“Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego”

Cross-posted to Virtual Koerner’s.

enriquez_last-cosas-que-perdimosFemininity is all too often defined by the image (and so by the male gaze). Women are reduced to appearance, and judged in terms of the extent to which they measure up to some mythical ideal. Mariana Enríquez’s short story, “Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego” (“Things We Lost in the Fire”), presents a surreal and disturbing counter-mythology that explores what happens when that image is subject to attack, not least by women themselves.

It all starts with a woman who is compelled to support herself by begging on the Buenos Aires subway, after a jealous husband inflicts on her horrific burns that destroy her arms and face, leaving her with only one eye and a slit for a mouth, her lips burnt off. As she seeks contributions from subway passengers, she tells her story: that her husband threw alcohol on her face while she was asleep, setting her alight to “ruin” her, so she wouldn’t belong to anybody else. In the hospital, when everyone expected her to die and she couldn’t speak for herself, he said that she had done this to herself, a tragic accident after a fight. Now that she has recovered her voice, the woman on the subway reclaims her narrative and names the perpetrator. She knows, however, that she will never recover her appearance; her image was lost in the fire.

But perhaps it doesn’t all start there. As another character comments later, referring to a history of witch-hunts but also much more, “They’ve always burned women, they’ve been burning us for four centuries!” No doubt this is why the woman on the subway’s story starts to resonate so much with others.

First, it inspires copy-cat crimes: a model, who seems truly to incarnate that idealized image of femininity, is burnt by her footballer boyfriend in much the same way that the woman on the subway had been attacked. And he, too, blames her for what happened. As if it is only in death (the model does not survive her injuries) that women are granted agency, much like the famous if perhaps apocryphal witch-trials by water, in which only the drowned were presumed innocent.

Then, as Enríquez’s story progresses, small groups of Argentine women start to reclaim their agency while still alive, albeit by anticipating the torture inflicted on them by men. They begin to set light to themselves. Some do so alone, perhaps intending suicide. But, in the face of official disapproval, others form shadowy networks of “Burning Women” to aid and abet ritual ceremonies of self-immolation, complete with clandestine hospitals to ensure recovery thereafter. Because the point is to survive, and to put that survival on display. As one woman puts it: “They have always burned us. Now we are burning ourselves. But we’re not going to die: we’re going to flaunt our scars.”

The notion here is a kind of immunization: if women burn themselves, then they also rid themselves of the idealized image, the fetish that justifies men burning them. Moreover, they show that they cannot be reduced to appearances, albeit by paradoxically revelling in the way in which their new, “monstrous” appearance repels the male gaze. As the woman from the subway puts it, “Men are going to have to get used to us. Soon most women are going to look like me, if they don’t die. And wouldn’t that be nice? A new kind of beauty.” Laying claim to deformity, they challenge the gendered scopic regime of representation and power.

Yet this sacrificial logic is disturbing, and not only to men. The story is told from the perspective of a young woman, Silvina, whose mother is one of the first to throw herself into the campaign. It ends as she overhears her mother and a friend talking about her as a possible candidate for a burning: “Silvinita, oh, when Silvina burned it would be beautiful, she’d be a true flower of fire.” Here, the vision is (almost literally) of the Revolution eating its children, of a new image that ends up as horrific and coercive as the old one. The “ideal world of men and monsters” is no more (or perhaps no less) ideal than our own.

There are obvious resonances here with debates over the tactics of militant groups during Argentina’s Dirty War. There is also an explicit comparison to anorexia, which is also as much a self-destructive as a subversive mode of (re)claiming female agency. Perhaps, too, we might think of our contemporary immunological paradigm, and the price we are called upon to pay to confront all manner of diseases (metaphorical and otherwise). Fire both purifies and corrupts. Without nostalgia, and without any easy judgements, Enríquez compels us to think in new ways about what gets lost when we turn the tools that oppress us into weapons for liberation.

The Plague

camus_the-plagueIn Albert Camus’s celebrated novel of a plague outbreak, he tells us that at a certain point, the citizens of the afflicted North African town of Oran turn to reading. Specifically, they show a “remarkable interest” in “prophecies of all descriptions. [. . .] The local printing firms were quick to realize the profit to be made by pandering to this new craze and printed large numbers of the prophecies that had been going round in manuscript.” But there is not enough material to satisfy demand, and so after searching “in the municipal archives for all the mental pabulum of the kind available in old chronicles,” they turn to “journalists to write up forecasts” that are devoured eagerly to find literary clues to their personal fates.

Some predictions were based on far-fetched arithmetical calculations [. . .] Others made comparisons with the great pestilences of former times [. . .] and claimed to deduce conclusions bearing on the present calamity. But our most popular prophets were undoubtedly those who in an apocalyptic jargon had announced sequences of events, any one of which might be construed as applicable to the present state of affairs and was abstruse enough to admit of almost any interpretation. (221-222)

Much the same could perhaps be said of The Plague itself, which surely admits of many possible interpretations and is often enough read as an allegory of the German Occupation of France. Plague does, after all, make for a fine metaphor. Even in Camus’s own text, we see how pestilence is made to signify by those affected by it, not least in the fiery sermon delivered by a Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux, as the fever begins to take hold. “Plague,” the priest tells his congregation, “is the flail of God and the world His threshing-floor” (95). Yet as the disease progresses, Paneloux somewhat backs down from his certainty as to what it all means. A second sermon, we are told, “display[s] more uneasiness than power” (229). Perhaps sometimes a plague is simply a plague, and brings with it no great moral lessons or truths.

Indeed, by the end of the novel the narrator’s main worry is how fleeting any such lessons may be, as he observes a population, finally liberated from the epidemic, now prepared to

den[y], in the teeth of the evidence, that we had ever known a crazy world in which men were killed off like flies [. . .]. In short, they denied that we had ever been that hag-ridden populace a part of which was daily fed into a furnace and went up in oily fumes, while the rest, in shackled impotence, waited their turn. (297-298)

The real problem, in other words, is that the trauma is all too easily forgotten, that it is a text that frays or is soon invisible. Hence the narrator’s impulse to write everything down, to draw on his experience as well as the documents left him by others, “so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise” (308). Yet it is not clear whether people’s propensity to amnesia, to forgetting what they have been through, is one of these admirable qualities (a sign of resilience?) or a fault that the text has therefore to rectify.

A similar ambivalence shrouds then the main characteristic imputed to the citizens of Oran, and perhaps to humans more generally: the fact that they are creatures of habit. For it is part and parcel of the way in which the town is described from the outset as unremarkable, ordinary, and frankly mediocre in every way (“a thoroughly negative place” [3]), that in it “everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits” (4). Such routines both hide and are a symptom of “the banality of the town’s appearance and of life in it. But you can get through the days there without trouble, once you have formed habits” (5). People don’t think, perhaps they do not even really fully live, dedicated as they are to “fritter[ing] away at card-tables, in cafés and in small talk what time is left for living” (4). So a plague, whose first consequence is to disrupt those habits, might even be welcomed (in theory at least) as an opportunity for reflection, for awakening and seeing what life could be about when faced with the possibility of its extinction. Indeed, for Camus (but surely not only Camus) the question raised by pestilence is precisely the question of existence, of what it means to be human in the here and now when the promise, or threat, of transcendence wavers in the face of calamity.

Yet ultimately, in a book that struggles to shake off the religious vocabulary that it purports to reject, if there is salvation it is to be found in the repetition that constitutes habit. No wonder, as Camus famously argues elsewhere, we should imagine Sisyphus happy, for what is a man endlessly rolling a boulder up a hill but an image of a creature defined by his habits? Likewise, here, the doctor who attends to the plague victims and the others that help him with the task do so not out of any great ideological conviction or faith, least of all out of any illusion that they are making much of an impact against the implacable foe that is the disease. In the end, after all, the plague disappears because it is imagined to have ended of its own accord, “leaving as unaccountably as it had come. [. . .] It had, so to speak, achieved its purpose” (271). Nor, we are told repeatedly, can we regard those who choose to fight it as heroes: “there’s no question of heroism in all this” the doctor says at one point. “It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is–common decency” (163). As for “those who enrolled in the ‘sanitary squads,’ as they were called, [they] had, indeed, no great merit in doing as they did, since they knew it was the only thing to do” (132). The plague itself, rather than being any great spectacle or event, is also a habit–if it means anything, it is simply “the same thing over and over and over again” (161)–and yet it can and should be confronted by a sort of counter-routine, a sense of obligation that is almost unwilled and unconscious. Hence if there is any “saintliness” (and the novel rather doubts that there is), it can only be “an aggregate of habits” (118).

We are now, of course, in 2020 learning new habits. And let us hope that one day we will have forgotten many of them. One I personally rather like is the custom of applause, of making a noise of some sort, every evening (here in Vancouver) at 7pm, in tribute to the health workers and other key workers, often underpaid and long overlooked, who are going about their jobs in the midst of the pandemic. It is rightly pointed out that that, indeed, is what they are doing: simply what they have to do. And that the applause is ritual without much meaning. But if we learn anything from Camus’s depiction of the plague, it is that such habits may be part of what is quietly admirable, and should not be so readily despised.

A Journal of the Plague Year

Business led me out sometimes to the other end of the town, even when the sickness was chiefly there; and as the thing was new to me, as well as to everybody else, it was a most surprising thing to see those streets which were usually so thronged now grown desolate, and so few people to be seen in them, that if I had been a stranger and at a loss for my way, I might sometimes have gone the length of a whole street (I mean of the by-streets), and seen nobody to direct me except watchmen set at the doors of such houses as were shut up. (13)

Terrified by those frightful objects, I would retire home sometimes and resolve to go out no more; and perhaps I would keep those resolutions for three or four days, which time I spent in the most serious thankfulness for my preservation and the preservation of my family [. . .]. Such intervals as I had I employed in reading books and in writing down my memorandums of what occurred to me every day [. . .]. (58)

I cannot be the only person who, in these strange times of pandemic and confinement, is turning to narratives of plagues and pestilences past. Indeed, in early March it was reported that Penguin was rushing out a reprint of Camus’s La peste, while sales of novels such as Stephen King’s The Stand were similarly booming. And if these texts were once read as a species of horror, perhaps now we are turning to them for their (more or less) happy endings. At least, after all, they do finally end: their plots arc to some kind of resolution. And so, extrapolating to our current circumstances, we can be assured that this, too, shall pass.

defoe_plague-yearUnlike Camus and King, Daniel Defoe does not present his A Journal of the Plague Year as a work of the imagination (though the same could be said of Robinson Crusoe), and in fact it is said to depict quite accurately the Great Plague of London of 1665 to 1666. Indeed, though it was written over half a century after the period it describes (Defoe himself was only five years old in 1665), there is some debate as to whether the text should be regarded as fiction or not.

Still, Defoe’s book does not exactly follow the template of what we now know as the novel (a genre that he himself of course helped to pioneer), even as it cannot easily be described as a “journal,” either. There is much digression and repetition, and a strange mix of conjecture and certainty, while the narrative frequently pauses to draw essayistic and even quasi-scientific conclusions, for instance about the means by which the infection spread or the role (or otherwise) of divine providence and predestination. It reads, in short, as a patchwork of styles and discursive forms. There is a surprising amount of statistics and reportage, chronicling the numbers of burials in various London parishes as the plague spread, even as Defoe tells us that the numbers can hardly be trusted: “It drove us out of all measures. Men did no more die by tale and by number. They might put out a weekly bill and call them seven of eight thousand, or what they pleased; ‘tis certain they died by heaps, and were buried by heaps, that is to say, without account” (178). There are reflections on public policy, not least about the wisdom (or not) of confining the sick and the well together in boarded-up houses.

There are also anecdotes and stories, presented either as the narrator’s experience or as what he has heard and is uncertain or doubtful as to how much credit he should give them: “It was apparent, at least to my judgement, that there was more of tale than of truth in those things” (64). One long section follows a biscuit-maker, a sailmaker, and a joiner (John, Thomas, and Richard) in their attempt to flee the city and traverse the villages of Essex in search of safety. This extended narrative might almost stand on its own account, but it opens hesitantly, after many false starts, and somewhat tails off at the end: “They got colds in their limbs, and distempers, but never had the infection; and then about December they came home to the city again” (113). Perhaps this is because, overall, the plague does not follow any particular logic: it arrives, sweeps through the city, until at last it just seems to exhaust itself. The book comes to an end, but not to any great resolution.

Indeed, and I am unsure if we should regard this as great comfort or not, Defoe’s conclusion is that ultimately not much changes once the crisis has come and gone. There is no “new normal.” However much, during the plague itself, common practices and prejudices were briefly overturned, such that (for instance) religious divides no longer weighed so heavily, by the end “It was not the least of our misfortunes that with our infection, when it ceased, there did not cease the spirit of strife and contention, slander and reproach, which was really the great troubler of the nation’s peace before” (176). Old habits all too quickly resumed, old enmities were re-established: “The quarrel remained: the Church and the Presbyterians were incompatible. As soon as the plague was removed, the Dissenting ousted ministers who had supplied the pulpits which were deserted by the incumbents retired” (177). It is as though nobody has learnt anything.

It is almost as though the plague had not happened at all. On the book’s final page, Defoe (or his narrator) quotes a man who, once the infection has passed, exclaims “’Tis all wonderful; ‘tis all a dream” (186). But the over-riding impression is that, for all the brutal reality of the pits turned into common graves into which countless bodies were dumped, it is the plague itself that is experienced as a “dream.” And this perhaps is the rationale for Defoe’s book, which repeatedly presents itself as a pedagogic text (“the history will be a very good pattern for any poor man to follow, in case the like public desolation should happen here” [45]): even fifty years after the event, it still had something to teach its readers. Indeed, the plague had yet to be constituted as an “event” at all.

It may be that the same question faces us now, in our present pandemic: whether Covid-19 is to be cast as an event, and if so of what kind?

Lost Children Archive II

lost-children-archiveJust over halfway through Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, the book takes a sudden turn as the narrative switches from the point of view of the mother to that of her ten-year-old stepson. “What else do you see, Ground Control?” the mother has just asked (186), alluding to one of the key tracks on their shared road-trip playlist, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” a song that is of course very much about alienation (becoming-alien) and (mis)communication. “Calling Major Tom,” the boy seems to respond. “This is Ground Control. You copy me, Major Tom?” (191). But it soon becomes clear that this is not exactly a response to the mother’s question (though it is not exactly not a response, either), for as well as a new narrator we also have a new addressee: “This is the story of us, and of the lost children, from beginning to end, and I’m going to tell it to you, Memphis” (191). Memphis is the boy’s (step)sister, who has taken on that name as part of a round of collective familial renaming: “I’ll be Memphis. Just Memphis” (107). The boy, meanwhile, has adopted the name “Swift Feather.” And so, as the children start to inhabit and speak from these new identities, the book’s tone also changes, from the (over?) analytical realism of the mother’s narration to something more like myth, an epic (albeit in miniature) reminiscent of a classic children’s tale such as Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. Indeed, much like Huck, Swift Feather and Memphis are about to “light out for the territory ahead of the rest.”

From the back of the car, the boy and his sister have been listening to their parents’ stories–both the stories directed at them, and others that they were not necessarily intended to overhear, as well as still others that perhaps the parents did not even know they were telling. Sometimes the girl falls asleep; sometimes the boy has been pretending to do the same. And through it all the children have been coming up with their own stories, many of which are echoes or slightly distorted versions of and responses to the narratives that the adults have been providing them. It is these echoes that come to the fore now, as the boy decides to take his sister in hand so that the two of them can look for themselves for the “lost children,” the refugee sisters (and others like them) crossing the border from Mexico, that the mother has been talking and worrying about all this time. Of course, as the kids set off, first ransacking their mother’s “archive” (a box in the back of the car) to take a map, a sound recorder, and her copy of the book she has been reading, Elegies for Lost Children, “Swift Arrow” and “Memphis” also join the ranks of the lost. Indeed, the boy will come to realize that his plan that they should look “for themselves” (on their own account) will overlap with a broader project, forced upon them, to look “for themselves” in the sense of trying to figure out how the two of them fit in to the wider world of which they are necessarily a part.

So Swift Feather and Memphis embark on their own trek, which is itself an echo both of their parents’ expedition and of the arduous journey undergone by the Central American migrants whom they are hoping to contact. There is something childishly narcissistic about this endeavor, as their aim is in part to reclaim the attention of their mother and father: “if we too were lost children,” the boy imagines, “we would have to be found again. Ma and Pa would have to find us” (238). But at the same time they are exposing themselves to many of the same kinds of dangers faced by refugee children; they shed the creature comforts and protection of the family unit and their relative privilege to ride a train much like the Bestia and to hike through the desert with minimal food or water. They start to inhabit a struggle for survival that is otherwise barely unimaginable. And this too, perhaps, explain why here the novel becomes almost dreamlike, even as it narrates an encounter with something like the real of danger and deprivation.

Everything comes to a climax (if not a resolution) in an extraordinary passage of almost twenty pages that is one interrupted sentence in which the point of view regularly switches between the brother and sister on the one hand, and the bedraggled migrants (now reduced to a small group of four) on the other who walk almost literally out of the pages of the Elegies for Lost Children. Their disparate stories finally if briefly coincide, at an abandoned goods train whose open sliding doors “looked like a window I was looking through from our side of the desert to the other side,” where the boy hears a sound that “got louder and louder so I knew it wasn’t an echo but a real sound,” and where he throws a rock only to find

a rock come flying back at us, [. . .] a real rock that the boy and his sister would have mistaken for an echo, confused as they were about cause and effect as the normal link between events, were it not for the fact that the rock thrown back at them hits the boy on his shoulder, so very real, concrete, and painful [. . .] who’s there I said, who’s there he says, and hearing the sound of his voice, the four children look at each other in relief, because it is a real voice, finally, clearly not a lost desert echo, not a sound-mirage like the ones that had been following them all along (330)

And in the transition from “I said” to “he says,” the change in point of view is marked by the shift in pronouns, but a common ground is also established precisely as “I” becomes “he,” as first person becomes third person, as a point of identification is established that renders the echo tangible and material without depriving it of any of its mythic qualities.

It is as though Luiselli were saying that it is only by treating such stories with the seriousness and naiveté, the trusting literalness, with which children treat the tales they are told, that we can establish some kind of connection with the unbearable and unimaginable horrors of the migrant experience. Her previous book, Tell Me How It Ends, which is also about Central American child migrants, never quite loses the adult point of view and insists that “the stories told in this essay are true” (107), adding footnotes to document each of its accusations about the injustices of the US judicial system that processes asylum claims. Lost Children Archive, by contrast, whose “Notes on Sources” list instead the series of literary works (from Pound’s Cantos to Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo), achieves, or comes close to achieving, the much more difficult task of imprinting on us the sense that the stories it tells and the voices it conjures up are real.

The People of Paper

plascencia_people-of-paperSalvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper portrays the revolt of its characters (people, literally, of paper) against the author who has created them. The author, who himself takes on the character of an (almost) all-seeing “Saturn” is described as a “tyrant, commanding the story where he wants it to go. That is why they fight against him, why they hide under lead [which apparently protects the characters from his authorial gaze] and try to push him to the margins” (228). And yet at the point at which Saturn actually comes into view, he seems to be about as tyrannous as the Wizard of Oz after Toto opens up a curtain in the Emerald Palace to reveal merely a middle-aged “humbug” and “a very bad wizard.” In Plascencia’s novel it is a carnation-picker by the name of Smiley who “saw[s] through the layers of newspaper and glue” that protect Saturn’s house and comes across an author who is “no longer in control. [. . .] I found him asleep, sprawled and naked, laying on his stomach, [. . .] the linens and towels unfolded and dirty, books stacked in badly planned towers [. . .]. And paper, unbound and scattered everywhere” (103-4). Unlike the other characters, Smiley had been less keen to enlist in the war against his creator, wondering “Could he not be protecting us?” (95). Once exposed, however, it appears that the mighty Saturn can scarcely look after himself, let alone anyone else.

Yet the real disappointment in Smiley’s encounter with Saturn is the discovery that not only is he neither threatening nor protecting his characters; it seems he is unable even to keep track of them all. “Smiley?” he asks bewilderedly. And perceiving the dismay that this failure to recognize his own creation engenders, he goes on to explain that “there are many characters, plots, and devices, and in the jumble of things sometimes minor characters are forgotten, even by the author” (105). Saturn/Plascencia has been caught up in his own plot, which runs parallel to that of the carnation pickers, and involves a woman who has left him for another man, a woman to whom the novel is apparently dedicated (“To Liz, who taught me that we are all of paper”), and who has her own concerns about what its author is writing: “You need to remember that I exist beyond the pages of this book. [. . .] Sal, if you love me, please leave me out of this story. Start this book over, without me” (138). Plascencia seems to be besieged on all sides: both by the characters that he has imagined, who live and die (and in at least one case are swiftly resurrected) as a function of this story that he has dreamed up; and also by other characters that are all too real, over whom he has no control, and against whom the best he can manage is rather petty revenge, for instance by scratching out the name of Liz’s new lover whenever it appears. Though he does indeed start the book over, as a new title page appears in the wake of Liz’s protests, with the dedication merely “Para mi papa, mama, y hermana” (143; this is after all a Chicano text that is also about border-crossings as well as being a parody of urban gang life), yet he tries to have it both ways, as the original dedication still stands. Liz is, and is not, the novel’s dedicatee. No wonder Saturn has trouble keeping tabs on everything.

Saturn’s problem is to some extent also the reader’s. There is a lot going on in this novel: many plots and sub-plots and indeed innumerable minor characters, including a Merced, a Little Merced, and a Merced de Papel, as well as carnation pickers, Burn Collectors, mechanics, mechanical tortoises, a Mexican wrestler, a beekeeper, a Cardinal, a curandero, a “Baby Nostradamus” whose thoughts are inscrutably hidden by blocks of ink, Rita Hayworth, and even another ex-girlfriend for Saturn/Plascencia. And ultimately perhaps we suffer the same fate as Saturn as he is depicted by his creation, Smiley: we find it hard to care too much about any of them. Least of all, Saturn himself, who comes off as at best a little pathetic, and at worst self-obsessed, spoiled, sexist, and vindictive. (“Cunt” is his one-word retort to Liz’s plea to leave her out of it [139].)

Of course, especially in a self-reflexive and metafictional text such as this one, Plascencia’s defence would be that his unlikeable self-portrait in the novel is indeed precisely that: a portrait, an unreliable representation, a performance, a mask whereby we come to see that “Plascencia” the author is as fictive a character as Smiley or Little Merced. We have no reason to believe that “Liz” actually exists (in any case, it is Plascencia who has come up with the lines he ascribes to her), and so no basis to credit the “sadness” that we are told “circulate[s] through Saturn, clogging capillaries and inflaming his lymph nodes” (242). The author is as much a creature of paper as any of his creations, and as such in fact has no capillaries or lymph nodes. But this recognition hardly prompts us to care any more. Indeed, quite the opposite. And however much the novel reminds us that paper can cut, and that people of paper can wound and affect us equally if not more than “real” people can, the fact that this book illustrates that point with descriptions of men whose tongues are lacerated thanks to cunnilingus with the origami woman Merced de Papel leaves me, at least, unmoved.

Lost Children Archive I

lost-children-archiveHow to write about the migrant experience today? More particularly, how to write about the current crisis at the US/Mexico border? The multiple forms of violence compelling continued migration north, especially from Central America; the deliberate collapse of the asylum system and the rule of law; the separation of children from families amid the institution of a system of what are effectively concentration camps operated by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. As the Covid-19 pandemic grips us, these stories may be fading from consciousness, but immigration to the USA has long been denounced via the rhetoric of disease and contamination. And Trump is fond of referring to immigrants and people of color in terms of “infestation”, just as he wants to insist that Covid-19, “the Chinese virus,” comes from beyond US borders.

Earlier this year, this question of who and how to write about migration and the borderlands flared into a brief but intense controversy around Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, a novel that was harshly criticized on the grounds that it commodified and exoticized migrant trauma for an Anglo audience. One text repeatedly put forward by that book’s critics as offering a better approach to representing the border crisis and its ramifications was Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, which in fact puts the problem at center stage.

Luiselli’s novel is in some ways the inverse to Cummins’s. Though its narrative focuses similarly on a mother and her child, a fractured family making its way to the border, here the journey starts in the north, rather than the south, and the fracture is psychological or affective, rather than the very literal rupture with which American Dirt spectacularly opens. Here the family are (so far, at least) physically together: a husband and wife, with a child each that they bring from previous relationships. And together they are embarked on a trip from New York to the US Southwest. But whether they will remain together once the trip is over is uncertain, perhaps unlikely. Though the parents are both engaged in recording sounds (as either documentarians or documentarists; the difference seems both ineffable and yet somehow absolute), each has their own project, their own goal in mind. He is in search of the traces of the last Native Americans to surrender to the US state, the Apache band led by the semi-mythical Geronimo. She has taken on a vaguely journalistic mission to investigate the plight of children detained on the border, specifically the two children of a woman with whose legal case she has become involved. And however much the narrator (the first half of the novel is written almost entirely from the mother’s point of view) can reflect on the ways in which these two obsessions overlap, interact, and resonate with each other, she and her husband are barely able to communicate except indirectly, as they try to keep their two young children, aged ten and five, amused and more or less oblivious of the cracks opening up in the cramped atmosphere of the family car. At the same time, she also increasingly realizes that the children, too, are in many ways “strangers, especially when we add them together” (74). Indeed, the entire novel is a meditation on the many possible forms of alienation, the ways in which “the other can suddenly become a stranger” (21), as even those with whom we are most intimately connected become alien to us.

The husband seems to be much more sure of himself and what he is doing, though this may be a consequence of the fact that we have much less access to whatever thoughts and concerns may be preoccupying him. He tells the kids stories about the Apache, confidently if not necessarily reliably (“I don’t know if what my husband is telling them is true” [74]). When they stop somewhere, as they often do, he gets out his recording equipment to capture a soundscape of ambient noise, “collect[ing] sounds that are usually not noticed [. . .]. Maybe the rain falling on this tin roof, some birds if we can, or maybe just insects buzzing” (96). At other times, the four of them listen to the news on the radio, to music, or to audiobooks, notably William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But for all the assurance with which these narratives are presented, his wife notes that the children “combine the stories, confuse them. They come up with possible endings and counterfactual histories” (75). And, much more (apparently) than her husband, she is led to meditate therefore on the uncertain fate of any story, including (it is implied) the one that is told by Lost Children Archive itself.

When the mother tells us of her worries about her own project, these are surely then indications of concerns about any attempt, including Luiselli’s own, to have some kind of social impact through art. As the narrator says: “How can a radio documentary be useful in helping more undocumented children find asylum?” This she terms a “political concern.” But she goes on, as the narration continues in something like stream of consciousness, to itemize other problems with what we could “politically-committed” art, including the “Aesthetic problem: On the other hand, why should a sound piece, or any other form of storytelling, for that matter, be a means to a specific end? I should know by now that instrumentalism, applied to any art form, is a way of guaranteeing really shitty results.” This then leads her to consider the perhaps even more significant

Ethical problem: And why would I even think that I can or should make art with someone else’s suffering? [. . .] Constant concerns: Cultural appropriation, pissing all over someone else’s toilet seat, who am I to tell this story, micromanaging identity politics, heavy-handedness, am I too angry [. . .]. (79)

Luiselli’s novel steadfastly keeps these issues in view, as if by raising them (and not simply confining them to an “Author’s Note” tacked on at the end, as does Cummins) she may not quite ward them off, but at least warn the reader and invite us to think about our own complicity in the kinds of stories that are told about migration and their effects on others (and surely also ourselves). Hence too, no doubt, the obliqueness of Luiselli’s portrayal of the refugee crisis: we are halfway through what is not a short book, and still a long way from the border.

But we already realize that the borderlands stretch a long way. Space and time in this novel both expand and contract. Just as the narrator’s husband is convinced that the echoes of the nineteenth-century history can be almost materially registered by his recording devices, so Luiselli suggests that the injustice and violence of asylum and immigration policy can and should resonate far beyond their specific geographical limits. As we have been forcefully reminded of the current pandemic: this affects us all.

The House on Mango Street

mango-streetDozens of characters flit through the pages of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Alicia, for instance, who “is young and smart and studies for the first time at the university”; but her mother has died and so she has “inherited her mama’s rolling pin and sleepiness” as she has to get up early and look after the family, before taking “two trains and a bus” to study because “she doesn’t want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin” (30-1). Or Elenita, “witch woman,” who earns a few extra dollars by telling fortunes in her kitchen where “the top of the refrigerator [is] busy with holy candles” (62, 63). Interrupted by her kids, who she has shunted out to a living room where the sofa is covered in plastic, she “gets up to hit and then hug them. She really does love them, only sometimes they are rude” (64). Or there is Sire, a boy who hangs out on his bike with his friends and watches as the narrator, Esperanza, passes and crosses the street: “It made your blood freeze to have somebody look at you like that” (73).

Many of these characters disappear in the wake of these quick but arresting pen portraits. It is as though the book can hardly settle long enough on any of them for us to come to know where they come from or where they are going to. Yet almost always we are left with a startling detail, revealing perhaps more than the child narrator knows or intends to tell, a detail that indicates that there is much more still to be said. In Alicia’s case, this is when we are told that she is afraid of nothing except the mice she sees (or imagines she sees) late at night as she burns the candle at both ends. “And fathers” (32). Then the narrative swiftly moves on–to a tale of “Darius & the Clouds”–leaving the suggestion of some unmentionable violence hanging in the air. Mango Street is as vibrant and colorful as the tropical fruit that gives it its name, but it is also permeated by shadow, not least the shadow of gendered violence and the expectations that young women above all find it nearly impossible to shake off.

In fact, Alicia returns almost at the end of the book, in one of its final vignettes. Not that we hear much more about her fears. She and Esperanza are talking, and “she is listening to my sadness because I don’t have a house” (106). But Esperanza does, Alicia points out, have the house that gives this very book its title:

You live right here, 4006 Mango, Alicia says and points to the house I am ashamed of.
No, this isn’t my house I say and shake my head as if shaking could undo the year I’ve lived here. I don’t belong. I don’t ever want to come from here. (106)

Shame is a recurrent feature of Esperanza’s experience in this Chicago neighborhood: she is made to feel (and internalizes) shame for being female, poor, and Hispanic. In some ways, indeed, shame is the book’s dominant affect, if it weren’t for the humor and quick-witted observation that also pervade almost all these brief stories. And Alicia, perhaps the one (other) possibly upwardly mobile figure we meet, already knows that Esperanza will not so easily be able to deny her origins, for to do so would be to try to erase something that is by now integral to her very self: “No, Alicia says. Like it or not you are Mango Street, and one day you’ll come back too” (107). This may sound like a prediction (or projection) of failure: that every attempt Esperanza makes to escape will be doomed.

But Cisneros suggests that Esperanza (or Cisneros herself, in so far as this book is broadly autobiographical) will be able to negotiate the tension between escape and acknowledgement, between shame and pride, though writing itself. “You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza,” her Aunt Lupe tells her, “It will keep you free” (61). At the time the young girl “didn’t know what she meant”–and in fact she and her friends treat her aunt shamefully, imitating her, mocking her blindness and incapacity, “with our heads thrown back, our arms limp and useless, dangling like the dead” (61). But by the end of the story, Esperanza has realized that the stories she is telling are a means to take her distance from Mango Street: “I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes” (110). But they are also, of course, a way to return, to render homage to those who stayed, to those, “las mujeres” to whom the book is dedicated, who were unable to leave and had to live in the shadows. Without exactly shining a light on that darkness, without pretending to give us anything like a full representation of these lives at the margins, Cisneros’s book at least offers a glimpse of a myriad of stories that would otherwise go untold, stories that if told in full should shame us all.

Bless Me, Ultima II

anaya_ultimaThe phrase that gives Rudolfo Anaya’s novel its title, “Bless me, Ultima,” does not arise until almost the very last page, when Ultima is on her deathbed. She is dying not so much because she herself is sick or has been injured, but because the owl that in some way represents her soul (is her soul?) has been shot and killed. Placing the bird, wrapped in a blanket, by the old woman’s bed, Antonio, who has been her acolyte and intimate, “drop[s] to [his] knees” and asks

“Bless me, Ultima–” Her hand touched my forehead and her last words were “I bless you in the name of all that is good and strong and beautiful, Antonio. Always have the strength to live. Love life, and if despair enters your heart, look for me in the evenings when the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills. I shall be with you–“ (260-61)

And so the torch is handed on. Of course, Ultima has to die for Antonio to become what he will be, and to be in a position to chart his own path in the future. His childhood is now at an end, and so therefore is this narrative, which has described what its very first page described as a “magical time” (1) so evocatively. However much has happened in the twelve months or so that the book covers (from the beginning of one school year to another), it is understood that in many ways this was all an interlude, a respite from another form of reality, or perhaps another way of looking at the real, which will pick up again after the final page has been turned.

In fact, it is perhaps surprisingly Antonio’s father, otherwise portrayed as somewhat lost (all at sea in more than one sense of the term: both restless and left behind), who best captures this sense of impending transition. Talking of magic (and even beyond the mystical connection between owl and Ultima, there is plenty of magic in Anaya’s novel), he says: “To the child it is natural, but for the grown man it loses its naturalness–so as old men we see a different reality. And when we dream it is usually for a lost childhood, or trying to change someone, and that is not good. So, in the end, I accept reality” (248). Ultimately, Antonio will have to accept reality, to be fine with the fact that he will inevitably (like all of us) lose his childhood, and to learn that he cannot change anybody–not his mother, nor his father, or his brothers. (Again, the sisters get remarkably short shrift throughout the novel.) But if he cannot change anybody, he has to find some sympathy for them, perhaps precisely because of the recognition that they cannot be changed, that they are simply playing out their destiny. It is this sympathy, more than any hocus pocus with potions, that is Ultima’s true magic. Though, again, it is up to Antonio’s father to point this out, when he tells his son that “no greater magic can exist” (248).

As the novel heads towards this conclusion, it becomes ever less a specifically “Chicano” novel. These lessons, whatever one may think of them, surely purport to be universal rather than particular. Indeed, as Ultima exits the scene, urging Antonio to “gather my medicines and my herbs and [. . .] take them somewhere along the river and burn them” (260), her “magic” thus becomes transmuted from traditional, indigenous knowledge, located in place and time, to general human sympathy, applicable anywhere “the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills” (262). Of course, this raises the question of what a “Chicano” novel should be in the first place. Why shouldn’t it have aspirations to something like universality? Indeed, the fact that Anaya’s book so successfully and almost seamlessly (magically?) transmutes the particular into the universal is surely a large part of its remarkable success. And yet, I wonder what is lost in this procedure, which at times feels like dilution into rather banal uplift and cheer (“Always have the strength to live. Love life”). Especially given that the novel has in fact portrayed much that is far from lovely–not least the three deaths that Antonio has already witnessed at close quarters even before the book’s dénouement–I for one find its closing moral(ism) somewhat disappointing.

Bless Me, Ultima I

anaya_ultimaRudolfo Anaya’s best-selling Bless Me, Ultima centers on a young boy, Antonio, growing up in the 1940s in a Mexican-American family in semi-rural New Mexico. As the novel opens, he is about to start school but is already beginning to feel the burden of responsibility and a loss of innocence as he negotiates his parents’ contrasting expectations for him: his deeply religious mother hopes that he will become a priest; his father dreams of the open plains and wants to move the entire family to California but becomes distant and turns to drink when he sees this dream frustrated. Though the youngest of six, Antonio is unable to turn to his siblings for support to resolve these tensions or at least alleviate the weight of so much hope and disillusionment. His three much older brothers are off fighting in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, and when they return at the war’s end soon make it clear that they are not going to hang around to live out their parents’ desires; his two sisters, though closer to his age, are little more than ciphers and barely feature in the first half of the book.

Of all those living in his house, Antonio is closest to the only one to whom he is not related, an older woman named Ultima (referred to with respect as “la Grande”) who has a reputation as a curandera, a healer or benign witch. Antonio turns to her with his questions about the magic-infused world around him that he is beginning to explore. She takes him along as she gathers herbs for her medicinal concoctions, and even recruits him when she goes to a nearby village to remove a curse that has been laid on Antonio’s uncle. Ultima tells him “the stories and legends of my ancestors” and it is from her that he learns “the glory and the tragedy of the history of my people” (123). But it is not (yet) clear who or what that people are: the disagreements between Antonio’s mother and father are merely the symptom of wider fractures that divide the community. Antonio’s uncertain search for his own identity and independence mirrors a broader struggle waged by the people as a whole.

So far at least, that sense of a coherent “people” rarely comes into focus. It is the often acrimonious divisions that are more evident: between young and old, between farmers and vaqueros, between the Church and indigenous folk beliefs, and ultimately between good and evil. Though there is plenty of talk of custom and ceremony, and despite his shock in starting school and coming into contact with the institutions of the Anglophone state, it is striking that at this stage young Antonio seems to have little sense of his identity as a Mexican-American or Chicano. This may well change, but for now this is a Chicano novel that hardly features “Chicanos” as such.

Indeed, if we imagine Mexican-American culture to be characterized by a tension or conflict between “Mexican” and (US) “American,” by a proximity to or incarnation of the US/Mexican Border, here this split is far from being the determining factor in young Antonio’s life. In many ways, the first half of the novel might as well be set south of the border, in Mexico itself. Instead, the first key cultural tension is that between a Hispanic Catholicism represented by Antonio’s mother and the loosely indigenous-derived folk beliefs associated with both Ultima and Antonio’s friends Samuel and Cico. Cico takes him to a local river to see carp whose presence is explained in terms of a legend in which the gods turn an unfaithful people into fish, which is why the carp cannot be eaten: “It is a sin to catch them,” Samuel has explained. “It is a worse offense to eat them. They are part of the people” (80). But this seems to be a pre-Hispanic people, whose story long precedes the coming of the Spanish Church. And when told that one of the gods was then in turn also transformed into a fish, the golden carp, Antonio is shaken: “If the golden carp was a god, who was the man on the cross? The Virgin? Was my mother praying to the wrong God?” (81). Destined by his mother to be a priest, and yet also picked out by Ultima as helper and confidant, Antonio feels torn between two sets of beliefs, but neither have much if any connection to the Anglo culture that remains at best at the very far horizon of his consciousness, like the semi-mythical notion of the California to which his father want to take them.

The second major tension that structures Antonio’s growing self-consciousness is that between his father’s restlessness as a man of open spaces, the llanos and oceans, and his mother’s attraction to domesticity and rootedness, as a daughter of farmers and denizen of the valleys. This split is encoded in his name, given as Antonio Márez y Luna: On the one hand the patronymic Márez, designating people of the seas (mares); on the other hand the matronymic Luna, signalling a people guided by the seasons and the phases of the moon. But this is a division that is internal to Hispanic colonization, between the conquistador spirit of “men as restless as the seas they sailed and as free as the land they conquered” (6) and the desire for stability and permanence of “the first colonizers [. . .] who carried the charter from the Mexican government to settle the valley” (52). It may be that the external opposition between Hispanic and Anglo ultimately supersedes this conflict and hispanidad will come to signify a more consistent and united identity. But that encounter with the outside is still some way in the future, and for the time being this is the world Antonio lives in and, beyond distant rumors of World Wars and the like, it is more or less all he knows.

With His Pistol in His Hand II

paredes_coverThe second half of Américo Paredes’s ”With His Pistol in His Hand” consists of a painstaking analysis of the corrido “Gregorio Cortez.” After a discussion of the history of the corrido genre as a whole, and its relation to other genres of popular Mexican music such as the romance or the décima, Paredes gives us the text of the ballad itself, in multiple versions and variants. One is a printed broadside from Mexico City, published in 1925 but probably written very shortly after the incidents it describes, in August or September 1901; although the music for this version is lost, Paredes tells us that it is not in fact a border ballad, and offers it mostly for the sake of comparison with the versions that are. Eight variants are transcriptions of performances, in one case of a record from 1920 and in almost all the other cases of “field recordings” made by Paredes himself of singers, both young and old, male and female, in the mid-1950s. Finally, one of the versions of the ballad–which is also the longest of them all–is Paredes’s own reconstruction of what the song might have looked (or sounded) like in its original incarnation, or at least in its very early stages. Having presented us with this wealth of primary material, Paredes goes on to analyze it, in all its variations, stanza by stanza and practically line by line. He has a detailed discussion of such elements as metre, stress, and syllable count; of verb tenses and conjunctions, and the use of words such as “ya” and “y”; and of imagery and language, including the peculiarities of border Spanish that the corrido reproduces.

In short, for a song that in Ramón Ayala’s rendition, for instance, lasts all of three minutes and twenty-four seconds, Paredes really goes to town. Indeed, the ratio between the length of the text to be interpreted here and the number of words expended in its interpretation and commentary is quite extraordinary: a corrido that in its longest (reconstructed) version comprises 28 four-line stanzas covering four pages is subject to around 100 pages of interpretation. But all this makes the book’s key point: that we should take such texts seriously.

Paredes does not exactly claim that the corrido is literary, as indeed strictly it is not if we define “literature” as written or printed matter. Not that this is the definition that Paredes employs: the version of the ballad that is printed (the Mexico City broadside) he repeatedly describes as “pseudoliterary,” apparently because of its style, which abandons “the corrido stanza [. . .] in favor of the literary redondilla”; the result is “awkwardness and dullness. [. . .] The reader who knows no Spanish may not appreciate to the full the scantiness of inspiration of the broadside” (182, 183). By contrast, “The maker of the Border corrido makes no effort to be original or literary, and by staying within the ballad traditions of his people he succeeds in composing in a natural and often a forceful style” (183).

While Paredes is not explicit about the basis for his judgements of aesthetic success, more than once he praises the ballad for its “vigor” (207, 209, 224), for its “simplicity of diction and [. . .] dramatic style” that avoids “verbal adornments” (219). Where the “pseudoliterary broadside [. . . prefers] the highest sounding word,” Border ballads “are composed in the language that the rancheros use every day” (219). And yet at the same time Paredes is keen to locate the corrido within an extensive and quite distinguished transnational tradition that dates back as far as the Spanish Middle Ages. In other words, it is precisely in that it does not strive for literary value (as does the broadside) that the Border ballad becomes a legitimate object of study and can be treated with the care and attention usually reserved for canonical literary texts.

Hence the comparisons with, for instance, romances dedicated to El Cid: “In response to conditions similar to those which produced the romance in Spain, the dormant, half-forgotten romance tradition in America revived in the corrido” (245). Moreover, not only does the Border corrido revive and gain (perhaps unconscious) inspiration from this venerable lineage, Paredes is also keen to underscore that it is far from derivative; a ballad such as “Gregorio Cortez” also adds something new and distinctive to this tradition. It “created some conventions of its own, conventions related to the border conflict which was its environment.” It initiates, in other words, a new set of aesthetic and cultural developments, which are then later taken up by the “Greater Mexican corrido tradition, which does not begin until ten years after El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” (240).

In sum, however much Paredes wishes to mark the Border ballad’s distance from a literary self-consciousness that he sees as forced and un-natural (“pseudoliterary”), he is also keen to demonstrate that it is far more than the simple reflection of social reality or documentation of events and attitudes that mattered to the subaltern peoples of the Border. It is a creative contribution to a long-standing cultural genre. As such, the justification for its study is as much aesthetic as it is political or sociological.