From her docent’s chair at a local history museum in provincial Argentina, Mara is practicing “the art of keeping quiet.” When visitors ask about the bathroom or if there’s anywhere decent to eat in town, she ignores them. Instead, “she emulates the pieces in the exhibit, stares straight ahead at a tiny detail, turns a special quality of attention to how she is sitting, the tensing of her muscles, the expression of her face.” After work, a passing car shrouds her in dust as she walks home along a dirt road. She makes no effort to clean herself off, choosing to appreciate “those layers and layers of dirt making her ever blurrier, more like yet another mishap of the landscape.”
Include Me Out, the Argentine author María Sonia Cristoff’s first novel to be translated into English, probes the possibility of leaving behind the ever more interconnected world in favor of the hyperlocal anonymity Mara delights in. Before settling in the town of Luján, her life was glamorous. She was a jet-set interpreter, shuttling from diplomatic meetings to transnational business deals. New York one week, the south of France the next. But for all the power and prestige that came with her work—the potential to “unleash a third world war,” say, or “make millions from that sentence they wrote down”—Mara became “implacably fed up” with her cosmopolitan life. The source of her suffering? The inability of the interpreter to ever stop talking. Rather than seek peace and quiet as others of her set might (perhaps with a trip to the volcanic spas of Iceland or a spell on the beach in Bali), she chose Luján’s obscure museum for her retreat. There she can go further than simply take a vacation from her hectic life and experiment with a different sort of living altogether. That is, until the taxidermist arrives and ruins everything.
The collection of the museum Mara has picked for her project in silence happens to include Mancha and Gato, two historically significant criollo horses that have been preserved since the 1920s. Because she is a docent in the room where Mancha and Gato are displayed, Mara is chosen by the museum’s director to serve as a special assistant to a world-renowned taxidermist who has been hired to restore them. He’s a man of seemingly unlimited self-importance, a trait that manifests itself in the form of a constant, mind-numbing monologue that shatters the lulling atmosphere Mara has cultivated.
Include Me Out ostensibly revolves around a few categories of mutual exclusion: silent or prolix, in motion or still, cosmopolitan or parochial. At the same time, Cristoff underscores the impossibility of so neatly bifurcating the world by making Mara’s resolution a half-measure that anticipates its own failure. Though she endeavors to not speak, she does not take a vow of silence. Rather than become some “ascetic in a tower,” whose self-banishment might draw notice because of its extremity, what interests Mara is the tension that comes from “keeping quiet while interacting with the world.” By trading absolute silence for the “onomatopoeias and affirmations” necessary for quotidian interactions with shopkeepers and museum visitors, Mara believes she can become just one more forgettable face in a forgettable town. Her system is meant to eliminate her agency, to transform her into an automatic performer of life.
Cristoff’s narration of Mara’s endeavor to that end are interspersed with selections “From the Notebook,” historical debriefs and miniature essays that provide context and intellectual legitimization for her project. Here, the narrowness of Mara’s chosen life is belied by touchstones that speak to the continental erudition that sets its parameters. Whether the Notebook is kept by Mara (as a private redoubt) or Cristoff (as a disclosure of the research that accompanied composing the novel) is never specified, but it doesn’t really matter. By using these dispatches to gloss a book by the French harpist Xavier de Maistre and some Slovenian performance artists, Cristoff exposes Mara’s renunciation of the cosmopolitan life as an act of deep aesthetic sophistication. For all her preening, Mara is fundamentally just embarking on a contemporary version of the retreat exercised by J.K. Huysman’s protagonist in À Rebours (Against the Grain), another work cited in the Notebook.
The imbrication of remotest Argentina’s quietude and the hurly-burly of the international scene is a hallmark of Cristoff’s work. In False Calm, a journalistic treatment of the towns that have been hollowed out by the departure of the oil industry from her home region of Patagonia, she is just as apt to quote from local news clippings as she is to relate the plot of Red Dragon, the thriller that introduced Hannibal Lecter. In False Calm Cristoff describes being visited in a dream by the ghost of Bruce Chatwin, the British writer whose travelogue about Patagonia helped to elevate it into the pantheon of tourist destinations. “It’s Chatwin,” she writes, “eyes half closed and talking in a monotone but with urgency, about how Shakespeare was inspired by a Patagonian Indian to create Caliban in The Tempest.” However peripheral the places she writes about appear, Cristoff is adept at teasing out the easily overlooked ways contemporary perceptions of them have been shaped by artists and writers from elsewhere.
Chatwin’s ghost talks about as much as the taxidermist in Include Me Out, though the former has considerably more interesting things to say. The taxidermist’s verbosity seems to serve only “as affirmation that one is alive even while working all day with dead bodies.” Such affirmation is exactly the point: As Mara learns, the goal of taxidermy is not to preserve a corpse but to create a simulacrum of life. She is startled to learn that the preserved hides of Mancha and Gato get their shape from simple mannequins rather than the embalmed muscle and yellowing bones she had imagined. She watches, unnerved, as the taxidermist kneels on one of the pelts, “applying his formula like one of those murderers who play with the remains of their victims.”
However Hannibal-like this work might seem, the taxidermist’s goal is to trick the museum viewer into seeing the criollos as they once were: alive. Meanwhile, Mara learns that his wife, a Finnish artist named Talvikki, uses the same chemicals that make up the taxidermist’s proprietary formula (albeit in different solution) to reduce the remains of animals into powders and gelatins that can be incorporated into her sculptures. While her husband seeks to preserve life, Talvikki is after “the ambivalence between life and death.”
Meeting Talvikki inspires Mara to use the couple’s shared chemicals to sabotage the taxidermist’s work, ruining the horsehides and implicating the man as a fraud. Though these machinations are far from the frictionless life Mara has been seeking, she believes they are necessary to ensure that her work for the taxidermist amounts not to the ruination of her detachment project but to a brief hiatus. They also represent a drastic escalation of her commitment to silence. Even after the taxidermist has been run off, her ability to reimmerse herself in obscurity is forever compromised. Rather than enjoy her reclaimed hours in the docent’s chair, she now finds herself focused “on her next chapter, her next act that will go against the grain.” While again invoking Huysmans, Cristoff does so only to break with him. The hero of Á Rebours closes that novel in existential despair; Mara, on the other hand, is molding herself into a performance artist of disappearing. “Her flights from the redundancies of the world” will no longer be undertaken for their own sake but rather revised into an act of “solitary resistance.”
Cristoff has no interest in dusting off the work of dead Europeans, decoupling the hides of their novels from the mannequins of thought that give them shape in order to simply replace them with a more contemporary skin. In fact, she’s not in the business of preserving anything. Cristoff is the artist who grinds up the bones of the classics into powder that can be refigured into work that speaks more directly to our current age. In the 18th century, withdrawal was possible—even if it led to madness. But in the 21st, it’s simply not an option. Reject the world, and the world comes looking. The only recourse for those who wish to disappear is to make a project of it, a globe-trotting road show that may attract notice but will in the meantime afford the practitioner at least a modicum of peace and quiet. Meanwhile, the people of towns like Luján just keep struggling to make do, oblivious to the overwrought exertions of the moneyed.