What’s the difference between a handyperson and a tinkerer? Anyone who has ever seen either in action won’t hesitate to give you an answer: the former is someone who, when presented with a job that needs doing, will methodically assess their options, choose the most straightforward solution and implement it without further ado, using new parts where necessary and following the instructions and good practice for whatever tools and implements may be required. The latter, faced with a similar problem (or, just as likely, when they’ve invented one for themselves), is liable to take a rather more circuitous route in which terms such as “good practice” and “new parts” are supplanted by a more optimistic world view where the laws of physics can be bent by force of will and junk yards are superior to any reputable hardware store. If you happen to live with one, it can make life very interesting indeed (I speak from experience: several distinguished literary posteriors have in the past fallen victim to my own resident tinkerer’s creative approach to seating).
Anne F. Garreta, the first member of Oulipo to be born after the collective was founded (anyone else disappointed that such an ostensibly irreverent ensemble should take the concept of membership quite so earnestly?) is an inveterate tinkerer, only in her case with language. With In Concrete, she offers an uproarious cautionary tale/celebration of what can happen when a household is governed by a philosophy of extreme tinkering, written in prose that has itself been heavily hammered, soldered and jimmied into weird and wonderful shapes. The translator Emma Ramadan has clearly had enormous fun (along with not a few bouts of confusion and exasperation I would imagine) rendering it into English and the overall effect is Tom Sawyer by way of Molly Bloom.
Narrated by a boy we take to be on the cusp of adolescence, the book recounts the exploits of he and his younger but feistier sister, Poulette, working on madcap projects that are mostly the brainchild of their father, the kind of man who believes that a car’s fuel efficiency can be improved by urinating in the gas tank and who displays a mystical belief in the powers of concrete and all round muddernization (malapropisms, neologisms and good old fashioned puns abound). The action is breathless, noisy and often grotesque: eyes filled with guano are washed out with spit, people dangle precariously from rafters in improvised hoists, the siblings engage in a vigorous and messy battle royale with the village bully and, on yet another ill thought out family refurbishment project poor Poulette is unwittingly encased in concrete, but the reader might well choose to linger more over the quieter moments, for instance when the narrator lies in bed at night wondering whether there might not be a better way of doing things (a process he describes as “waxing and buffing”), or when the siblings are enjoying their far healthier relationships with their grandparents. Another moment of stillness comes with a brief portrait of a poverty stricken old peasant woman (our rapscallions initially mistake her for a donkey) whose fate offers one or two clarifying home truths.
Underneath the childish bravado; which includes a plethora of war metaphors, the narrator being an enthusiastic albeit selective student of history, Garreta has trowelled layer upon layer of linguistic, political and cultural symbolism whose subjects range from social inequality to homophobia and racism. While the tone of the novel is essentially playful, there’s plenty of profundity if you’re of a mind to look for it and if you find some of the set pieces described preposterous or are frustrated by that quintessentially oulipian trait of always going for one joke too many, ask yourself how much of the world around you isn’t shaped by one megalomaniacal tinkerer or another; you might well conclude that there’s plenty that could do with some serious waxing and buffing.
Review written by Kit Maude
Kit Maude is a translator based in Buenos Aires. He has translated dozens of Latin American writers for a wide array of publications and writes reviews and criticism for several different outlets in Spanish and English.