Kate Middleton Reviews Bella Li

18 July 2017

Like the invented-and-still-real Ferrante, the women of this sequence are both real and fictional: Elena Obieta is both the wife of the Argentine writer Macedonio Fernández, and the figure at the centre of Ricardo Piglia’s novel The Absent City, in which Obieta’s memory is contained within a machine (hence the title of her appearance as the headless woman, ‘The Memory Machine Elena Obieta’). In the opening text of the sequence, the mechanised Obieta reflects on the history of her own kind:

There is a very old tradition of automatons in the Black 
Forest. Through the ages—in the shooting galleries, the cheap 
bars, the lottery booths—they meet by chance, they meet in 
silence. A body is a body, but only voices are capable of love.

Highlighting this different between the body and the voice – that the voice is what allows emotion to manifest – again recalls the spectre of the ‘Hundred Headless Woman’. The Isadora of ‘Isadora: a Western’ is unidentified, though the name recalls the remarkable Isadora Duncan, whose life and death are outsized, making the idea of her as heroine of a Western as likely as anything that actually took place in her life. In the realm of cinematic influence, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden and Luca Guadagnino’s Io Sono Amore (or I Am Love) provide the starting points for other sections of this sequence. Its variety of voices, and their far-flung origins, allows the reader to perceive womanhood through a lens that is constantly on the move.

For all that Argosy is a work that draws upon many texts, Li occupies distinctively original imaginative spaces within her writing. Familiarity with the specific novels and films to which she refers can work in concert with her writing, but it is equally possible to fall into this work without seeking each and every intertextual link. The gestures through which Li examines the worlds of her characters create a sustained voice and vision. The production values visible in this edition are impressive, making for a sumptuous book: unique, unclassifiable.

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