday. My mother died on the 6th, and I think of her every 6th.” The anniversary is condensed, experienced at the smaller scales of weeks and months. These regular intervals are mnemonic devices, allowing us to infuse order into what seems to just happen. They create a poetic meter in the flux of life.

The dinner guest of the title corresponds to the smallest such unit of repetition: “The story goes that in my family there’s an extra dinner guest at every meal.” This guest comes every evening, eats with the family or at least inhabits the place that’s been set for him. And sometimes he makes a scene: “Every so often he appears, casts his shadow over the table and erases one of those present.” Death, personified by the invisible specter sitting across the table, is an insistent presence at dinner, but he’s also unpredictable, moved by a logic of things unknown to us: whenever he likes (“[e]very so often”), he takes someone.

This guest is present from the novel’s first pages, and thus Ybarra establishes early in the narrative a contrast between the regular drip of life, the consistent rhythms of days and weeks and months, and the contingency that threatens to disrupt this order. Death is the ultimate such threat, a conviction that seems present throughout the pages of The Dinner Guest—pages we are explicitly invited to read in relation to the author’s own biographical reality. In a preliminary “Author’s Note,” Ybarra identifies the events of the novel with real moments in her family history, though without insisting on a direct, one-to-one correspondence between words and world. Rather, as she describes the research and imaginative labor that underlie her writing process, she seems to elide the difference between outside and inside, between author and narrator. Such distinctions dissolve into something more elemental, an imaginative writing that resembles in turn a documentary, a memoir, or a novel, suggesting perhaps that we all occupy the function of narrator in the lives we believe ourselves to be authoring.

The first part of the book is dedicated to reconstructing the kidnapping and murder of the narrator’s paternal grandfather at the hands of ETA, the Basque separatist group known for its use of high-profile terrorist attacks, in the late seventies. The novel then shifts its focus to the illness and eventual death of the narrator’s mother. It is the latter death that seems to most fully insist on the randomness of life’s tragedies: “Before my mother’s death I lived as if the normal thing was to die of old age,” we read toward the novel’s conclusion. “Now I believe that the standard is to die before one’s time, like my grandfather Javier, like my mother, or like a friend of a friend who was hit by a car that ran a red light on the Castellana. An untimely death is always violent.” All deaths, we might extrapolate, are untimely.

In this formulation, Ybarra draws a connection between the two deaths that are the novel’s focus, besides adding a third one—that of the friend of a friend who died in an automobile accident. This connection helps elucidate a main aspect of the narrative’s structure: its coupling of the death of the grandfather in the late seventies to the death of the mother in 2011. How are the two deaths related? The kidnapping and execution of Ybarra’s grandfather result from the political motives and strategies of ETA and reflect her family’s historical prominence in the public life of the Basque Country. Her mother’s death, from a cancer that appeared to be in remission only to return swiftly and almost invisibly, might be seen to occur in a different realm, disconnected from the world of politics. Why, then, are they joined together as the axes of this novel?

One reason may be that Ybarra wants to challenge the distinction I have just suggested—between death due to political violence and death due to illness. The two, after all, are not unrelated. Cancer becomes political once you consider environmental determinants and disparities in treatment, as do many other illnesses, just as overtly political causes of death like war and terrorism have devastating effects on the health of families and individuals, besides conditioning, to a large degree, our notion of what a family is and what it’s for. Perhaps by joining together these two realms, Ybarra wants to show how they overlap and blur together.

More clearly, though, this narrative technique underscores the role of imagination in memory and perception. Such an interpretation would be consistent with the explanatory note that Ybarra includes at the novel’s opening, where she describes the book as “a free reconstruction of the history of my family,” in which the first part, especially, relies on documentary research, the imperfect recollection of conversations overheard, and the creativity inherent in deciding when one version of things is preferable to another. All memory is, to some degree, imaginative; Ybarra’s novel seems to assume this assertion to be the case, straining to get the past right but without believing that it can be known in itself, independently of the creative act of storytelling. “Often, imagining has been the only way I’ve had to understand.” 

And this is the case not only with past events. The second, longer part of the book focuses on the illness and death of the narrator’s mother in the near-present. Here, too, what stands out is Ybarra’s portrayal of confusion, or at least incomplete knowledge, in which metaphor, often visual in nature, is essential to organizing perception. The suggestion seems to be that even as events are happening we are often unaware of what they are or what they mean. Almost immediately after the narrator learns that her mother’s cancer has silently metastasized, a friend visits Ybarra in New York and they go out to get something to eat:

While we were on our way to the deli the earthquake hit. A tremor of magnitude 5.9 on the Richter scale was rocking the east coast of the United States. Outside we didn’t feel it, so I talked on, oblivious of tectonic plates, and my friend smoked, indifferent to the movements of the earth. In Washington the Pentagon was being evacuated, the airports had just been closed, and the foundations of Manhattan’s skyscrapers shuddered, knocking over the coffee cups of office workers. Still, the only tremor that I felt that afternoon was in my head. 

This experience encapsulates many of the main points of Ybarra’s nuanced reflection on life, death, and narrative: what we perceive is partial, what we remember is imagined, and when we recount our experience, we make use of poetic devices like metaphor. The earthquake shakes the earth, whether we know it or not, and as it happens, something resounds within her head, a feeling she describes as a “tremor,” as if borrowing from the earth a lexicon that might correspond to her grief and shock.

Perhaps it is because we seek to find order, poetic or otherwise, in such experiences that we insist on anniversaries. Despite the pain of losses remembered, there can be comfort in the regularity of marking time. And yet this comfort is evanescent, always about to dissolve, for the world ultimately doesn’t care for our rhythmic requirements. Hence death. A significant accomplishment of The Dinner Guest is to portray the act of seeking, imagining order in our lives and deaths, all the while knowing that it will inevitably be interrupted.

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