The New York Times on False Calm


The New York Times reviews María Sonia Cristoff’s Patagonian chronicle, False Calm, in its December 2, 2018, Holiday Gift Guide—and it’s glowing! Andrew McCarthy writes:

No book I’ve read in recent memory resides in as much isolation as Katherine Silver’s translation of María Sonia Cristoff’s FALSE CALM (Transit, paper, $16.95). Cristoff grew up in the remote southern portion of Argentina. “As a child,” she explains, “I saw this isolation as positive, as had so many European explorers in Patagonia.” Only later, as an adolescent, did she determine that its vast space contained “a kind of nightmarish logic, where I could walk and walk but still remain in the same place.”

And so she left, only to return after two decades, “when I no longer saw things one way or the other.” Cristoff came back to talk with the people, and not talk with them — to share silence and space with those who lived under their oppressive weight. She wanted to become, as she writes, “a lightning rod, a receiving antenna,” realizing that “the atmosphere spoke through me.”

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The challenge of this book is also its triumph: Cristoff makes no effort to lead or coddle the reader, to paint a romantic portrait of a remote land or tell us how we ought react to the lonely, frightening, occasionally heroic lives she exposes. With an almost clinical remove, made possible by the unspoken empathy that comes from growing up “in the middle of that yellowish chalky color that wears out your eyes,” Cristoff paints a picture of devastating singularity. Hers is a bold, beautiful book.

Whether she’s describing a shopkeeper who long ago came home to attend his dying father (“I returned for a week and stayed forever”) or a man who gave up on his dream of flying a small plane and felt “defeat in every cell, but not like the counterpart to some success; an existential defeat, the curse of having been born,” Cristoff leaves out so much surface detail that might have made for a less demanding, more passive reading experience, instead opting to sift down toward the marrow of her subjects.

No punches are pulled in illuminating the perils of Patagonian solitude. The oil field pumper whose job requires him to patrol the land, mile by lonely mile, day after solitary day, slips farther from the influence of other people until he “no longer has anything to say to them or ask them or tell them.” He goes on to explain that “you gradually start realizing that there’s less and less you need from them.”

The gasp induced by this and other revelations slices through the reader like the wind over the Patagonian steppe, reminding us — as do all these books, in their own ways — that the most harrowing journey is often the one within.