Jenny Holzer’s art demands to be seen. For those unfamiliar with her work, Holzer is a neo-conceptual American artist known for delivering ideas through words in public spaces, such as projections on buildings, and benches etched with truisms. But in Alfaguara Prize-winning author Carla Guelfenbein’s new novel, One in Me I Never Loved translated by Neil Davidson, Holzer’s texts are collected and sprinkled throughout almost as if they were private thoughts—a sharp contrast to how they’re typically presented—which creates tension between the visible and hidden. Translated from Spanish by Neil Davidson, One in Me I Never Loved explores the desire of women both to be seen, and to disappear.
Some could argue this book is a collection of stories, but together, they indeed have the cohesion of a novel. While most of the characters are entirely fictional, a few are based on historical figures. Spanning from today to the 1940s, we’re given glimpses into the lives of several very different women: Chilean-born Margarita, who is insecure of both her aging body and marriage in present day New York City; Doris Dana, who was the much younger lover of Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral; thirteen-year-old Juliana who meets a woman who changes the course of her life; and Elizabeth, the sister of the woman with whom Doris shares a night of passion
The novel opens in present-day New York City with Margarita on her fifty-sixth birthday. The day begins with her husband not acknowledging her birthday:
He woke up, went to the bathroom, doubtless masturbated to porn on his cell phone, got dressed, picked up the leather briefcase every academic in the world carries, gave me a peck on the forehead, and left. That’s why I’m here. Sitting on Jenny’s bench while I wait for something to happen, for something to blow apart and end this drift into a future that long since ceased to be unpredictable.
And in a sense, that’s exactly what happens: Margarita is confronted by two mysteries. First, the disappearance of the concierge of her apartment building: a young woman named Anne, who, prior to disappearing, had been seen reading a book called Vanishing Point: How to Disappear in America without a Trace. Margarita is then also asked to help solve a mystery for Juliana, now in her eighties, who is seeking the woman she met as a thirteen-year-old in 1946.
Doris Dana’s chapters are set in 1948, while Mistral is sending intense love letters, and Doris is plagued with guilt over a night of drunken sex with another woman. Mistral is an unseen force through the novel: the epigraph, and title, come from Mistral’s poem, “La Otra.” While we do not meet Mistral, except through her words, we feel her:
I am rash, remember that, and easily angered. And CLUMSY, CLUMSY. I am a drop of water in the hollow of your hands. I will be whatever you wish me to be, I will live for you and for as long as my heart and you desire it, you, my Doris.
This hunger Mistral has for Doris juxtaposed with Margarita’s marriage makes the latter feel apathetic, at least with how her husband is towards Margarita. Guelfenbein’s decision to highlight and contrast different romantic relationships effectively shows how passion can be a means to disappear, at least temporarily, and how long-term relationships can come to a point in which one feels invisible. The first Holzer text quoted is: Someone else’s body is a place for your mind to go—asserting early in the novel that relationships have the potential to cage us, or to offer an escape.
Elizabeth’s sections are largely—though not exclusively—told in an epistolary form, and often end with a plea to the recipient, a woman named Kristina, to burn the letters after reading them and not disclose to Elizabeth’s parents where she is.
Despite several mysteries running throughout this slim novel, its focus is never on plot. Rather, the novel sets itself up as a collage: piecing together Minstral’s work and life; Doris Dana, who, upon Minstral’s death, inherited her estate; Jenny Holzer texts; two women in the 1940s; and two contemporary women. Guelfenbein employs a variety of narrative strategies—using different point of views for each character, devising something both grounded in history yet entirely her own imagination, centering fiction around visual art, and weaving tales of intrigue and mystery. But readers hoping for the mysteries to be solved entirely will be disappointed because such expectations miss the point. It’s less of a story as it is a portrait, one of women aching both for visibility and concealment.
Halfway through the novel, Margarita questions:
Was it Anne who made herself invisible of her own volition, or was it us, the people who walked past her day after day and never saw her?
Do people disappear so someone will see them?
Guelfenbein’s One in Me I Never Loved raises more questions than it answers, and “do people disappear so someone will see them?” is undoubtedly the most central. The novel causes us to look at how the desire to be seen and to disappear, though on the surface, seem to be at odds, are perhaps aren’t so different—in fact, they might be one and the same.
One in Me I Never Loved
Carla Geulfenbein t.r. Neil Davidson
December 28th, 2021