When Argentine writer Selva Almada published her first work of nonfiction, Dead Girls, she was hailed as an influential Latin American feminist writer. Dead Girls exposes the crisis of femicide in Argentina, chronicling the deaths of three women who were murdered simply for being women. Almada also interrogates moments in which she, too, faced danger for being a woman.
Almada’s novel Brickmakers, newly translated by Annie McDermott, was originally published in Spanish the year before Dead Girls. Like Almada’s nonfiction, Brickmakers explores the relationship between violence and bodies. In Dead Girls, violence against women is always violence against the body: an unwanted hand on the thigh, a nonconsensual sexual encounter, a slitting of the throat. In Brickmakers, Almada illustrates how machismo, or toxic masculinity, is rooted in the body as well. Rage and desire are physical states that wound all of us.
Brickmakers opens on Marciano and Pájaro, two teenage boys who are lying face-down, dying, in the mud. Their fathers, Tamai and Miranda, are local brickmakers who have been feuding for years. And even though Marciano and Pájaro were best friends as children, they soon follow in their fathers’ footsteps and sustain their feud as young men. When Marciano discovers that his brother Ángel is in love with Pájaro, he pulls his knife, and these two best-friends-turned-enemies stab each other to the death in the fairgrounds.
Marciano, Pájaro, and Ángel are victims of machismo. So are their fathers. Toxic masculinity steers the male body to tragedy. For Tamai and Miranda, the body is a vehicle for back-breaking labor and violence. Their feud begins when “one of them made some comment and the other took it wrong, then they were on their feet, chairs skidding back […] eyes bloodshot and fists ready to land.” For Marciano and Pájaro, the body is a site of rage: against their fathers, and against each other. Becoming a man means that “one day [Pájaro’s] body will be big enough for the fury he’s lived with all his life.”
Marciano and Pájaro meet a tragic death because beyond just rage, the body is also a site of desire. At a dance hall, Pájaro and Marciano’s brother Ángel hook up to “music bursting from the walls,” “making the bricks throb as if they’re alive.” When “Ángel wrapped his arms around his waist, Pájaro felt, at last, the cold inside him begin to fade.” Marciano is livid when he discovers Ángel and Pájaro’s relationship. Deep-seated homophobia is evidence, in their small Argentine town, of masculinity.
Brickmakers grapples with the fatal consequences of machismo for men, but it also centers women as the life-giving source at the novel’s core. On one hand, men do use women’s bodies to satisfy their rage. For example, Pájaro struggles against his desire for Ángel by planning to “undress the girl, whoever she is, throw her down on the bed, fuck her brains out, wait for a bit, and fuck her again and go on fucking and fucking until the foul memory from the night before is obliterated forever.” Pájaro’s violent disregard for this woman—it does not matter who she is—suggests that female bodies offer a place to purge feelings he does not know how to face.
But women in Brickmakers also have agency, and they make choices to sustain life. When Marciano is born, his mother Estela “latch[es] the baby onto her breast.” Then she looks around the maternity ward and realizes “there were two beds with [no little iron crib next to them], and Estela, who couldn’t see the women, imagined them awake, their eyes fixed on the ceiling. Their babies had died. Estela hugged hers closer to her chest.” In the midst of death, Estela has given life, and she feeds and shelters her baby with her body.
Similarly, Celina assumes a maternal role to comfort her husband, Tamai. When he staggers in from a fight with Miranda, “he buried his face in her belly and stroked her backside. ‘You need to give it a rest,’ she told him, running her fingers through her hair. […] Now that he’d calmed down, his whole body was beginning to ache.” Celina is mother and protector for her husband—the only one who can calm him—just as Estela is for her son.
These women shoulder emotional and physical burdens to sustain their families. When Tamai neglects his brickmaking business, Celina fills orders herself to earn the family’s living. When Tamai steals and mistreats Miranda’s prize greyhound, Estela sneaks over at night to put the dog out of its misery. When Miranda is murdered, Estela holds her family together. When Tamai abandons her, Celina does the same. Women pick up the pieces when their husbands and sons fail to do so—they give life in the face of fatal masculinity.
But Celina and Estela are more than sustainers; they, like their husbands, feel fear. Celina “held Tamai’s body tighter. Sometimes she was scared he’d get killed. He was always picking fights with someone or other, and now with the neighbor too. […] And what would she do then, as a widow with small children?” These women also desire: “Celina had known no other man than Tamai, but with him she became an experienced woman. He’d made her an addict and she couldn’t sleep at night if he didn’t satisfy her.” Women know their bodies, and what they want.
Almada is forceful in her depictions of sex, violence, and rage. I feel her prose in my body: a punch in the gut, the sharpness of glass. McDermott’s translation captures the bite of Almada’s sentences, which render both tenderness and violence with devastating clarity. For example, “that morning, when Tamai found the dead greyhound, its eyes glazed over and its head resting in a puddle of drool and blood, he was so furious he kicked it in the ribs, as if that could get it back on its feet.” In sentences like this, Almada enacts the simultaneous fear and rage that define our efforts to live in human bodies.
Almada’s novel illustrates the physical toll machismo takes on everyone: men, women, children, and families. But Brickmakers also celebrates women who are strong, who bear up their families on their backs, because they have to. Because there is no other choice.
by Selva Almada, t.r. Annie McDermott
Published November 2nd, 2021
Morgan Graham is an English PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota. She is Managing Editor at Pleiades and has published work in Colorado Review, Great River Review, Split Lip Magazine, The Evansville Review, and Salt Hill Journal. Find her at morgandianegraham.wordpress.com and @morgraha on Twitter.