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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

How to Order the Universe

María José Ferrada

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To purchase How to Order the Universe

Title: How to Order the Universe
Author: María José Ferrada
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 170 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: How to Order the Universe - US
Kramp - US
How to Order the Universe - UK
How to Order the Universe - Canada
Kramp - Deutschland
Kramp - Italia
Kramp - España
  • Spanish title: Kramp
  • Translated by Elizabeth Bryer

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Our Assessment:

A- : beautifully wrought

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
ABC . 7/2/2020 Alejandro Palomas
The NY Times Book Rev. . 31/1/2021 Ginny Hogan
World Lit. Today A+ Spring/2021 Kevin Canfield

  From the Reviews:
  • "¿Por qué? porque esta es una historia humilde y emocionalmente magistral… eso es exactamente, una clase magistral de lo que debe de ser una novela: frases cortas, poco adorno, la mirada de una niña que recorre los caminos de un país -- Chile -- acompañando a su padre, el trasfondo de la dictadura como un nubarrón que nunca descarga pero que nada borra, un hombre que visita ferreterías, que vende tuercas, tornillos y maquinaria mientras su niña lo ve todo, nos lo cuenta todo" - Alejandro Palomas, ABC

  • "Transience pervades this slim novel: in the father's itinerant career, in the pace at which new information undermines M's prior conception of life. And the book is itself transient. Ferrada turns the story on its head several times with just one sentence. You'll find yourself at the end before you know it, still wondering if M finally found the order she craved." - Ginny Hogan, The New York Times Book Review

  • "At heart, this is an appealing ode to eccentric forms of resistance in the face of brutal repression. Ferrada's portraits of D and his colleagues are entertaining. All are liars (...) but they're endearingly so. (...) As it chugs toward a tense third-act crisis, this bighearted story, skillfully translated by Elizabeth Bryer, offers a host of memorable set pieces. Hitched together by this multitalented writer, they make for an outstanding novel." - Kevin Canfield, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       How to Order the Universe begins with an account of how D became a traveling salesman, selling hardware items of the Kramp brand in Chile starting in 1969. D is the father of M, the narrator of this novel populated by figures referred to only by a single initial. Only M's mother is instead referred to by her role, rather than a name or initial, and only one character's name is actually spelled out, Jaime Andrés Suarez Moncada, whose role, however, is one of absence rather than presence.
       M writes as an adult, in some indistinct present, looking back, but she fully inhabits the child-self (through her mid-teens) whose life she describes here. She notes that: "I began early with a classification of things", in trying to find an order in this world. At age seven, she decides: "I would be D's assistant": with polished shoes like his, she wants to go with him on his sales-calls -- and, persistent as she is (a gift inherited from D), he agrees to take her along. As he quickly realizes, the young girl at his side only helps his sales-pitches -- "it was one thing to tell a man clutching a sample case that he was shameless, and quite another to tell him so when his other hand was clutching mine" --, and he's not just willing but eager to keep taking her along, and so they establish a real partnership.
       D is her father, but M refers to him as 'D'. Just as she began her story before she was even born, describing the beginnings of D's travelling salesman career and how he met her mother -- in 1973 --, his role exists separate from his relation to M. Not so M's mother -- even as she is a much more distant figure in the story. M explains about her partnership with D -- which would come to involve her missing a great deal of school, a fact carefully hidden from her concerned but not all too attentive mother:

     Everything that happened next was only possible because my mother was absent. It wasn't that she left the house much, it was that a part of her had abandoned her body and now resisted coming back.
       Clearly, one of the ways M dealt with this mother who was not entirely whole or present was to attach herself more closely to D, who traveled with clear purpose and routine; it also offered the satisfaction of knowing she contributed to his success. (Eventually, she wants a cut; D doesn't go for that, but they come to an arrangement.) It is a form of escape for M, an attempt to make sense of a world -- and a situation, specifically regarding her mother -- that is otherwise beyond her. As she explains:
     What I'm trying to say is that every person tries to explain the inner workings of things with whatever is at hand. I, at seven years of age, had reached out my hand, and had grasped a Kramp catalogue.
       Ferrada offers a charming account of those early years of partnership and the traveling salesman life. M's role is somewhat limited -- her mother isn't so oblivious that she'd permit M to go along on overnight trips, at least when school is on, for example -- but she spends a great deal of time at D's side, with apparent success. Eventually, she even gets a gig with another salesman, of different products, S. Ferrada presents all this in very short chapters, told with a great economy of style yet surprising depth; practiced as the author children's books, Ferrada transfers the talents honed there to this very adult book remarkably well.
       Another figure also enters D and M's orbit, a photographer, E, who hitches rides with them, looking to take pictures of what he calls ghosts. E had a job screening films at the university cinema, which is where D met him, and they struck up a friendship of sorts. And when D brings E home one day, we learn a little more about the mother, and her trauma. They recognize each other - "We had a friend in common at university", E mentions -- but obviously these aren't memories M's mother wants to dredge up: "my mother, who always seemed to be on another planet, this time appeared to be striving to reach another galaxy".
       The world of How to Order the Universe is one where much remains unspoken. Much is not discussed; much, even young M senses, can't be broached, and it is all left unsaid here. This world is, of course, the Chile of the early 1980s; the events of the times are among the things clearly left unspoken about. At one point reality threatens to intrude, when D and M -- cutting school yet again -- see M's mother: "in one of the university quadrangles with a group of people, who were all talking in a serious, disciplined way". Rather than approach her and ask her, then or later, what she was doing, they simply silently ignore what they see; silence, between each other and about what they saw is preferable to what amounts to opening a can of worms; even M senses she doesn't want to know the truth behind it.
       Reality then again intrudes, now at its ugliest, with no way of avoiding it. What has been left unspoken and covered-up threatens to come to the fore -- in a world that will not permit that. M's life is upended, with, for once, her mother taking action -- even if in the form of what amounts to flight. M finds herself pulled along into: "what I called our 'next life'".
       She's nine at the time. Her life becomes one of more childish normality, with school and friends and a more regular routine -- the days and years: "so similar that they could have been concentrated into as single day". But for all that she can't completely break with the past -- nor, then, can she return to it.
       Throughout, M must try to make sense of a world that she senses isn't right, in so many ways; she looks for a hold and, for a while, she finds it by falling back on the Kramp catalogue and the solidity and clarity it offers. Tellingly, even the very house she lived in with D and her mother is one: "built out of Kramp products". But, as it turns out, this world is a fragile one; even an entire catalogue of Kramp products can't hold it together. How to Order the Universe is the story of it not crashing but crumbling down.
       How to Order the Universe is beautifully, delicately written. Much is left unsaid -- something made clear in a variety of ways -- and yet communicated. M acknowledges some of what passes unsaid -- it is obvious, (even) to her --, but certainly her child-self remains unable to comprehend or even apprehend much of what the adults' world also encompasses. The mystery that is the world to any child here -- in the Chile of these times -- comes with additional dark layers that make it even more difficult to fathom; the Kramp catalogue can provide a sense of order for a time, but ultimately falls short in the face of a much more powerful reality.
       There's an odd emotional distance between M and her parents which adds to the novel's disturbing feel: M is hugged by several characters, for example, but then when reünited with D after having not seen each other for a while: "Instead of embracing, we gave each other slaps on the back, as old school friends do". Indeed, even very early on there's the rather harsh judgement:
     Approaching eight years of age, I had discovered that, while D was nothing special as a father, he made an excellent employer.
       There is a cold sadness to this story of loss -- the loss here much more than simply one of childish innocence (as M, complete with cigarette habit, never presents herself as very innocent to start with). The universe itself here is crushing -- all the more effectively conveyed by Ferrada's contrasting and very delicate touch. It makes for a powerful and accomplished book.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 February 2021

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How to Order the Universe: Reviews: María José Ferrada: Other books by María José Ferrada under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chilean author María José Ferrada was born in 1977.

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© 2021-2023 the complete review

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