Catalonian author and poet Eva Baltasar’s second novel (her first, Permafrost, won the Omnium Prize for Best Catalan novel in 2020) centres on a ship’s cook (“I’m not a chef, I’m just a mess-hall cook, capable and self-taught”) who we only know via her nickname (the title of the book), given to her by her lover, Samsa.
But don’t let yourself get caught up expecting some tale of the high seas. Joseph Conrad this is not. What we get instead is a love story, of sorts, messy, obsessive, painful and fascinating. At her best, Baltasar writes like Bolaño, circling and worrying her words in a way that is genuinely gripping. Somebody should get a copy of this book to Patti Smith – she’d love it.
“We all incubate here in the boat’s amniotic fluid; the boat loves and nurtures us, it invites us to take another look at ourselves. I let myself be strung along; life develops without overwhelming me, it squeezes into every minute, it implodes; I hold it in my hands. I can give anything up because nothing is essential when you refuse to imprison life in a narrative.”
Boulder and Samsa have a love affair every time Boulder’s ship returns to shore. But then, bad news, Samsa is moving to Reykjavik. Or not bad news because the two of them move together, from Chile to Iceland. Samsa’s job pays well. Boulder doesn’t have to work. But most Icelanders work two jobs. Boulder feels bad. She’s antsy and restless when she isn’t fucking Samsa (Boulder is the kind of person who starts to feel disjointed when she isn’t getting regular sex).
“I fuck her with a thirst that seems to contain more than just the need for sex. I rush, I inhibit her. I strip her clothes with my teeth and follow her scent with flared nostrils, ruthless, as if wanting to unearth a treasure. Desire overwhelms me, in the way I hold her and withhold from her a desire that is identical, jealous, borderline cruel.”
Ah but then the restlessness coalesces into another kind of desire. Samsa wants a baby, Boulder does not. This is where Boulder comes into its own. This, if we feel the need to be reductive, is what the book is about – what happens to the love between two people when it is shared. Although we are looking at two women, we could just as easily be looking at any couple who has a child. One person focused on the child, one person neglected. Happens the world over.
“Samsa is sexless, a dockyard grid-locked by a single ship. She devotes every second of night and day to the project that demands her attention. A fine-mesh filter barricades the mouth of her desire. There’s nothing left for me, she’s transformed. She won’t even let me touch her.”
For a just over 100 page novel, Boulder is quite the rollercoaster, an emotional gamut unto itself. It sucked us in, spun us up and spat us back out again, tornado-like. The writing (and presumably the translation, as that is how we read it) is exceptional.
Of course we know as we read that some messes can’t resolve themselves, that some things get so broken there is no hope for them. We know it, we see it coming and yet we can’t help but be knocked flat on our ass when it arrives. “I sail and I am all alone,” Boulder tells us. And we sail with her, newly wowed by Eva Baltasar.
Any Cop?: One of those lovely books we knew nothing about until we started reading. And what a read it was. Don’t miss it.