Austin, Texas: Hablemos, escritoras. 2023. Audiobook. 5 hours, 9 minutes.
Are we able to decide if we want to live or die? Do we ever have the chance to take some time to answer this question, without plunging into an abyss? And if we did, what would need to happen in order for us to opt for life? What would happen if nothing convinced us that living was worthwhile? These questions and more lie at the center of the novel Andor by Venezuelan writer Raquel Abend van Dalen. This work of dystopian fiction, originally published in 2013 and relaunched in 2023 as an audiobook by podcast/bookstore/press Hablemos, escritoras, foreshadows many of the elements that would go on to mark its author’s body of work: characters in absurd situations, memory as a space of comfort but also a place of trauma, complex emotional states, recurrent nostalgia, a certain nihilism regarding human relationships, and a sort of predictive tiredness at being condemned to repeat the whole thing, over and over again.
At the center of this novel lies Andor, a dystopian space presented under the facade of a hotel, which is a sort of limbo visited by those who are between life and death. And, nonetheless, it is much more than this. While we hear the first chapters that lead us into the story—narrated and performed by Nando Garza—we attempt to decipher, along with protagonist Edgar Enrique Crane, what kind of space this is. But we are searching blind. For the first fifteen chapters, we only know what the first-person narrator tells us; we join him in his confusion and his attempts to understand the logic that governs this hotel, in which he is not sure if he’s imprisoned, trapped, or condemned, if he must serve a sentence or respond to a demand.
In Andor, everything happens as if in a dream, with the repetitive logic of nightmares, leading to inevitable reference to the labyrinth, to the bureaucratic meanderings of Kafka, to Beckett’s absurd characters who perpetually wait, hoping against hope. In this story, everything is postponed. Even the bonds between characters are governed by the same intermittent logic. Here, we are among figures marked by extreme emotions, from tedium to hysteria, passing through varying levels of attraction and rejection, active or passive violence, while they wander through a malleable territory that shrinks or expands depending on the interests and emotions of its occupants.
“WE HAVE ACCEPTED THE JOURNEY AND WE HAVE ARRIVED, BY HIS SIDE, AT THE LAST STOP. MAYBE WE HAVE CHANGED, JUST LIKE THE PROTAGONIST. AT ANY RATE, WE ARE CERTAINLY NOT THE SAME”
As the story progresses, we decode certain mysteries related to the fundamental decision that must be made by Andor’s residents. Each of them must decide if they want to live or if death is their final answer. The key to this decision seems to depend on agreeing to face up to the most basic of emotions, differing forms of fear or desire, childhood traumas including relationships with fathers and mothers, terrors both diurnal and nocturnal, vices, reversions, and minuscule everyday miseries. But all the characters, and the protagonist in particular, face up to these changes without truly knowing where they are going. They receive brief instructions they must follow and, nevertheless, their journey is at the margins of logic. The contrast between the absurdity of the situation in which they find themselves and the level of detail with which their everyday rituals are described—getting up, bathing, getting dressed, going out, coming back, going to sleep—helps the story stay both intriguing and repetitive at once. Like in the worst nightmares, the clarity with which the spaces, the clothing, and the meals appear before us gives rise to an almost unbearable tension. But, once you’re in the labyrinth, you have no choice but to look for the way out.
In Chapter 15, we find an abrupt change in perspective, allowing the audience—whether listening or reading—to access certain information the characters don’t have at their disposal. This drives us to keep on listening. By this point, we have to guess that the majority of Spanish-speaking listeners have accepted they are dealing with a voice that, with a clear Mexican accent, is using typically Venezuelan idioms and turns of phrase—those of Caracas in particular. Perhaps listeners of other nationalities will not notice this incongruency, but Mexicans as well as Venezuelans will have to go to considerable lengths to achieve the same suspension of disbelief and surrender to the story without resistance.
The boom of the audiobook, which in many ways recovers the oral tradition of telling stories aloud, has given new life to novels published years ago. Without a doubt, it is happy news that Hablemos, escritoras has chosen this book by Raquel Abend van Dalen to kick off its audiobook collection. But, precisely because the exercise of listening is so intimate, the specificity of the accent matters. Listening to a tale so laden with the everyday lingo of Caracas in a Mexican accent creates a background noise that is hard to ignore, even for those who themselves form part of the Latin American diaspora. Luckily, Garza does an excellent job and the quality of the fiction itself allows for this obstacle to be overcome. Once we accept that a Mexican narrator is telling us a Caracas story, this inconsistency fades into the background.
The last part of the story takes place on a train that arrives at a station where the wait must continue. The journey is almost at an end and the protagonist has traveled the path he was fated to travel, he has explored his limits, he has rediscovered desire, he has reached the point at which his horror at his own capacity for violence has forced him back to some kind of sanity. All that’s missing is for him to make a decision, putting himself in the hands of his assigned destiny. We have accepted the journey and we have arrived, by his side, at the last stop. Maybe we have changed, just like the protagonist. At any rate, we are certainly not the same. Having made it this far, will we be able to decide for ourselves if we want to live or die?
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon