Adriana Riva’s Salt, translated by Denise Kripper – Chicago Review of Books


Adriana Riva’s latest novel concerns itself with the mother/daughter question: do we know them? Do they see us? Translated by Denise Kripper and published by Veliz Books, Salt depicts a pregnant Ema as she tries to close the ever-growing gap between herself and her mother. Despite residing in the same home, the two women remain foreign to one another. Ema is still haunted by a childhood accident, which continues to bleed into her relationship with her mother. She gazes into the past with a wavering unacceptance, eager for answers and afraid of the truth. As Denise writes in her introductory translator’s note, “the way history repeated itself is germane to translation: there’s always difference in repetition. Daughters might contain their mothers but are not them. Some things resist reproduction.” Salt is about the lies told to us by our families; the ones we keep and the ones we discard. If a daughter is a reproduction, albeit a reluctant one, so too are the lies passed down from one generation to another. 

Denise Kripper’s translation is stunning, so clear that to read it feels effortless, simple, and still the origin language is there, breathing hotly down the neck of the target language. The story is in Ema’s voice, who looks at her mother as if she is analyzing a portrait, rather than looking in the mirror. She is inscrutable and semantic, “a faithful copy of her (mother’s) useless skills.” The attention to language is yet another thing that Denise and Adriana share, in addition to being from Jewish families, raised in Buenos Aires, and belonging to the same generation. They are indeed, as Denise says, speaking the same language. It’s no wonder, then, that Ema and her mother seem to look at language in much the same way. One is reminded of Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon while reading, the names and phrases are categorically distinct, the memories kept hidden behind words, which “are used to reduce reality to something the mind can process.”

Salt is a short family epic, crossing entire lives, generations, and landscapes. The main cast includes the narrator, Ema, and her mother–sometimes called Elena, other times Raquel–as well as Ema’s aunt Sara and her sister Julia. There are three parts to the novel; the first introduces us to Ema as a child. She is suffering from a catastrophic fall that nearly paralyzes her and keeps her bed-ridden for months, nursed by her family’s live-in nanny. This part of the novel adopts a casual storytelling tone, contrasting with the horror of the fall. It is unclear, from the perspective of Ema, whether her mom watched her climb the ladder which led to her fall, but it is clear that the moment marked a serious shift in her relationship with her mother. 

The second part takes place in the present day, in which a pregnant Ema, along with her mother, sister, and aunt, take a road trip to Macachín, her mother’s hometown, to uncover a box of old family documents. The salt itself is a relic of the past, an old family business still present in Macachín, its residual effect on the finances of the family left murky. As the women embark on their trip, Adriana Riva resists the typical binaries which often cloud motherhood and womanhood at large, “good” and “bad” get tossed around but dissolve. In Macachín, Ema’s mother admits to her, almost out of the blue, something which confirms the sort of mother she was. The shock comes from the realization that Ema’s suspicions were correct. She did actually know her mother all along, but she just didn’t want to. Is it better to know and be afraid? Or to conceal and elude? With this new knowledge comes the re-birth of Ema’s mother: a person wholly unfamiliar, “someone who, before becoming a mother, had been other things,” Ema says. 

Somehow, mother and daughter continue to coexist; the truth about Ema’s fall is less of a shattering revelation and more of a long-awaited confession. It came just in time, though, because the final act of the novel sees Ema’s mother rushing Ema–who’s in labor–to the hospital, only to disappear mysteriously right as Ema gives birth. The absence of her mother ushers in one last haunting omission. Ema’s writing seems to respond to her mother’s fervent obfuscation with her own chasing dictations; the avoidance lingers and forms its own sort of demand. If “Why didn’t you stop me from falling?” is the question, then “I don’t know, and neither should you” is the answer. That is, until the answer no longer matters. When Ema tries to track down her mother, she’s told by a nurse, “I don’t know who your mother is,” and this is the last line of the book. “Neither do I,” is the unsaid response, not on the page but still heard, still felt.

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By Adriana Riva
, trans. Denise Kripper
Veliz Books
Published February 1, 2024

Elena Schafer

Elena Schafer received her B.A. in English and Spanish from Michigan State University and worked in academic publishing in New York City for two years before returning to the Midwest to complete an M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. While completing her M.A., she wrote a thesis on the role of authorship and translation in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. She is currently a writing advisor at the University of Chicago and is interested in Spanish-English and Italian-English translation.


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