Breathing heavily, with fat drops of sweat sliding down my face and chest, I thought of how you are never more authentic than when inside your own nightmares.
I almost hesitate to write about The Iliac Crest. I feel that to tread too carelessly into the heart of this enigmatic dark fable would be risk fracturing its utterly devastating beauty. One may be best to enter its world of shifting borders where space, time, reality, fantasy, sanity, madness, identity, and gender are bent, blurred and ever so steadily unraveled without any preconceptions. Not that there is a viable bread crumb trail that could be followed to ensure Absolute Understanding. But it may be best to let the narrator be your guide, or rather to accompany him as his self-contained, apathetic existence is disturbed and distorted.
The novel is set in an undefined time, in an isolated borderland on the coast between North City and South City. To travel in either direction requires passing through heavily policed border checkpoints. Disappearance is contagious and faith in feminism is a faded notion—sexist attitudes toward women limit their roles in society. The image is a jarring one, and an atmosphere of hopelessness and decline is prevalent, nowhere more so than in the state hospital where the narrator works as a doctor tending to the destitute, wretched, and deranged who have come there to die.
A note from the author, Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza, that opens the book provides some context. Navigating the US-Mexico border has been a constant in her life and this is reflected in the role that the idea of borders, geopolitical and otherwise, plays in this work. Many borders are challenged here, not least of which is the line between male and female. The consequences of rigid gender roles and the silencing of women’s lives and voices is a central concern in the story she has to tell. “Our bodies are keys that open only certain doors,” she says. “Our bodies speak indeed, and our bones are our ultimate testimony. Will we be betrayed by our bones?” As a reader with a gender different history myself, that question haunted me from the outset.
The narrative begins on the classic dark and stormy night, when a stranger appears seeking shelter. She introduces herself as Amparo Dávila. The narrator is instantly captivated by her striking appearance and her expansive presence. But she frightens him. Several hours later, the woman he had been expecting, a former lover referred to only as The Betrayed, arrives and immediately collapses on the threshold. Before long, the women have installed themselves in his home, disrupting his solitary life. While The Betrayed convalesces, Amparo Dávila sets up a daily routine which includes sitting down to write in a notebook. She informs him that she was once a great writer. Now she is writing about her “disappearance” and she believes he can help her.
The narrator is skeptical. He doesn’t trust his unwelcome houseguest. She claims to know truths about him that confuse and unnerve him. And as the Betrayed recovers, he is horrified to discover that they share strange language that is unlike any he has ever encountered. The more he tries to get to the truth behind the identity of The Disappeared as he comes to call the so-called writer, the more he finds himself balancing on the uncertain edge of reality. His emotions swing between desire and anger and fear. He finds himself alienated and isolated. At one point he remarks: “I felt as if I were in a parenthesis in a sentence in an unknown language.”
Certain images and expressions are repeated, like refrains that echo throughout the text, creating an incantatory quality, enhancing the increasingly unsettling mood. The clarity with which the narrator appears to begin his account is steadily eroded until he can no longer trust his own sensations. As the line between truth and lies is obfuscated, the narrative grows chillingly opaque. But the tone remains measured, the language hauntingly beautiful.
I have resisted delving too far into the sequence of events that unfold—real, remembered or imagined—because I feel this is a book best experienced without too much plot detail in advance. But I cannot resist a longer quote that captures the sheer beauty of the prose:
Hurried and intense brushes, a proximity that, out of so much fear, smelled of sweat and adrenaline. Everything, however, would return to normal with a kiss. Usually it was just that: a kiss. One. Lips together. Saliva. Time turned flesh, color. A long kiss, like an expedition. After, just after that, the separation began. The beginning. This. This walk like someone wearing shackles around their ankles, this sensation of the body against air in an age-old battle, this weariness, this desolation. What do I know about the great wings of love? The pelicans appeared again almost overhead, but much higher. I paused to watch them for a couple of minutes. Silence. Air. Time. I imagined them fleeing from their own wings and, in that moment, I raised my finger to my lips, trying to detect traces of something felt from far off in time. Yes, indeed, you turn back. And turning back achieves nothing.
I confess I finished this book breathless. Anxious even. Although I knew that Amparo Dávila, the author at the centre of the mystery, is a real woman—a Mexican writer whose own work often treads the uneasy borders between the real and the uncanny—I decided not to search her until I had finished reading the novel. I was pleased to find an article in the Paris Review online and one of her short stories in the Winter 2017 print issue. Originally published in Spanish in 2002, The Iliac Crest has helped rekindle interest in Dávila who is now in her late 80s. Christina Rivera Garza captures her spirit, but in a mesmerizing, wholly original tale that is perhaps more timely than ever.
The Illiac Crest is translated by Sarah Booker who also provides valuable insights in her Translator’s Note. The publisher is Feminist Press.
Note: Since posting this, translator Sarah Booker has kindly shared links to two other Dávila stories she has translated: “Griselda” and “The Square Patio” The latter, in particular, has strong resonances in The Iliac Crest.