April 2019

Arts & Letters

Missing witnesses: Valeria Luiselli’s ‘Lost Children Archive’

By Mireille Juchau

Valeria Luiselli. © Diego Berruecos / Gatopardo

The Mexican ‘documentary fiction’ writer delivers a polyphonic road trip

When Valeria Luiselli volunteered as an interpreter for unaccompanied child migrants at New York City’s federal immigration court, she noticed that the children’s stories were “always shattered beyond the repair of narrative order”. As each child answered the intake questionnaire, the novelist heard accounts with no beginning, middle or end. A writer of Mexican descent, Luiselli detailed this experience in Tell Me How It Ends (2017). That taut, unvarnished 120-page essay was a lucid work of witnessing; the voices of children, so infrequently heard, rang out – siren clear – amid the detail of their journeys. A child detained in the notorious “icebox” run by Border Protection refuses the frozen sandwiches offered twice a day “because they give belly-sadness”. A teenager, who witnessed the murder of his friend by Honduran gang Barrio 18 after filing a complaint about the gang’s harassment to the police, carries a copy of his report to the United States. When Luiselli sees it, it is worn and creased. She knows the murder will likely never be investigated, yet this talismanic document represents the boy’s lingering belief in justice.

For her latest work, Luiselli has taken that “shattered” narrative of the migrant children as a blueprint for a sprawling, polyphonic novel, Lost Children Archive (HarperCollins; $39.99). We immediately sense, from the contents page, that we’re proceeding into what the author calls “documentary fiction”. Parts 1, 2 and 3 are FAMILY SOUNDSCAPE, REENACTMENT, APACHERIA. Within these are sections – “Routes & Roots”, “Undocumented”, “Maps & Boxes” etc. Despite this elevated scaffolding, the story begins simply enough. A couple (both sound-recordists) and their two children set off “in the slow lava of traffic” through New York City, where they live, towards the Arizona borderlands. Husband and wife intend to document their journey and have packed materials with which to think and work: notebooks titled On Collecting, On Archiving, On Inventorying; books by Sontag, Benjamin, Dickinson and Ondaatje; recording instruments; maps; whale sounds charts. The unnamed narrator of this section, the young wife and mother whose life resembles Luiselli’s own, introduces the novel’s autofictional approach, its musing allusive tone. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, she tells us, “used to be a kind of ur-text or manifesto for my husband and me when we were still a new couple”. It captured their shared love of fleeting encounters. Sound recording “gave us access to a deeper, always invisible layer of the human soul, in the same way that a bathymetrist has to take a sounding of a body of water in order to properly map the depth of an ocean or lake”.

As in any good road novel, there’s more than one reason for this journey: her husband wants to collect material on the ghosts of Geronimo and the last Apaches, and she has promised to help a Mixtecan woman whose daughters are detained somewhere in Texas. These lost girls are just two of the migrant children who drift, spectrally, throughout the novel. Our narrator suspects that this road trip may be the family’s last – having failed to “be the guardians of each other’s solitude”, the couple’s marriage is faltering. She recalls a drunken speech at their wedding after which the oracle passed out: marriage “was a banquet to which people arrived too late, when everything was already half eaten, everyone already too tired and wanting to leave, but not knowing how to leave, or with whom”. The novel is told in turns, by the woman, then by the older child, a 10-year-old boy. Threaded through their accounts is an invented work – Elegies for Lost Children – about unaccompanied children travelling on La Bestia (the beast), the Mexican freight trains on which migrants risk their lives, riding in the open air.

What follows this set-up is a road trip like no other in American literature, a vast feat blending real and invented materials: polaroids, “Migrant Mortality Reports”, Native American history, lines from Pound (“unburied, cast on the wide earth”), Rilke (“listen like only the saints have listened before”), Anne Carson, and Jerzy Andrzejewski (“a desert, inanimate and calcined by the sun”). There are pit stops at bad motels, fast-food outlets, gas-station coffee. There are cheesy iconic locations – Graceland, where the family self-consciously sing “Graceland” on approach; the Elvis Presley Boulevard Inn with a “ghee-tar pool”; Walmart, where bargain cowboy boots must be had. Luiselli nods to the road novel’s predecessors, blending Didion’s flinty asides and Steinbeck’s humanism while an audiobook of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road gets jammed on repeat in the car. There are spiteful marital nights in rented cabins; roadside bars visited vengefully, solo; ceaseless questions hurled from the backseat. “Children’s words, in some ways, are the escape route out of family dramas, taking us to their strange but wonderful underworld, safe from our middle class catastrophes.” This “linguistic archaeology” makes an accidental soundscape that the narrator will discover later, a memorial of family life.

At a bookshop in the “small, buzzing, vibrant city” of Asheville, a book club is underway. The debate aligns with the novel we’re reading. Says one club member, “I think it’s more about the impossibility of fiction in the age of nonfiction.” Lost Children Archive is full of such knowing, self-reflexive moments. For the most part, Luiselli is less interested in suspending disbelief than in embedding into the work the questions that arose as she created it.

I should know, by now, that instrumentalism, applied to any art form, is a way of guaranteeing really shitty results: light pedagogic material, moralistic young-adult novels, boring art in general … But then again, isn’t art for art’s sake so often an absolutely ridiculous display of intellectual arrogance? … And why would I even think that I can or should make art with someone else’s suffering?

This signposting of stylistic pitfalls has an air of scrupulous rigour, but it doesn’t always inoculate the final work from succumbing to them.

Is fiction impossible in the age of nonfiction? The question of how to write an original work about politically charged material troubles nearly every novelist. As real life trumps the imagination, as fake news swallows real news, as millions are displaced by war, unrest or climate change, the writer barely has time to decide which narrative techniques might best represent them. We’re urged not to “retreat into belles-lettres” (Richard Powers), nor to write obliquely or become “complicit in the concealments of the broader culture” (Amitav Ghosh). Luiselli’s solution is to turn from what Wallace Stevens called the artist’s “blessed rage for order”, to embrace what is shattered, unfinished, unquantifiable, a blend of the autofictional and the invented.

In scale and ambition, Lost Children Archive stands apart from recent fiction on the migrant experience. Where German Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, for example, was cool, austere, immaculately composed, Luiselli prefers breathless accumulation, messiness, heat. She brings a Latin American sensibility to this material, with brainy fabrications and textual games. Yet you feel in this work the great weight of writing in the land of the Great American Novel (sometimes known, apparently, as GAN). You sense its attempt – in the wake of Doctorow’s Ragtime, DeLillo’s Underworld, Robinson’s compassionate, stately Gilead and Pynchon’s teeming panoramas – to encompass everything. The disturbing grandeur of the desert, the escalating cruelty of the Trump administration, the blended family watching as 20 children are marched across a remote airstrip on State Road 559 and deported.

Two thirds through Lost Children Archive are six Migrant Mortality Reports. These are, to borrow a phrase from the Holocaust, paper graves, since the dead, far from their homes and families, may never receive a proper burial. An estimated 2816 people have died crossing the border since 2000. When the dead are found, notes the Arizona-based organisation Humane Borders, they often can’t be identified. They’re usually skeletons, “stripped bare by birds and coyotes and the elements”. The reports reproduced in Luiselli’s novel concern the bodies of children: Baby Arizaga, stillborn, “a nonviable male fetus”, in Pima County, Arizona. Eleven-year-old Sofia Galicia, dead of hyperthermia in Cochise County. Rufino López, found on Interstate 10 in Arizona with multiple blunt force injuries. He was 15. Around such sorrowful facts, almost no narrative scaffolding is required. But, Luiselli suggests, if we want to know the inner lives of the lost, if we want more of the story, it’s to the novelist we must turn.

While the “lost children” in this work remain oddly elusive, the child protagonists – brother and sister in the backseat – are blazingly alive. Depending on your tolerance for precocity, you may find them to be a charming pair or overwritten oracles. “Now, Papa, I think it’s time you smoked another one of your little sticks. And you, Mama, you just need to focus on your map and on your radio. Okay? Both of you just have to look at the bigger picture now.” A thornier problem in the novel lies in how the reader must constantly shift their orientation to the material. Cleverly interrogative autofiction holds us at a slight remove, but a plot twist that propels the couple’s children on their own perilous journey asks us for greater empathy. This storyline parallels a little too neatly the experience of those more permanently “lost” children. The novel’s ambition, its generosity and precocious amplitude can be fantastically appealing. But the migrant children – whose fates give the novel its moral centre, its gravitas – disappear in the smoke coming off all the narrative pyrotechnics.

Among the many texts that Luiselli refers to is Nathalie Léger’s superb, enigmatic Suite for Barbara Loden. Léger also documented in that novel her struggles to compose it: “it is easy to be avant-garde, but it is really difficult to tell a simple story well.” In Tell Me How It Ends, Luiselli achieved the latter. Lost Children Archive – capacious, inventive and utterly original – attempts both, with varying results.

Mireille Juchau

Mireille Juchau is a Walkley award–winning critic and the author of three novels.

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