The tale of separation of true self from true home, the tragic story of the immigrant divided not only in terms of geography and culture but also of perception and identity, has long served literature’s appetite for conflict. One only has to think of lost Odysseus to realize that terrestrial dislocation functions supremely as the objective correlative for the alienated self. Tales of migration, of exile, of diaspora pull us out of comfortable consciousness and remind us how awkwardly our personality puzzle pieces fit on the table. We construct a self out of the stability of what we can know and understand (or believe we can), and, when a vicious, fateful hand comes sweeping across the room to send our pieces scattering, what often results comes creaking in from a nightmare.
Award-winning, Colombia-born Patricia Engel’s latest book of short stories, The Faraway World, points us in the direction of this world of not-home, whether it’s New York or Miami in contrast to the place (Colombia, say) where we felt we were our most constructed, and (it turns out) authentic selves. The opening story, “Aida,” begins Engel’s exploration with a pair of twins and ends with a solo performer, one sister separated not only from her treasured other half but also from her immigrant parents, as well as herself. Like the unraveling of a sweater from one pulled thread, Aida’s disappearance spins the family round and round, as days turn to weeks and then to months, the beloved daughter remains missing, and the family disintegrates. When Aida is eventually found, she too is far from whole, one more resident of the ultimate ultima thule, the eternal sleep we all are tending towards.
As in “Aida,” the characters of “Fausto,” though not twins, are the closest thing: lovers, “made for each other” in the swelter of Miami. In a spin on nominative determinism, Fausto sells out not his soul but his true love in order to create a better life for her, thus forcing the young woman to reexamine who she is and who her beloved was, now that he has absconded to Medellín to escape the law. The too-earthbound, impoverished women of this collection learns to live with suffering, however, as demonstrated by Engel’s next offering, “The Book of Saints,” another tale of a destiny-locked duo, in which the narrator tells us, “When I left my family for my new married life, my mother gave me a book of saints […] She said it gave her comfort to read about the tragic lives of the martyrs. It made her own burdens easier to endure.” The canny reader realizes that Engel has fashioned for us a similar book, one written on the backs of the dispossessed, one possibly written to aid others’ enduring.
And then the compass needle, to the writer’s credit, changes direction, sweeps across the face to point out a deeper layer of feeling. After these initial offerings, the stories become increasingly nuanced, less concerned with darting at character ground-level, more interested in delving into issues of universality. Engel’s best work emerges at this point, “La Ruta,” “Ramiro,” and “The Bones of Cristóbal Colón,” three stories that stretch for understanding in the direction of hope and faith, past earthly yearnings and upward into the realm of the spiritual. Self-identity is still the main focus—the collection is particularly praiseworthy for the dedication it shows to its themes—but now the direction is past cloud cover.
“Ramiro” shows us a young criminal, a grown-up boy from the Bogotá slums, with every reason in the world to spurn God, who, nonetheless—via the intervention of a priest willing to sacrifice himself to him—reinvents himself into a man equally willing to renounce the self. “Ramiro in his new role as altar server, looking almost righteous in his white robe, the wooden cross Padre Andrade had brought him back from La Guajira hanging from his neck. He’d grown his hair so it fell into a neat side part and with new peace in his eyes, he somehow seemed younger to me than ever before.” In “The Bones of Cristóbal Colón,” yet another faraway world, the past, is entered into, and we are forced to come to grips with why it stays, or why we stay with it. The remains of the dead, those known and unknown to us, dance through this story. Engel plays a complex tune that at once intertwines personal tragedy, the silence of the great beyond, the sad history of Havana, as well as ill-fated love, all in the attempt to answer the above question: we stay with the past because we are most at home, finally, in its ineffability, its aching remoteness. The story “Libélula” offers us a postmark on this missive: “Love doesn’t need to be exquisite for it to be true.” The past’s incompleteness is the true love, the true home of the broken.
Havana haunts what may be Engel’s best story, “La Ruta.” The taxi-driver narrator offers to drive a young woman to all the island’s churches, free of charge, when he learns of her effort to show devotion to the saints in the hope they will grant her dearest wish. In time, he falls in love with the woman, even though she is married and he lives, however discontentedly, with his girlfriend, Flor. The woman’s bravery, her faith in offering herself to the unseen moves him to reconsider his own route in life, his aimless driving, the verbal abuse he suffers at the hands of Flor, and it is this recording of a rising in consciousness via the courage of others, of self-understanding understood through the separation from what we hold dear—whether betrayed by that love or ripped from it—that distinguishes Engel’s collection. In a prose style at once direct and lyrical, Engel gifts us stories very much of our time without being au courant or didactic. “You and I swallowed and returned to the soil and rock that made us,” sighs one of her characters, “erasing time and the lives we made in the other world, as if we’d never once dared to wander so far away.”
The Faraway World
by Patricia Engel
Simon & Schuster
Published January 24th, 2023
RYAN ASMUSSEN is a writer/educator who works as a Visiting Lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has published criticism, journalism, fiction, and poetry. Having earned a BLS and MAT from Boston University, he is now pursuing a Master's of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard Extension School. His Twitter handle is @RyanAsmussen.