The Iliac Crest

Before entering the world of Cristina Rivera Garza’s novel The Iliac Crest, originally published in 2002 and now translated by Sarah Booker, it is worth considering her approach to writing. “What is interesting to me in the process of writing,” she has said, “is precisely the opportunity to enter a universe I might be able to visualise but that I will only know, if at all, through the writing of it.” In a separate interview she stated, “I don’t write books to communicate.”

“It’s not their function to pass meaning or transmit messages. I tend more towards writing as a process through which I try to empty language, to leave just what is strictly necessary so that the reader might take what he or she can see there and jump into his own production.”

Some sense of this remains in the finished novel which moves forward in short chapters with an uncertainty which is invigorating in its sudden shifts and sashays, often eliciting a reaction similar to that of the narrator to his unexpected visitor’s story:

“Her response sounded absurd to me, of course, but also plausible.”

In such a story the opening must immediately grab the reader by the hand and pull him in, as Garza does here in what might be seen as a mirror image of that process, where a strange young woman appears at the door of our narrator’s house in the middle of a storm and he lets her enter:

“How is it possible that someone like me allowed an unknown woman into my house on a stormy night?”

The ‘someone like me’ is a psychologist working at a remote hospital, a hospital of last resort:

“The lost causes come here and, instead of making them comfortable, we forget about them.”

The unlikelihood of his action is based partly on his professional standing, but perhaps mainly on a life which is so settled as to seem ossified. Not only is his working life reduced to ‘going through the motions’ (“I was not interested in curing them”), his very existence is one of “wild isolation”:

“…this community, formed round a handful of lost souls was, in fact, disappeared.”

His unwanted visitor will provide the stimulus for change, just as she provides him with the idea of ‘disappearance’, even if the exact nature of that stimulus is uncertain: he first tells us “I wanted her” only to immediately reveal, “I did not feel desire, but fear.” The story further changes (the narrator confesses to “the almost pathological way I forget to mention something essential at the beginning of my stories”) when we learn that he was, in fact, waiting for a visitor on that night, an ex-lover he refers to as the Betrayed, who later arrives. These additions layer rather than contradict what has gone previously as the narrative builds its own internal logic.

The strange young woman introduces herself as Amparo Davila, (a real Mexican author born in 1928). She tells the narrator she has come to him because “A conspiracy…disappeared me” and:

“I am sure that the man who commanded them came to die in your hospital… if this is the last place he lived, then this is where the manuscript he stole from me should be.”

Despite the narrator’s distrust of her, and his dislike of the relationship she has struck up with the Betrayed – which includes a private language – (“Their closeness bothered me”) he investigates. His investigations include discovering the ‘real’ (i.e. appropriately aged) Davila, who describes the younger Davila as an ‘Emissary’. Both refer to him as a woman at points, telling him, “We all know your secret.”

As was made clear at the beginning, there is no answer to the puzzle of this novel. What is clear, however, is that the challenges brought by Davila revitalise the narrator, as perhaps the challenges of the novel should the reader:

“Entire years had passed since I’d felt the nervous energy that drove me to act, to resist, to persevere.”

When the Director of the hospital discovers he has been illegally examining old patient records, it is clear he would rather the narrator simply denied it:

“’Perhaps these reports are wrong,’ he benevolently offered, ‘in which case it would be appropriate to ask your forgiveness for this awkward misunderstanding’”

The narrator, however, is happy to admit it: “I answered from a state of complete relaxation and joy.” Despite his resentment of both the ‘true’ Davila and the ‘Emissary’, they have unquestionably touched his life, though whether positively or negatively, as with most elements of the novel, it is difficult to say. In the same way, readers of this novel are unlikely to leave its world untouched.

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7 Responses to “The Iliac Crest”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    I thought this book was terrific fun, especially because it is both filled with twists and yet obscure. In my review last year I linked some stories by Davila whose style is also reflected here. In the light of the ongoing Mexican border tensions it’s socio/political relevance continues to grow too.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I remember your review. I also thoroughly enjoyed it – so much so I ordered her only other currently translated. I see New Directions has a Davila collection coming out – I wonder if it includes the same stories?

      • roughghosts Says:

        The two stories I linked to were on different sites and shared with me by the translator. I don’t know what is in the collection or if they would be new translations. I’m trying not to look at new books until I move the ones I already have to a new place this September!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    How interesting – I do love a multilayered book so I’ll have to keep a look out for this one.

  3. The Houseguest | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] to my attention when she appeared as a character (or two characters) in Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest. At that time none of her work was easily available in English but, luckily, only a few months later […]

  4. The Remainder | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Booker Prize, especially given the quality of And Other Stories publications last year, with both The Iliac Crest and Tentacle more deserving of a place on the long […]

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