The Taiga Syndrome

Reading Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana) I kept thinking of the opening lines of the W S Graham poem, ‘Imagine a Forest’:

“Imagine a forest
A real forest.”

As the title suggests, forests feature extensively in Garza’s novel, but it was the proposition that both the real and the imagined forest are one and the same that seemed most significant.

The Taiga Syndrome, perhaps Garza’s most experimental novel, is a strange hybrid of noir and fairy tale. It begins as the search for a missing woman, who has left her husband for another man, and headed for the remote forests of the taiga. The detective-narrator is hired by her husband to track her down. When it is suggested that the wife may not want to be found, he replies:

“If that’s what she wanted…would she be sending me messages from everywhere she goes?”

The novel, however, suggests that interpreting any message is complex and perhaps even futile. The detective accepts the case but rejects the idea that she can discover the truth: “…in the end, no one knows why someone leaves. No one can be sure.” Even reading the woman’s diaries is of little help:

“Journals…are written in an intimate code capable of escaping the reader’s – and often the writer’s – understanding.”

The detective-narrator is also a detective turned writer. Her description of her methods is one indication that we entering territory where solving the ‘case’ will not simply be a matter of finding the facts:

“This form of writing wasn’t about telling things how they were or how they could be, or could have been; it was about how they still vibrate, right now, in the imagination.”

That this equally applies to her methods of detection can be seen when she first touches the messages the woman has been sending:

“As soon as I placed my hands on the faded paper, I began to dream.”

Before she sets off on her search she hires a translator and guide, creating a pattern of “a man and a woman pursuing another man and a woman,” as well as adding a further layer of uncertainty, as, for example, when a young boy recounts one of the key events in the novel:

“That it is difficult to translate the words for sexual body parts, especially with a small child, that this all could be the result of such a difficulty or of the imagination – either the child’s or the translator’s – I would have to make clear before continuing with the report that I would eventually write for a man who may or may not have existed.”

Persistently the novel asks us, “Had all this really happened? Impossible to know.”

In a further amalgamation of the real and the imaginary, Garza threads fairy tales into the tapestry of the novel. “So, is she Hansel or Gretel?” the detective asks the husband. Later, in reference to their trail, she comments:

“No doubt someone or something had eaten whatever crumbs they might have left behind them.”

Wolves also feature, as when the local people tell the detective that a wolf cub prowled around the cabin that the couple were staying in, refusing to let anyone near.

The refusal to settle on a single interpretation, or, indeed, a single type of interpretation, is also reflected in the novel’s form. Most obviously, the narrative is ‘interrupted’ by memories which privilege all the senses, for example:

“I recall I was eating an apple while doing this. I remember the dreadful noise made by my teeth…”


“I remember the taste of my saliva. The bitterness. The acidity.”

These feel like a refusal to concede that narrative experience, experience as part of a story, supersedes the sensual experience of the moment.

The Taiga Syndrome is a more challenging novel than The Iliac Crest; its very nature challenges the reader: there is no truth to be discovered as in the darkest noir, nor fairy tale ending. The key discovery of the narrator’s search exists outside the normal frame of reality: “It’s difficult to describe what’s impossible to imagine,” she says. Yet the repeated comment that the narrator tells the translator the ‘truth’ suggests that it is a principle which is not entirely devalued, and it continues to exist importantly on a personal level. The taiga itself may represent our realisation of the vague, unknowable contours of reality, and the syndrome, where one attempts to leave but cannot, one possible reaction. The novel, to some extent, incurs a similar panic, but, as W S Graham says, “Do not imagine I put you there / For nothing.”

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3 Responses to “The Taiga Syndrome”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    I’m intrigued! For some reason your commentary on this brings to mind Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, possibly on account of the elements of noir and fairy tale. Would that be a reasonable comparison or am I way off the mark here? (i still need to try Tokarczuk, something I’m hoping to around to next year.)

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m impressed by how well you’ve captured such a difficult book (though not at all a hard to read book). At times when reading it I found myself wondering what I was reading – detective story, but it’s not; fairy tale, but not quite. It’s a slippery novel. The sort of thing once again I wouldn’t have read without a subscription, which is what justifies the subscription.

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