Review: The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada

The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada, trans. by Chris Andrews (Graywolf Press, 2019)

Reviewed by Allison McCausland

There is an old saying that one can tell the character of a person not by how long they have known them, but based on a single gesture. These view sinuously weaves together four characters of Selva Almada’s 2012 novel The Wind That Lays Waste. Translated by Chris Andrews in 2019, both author and translator create a character study of four individuals at a roadside garage in Argentina.

While traveling the Argentine countryside to evangelize, Reverend Pearson and his teenage daughter Leni have a bit of hard luck when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. They are towed to the workshop garage of Gringo Brauer and his assistant Tapioca. While waiting for the repairs, Pearson and Leni end up staying with the mechanic and connecting with Brauer and Tapioca. All four personalities, moralities, and worldviews collide, shaping each character’s future.

The main conflict comes in the form of Reverend Pearson’s mission to spread the Christian gospel and convert those he can to serve God. His can sense the innocence of Tapioca, an orphan left with Gringo Brauer and implied to be his son. Tapioca’s idealism and sheltered existence from the world draw him in to Pearson’s preaching, which promises Tapioca rich exposure to the world while walking the path of the Lord. This does not sit well with the gruff and realistic Brauer who has never told Tapioca of their true relationship, instead raising the boy to learn practical skills under his tutelage and hoping to shield him from the cruelties of the world. The struggle between Brauer and Pearson to help Tapioca find his place in the world contrasts with Leni, Pearson’s cynical daughter. Although outwardly obedient and helpful to her father when he preaches, she harbors negative feelings toward their life on the road and the perceived two-faced teachings of his religion.

Almada ironically places the views of the youths in opposition to those of their parents to demonstrate the yin and yang these four characters. It also winks at any parents who will inevitably experience the teenage rebellion that comes from a contrast of ideas and worldviews. She expresses this solidarity in quiet moments between Brauer and Pearson, who discus the struggles of bringing up children over a shared drink on the porch. Conversely, Almada gives Leni and Tapioca a moment of their own, discussing what the world is like as they sit under a tree and share music or talk of escaping together in one of the garage’s old cars.

However, Leni and Tapioca envy each other. Leni’s cynicism over the sham of her father’s evangelism undercuts her real issue of understanding why her father abandoned her mother. Leni recalls Pearson chastising her mother about setting a good example for their daughter outside their car while she curled up in the backseat. The memory ends with Pearson driving away with Leni, believing the rash decision is what is best for her. In a sense, Leni is grateful for the experience because it has helped her learn to be independent and take care of herself, since she has handled the practicalities of their life on the road. Nevertheless, Leni sees her father’s rigid view of “a good life” as hypocritical as the choice “persuasion” he uses to convert nonbelievers. Pearson sees their traveling as a way to give Leni a taste of the world while staying on the path of God, ignoring Leni’s real desire for answers and a stable home life.

Tapioca, on the other hand, wishes he could go out and see the world. When his mother abandoned him with Brauer, Tapioca was timid and fearful. But after years of virtual isolation on Brauer’s property, he yearns to see the world. Tapioca does see the benefits of a simple life and practical skills. But once the opportunity to travel with Reverend Pearson sparks a newfound fire inside him, his internal wanderlust wins out against Brauer’s philosophy.

In the end, Tapioca stands up for himself in Brauer and Pearson’s battle over his “soul” and he decides to go with the Reverend and learn more about theology and the lives others lead. Brauer begrudgingly excepts the boy’s decision and even feels a bit a pride in his ability to stand up for himself. Brauer and Pearson leave each other on neutral terms, with respect for the other’s ability to walk the path they believe is just. Leni, somewhat sadly, comes to the decision that she wants to leave her father as well, at first deciding she wants to stay on with before being shut down by her father. She resolves, instead, leave Pearson and Tapioca quietly once the pair find their rhythm as evangelists.

Despite contrasting views and personalities, these characters force each other to grow and make decisions they never would have without their chance meeting. The cynical Leni decides she has the courage and skill to lead a good life without her father’s teachings, Tapioca resolves to create his own view of the world instead of believing Brauer’s philosophy, Pearson gets the chance to shape the soul of someone who genuinely wants to learn his theological teachings, and Brauer learns to let go and respect Tapioca’s decision to carve a life out for himself.

Not every shift in character has to come from life changing quests or traumatic experiences. Almada’s choice words and Andrews’ beautiful translation of her juxtaposed character studies give voice to the subtle internal struggles we undergo to find ourselves.   

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