You need to read this book in one sitting. It’s not a long book, but it is intense. There are no chapters here, nor is there much dialogue. Instead you will find a long stream of prose. Do not resist, just immerse yourself, because the best way to read stream of consciousness is to dive in.
A History of Money is written by an Argentinian author, Alan Pauls, and translated from the Spanish by Ellie Robins. I love translated fiction. I love reading about people from places other than the United States. Reading translated literature makes me feel connected to the rest of the world. But I always feel that I am missing something, too. While words can be translated, the same is not always true for culture and history. Often there is subtext that lies beneath the visible words. So when I read translations, I try to keep in mind that I may not be truly understanding what the author is telling us, because I am not really a member of the club.
At the end of A History of Money, there is a note on the text that describes the background of the time period in the novel. This is roughly 40 years between the 1960s and the 2000s. The note mentions the “disappearing” of dissidents, the coup d’états, the unstable economy, the subsequent wild fluctuations in currency, and the creation of the black market. We have never experienced this in the United States. Placing this note at the beginning of the novel would enable readers to keep this information in mind while reading the text. This novel opens with one of the best first lines that I have ever read: “He hasn’t yet turned fifteen when he sees his first dead person in the flesh.” Who DOESN’T remember their first dead person? The narrator, who remains nameless throughout the story, is remembering his first dead person, this dead man lying in a coffin, this dead man who was a friend of his stepfather’s family. This dead man has always given him the creeps, and the narrator is morbidly relieved and fascinated and horrified at the same time, because he is surprised to find that he still feels hostility towards a corpse.
The dead man died in a helicopter crash. He was a prominent businessman, who was involved in some shady deals at the time of his death, and the circumstances of his death are murky. His briefcase, which is never recovered, contained undeclared money. The whispered question on everyone’s lips is “where’s the money?” A History of Money is about, obviously, money. We all know what money is, right? It’s what we use to buy stuff and services. But if you start to think about money, I mean really THINK about it, it’s much more than the pieces of paper and metal that we exchange for other stuff. We often use the word “money” interchangeably with the words “income” and “wealth”, which are two entirely different things. Income is defined as earnings during a period of time, and wealth refers to accumulated assets and property. Such loaded words. Money is how we define ourselves. It determines where we live, what we eat, whom we befriend or marry. It determines our health, our education, our opportunities. The lack of money defines us just as much as the abundance of money. Even if we say that money is not important, we still need it. People who say that money does not matter are frequently the ones who have a lot of it. And personally, I believe that money and the place we occupy in the economic stratum lie at the root of all of our differences, more than religion, ideology, and race. The fact that we never actually ever find out what happened to the dead businessman’s money is not important, because it is the question that permeates the entire novel. Where IS the money? Who has money? Who doesn’t have money? How can a person get money? How can a person make more money? How can ANYONE get more money, since the economy is so unstable that money continually loses its value? And where does the money go in the end? Who pays? How can there be such disparity between those who have money and those who don’t? The narrator’s father is a bit of a ne’er-do-well, a gambler who manages to support himself by playing poker, but who lives on the thinnest of margins. He carries his money in wads of cash that are described in great detail, as though they have physical properties of their own. The narrator’s mother is a socialite, maybe even a bit of a gold-digger, who has remarried a rich man with a wealthy family. She lives lavishly, but remains dependent on her new husband, the narrator’s stepfather. She runs through money at an increasing pace over time. A History of Money is told in a series of memories recalled by the narrator. These memories are not linear, but instead circle round and round through the past, so that blank pieces are filled in like a jigsaw puzzle. The common thread throughout is money, in all its forms.
I made a list of all the words used for money in its physical forms:
These words are used at least 490 times throughout the text – yes, I counted, because I am fascinated about this kind of stuff.
Most every situation in the novel is about money, or the value of things, or the transactions that require money. Money is used as a metaphor as well. Here is another list:
- The currency of communication
- The price one must pay
- Money as a homeland that one must leave
- Getting one’s fingers dirty from touching money
- The cost of living
- Buying oneself time
- His father’s accounting
- Whipping up the money
- Investing oneself
- Swimming in money
- Gusts of cash that blow in
- Money as the kind of rain one was hoping for
- A type of physical attack as being common currency
- The cleanliness of dying without a single peso but with the books balanced
- Taking the bull of money by its horns
Reading this novel was like watching fireworks, with each explosion being the mention of money, and where the explosions happen closer and closer together until the suspense is almost killing you as the grand finale approaches. It is only at the end that you realize that A History of Money is HIS history, the narrator’s history, a tangible history that is utterly heartbreaking.I did not expect to be blown away like I was. Wow.