Quite what the Colombian writer Carolina Sanín’s message is in The Children (MacLehose Press, English translation, from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, 2017; originally published as Los Niños, 2014) is entirely unclear. What we are presented with is, initially, the mystery of why a six year old boy has suddenly turned up at her main character’s door, apparently without family or history. What transpires is a slow descent into a muddle of potential main character neurosis, possible allegory, and an attempted blur of realities and fantasies.
The ideas in Sanín’s work might well have proved worthy of consideration had they not been so confused by such deliberate obfuscation, such convoluted execution and, frankly, such poor technique in the writing. She briefly touches on thinking such as ‘ghosts within ghosts’ and the construct of mentally ‘keeping’ those who have been met in the past on a distant imaginary island, neither dead or alive, but overall her writing is amateurish at best: she describes her main character’s appearance as if she were writing as her secondary character himself (the six year old Elvis, who the main character Laura Romero prefers to refer to as Fidel); on the first page she writes that: ‘Laura used to leave the Renault in the car park outside the Olímpica, which was the name of the supermarket.’ The sleeve notes inform us that Sanín obtained a PhD in Hispanic Literature. This, unfortunately, does not correlate with the style of her fiction writing, as presented in The Children.
Laura Romero is a somewhat needy woman of indeterminate age, fortunate enough to receive an income from a family salt industry, but who undertakes a cleaning job three times per week nonetheless. This position changes when, after a meeting with one of the beggars who operate a protection racket at the supermarket, watching out for cars in exchange for money, Laura attributes something said to her as meaning that she is being offered a child. A child duly arrives outside her apartment, looking dishevelled and in need of care. There follows a slow descent into the possibility of magic realist terrain, Sanín being in good local company such as Márquez, for example, as she is. The frustrating, baffling and sometimes potentially bizarre but apparently ordinary machinations of bureaucratic procedures manifest in Laura’s attempts at finding the boy again after she has done the right thing in reporting the case of the unknown child to the authorities and then losing him in the system. What is more at odds though is the apparent ease with which Laura has taken to the child in the first place and the equally strange idea that the boy could be so easily given away to any fostering or adopting suitor.
Laura Romero is portrayed as a woman with a possible painful past as regards a child, of an early age, who was lost. Sanín is not specific and, presumably, this deliberate obfuscation is intended as just one of the blurrings of the piece as a whole. Blurring, as a device, is entirely acceptable; however, whatever device is in operation, a basic plausibility must also thread through the whole. Sanín’s writing suffers from just this deficit: a boy appears in the street and Laura alters her life around him, the authorities act with distant greyness but with surprising benevolence towards her claims on the child, and the boy himself does not act in the manner we might expect (by the time she traces him again) of a seven year old. There are other characters who stake claims on the child, and he duly goes along with their visits. Elvis (or Fidel, we never find out why Sanín chooses to have Laura prefer this name she has invented) is a strange child, but potentially in the construct of the story and also in the reading perception, he’s not akin to a real child. Perhaps this is a point Sanín has tried to explore; perhaps this is an entirely misconstrued interpretation.
Laura’s mental health is an undertow within the narrative, though this is never so explicit. Whether in a magic realist manner or otherwise, Sanín has her wondering if Elvis wasn’t conceived, as such, on a bus journey she takes in her home city of Bogotá, when she is also accosted by a pressuring bread selling beggar. The allusion is towards the unknown nature and appearance of the child but the execution of the ideas is clumsily overlaid. The motif of a whale recurs throughout the pages, linking to the occasional note that Laura is reading Moby Dick. What the purpose of this is, is unclear. Elvis becomes attached to Laura’s dog, Brus, equally without such explicit purpose, with the confusion at one point that Elvis is Brus.
In the final stages, Laura visits a fortune teller, with whom she has had dealings some years before and who had revealed to her that she would have a child. The pages of this short book are running out at this point and it is, with some hope and expectation, that Sanín might now present the purpose of her fictional thesis. However, after some quantity of fortune telling nonsensical rambling, Laura Romero is depicted back in her apartment again and the boy effectively vandalises his room, and the book ends. It is an entirely unsatisfactory conclusion.
In the final reckoning, a work of ideas, a story of something, should have its plausibility, even if the fantastical elements are an important strand (that is, after all, the art and the skill that should be inherent in the technique of the writer); the writing should have its internal structure, even if that structure is amorphous, and it should have an elegance that it can call its own. Sanín’s writing here, unfortunately, has little of any of these and this is a great shame because, with better application of the written word, the story of how and why Laura Romero and Elvis/Fidel came to cross life paths might well have become something more than just a few garnered snapshots of unfulfilled ideas such as ghosts within ghosts, possible children and lost lives.