OCTOBER 9, 2018
IF ONE IS LOOKING for works that embody the seismic shifts in Mexican literature’s aesthetics and styles in the 21st century, Cristina Rivera Garza’s boldly experimental books are the place to start. She began publishing in the mid-1980s, and her early works of short fiction and poetry garnered her some attention and awards, but her true irruption in the literary world took place with the publication of Nadie me verá llorar (No One Will See Me Cry, 1999), perhaps one of the last great books of the 20th century in Latin America. Winner of the José Rubén Romero National Book Award, the highest national prize for an unpublished novel, Nadie me verá llorar is a daring intervention in the genre of Mexican historical fiction.
In a time when Mexican women writers were able to take over a chunk of the editorial market with wildly successful historical romances (English-language readers will probably remember Laura Esquivel’s blockbuster novel Like Water for Chocolate, published in 1989), Rivera Garza told the story of a woman institutionalized in the infamous mental hospital of La Castañeda and of the photographer obsessed with her. She did this through a narrative devoid of syrupy sentimentality — what women-centered historical fiction was supposed to be in the literary markets of the 1990s. Instead, she was informed by Michel Foucault’s and Gilles Deleuze’s theories on madness, as well as by feminist theories of the bond between medicalization and gender. The book turned Rivera Garza into a widely read and admired writer, as well as into a cult figure in Mexican literary circles.
Unfortunately, the English translation of the book, published in 2003, did not capitalize on the excitement elicited by the Spanish original (we can only hope a revised or new translation of this most important book will be reissued now that Rivera Garza has become more of a household name). Rivera Garza’s work gained great acclaim in Spanish and became the subject of scholarly study, but no other English translations were published until late 2017, when the Feminist Press released Sarah Booker’s rendering of The Iliac Crest, Rivera Garza’s 2002 experimental novel around cult Mexican writer Amparo Dávila. In departing from the historical scenarios of her first novel, The Iliac Crest then showed another step in Rivera Garza’s evolution, which placed her closer to the canon of Mexican literature, and into the territory she would eventually develop, that of gendered experimental fiction.
Rivera Garza’s work seems to be coming into English translation in full force, finally catching up with her long intellectual relationship with the United States. Born in the border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, next to Brownsville, Texas, Rivera Garza has a PhD in history at the University of Houston; her dissertation was the departure point of both Nadie me verá llorar and the historical nonfiction book La Castañeda, on Mexico’s most infamous mental hospital. After a few years at the University of California, San Diego, she is now a professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston, where she has been spearheading the first PhD program in creative writing in Spanish — a project with significant cultural and political ramifications in the current political and cultural climate. She is also the translator into Spanish of Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman’s Notes on Conceptualisms, a book that has had a significant following in younger Mexican poets, and, more recently, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons, which is close to her work on communality and culture, developed in Los muertos indóciles. Necroescrituras y desapropiación (The Unquiet Dead. Necrowriting and Disappropriation, 2013), a theoretical book that connects conceptualist writing in the United States with the communalist theories of indigenous thinker Floriberto Díaz, Antoine Volodine’s work on post-exoticism, and the work of David Markson. Indeed, one of the reasons why Rivera Garza has one of the most intensively theoretical frameworks in Mexican literature today comes from the fact that she has been able to develop her place in the US academy as a way to resist Mexican cultural conservatism, while her place in Mexican literature inoculates her from the vices of US academic discourse.
Due to the uneven timelines of literary translation, the most recent book by Rivera Garza to become available in English is The Taiga Syndrome, published by Dorothy and translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana, respectively a professor and a graduate student in the Spanish and Portuguese Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Originally published in Spanish in 2012 as El mal de la taiga, the novel is the most radical (and culminating) work of experimental fiction in Rivera Garza’s middle period, which begins after the publication The Iliac Crest. Her most recent work has decidedly moved away from fiction, and she has been working in various nonfictional registers, particularly on hybrid essay-narrative-memoirs like her Había mucha neblina o humo o no sé qué (There Was a Lot of Fog or Smoke or I Don’t Know What, 2013), a controversial take on Juan Rulfo’s life and his work for the Mexican State, and a similar book on Marxist writer José Revueltas’s forays in the organization of cotton workers in Tamaulipas. Rulfo is a central influence in The Taiga Syndrome, particularly in the way in which the novel conceives of an inescapable site, and the role that the ghostly play in the book’s atmospherics, although Rivera Garza clearly departs from the regionalist tones that made Rulfo a key writer of the 20th century. The Taiga Syndrome is certainly important on its own, but at the same time English-language readers will have to wait for the translation of Rivera Garza’s work published between 2003 and 2011 to get a full sense of the intense and fascinating creative evolution that she undergoes in every project.
The Taiga Syndrome is a book that fiercely resists referentiality but is not devoid of this sense of the present. As she has stated in different venues, her experimentation is tied to the uncertainty she feels regarding mainstream literary writing (the work with genre, for instance, goes in this direction) and seeks constant collaboration with readers. She is also consistently emphatic about the importance of gender in contemporary literature and has frequently asserted that her work is interested in engaging with the inequalities that restrict women from access to literary structures. Even in her most poetic works, Rivera Garza rejects a dilettante idea of literary writing as a value in itself, and rather believes that every single book has to be intensely tied to its contemporaneity. Rivera Garza’s influences have in common the will to blow away the literary from within. She frequently cites David Markson, whose work expands every single element of the novel genre into new directions, as well as obscure figures like Dorothy Porter, whose verse novel The Monkey’s Mask is one of the boldest forays in noir fiction in the past 30 years, and is a direct influence in the construction of Rivera Garza’s detective. Her work is thus concerned with two notions of contemporaneity: one engaged in reading the radical limits of literary writing and literary aesthetics of our time, and the other in understanding the effect of the present, widely defined, in the materiality of literary writing and publishing.
The book’s publisher, Dorothy, is based in St. Louis, and its editors, Danielle Dutton and Martin Riker, are in the creative writing program at my institution. The press publishes two books a year, every fall, by women writers, and have had some significant coups. They can be credited with playing a role in the discovery of Nell Zink, one of the most intriguing writers in contemporary American literature, and with the publication of Renee Gladman’s Ravicka cycle, one of the boldest works of literary writing out there. They have also translated unique books by writers such as Nathalie Léger, Marianne Fritz, and Manuela Draeger, and even established a sort of first connection to Mexican literature by releasing last year a valuable collection of short fiction by Leonora Carrington, one of the key surrealist writers and painters of the 20th century, a British woman who spent most of her life in Mexico. Rivera Garza’s book thus lands in a catalog that is well suited to her radical experimentation, and it is not coincidental that a press like Dorothy published what may well be one of Rivera Garza’s most complex and dauntless works.
I heard about The Taiga Syndrome translation development as Levine and Kana shared portions of it in the Mexicanist conference held at UC Santa Barbara every year. One could see in their readings what the resulting book palpably shows: that they translated with great care and talent a prose full of challenges and idiosyncrasies. Thanks to them, English-language readers have as close access to Rivera Garza’s unique style as a translation can provide. Levine is one of the most important translators of Spanish-language fiction into English, and has worked with some of the most challenging writers of the 20th century: Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Jorge Luis Borges (whose Penguin edition she is coordinating), Severo Sarduy, Manuel Puig (whose best biography she also wrote), and Adolfo Bioy Casares, among many others. She is also the author of The Subversive Scribe, on the question of translating Latin American literature. Aviva Kana, her collaborator in this translation, is a specialist in contemporary Chilean and Argentine Narrative, and also works in the fields of Translation Studies, Applied Linguistics, and Feminist Criticism. That Levine and Kana work on Southern Cone fiction is actually an asset here, since Rivera Garza’s brand of experimentalism has closer relatives in Chilean and Argentine literature than in Mexican fiction. The collaboration between such esteemed, established translators in the field with one of the most exciting new voices in Spanish delivers a first-class English version of a very challenging book.
The Taiga Syndrome’s setup is that of classic noir. The protagonist accepts a case in which she is tasked to find a woman who left her husband and went with another man into a taiga. From there, the book tears apart expectations. The book has no actual geographical location and the action takes place in such a way that it is unclear what is real and what is fictional within the novel’s world. The title makes reference to a condition in which someone wants to leave a place but is unable to do so. The book’s taiga, an inhospitable geography that swallows all visible space, is a site of melancholy and haunting obsession. It is difficult to do justice to the formal and genre complexity of this work in a review — perhaps the best word to describe it is liminal. It is a book that is always in the borders and edges of all of its elements. Time is fragmentary, space is present and material yet vague, action floats between different realms of reality and dream, while the characters’ subjectivity fades and redefines itself throughout the narrative. Rivera Garza has a clear penchant for the ambiguous and the unresolved; she draws in equal parts from the haziness and the smoky ambiance of a noir novel and the dark, uncanny atmospheres of fairy tales, particularly those tracing to medieval times. One of the fairy tales invoked in the novel is Hansel and Gretel, which the narrator presents not as a story pitting two children against a witch, but rather as children cast out and confronted, even by their own mother, in the context of darkness fueled by hunger. The story takes the tale even further. “But these kids, these missing children of the Taiga, had chosen to flee all by themselves.” The mystery that Rivera Garza’s detective confronts is always framed by primordial fear, a horror that cannot be accounted for even by the most radical of fairy tales.
The book is conceived as a multisensory experience, and perhaps the only complaint I have regarding this edition is that it does not have the abstract melancholy drawings that illustrator Carlos Maiques contributed to the Spanish version. They are not indispensable, but they provide an additional dimension of atmosphere. The book lists in its last chapter a suggested soundtrack to accompany the book. These songs include pieces by Sainkho Namtchylak, a singer from Tuva, the Russian republic north of Mongolia (and obviously the location of the actual taiga), Aphex Twin’s ambient classic “Rhubarb,” and Lisa Gerrard’s intensely emotional “Come Tenderness,” all of which significantly convey the novel’s atmosphere. This is the novel that best manifests Rivera Garza’s own interest in the intermedial nature of the arts, which she has otherwise developed in various collaborations, including the libretto to Javier Torres Maldonado’s chamber opera Viaje (Journey), or the text “De las maravillas escuchadas” (“On The Marvelous Thing Heard”), written to accompany an edition of the drawings of graphic artist Artemio Rodríguez.
Yet, the most significant sensory element in The Taiga Syndrome is language itself. Rivera Garza achieves this in three different ways. First, the novel is written in many passages of indirect style that increase the sense of uncertainty and the unknown by displacing the subject of the narration to both collective subjectivities and to no subjectivity whatsoever: “As we talked, he drank his coffee and looked around. As we talked he lowered his eyes and placed small cubes of sugar in the dark liquid. A spoon. Circles. Sometimes this is what being nervous looks like.” Rivera Garza’s narration uses obsessive repetition, incomplete sentences, and the unstable “I” of the narrator to immerse us in the affects and sensations of her world. Second is the clear skepticism about language’s representational abilities. The book frequently deconstructs images and ideas into signifying words that compose them, hollowing out meaning one sign at the time: “The woman. I did carry a few of her images in my head, for example the recurrent image of the forest, the word ‘coniferous,’ the word ‘boreal.’ The word ‘footpath.’ All together they constituted something like a mantra or the sentimental beads of a rosary.” A core element in Rivera Garza’s style is her ability to displace the meaning of her own words, to make what structuralists used to call the arbitrariness of the sign. Finally, Rivera Garza frequently dissolves narration into the sensory — sounds, images, tastes, and noises that are immersive in their description and suspend the general narrative for a focus in details: “I remember that I asked them, as if it were relevant, if they had electricity. I remember their response. A lit candle. Was it fear or just a general state of alertness that I felt? I remember asking myself that.” All of these elements make Rivera Garza one of the masters of atmosphere in contemporary narrative, precisely because she intervenes in our perception of her narrated worlds. This is also the case in Verde Shanghai, where she unfolds the protagonist’s subjectivity into two characters (the protagonist and an alter ego), creating competing sensorial worlds, while in Nadie me verá llorar, we can perceive the world, differently, from the perspective of the woman who is considered crazy or by the drugged consciousness of her photographer.
In bringing The Taiga Syndrome to English-language readers, Levine, Kana, and Dorothy are performing the rare task of providing readers with one of the most exciting examples of literary experimentation and radicalism in Mexico, against the grain of the mainstream politics of translation that favor readability and what Rebecca Walkowitz aptly calls the “born translated” style. Also, in keeping with Dorothy’s focus on women writers, they are giving the readers the gift of a woman writer who has never refused to confront the question of gender and literature head-on, and who always fiercely resists the clichés of women’s writing (particularly that of women from the Global South), which the world-literary market favors. Readers of this book will encounter one of the most fiercely original literary voices from Latin America, and will, I think, join those of us who already admire Rivera Garza and excitedly anticipate more of her theoretically rich, aesthetically audacious work in English translation.