Posts Tagged ‘Cristina Rivera Garza’

The Taiga Syndrome

December 15, 2019

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.”

The Iliac Crest

July 29, 2018

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.