The Remainder and Historical Memory

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How do you live with a trauma that you can neither remember nor forget? Everyone knows about it, talks about it, and everyone suffers from it, but you weren’t even born at the time. Alía Trabucco Zerán does a brilliant job of portraying the problematic aspects of historical memory in Latin America through the short-lived escapade of Iquela, Felipe, and Paloma. In the process of driving through Santiago de Chile to repatriate the body of Paloma’s mother, volcanic ash has saturated the capital city, we are invited to think about our respective histories, and how we are encouraged to remember them.

In the UK alone, hundreds of thousands of people have passed away, and even more, have lost their livelihoods and certainty in life at the hands of a worldwide pandemic. Over a year has passed since the first case of Covid-19 in the United Kingdom, yet each person’s perspective on the pandemic can vary incredibly. Many would argue that the government’s handling of the situation has not been up to scratch, has not acted quickly enough, and has shown utter disdain for those who are most vulnerable to the virus. Others would argue with the same fervour that our government’s solutions to the crisis have been a great success.

Obviously, there is no point in comparing a worldwide pandemic with General Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, the two are vastly different situations. However, the meanings that we can extract from The Remainder should not be dismissed by Anglophone audiences as ‘too specific’ to Chilean history.  Alía Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder is not only enjoyable, but it is also incredibly useful for us when we consider how we should think about collective memory and legacy.

Trabucco Zerán’s tale is refreshingly nuanced and shows the attempt of the younger Chilean generation to shake free of Pinochet’s legacy. Their earliest memory of the dictatorship is its end (the first democratic election in 10 years). They are only able to experience this event in their own childlike worlds with no perception of the wider context surrounding the election. As they grow up, their parents constantly remind them of the suffering that took place in their country, the name-changing, the emigration, the disappearances. They cannot forget the suffering of their country despite never having experienced it themselves, and never being able to fully remember it at all.

There is a surreal air to the journey of three young people in an old car called The General with a borrowed hearse strapped onto the top. Yes, they are literally driving ‘The General’ out of Santiago with a rented coffin and a bottle of Pisco. Felipe wanders the streets seeing every corpse that fell in the midst of civil unrest and persecution. He lines up each death with the number of Chileans who have since been born, looking for death “with no remainder.” There is the tragic feeling that something needs to be fixed and compensated for, but it cannot be. The odyssey across the Cordillera, the search for a place to bury Paloma’s mother, Ingrid, and the exploration into the past gives The Remainder a dreamlike feel.

I love that this book is enjoyable without the cultural and historical context as the language is beautiful without spilling into an overly literary realm. However, historical awareness greatly enhances the metaphorical aspects of the story, making it all the more rewarding. How do we plan to move on from what we have experienced across the globe, especially with the weight of our parents’ legacy on our backs? How should we strive to remember our past, and who does it serve?

You can buy Alía Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder here.

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I'm an English and Spanish student who just wants people to care about obscure things as much as I do. My hobbies include muffled, unintelligible screaming about theatre, poetry, and film.

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