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The Linguistic Negative Space of “How to Order the Universe”

The Linguistic Negative Space of “How to Order the Universe”

“Every construction is the sum of its parts, parts that are joined by fittings.”

This is one of many mundane lessons that M, our narrator, learns in her unconventional education as a traveling salesman. In How to Order the Universe, readers are thrown into a child’s perspective as she eschews traditional learning in order to make a living with her father on the road. A world of tools and hardware catalogs lends itself to new relationships, unearthed secrets, and a coming-of-age story no one quite expected. This sparse, quiet novel is itself a collection of parts. Not quite a novel, far from a collection of stories, more disparate vignettes than anything else. At times, these feel incomplete. Parts without their fittings.

For every conversation left unspoken, every message unanswered, it is easy to see where more connective tissue could aid the story. Mother is absent, often sad. Why, and where did these feelings come from? D cannot relate to his daughter in any way beyond business. Why, and where did this attitude come from? These are natural questions when readers are given so little, less than 200 small pages with wide margins and an abundance of negative space. We are left to color in the rough sketches provided by the author.

However, a deeper look lends itself to another question. Are these just rough sketches, or simply the impressions of an unaccustomed reader? Context is one important factor. We are told from blurbs and discussions of the novel that this takes place in Pinochet-era Chile, though none of this is stated outright. We’re shown only disappearances, what is missing between characters, and what might have existed in another reality. Our only indication is E, a photographer attempting to capture ghosts at gravesites, and an act of sudden violence that lingers for years on end.

Another factor is language. With translated literature it is impossible not to wonder if there are clues and nuances simply lost in the filtering of one language to another, in this case Spanish to English. But perhaps these are not the ‘fittings’ Ferrada intends, and more the ones we expect. In fact, in another lens, the work’s negative space can be considered its greatest strength.

M is barely seven years old as the story begins, and while her narration is given the business-like detachment of her older years, the impact of childhood is plain to see. The one-dimensional view of her parents that slowly changes over time, the lack of time and place beyond day-to-day activities, hyper focus on the few constant individuals in her life, all of these are clear signs of a child narrator, one starved for love and affection and slowly learning about the world as a whole. It makes sense that Ferrada has written several children’s books prior to How to Order the Universe, because she clearly understands the interiority of a child. Even a precocious child such as M.

We are swept into the nuts and bolts (no pun intended) of M’s life and obscured from context for most of the work. What we have instead is tension. The uneasy feeling that something isn’t quite right, but nothing can be done. It keeps us reading, wondering, anticipating the cataclysm to follow. For every conflict postponed, we eagerly await a bubbling-over.

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“D was alone. I was alone. And this fact belonged to the category of ‘Things that Were Simply the Way They Were.’”

In short, this is a book of a child learning her own mortality, learning her larger place in the world, creating her own constructs and having them fall apart with experience and tragedy. We see this in a literal sense, as M envisions an omnipotence she calls “The Great Carpenter,” and soon curses and loses track of this being. In this change we now have the fittings we need to understand this unconventional little story. Here we learn to read between the lines.

How to Order The Universe
By María José Ferrada
Translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer
Tin House Books
Published February 16, 2021

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