Since my husband is Peruvian, I’m always on the hunt for books set in Peru, written by Peruvian authors, and/or starring Peruvian characters. This led me to Mona by Pola Oloixarac. Although the author is Argentinian, the novel’s protagonist is Peruvian. Mona was originally published in Spanish two years ago, while the English translation came out in March, and I was looking forward to its release. But was it as good as I’d hoped it would be? Well…
|Mona by Pola Oloixarac|
|Number of Pages||176|
|Format I Read||Hardcover|
|Original Publication Date||March 1, 2019; English Translation: March 16, 2021|
From the critically acclaimed author of Savage Theories and Dark Constellations comes Pola Oloixarac’s Mona, where success as a writer of color proves to be a fresh hell for a young Latin American woman abroad.
Mona, a Peruvian writer based in California, presents a tough and sardonic exterior. She likes drugs and cigarettes, and when she learns that she’s something of an anthropological curiosity herself–a “woman writer of color” treasured in her university for the flourish of rarefied diversity she brings–she pokes fun at American academic culture and its fixation on identity.
When she is unexpectedly nominated for “the most important literary award in Europe,” Mona sees a chance to escape her spiral of sunlit substance abuse and erotic distractions, and so she trades the temptations of California for small, gray village in Sweden close to the Artic. Now she’s stuck in the company of all her jetlagged–and mostly male–competitors, arriving from Japan, France, Armenia, Iran, Colombia. Isolated as they are, the writers do what writers do: exchange compliments, nurse envy and private resentments, stab rivals in the back, and hop in bed together–and all the while, Mona keeps stumbling across the mysterious traces of a violence she cannot explain.
As her adventures in Scandinavia unfold, Mona finds that she has not so much escaped her demons as locked herself up with them in the middle of nowhere. In Mona, Pola Oloixarac paints a hypnotic, scabrous and finally jaw-dropping portrait of a woman facing a hipster elite in which she both does and does not belong. A survivor of both patronization and bizarre sexual encounters, Mona is a new kind of feminist. But her past won’t stay past, and strange forces are working to deliver her to the test of a lifetime.
From the first chapter, it’s clear that Mona is a troubled character. After waking up at a bus stop, covered in bruises and scratches and with no recollection of what happened to her, Mona dazedly heads to the airport to board her flight to Stockholm. She’s been invited to a literary conference where she might be awarded one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world. (She’s a California-based author, with one acclaimed book published and a second in the works.) But throughout her travels, and indeed, throughout her entire time in Sweden, Mona is high on a combination of marijuana and sedatives, with alcohol and jet-lag only adding to her problems. None of these help her determine what happened to her; she simply wonders about her bruises and how long they’ll last.
Mona’s perception is interesting, though. She’s clearly quite intelligent, able to speak multiple languages and converse on a wide variety of topics. She’s also sardonic, observant, and keen to fill herself up with things that either numb her or give her pleasure. Sex, drugs, and literature are her top three choices.
If you’ve ever seen an extremely dialogue-heavy movie (think the Before trilogy starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), you may observe that Mona is perhaps the novel version of that. Though in this case, it’s not just dialogue between characters. Rather, there is abundant time spent on random authors at the literary event giving speeches. They pontificate on a range of subjects for multiple pages, then Mona talks to authors for several more pages, going into depth on the topics at hand. They discuss everything from technology to politics to culture to literary merit, often making references that you only hope you understand. (Much went right over my head, but I was proud to understand my fair share of references, too.)
This is certainly not a plot-driven book. Though it’s hard to really call it character-driven, either. More than evolving as a character, we simply observe as Mona goes through the motions at this event, engaging in intellectual and random conversations and watching authors’ speeches.
Mona is also a sexual character, but in a way that often comes across as grimy and escapist. She likes cybersex, porn, and masturbation, but while she sexualizes things like normal geography, she also desexualizes, for example, an inexplicably naked man at the conference. The characters often seem sexually depraved rather than sensuous. I’m not sure if it was meant to be funny or unsettling; I took it as the latter.
The strange theme of sexuality, plus the odd interactions and long-winded conversations between the characters, show authors in an unsavory light. The writer’s lifestyle isn’t painted as glamorous or fun here; instead, it’s filled with narcissists and snobs and people with emotional and/or addictive issues.
As much as Mona tries to be (and sometimes succeeds at being) cynical, morbidly funny, and satirical, it also became too much for me. The further I got into this short novel, the more irritated I felt. It didn’t seem that the plot was moving forward, and it didn’t seem that any of the characters were evolving. None of the side characters were, certainly, and Mona just seemed stuck in a state of intoxication, keeping her bad memories just out reach.
It’s not until the very end that we finally learn what happened to her. I wish the book had explored that a lot more, and indeed, had a more established plot and character growth. Instead, by the very random and unexpected final chapter (which may have put Mona into a new genre altogether), I was let down and just thankful the book was over. Much as I tried to like it, Mona was not at all my style, and it felt like nothing much happened until its strange and unsatisfying end. It had some potential, but in the end, it just didn’t go anywhere all that meaningful to me.
Mona is a difficult book, despite its short length. If you like disjointed discussions on a range of “intellectual” topics, messed up characters with little glimpse of positive change, and cynical storytelling with surprise endings, you may like it. But this book, sadly, was not for me.
About the Author
Pola Oloixarac was born in Buenos Aires in 1977. Her debut novel, Savage Theories, was a breakout bestseller in Argentina and was nominated for the Best Translated Book Award, and in 2010, Granta recognized her as one of the best young Spanish-language novelists. She was awarded the 2021 Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award. Oloixarac is a regular contributor to The New York Times, and her fiction has appeared in Granta, n+1, The White Review, and an issue of Freeman’s on “The Future of New Writing.” Previously a resident of San Francisco, California, she currently resides in Barcelona.