Never Did the Fire

by Diamela Eltit, translated by Daniel Hahn

reviewed by Steven Flores

Diamela Eltit’s slim and perplexing novel Never Did the Fire chronicles the forsaken afterlife of two revolutionaries holed up in a tiny apartment in an unnamed city in an unnamed time. It is a minimalist, or rather, repressed work, whose treatment of its subject is so oblique that one would fare better reading it in a graduate seminar than, say, at the beach, or really any place where light gets in. The novel is grim, centering on the death of the couple’s child at age two. The unnamed “boy” is the novel’s absent center who, once removed, leaves the protagonists circling the drain, wallowing in bodily degradation and their festering contempt for one another. The main tension of the novel arises over the way the child died, setting at odds two parents who, for reasons of poverty and politics, remain largely trapped in a small, run-down apartment, subsisting on a diet of bread, rice, and cigarettes.

All of this plays out against the backdrop of a larger political upheaval. There are vague references to cells and factions, debates over revolution versus reform. While the novel eschews proper nouns such as street names, businesses, cities, or political figures, one is tempted to assume that Eltit—a major Chilean writer and activist—is talking about her native Chile. That Eltit avoids any mention of Pinochet, Santiago, Allende, the 1973 coup, or any fictional proxy thereof is the novel’s most confounding choice. Yet it is done so intently that one wonders whether she is making a point about the Southern Cone or Latin America in general. What that point is, however, remains unclear, at least to this reviewer.

Perhaps that’s what gives the narrative its ruminative, repressed shape. Leaping back and forth temporally, often within the same sentence, and vacillating between the figurative and the literal, the novel is on par with the highest high modernism for its impenetrability. Like Joyce or Woolf or Faulkner, Never Did the Fire might best be read in the company of others who can provide some camaraderie and insight; as it stands, the novel reads like a Freudian case study without any Freudian interpretation. Indeed, Eltit’s balancing act between plot, character, and theme is perplexing due in large part to her high-wire act of focalizing an entire story through the point of view of a character suffering from deep-seated trauma. More than just unreliable, the narrator is a storyteller who cannot tell her story, and this paradox deprives the reader of one of the central pleasures of reading—the privilege of the narrator’s confidence.

Perhaps, too, this habit of circumlocution is what’s behind the clunky prose. For instance, when our unnamed narrator gets mad at her sick and slovenly partner for eating all of the bread (in bed, no less), she narrates to herself, “Alert at the distance that allows you the sole act of shutting your eyes, you seek to dispel the hatred lodged in my canines by the quantity of crumbs scattered on top of the bed.” A short while later: “I try to brush aside the impatience that assails me because I fear, yes, my own reactions. The ferocity with which I could try to destroy the autonomy of your head.” There are many more sentences like this—a kind of ersatz prose that hardly seems to issue from a world-renowned writer working with a world-renowned translator. (Eltit’s translator, Daniel Hahn, has written a book, Catching Fire: A Translation Diary, about translating Never Did the Fire.)

What gives? Where was the terra firma I’d known while reading other Chilean writers in the Pinochet resistance—Pedro Lemebel, Manuel Puig, or Isabel Allende? And, for that matter, the other excellent books I’d read from Charco Press? Beleaguered, I found myself thinking of Yeats’s “The Second Coming”: The narrator had lost the narrative. The center would not hold. Things had fallen apart, or rather, they had never coalesced in the first place. I must be missing something, or everything.

To my relief, the last third of the novel is where the book (mostly) comes together. Reliably concrete flashbacks emerge like the sun through a mass of clouds, and what seems like one cowardly misjudgment on the part of the narrator’s partner is revealed to be part of a larger pattern of selfish neglect stemming from political over-identification. The narrator’s towering resentment becomes more understandable, but will this self-knowledge make for redemption or even stoic resignation? To say any more would spoil the ending.

I took a certain satisfaction in seeing Eltit’s improbable alchemy. Ultimately, however, the high concept fell flat for this reviewer. I found myself wondering why Eltit withheld at every turn, and whether a scholar or ten might shed light on this mystifying work.

Published on November 17, 2022