Countries of Origin follows young, Spanish-born Demetrio as he returns to a homeland he barely remembers in order to pursue a life that has yet to take shape. On a somewhat involuntary flight from New York to Madrid, he finds himself seated next to the magnetic Jacobo, whose beauty and wealth prove to be the ultimate lure.
Despite the seductive premise, the novel subverts any true notion of passion or desire. The men’s meeting doesn’t take place for many chapters, allowing Demetrio’s anxieties and disillusions to overpower a life devoid of much ambiance. Even then, their familiarity is more charged than gratifying; a coquettish period that stretches into oblivion.
The dialogue is, likewise, fairly instrumental, aiming to recap main events rather than illuminate the subliminal forces behind them. And yet, where the novel’s language fails to stir a response, the plot itself operates in extremes. The highs and lows that Deme reaches prove intriguing, but remain unsupported by the plot’s sluggish emotional progression.
However, what this achieves is a sense of disorientation. Though stranded wherever he goes, Demetrio pays heed to the remotest of details, achieving a state of absolute distraction. Peripheral thoughts begin to invade every conversation, and senses appear in constant overdrive.
Unfortunately, none of this is executed convincingly. The narrative is often saturated with talk of the desserts Demetrio concocts as a pastry chef. The rest of the time, we’re treated to a guided — yet painfully vague — tour of a polarized city. But where this external vibrancy should be met with a richness of psychological intrigue, we’re left with fleeting whims.
Jacobo’s actions, which may include entertaining the fancies of older men, are meant to mystify, then dissipate from our memory. Nothing is ever truly revealed about him; no part of him is corporeal enough to justify the sudden force of Demetrio’s feelings.
Meanwhile, the world of privilege and fortune that he stumbles into proves far headier, forever imbued with politics and narcotics. But, though plausible, the weaving of political thought into every passing remark has the tendency to turn stagnant.
Happy to remain passive, Demetrio forsakes his self-awareness, willfully succumbing to various power dynamics. Every impulse is pre-examined, every reluctance backed up by deep introspection.
Consequently, Countries of Origin lacks the expected intensity, trading spontaneity for objectivity. There are also many contrasts to contend with, from the city’s wealth inequality to the disparities within Jacobo,
“I remembered the gory drawings from his notebook, their sharp contours and broken flesh (…). I wondered how the same person could create such viscerally different images, how those opposite worlds collided inside him.”
But, though intriguing, they are never properly investigated. Every nuance takes on the form of a pencil sketch that’s abandoned midway.
The attraction between Demetrio and Jacobo is, similarly, never given the chance to turn into a romance. Ruled by both indifference and the urge to conquer, it further speaks to the characters’ emotional rupture.
As a result, the story never reaches a culmination point. No event, exchange, or experience ever bears significant weight, failing to leave an impression. Ultimately, Countries of Origin seems to capture our instinct to coast through life, to follow the ripples of another’s stroke and call their draw serendipitous.
Countries of Origin will be published by Pantheon Books on June 6, 2023.