The opening passage of Mexican writer Carmen Boullousa’s novel Before—the first she wrote, albeit the second to be published—is, at first blush, disorienting.
Where were we when we got to this point? Didn’t they tell you? Who could tell you if you had nobody to ask? And do you yourself remember? Particularly if you’re not here… And if I keep on? Well if I keep on perhaps you’ll show up.
A most unlikely welcome. But then our winsome young narrator is not here either. She greets us from a point beyond bodied existence, beyond a life cut short with the advent of puberty. She is lost in a realm of troubled memories, and in an attempt to find herself, to talk herself back into being, she invents a listener, one who is likewise no longer alive, to whom she can recount her recollections and, she hopes, confront the trauma that has continued to haunt her. “How would I like you to be?” she asks her conjured audience, “I’d like you to be whatever you were!”
As she revisits her past, attempting to start at the very beginning, with her own birth, memories and emotions pour forth in a jumble of childhood anecdotes crossed with her reflections about the limitations of language and the perplexity of familial relationships. Her estranged connection with her own past is palpable. She describes playing games with her older sisters, her fondness for her father, and the sense of security she feels with her grandmother. She paints vivid images of life at her Catholic girl’s school. But she speaks of her mother, whom she insists on referring to as Esther, with an odd, pained distance. And she is hypersensitive to noises, creating a “lexicon” of her own. She finds comfort in the ones that can be explained by the light of day, but fears the insistent sound of footsteps that haunt her in her dreams, that wake her in a state of panic. The steps threatens to envelop her in darkness. She seeks refuge in both practical and enchanted solutions. She feels she just barely escapes their pursuit:
I didn’t know what I could do against this persecution. When I was younger, I stayed in bed or ran to my parents’ bed to let them protect me, but Dad never let me sleep in their room, thinking my nighttime terror was “clowning,” which was the word he used to describe it. Some nights I managed to trick them and stay asleep on a rug at the foot of their bed, thinking their closeness would defend me, but when I was older, let’s say around the age of nine, I stopped having recourse to the rug; if I didn’t stay in bed waiting for the noises to hit me, I walked through the house trying to elude them.
Her memories are not orderly, they vie for her attention, and often require the insertion of backstories to give them context. This allows for an odd logic, a somewhat disjointed storytelling. Some memories bring her unexpected joy, make her feel “alive again,” while others rekindle fears and mock her loneliness, her “opacity” and “sadness.” As a ghost, her connection with her life is complicated, suspended on the cusp of womanhood. The stories she shares often take on magical overtones in the retelling. Some of this reflects the enthusiasm and imagination of childhood fantasy, but as she gets older, an ominous superstition grows. As the narrative progresses, our heroine is winding her way toward an event almost too unbearably painful to return to. As readers we know that her death awaits, but there is another heartbreaking loss that precedes it.
Underlying this fragmented account of a privileged childhood in Mexico City, is the sense that adults and children exist in separate spheres. A rotation of caregivers passes through their lives and the eldest sister takes on some of the surrogate parenting roles, while the mother and father pursue careers and social engagements. When her sisters become young women, seeming to enter overnight a world of brassieres, stockings, and nail polish, the narrator promises that she will not follow suit. She does not realize, she admits when she confesses this, that she has sealed her fate with this wish.
There is an uncanny urgency and intensity to this ghostly coming-of-age story. Boullosa’s own Catholic upbringing in the 1950s and 60s, and the early death of her mother when she was fifteen are echoed here, suggesting that it may have been as imperative for her to tell this tale as it is for her protagonist to share hers. And what better way to create a distance, a place of relative safety, than to root a narrative in the afterlife? Not that any of her narrator’s animated energy or distracted childhood logic is lost in the process. Rather, we are presented with a unique blend of curiosity and innocence, tinged with wisdom and sorrow.
A most unusual and affecting tale.
Originally released in Spanish in 1989, Before is translated by Peter Bush, with an introduction by Phillip Lopate, and published by Deep Vellum.