“Twice in the night she woke up and reread the letter again and then a third time in the morning before sending it on her way to the Saavedras where she worked as a maid, and where she received the wailing, youngest son Vicente before she’d even put down her bag. She hadn’t taken to this last boy as she had to the older Saavedra children, but today she felt so full of promise she kept Vicente in her arms all morning. She had just sent a letter. To a man who might want to meet her. The greatness of the possibility felt like an apple inside her, round and shiny every time she thought of it.”
Nelda Soto is lonely. She does things to assuage her loneliness that are understandable to the similarly lonely, and perhaps pathetic to the mercilessly popular. When, at her more gregarious, practically-minded sister Maria’s urging, she responds to an ad in the personals section of the Peruvian Sunday paper, she invites the beginnings of an unusual correspondence. Javier, the man whose personal ad she answers turns out, of course, to be rather disparate from her stolid yet earnest romantic ideals, but sooner than later, Nelda becomes hard-pressed to imagine her life without him. When an essential, previously guarded truth about Javier’s exact location comes to light, it is the thought of the song-fragments (which are really poem-fragments) and curious thoughts he’s shared that compel Nelda to seek him out, despite the potential embarrassment to herself. This, and what Nelda discovers upon encountering Javier face to face, form the essence of Idra Novey’s tender, deceptively simple short story of unexpected kinship and the universally shared quest for human comfort, “The Man from the Ad”.
The story is more than a seeming retrospective take on a romantic’s search for meaning; what makes it fodder for future rumination is how detail-dotted it reads, even when those details have been artfully concealed by Novey’s hand. For instance, near the beginning of the narration, we learn this:
“It was 1979, six years into the Pinochet dictatorship, and Maria assured Nelda that the newspapers reported nothing but good news now. Nothing was going wrong in the country anymore. It was an ideal time to find someone through the paper.”
This is clever, unflaggingly clever of the author—to document an entire substory of horror and wartime woe beneath a pleasant, postal façade. The idea of no bad news being reported in the thick, unremitting onslaught of one of history’s most brutal dictatorships is stymying. With a hair’s breath’ difference of perspective, we realize that Novey could be telling us a very disparate story. It might be to her eternal credit that she does not. There is something garishly enticing about reading of a fairly innocuous, if oddball, courtship, whose players have not gone unsoiled by the tragedies of the time, and yet, none of the horrors one might expect never quite reveal their faces. Some of the best writing is enforced entirely in the name of baiting us, hooking us on expectations and delivering the opposite of what we think we’re going to be told, no? There are subtle hints and suggestions of that in this story, giving it volume and history once we’re aware enough to distinguish them where they lie.
Pen and paper correspondents will doubtless appreciate the uneven, awkwardly meeting layers of experience in Nelda’s letters to Javier, and his responses to her. Her declarations are just that: baldly, self-consciously declarative, in which she makes no secret of her intent, in which her solitary, longing heart is evident between every forthright line. Javier’s replies are perfumed with the mysterious, including random queries regarding Nelda’s epicurean tastes, and snippets of the poems of César Vallejo, who Nelda mistakes for a possibly-leftist contemporary singer… and yet, at their core, both sets of letters are about the writer seeking to draw out the pleasure of the other. So, Nelda wishing Javier a Happy Easter, in advance, because she remembers his initial request for a “thoughtful correspondence”, and Javier sending Nelda these lines from C. Vallejo:
“It’s the fourteenth of July.
Five o’clock in the afternoon. It rains
Over the third corner of a dry page
And it rains more from below than above.”
are born from the same impulse: to be beloved, to show gratitude for the presence of another in one’s life who finds one worthy of every care.
Exquisitely composed, “The Man from the Ad” contains enough reflections on desire tempered by distance, on what constitutes our carnal responses, on companionship and the unlikely places in which it dwells, to carry you through a week of reflections, and then some. Perhaps it will inspire you to toy with phrasing for your very own personal ad… because, wartime or not, we’re always reaching out for a little extra affection, aren’t we?
You can read “The Man from the Ad” by Idra Novey here. (Guernica)
This Sunday, Ellen, the creator of the Story Sundays feature, shares her thoughts on “White Boy” by Murray Dunlap. You can read her post at her blog, Fat Books and Thin Women, here. This week, we’re also joined by the lovely Jennifer of Books, Personally, who shares her thoughts on “Weimaraner” by Kate Lorenz, here.
Story Sundays was created by Fat Books and Thin Women as a way to share appreciation for this undervalued fiction form. All stories discussed are available to read free, online. Here’s Fat Books and Thin Women’s Story Sunday archive, and here’s mine. Want to start up Story Sundays on your blog? Yay! Email story.sundaysATgmail.com for details.