Review: Open Door

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November 10, 2011 by markstani

Open Door is a small town deep in the Argentinian Pampas named for the sprawling psychiatric hospital to whose fringes it clings. It is in this increasingly blurred no-man’s-land between presumed sanity and insanity that Iosi Havilio’s intriguing, bewildering novel invites us to wander.
The story’s unnamed narrator is a vetinary assistant in Buenos Aires whose friend and lover, we are led to believe (but never entirely convinced) commits suicide by jumping from a bridge.
The narrator, who witnesses the incident but cannot be sure of its veracity, drifts to Open Door, where she has treated a horse which shares its name with its owner, an ageing rancher, and where circumstances will contrive for her to stay.

On the way to the stable, Jaime tells me the horse is called Jaime, like him. He blushes a bit as he says it. He falls silent, regretting having mentioned it. He opens the stable door but doesn’t go in, pointing out the horse from a distance, saying that he’ll wait for me here. I tell him that he doesn’t have to, that he can come with me if he wants. Jaime fixes his eyes on his packet of tobacco and concentrates on rolling a fat cigarette. I don’t insist. I’ll go an examine him, I say, and Jaime responds with a long drag. He waits at the entrance, one foot inside, one foot out.

In Open Door, the narrator develops an obsession with a local girl: their frequent, seemingly deliberately gratuitous sexual activity, the blurring of boundaries between identities, the constant flitting between past and present tense: all imply a restless, disturbed kind of fantasy.
Havilio’s minimalist prose shears events of their purpose or consequence: the narrator spends her days having sex and taking drugs with the girl, who may or may not have reached the age of consent. She is occasionally asked to return to the city morgue to identify bodies fitting her former lover’s description. In between, she pores over the history of the hospital, which, inexplicably, she finds in rare French form on top of a bedroom cupboard, and of which Jaime – the man, not the horse – professes ignorance. Open Door is a vast estate whose purpose, we are told, is to advance the treatment of those incarcerated by providing them with the illusion of freedom.
It is that notion of freedom which the novel, with all its strange, disjointed events, forces us to address. As Oscar Guardiola-Rivera poses intriguingly in his afterword: ‘What if all the incidents I’ve touched on are merely the fantasies of a patient interned in Open Door?’ Furthermore, ‘what if we’re all mad, oblivious to the fact that the whole world of capitalism + every man for himself is one big Open Door?’
‘Open Door’ is a confusing, bewildering, riveting book; a paen, of sorts, to both the pursuit of solitude and the futility of that pursuit. Its scenes and characters will haunt you for days after, but never offer better answers. It is unlikely Havilio’s imminent sequel will shed further light. It would be a shame if it did.

Open Door is published by And Other Stories. You can champion it at the Guardian’s World Literature Tour blog.

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