How to Order the Universe
by María José Ferrada (translated by Elizabeth Bryer)
Published February 2021
‘Breach’ is one of those playful words with many related but sometimes contradictory meanings. A breach can be a rift, a fissure, a gap; fragmentation; the noun signifies the rupture in relationships; violation of a duty or agreement; of trust. However, as a verb, to breach, it can also mean to break through or across a gap – even to transgress boundaries.
There is not one but several breaches at the heart of María José Ferrada’s brief, arresting novel, How to Order the Universe. In fact, one of the challenges in trying to describe what goes on in this story is that so much takes place in the interstitial spaces, the breach between what happens and what can be said about it – even what can be remembered. These gaps and fragmentations are somewhat explained by the distance between the narrator’s adult perspective and the childhood that she remembers. But the fissures in the story are much deeper and darker than they first appear, cutting across not only the narrator’s family but the society in which they live.
Originally published in Spanish as Kramp, in 2019, the novel appears in an excellent translation by Elizabeth Bryer, who has preserved in English the simple tone in which the child narrator, M, conveys her complex ideas. The story centres around the relationship between D, a travelling salesman in 1980s Chile, and his daughter M, a business-minded seven-year old who has cut a deal with him to skip school and make sales on Kramp-brand hardware products. As D is doling out little tips on how to manipulate potential buyers (smile, say thank you), M is managing the emotional world of adults in ways her parents can’t imagine. What we might see as the story’s central father-daughter relationship, M views as a ‘partnership’ between two business associates; much of the levity and humour in Ferrada’s novel lives in this gap between adult and child perspectives.
M has mastered different gazes, for example, aimed at recalcitrant hardware shop owners in the small rural towns that they visit. Focusing on M’s pupils, ‘instead of encountering me, he or she encountered every possible form of fragility: world hunger; ice sculptures that, after so much effort, were reduced to water; the Soviet space-dog Laika turning around and around and around in the long night of infinity’. Unlike the space-dog, M sees herself on a straight and upward trajectory, and so, ‘at roughly the halfway point of my career … I asked D for a commission commensurate with my talent.’ Aware that child labour is on the nose at this late stage in the twentieth century, D offers gifts in lieu of money; material reimbursements, in M’s language, that look suspiciously to the reader like toys: a Mickey Mouse thermos, a reversible cap, a nurse’s carrying case.
Deft expositions like this, however, never sacrifice M’s dignity for laughs. Until this, her first book for adults, Ferrada has mainly published writing for children, and her respect for younger people – and in particular, how they make sense of the broken world with the fragments they are given – runs deep. Remembering the adults who would talk above my head as a child, and laugh at the cute, naïve things I said, I can still feel that burning mix of perplexed humiliation. Ferrada is the adult that crouches down – or better, is already sitting at the kid’s table – meets the child’s gaze, engaging their terms and logic. In M’s cosmovision, constructed from the language of hardware stores and sales, the stars are ‘three inch-tacks that the Great Carpenter’ – God – ‘had used to hang the whole sky. Us included.’ This is nothing to laugh at; as M observes, ‘every person tries to explain the inner workings of things with whatever is at hand. I, at seven years of age, had reached out my hand, and had grasped a Kramp catalogue.’ However cute M might sound, this observation makes clear that she is both a child and a person. (It’s surprising how often people exclude one category from the other in casual conversation.)
This passage also showcases the narrative’s light dance between the insights of an older M, remembering the events of her childhood, and her seven-year old perspective at that time. The seams that stitch these two perspectives together are rarely exposed – much as we tend to carry our child-self around inside us as adults, one continuous being. Instead, an observation M makes as a child might be turned over in the light of adult understanding, catching a new angle. This is most poignant when it comes to M’s mother. She isn’t in on the father-daughter business arrangement and therefore is subject to an elaborate system of deception that allows D to take M out of school to sell hardware, what M calls her ‘parallel education.’ M is aware that this double life is enabled by her mother’s absence, which is existential rather than literal:
Everything that happened next was only possible because my mother was absent. It wasn’t that she left the house much, it was that a part of her had abandoned her body and now resisted coming back. […] A mother who was whole would have noticed.
Later, M recalls that her mother ‘was a reserved woman,’ who wouldn’t kick up a fuss about her daughter’s truancy anyway. And then comes the adult reflection: ‘Although, now that I think of it, she wasn’t reserved. She was simply sad, and her sadness meant she couldn’t pay attention to details.’
The gap between adult and child understanding thus develops an edge as the story unfolds, as we realise that it contains the seeds of a more fundamental breach – D’s duty of care as a father. Detailing a scam where she and D collect tollbooth tickets that have flown onto the highway, M explains that they don’t venture too close to the road. If she got hit by a car, it would be difficult to explain to her mother what she was doing there on a school day: ‘She was an absent mother but that didn’t mean we should abuse the fact.’ M’s aside here, though humorous, is also jolting. The ‘we’ suddenly feels irresponsible. The safety of a seven-year old child is not the joint responsibility of two business associates, one of whom happens to be said child. Responsibility lands squarely on D, who is abusing not only his wife’s absence but his daughter’s deceptive maturity.
Through little M’s eyes, however, the narration suggests that she is playing him for material gain. When D allows her to share a cigarette before they enter a store to make a pitch, he clarifies that her mother can never know. ‘Of course not,’ M replies, ‘letting out a tiny puff of smoke.’ What the reader knows – and the father doesn’t – is that on the day M decided to be D’s assistant she had already taken up smoking, pilfering a cigarette from his pack as he snoozed in front of the TV. This one image shows us: like M’s mother, D’s body may be present, but as a parent he has checked out. M’s assessment of D is, in this light, simultaneously funny and devastating (the two key notes of the novel): ‘Approaching eight years of age, I had discovered that, while D was nothing special as a father, he made an excellent employer.’
Like so many aspects of Ferrada’s novel, you can read a lot or a little into this idea of father-as-employer and find it rewarding either way. It’s funny, that the child reframes her dad’s shitty parenting as a lucrative employment arrangement. It’s also sad, in a way that will be relatable to many. At this level, the book serves as a reflection on how families create their narratives, and how children, grown up, then rework these stories, re-remembering their families. However, as I’ve hinted, there is also a more troubling – and specifically Chilean – political dimension that sharpens M’s acts of remembering. As the political and cultural context of Chile begins to emerge out of the fog, the sadness of M’s mother also takes on the shape of something much more specific than a personal depression (although it is that, too). M’s mother is sad, but what does it mean that ‘a part of her had abandoned her body’? M’s father snoozes in front of the TV, no parental crime. But why does he fill the paternal breach with business, with money? What is the significance of his motto that, ‘with the right attitude and the right outfit,’ anything is possible? And one more thing: why does (almost) no one in the book have names?
Today, neoliberalism is ubiquitous across our dying planet and for someone my age (I was born in 1991, one year after Chile transitioned to democracy) it can be hard to even imagine a real economic and political alternative. Sometimes I pinch myself: neoliberalism is an invention, not the natural order of the universe.
Imagine the struggle then for M, who is not yet a twinkle in her parents’ eyes when they meet in November 1973 – just two months, that is, after the coup that ripped Chile apart. On 11 September (the ‘other’ and original September 11), Chile’s armed forces deposed the democratically-elected Socialist president, Salvador Allende, in a hail of bullets and bombs on the Presidential Palace. Backed by the US, the military installed a reign of terror which, under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, lasted for almost twenty years. This period of Chile’s history is infamous for horrific human rights abuses, including the incarceration, torture, murder, and disappearance of hundreds, if not thousands, of its own citizens. A horrifying majority of the disappeared have still not been found. Yet their absence is ever-present in Chilean society. The state terror that swept across Chile, Argentina and other southern countries in Latin America deformed even the language itself, as Marguerite Feitlowitz has written, ‘beginning with the unprecedented use of “disappear” as a transitive verb.’ Before, you could disappear. Under Pinochet, people became objects rather than subjects of the verb; they could be disappeared, a macabre innovation that has also carried over into English.
Pinochet’s regime is also famous for another reason. The dictatorship instated a complete overhaul of Chilean society, as one of the first countries in the world to implement the ideas of neoliberal thinkers like American economist Milton Friedman: Nixon adviser, Nobel recipient, and the twentieth century’s most prominent advocate of free market economics. ‘Neoliberalism,’ Peter Winn explains, ‘was imposed by the Pinochet dictatorship during the late 1970s in a highly ideological version that made it a vehicle for an aggressive attack on Chile’s workers and the labor rights they had acquired during decades of struggle.’ This bloodstained reform of the economy, Winn also observes, is sometimes known as ‘the Chilean Miracle’ and considered a model for neoliberalism in Latin America and the globe. And while the dictatorship may have ended in 1990, its afterlife is long. It was only last year, in the maelstrom of 2020, that Chileans voted to abolish the constitution developed during the dictatorship. The push for a new constitution has come only after immense pressure from (and at great cost to) masses of protesting Chileans.
None of this history is overtly named in How to Order the Universe. In fact, for the most part – before it is blown wide open – the narrative edges around politics altogether. ‘It was always best not to talk about politics,’ is M’s restrained observation. The silences and omissions that M senses in adult conversations, however, reflect the repressive political atmosphere in which each of the characters goes to work, goes to school (or doesn’t) and leaves the house (or doesn’t). Beneath the novel’s text – which is set out in spare, brief chapters and framed by spaces and even entire pages that are blank – there lies a sinister subtext. That subtext can be read, quite literally, as the social script contained in Chile’s ‘Constitution of Liberty.’ That constitution was approved, as Jessica Whyte writes,
in a 1980 plebiscite that was held in a climate of intense repression in which no electoral rolls existed and a blank vote was counted as ‘yes’. It provided the blueprint for a free market society protected from democratic interference. The constitution embodied the dictatorship’s blend of neoliberalism with conservative Catholicism; along with commitments to private enterprise, ‘choice’, and market competition, it stressed dignity, freedom of conscience, the protected status of the Church and the centrality of the family as ‘the basic core of society’.
The conditions of the plebiscite illuminate the impossible bind facing ordinary Chileans. To not speak out in active opposition is counted by the regime as support. Yet shaping, even imagining, the word ‘no’ would have the cruellest consequences. (Not by accident, Pablo Larraín’s 2012 film about the 1988 plebiscite that eventually ended Pinochet’s reign is simply called, ‘No’ – the same word in Spanish and in English. Interestingly, it centres around a pro-democracy marketing campaign run by a young advertising executive, the most neoliberal job I can imagine, and in a sense just a slicker kind of salesman.)
In the constitution, free choice is paradoxically enshrined by the very script that erases it. All the while, the regime pours its suffocating ideology into any blank space or gap; any pause for breath. D, nevertheless, repeats his mantra that if you shine your shoes and put on a smile, you can achieve anything. This is one of the essential lies of free market ideology, which we see refracted throughout our personality-consuming culture today, from Beyoncé to Elon Musk: individuals make their own destinies, and all you have to do is try. (Work it! Own it!) The logic’s dangerous inverse is that – if you’re poor, if you’re stuck, if you’re struggling – it must be your fault.
The death of that other literary salesman, Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, encapsulated capitalism’s suicidal trajectory decades before the Chilean coup. The pitiful demise of Loman is largely due to his refusal to give up on entrenched notions of success and charisma, in a post-war Brooklyn that doesn’t have much time for a travelling salesman past his prime. There are certainly parallels with Ferrada’s choice of D as a salesman, who is a lousy father but an adequate (if exploitative) employer. If this is the ‘Chilean Miracle’ – in which the family is considered society’s core unit – the novel exposes the cruel emptiness of this neoliberal dream.
When it comes to family, however, we can imagine that a straight, reproductive union like M’s parents is exactly what Pinochet’s constitution had in mind. Interestingly, though, the word ‘family’ is most often used in the novel to describe the group of travelling salesmen, all men, who D hangs around with in the small-town bars, scheming and swapping ‘war stories’ (about sales, not disappearances). Not all families are created equal, however. Where a mutual obligation of care is established in relationships built on nurture, emotional investment, shared histories, and love, the business ‘family’ cares less about its members than profit. D, as employer rather than father, lends M out to other salesman to help them manipulate buyers. If this phrase – lends her out – makes you feel icky, it should. Nothing abusive happens, in the tabloid sense, but the collective exploitation of M as a cute novelty is rife, and business never stops, no matter the weather. When M gets pneumonia in a rainstorm, they finally pull back a little and let her rest. Although even that, M observes, might mostly be due to a sudden onset of Catholic guilt – business’s best friend in dictatorial Chile.
Chile was, of course, not the only Latin American country affected by authoritarianism in the twentieth century. Yet post-dictatorship fiction can tell us a lot about the patriarchal legacies specific to each country. In Dominican writer Rita Indiana Hernández’s 2005 novel, Papi, for example, the ‘daddy’ of the title is imagined from the perspective of his hyperactive daughter, who is not much older than M. In this novel, too, the mother languishes in the background. But Indiana’s Papi looms large, an outrageous gangster who flits between the Dominican Republic and the US, buying things, threatening people, and making out with an endless stream of girlfriends. In this way, the breathless narrative not only conjures a patriarch who resembles the Dominican Republic’s notorious dictator, Trujillo, but also the hyperbolic and hypersexual terms in which his myth has been constructed, as well as the diaspora scattered across the US in his wake.
In How to Order the Universe, D is neither a hypermasculine nor hypersexual paternal model (although M is disturbed to witness the infidelities and double lives of D’s salesmen friends). As a father figure, D’s most dangerous trait – and the one that most reflects Chile’s authoritarian, neoliberal context – is his unwavering dedication to the market. According to Whyte, the ‘lesson of Chilean neoliberalism is that “economic freedom” requires a depoliticised society, and “fiscal discipline” requires a legal order that protects the market from the people.’ As the novel takes a final veer off the highway, we see that D will protect the market at all costs, willing to breach his wife’s trust, his daughter’s safety, and even the sanctity of life itself.
Enter, E. In contrast to D’s fake-it-till-you-make-it business mentality, E cares very little about money, schedules, or economic growth. Despite their differences, E and D become friends, bonding, in the bizarre Venn diagram that is life, over the films that E screens at the university cinema. Apart from selecting the films, one of E’s jobs is charging an entrance fee. Although most of the filmgoers don’t pay it, this is a duty E doesn’t mind breaching, ‘as his aim wasn’t to turn a profit (the business wasn’t his), but to have others watch the film so he would have someone to talk to about it afterward.’ He’ll also replay the movie as many times as viewers want. In these ways, E adds a refreshing amount of chaos and authenticity to M’s ordered world. He also shares his artistic sensibility, as a black-and-white photographer who is entranced by nuance: ‘a good black-and-white photograph,’ he explains to M, ‘was one that showed the whole spectrum of greys between each extreme. The light made the objects appear, or it made them disappear.’
Disappearance is what E is chasing. On one of the trips that he shares with the father-daughter duo (an exchange of free transport for mature conversation), E confides to M that he hunts ‘ghosts’ in his photography. Ghosts aren’t easy to track down, he explains, and it involves asking difficult questions and talking to people ‘who were afraid of telling you what they knew.’ Plus, ghosts themselves disappear: ‘When a ghost withers, it becomes a bone. And if it withers further, it becomes dust. We have to find them before that stage.’ E’s work is therefore urgent. In a political context where people have become objects that can be – and are – disappeared, E aims to resist the totalising nature of their elimination: through his art, E wants to appear them. Yet the strangeness of this syntax reveals the near-impossibility of his task. The ongoing legacies of dictatorship mean that, in both Spanish and English, people can be ‘disappeared’ but they cannot be ‘appeared’.
Ferrada manages to suggest all this quietly and elegantly, aided by Bryer’s light touch in translation. The prose, in both Spanish and English, is simple, composed of short sentences, lists and straightforward language. But the images scattered across it – ghosts, bones, a red star that is stitched into M’s mother’s backpack – create a poetic, elemental symbolism that also avoids the story getting bogged down in ideological language about neoliberalism and human rights abuses. Again, the child’s narrative perspective is crucial. When an adult tells M that he photographs ghosts, she doesn’t demand that he explains what that means in more literal terms. Instead, her way of ordering the universe, one part mystical and one part pragmatic – a businesswoman, yes, but always still a child – allows her to accept his terms.
It also means that when M observes the breaches in the adult world around her, whether gaps in language or violations of trust, they linger as something disturbing but not fully comprehensible. When E tells her that ghosts wither into bones and then dust, his words provoke a new sensation in M: ‘for the first time ever, I experienced a strange feeling that I defined as a black-hole feeling.’ A footnote – the novel’s first – elaborates: ‘A sadness that, even though you feel it, doesn’t belong to you.’ For other daughters, there might be a simpler revelation that draws them away from their father’s world and into their mother’s, like the first spots of blood on underwear. But for M, it is this first appearance of an absence, of inherited sadness, that connects her to her mother. Specifically, to the ‘part of her [that] had abandoned her body’ and can’t (or won’t) come back.
On the day of the black-hole feeling, M learns that E and her mother knew each other in their university days, and that they had a friend in common. Later in the story that friend becomes the only character named – and repeatedly named, in full – in the novel. When they meet again, however, E and M don’t speak his name. Rather, they continue to ‘look at each other with familiarity. With sadness, too.’ And when, over an awkward, silent lunch of asparagus soup, M observes that the steam rising from her bowl looks like ‘a procession of ghosts from the afterlife…trying to communicate with the beforelife,’ her mother bursts into tears and E says that he’ll be leaving.
Ferrada masterfully chooses how and when to reveal certain details about this shared history of ghosts, as the story picks up pace and becomes darker. The novel’s climax centres on the choices D makes to protect himself and his business over the relationships in his life. Where at the story’s beginning, this looks like a father lying to his wife and exploiting his daughter, by its end D’s ‘wily’ tricks take on a much more explicitly moral and political dimension. Absorbing the shocks around her, M experiences an earthquake: she grows up. The novel’s shift in perspective, from child to teenager, allows M to locate some of ‘the pieces missing from the puzzle that was my mother.’ Not only does she develop more compassion for the sadness her mother had always exuded, but she also glimpses a life before she was born – before the dictatorship and its atrocities, before the so-called Chilean Miracle.
As an adolescent, M begins to view her father’s obsession with money through the eyes of the passers-by who eye his shabby clothes and somewhat desperate air: ‘Precariousness had always been with us, and I’d never noticed.’ In a busy train station full of other people, understanding their comparative ‘disadvantage’ gives M a new vision: ‘D and I were vanishing.’ Chilean neoliberalism disappears people up close and over time, enacting a violence that is both quick and slow. She also learns from a friend of her father that all the salesmen, watching the big chains eat up smaller businesses, carry revolvers in their gloveboxes, so that they can choose when to end it all. Even in this bleakest surrender of hope, they cling to the dream of free choice.
Through new fissures in the world around her – the crack where ‘my childhood memories fractured’ – M is able say out loud what previously lurked in between language, in the gaps and omissions of her childhood. And yet the characters’ full names remain unspoken, with the exception of the ghostly, long-gone friend that M’s mother cries about at lunch. In post-dictatorial Chile, the simple choice to say his name – Jaime Andrés Suárez Moncada – seems to counter the regime’s erasure of those it disappeared. Ferrada thus models how the work that E began, documenting ghosts, can be continued. However, her exquisite novel also exposes the depth of the cracks and fissures in Chilean society. Those left behind in her story are reduced to initials; alive and walking the streets, but never again whole. The dictatorship’s devastation lives on, not only within families and friendships, but within language itself, in the very names we use to claim ourselves, each other, and our place in the universe.
Martin Bernetti and Paulina Abramovich. ‘“Where are they?”: Families search for Chile’s disappeared prisoners’. The Guardian. 14 Aug. 2019.
Chile: The Other September 11. Edited by Pilar Aguilera and Ricardo Fredes. Ocean Press: 2003.
Marguerite Feitlowitz. A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Rita Indiana Hernández. Papi. 2005. Translated by Achy Obejas. University of Chicago Press: 2016.
Peter Winn. ‘Introduction’. Victims of the Chilean Miracle: Works and Neoliberalism in the Pinochet Era, 1973-2002. Edited by Peter Winn, Duke University Press: 2004, pp.1-13.
Jessica Whyte. ‘Chile Reborn: Overturning Chile’s neoliberal constitution’. ABC Religion and Ethics. 28 Oct. 2020.