See more of the story

When Aurora Venturini's "Cousins" won the 2007 New Novel Award from Argentina's alternative newspaper Página/12, it seemed anachronistic. Venturini was 85 years old and had published dozens of books. She had been friendly with Evita Perón and had lived in exile in Paris. Sure, "Cousins" was new, but Venturini was larger than life. As her compatriot Mariana Enríquez writes in her introduction to Kit Maude's rollicking new English translation of "Cousins," "Myths gathered around [Venturini] and she actively encouraged them."

Mythmaking can spawn a degree of freedom, so it's unsurprising that Venturini wrote a novel wherein the protagonist "erase[s] everything" in an attempt to find salvation in solitude. "Cousins" is unabashed, treating timely themes in ways that some may find insensitive, while cautioning against the convictions that might engender such judgments.

Venturini, who died in 2015, said her bildungsroman is somewhat based on her "very freakish" family and "not very ordinary" self. The narrator, Yuna, sees the story of her rise as a painter as an "absurd dirge," one she hopes contains recognizable experiences among its "stupid disappointments in love and death." I see it as a portrait of the artist as a young woman, by way of David Lynch.

Yuna and younger sister Betina live with their mother, a teacher who disciplines students and daughters alike with the rod. Having abandoned his family, their father is untrustworthy, like all the novel's men. Pretty Yuna is "disgusted" by her sister, who uses a wheelchair. Yuna tortures Betina while feeding her — "I wasn't particular about which orifice the spoon was shoved into" — and calls her, among other things, "a mistake of nature." Betina quits school in third grade, Yuna in sixth, though the latter's artistic talents earn her a fine art degree at 17.

When Yuna's cousin Carina is 14, she has an illegal abortion, with predictably horrifying consequences (made all the more nightmarish in a post-Dobbs United States). Sorrow and vengeance unite Yuna and Carina's younger sister Petra, a "Lilliputian" prostitute, in an alliance targeting the neighbor who fathered Carina's child and, later, the professor who helped launch Yuna's career.

In addition to patriarchal abuses, Yuna battles a learning disability, observing that "my sight is as profound as my speech is superficial." She disdains periods and commas that allow the "noises inside [her] head" to derail her thoughts. Maude's translation captures both Yuna's dry, often self-deprecating, wit and her moralizing, utterly unsparing, judgment.

Venturini's influence, particularly her carnivalesque qualities, is still felt in younger writers, especially Ariana Harwicz and María Gainza. It's a joy welcoming the outlandish "Cousins" to the stellar family of 21st-century Argentine authors available in English.

Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.

By: Aurora Venturini, translated from the Spanish by Kit Maude.
Publisher: Soft Skull, 208 pages, $17.95.