The loose ends of memories: Before by Carmen Boullosa

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.

In the window of a passing train: Faces In the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli

“All novels lack something or someone. In this novel there’s no one. No one except a ghost that I used to see sometimes in the subway.”

Faces in the Crowd, the debut novel from the young Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli, is indeed a book of ghosts. The narrator is a young wife and mother living in Mexico City. As she tries to carve out time and space to write a novel, she draws the reader into a reflective exploration of ghosts – the ghosts that haunt her present house, the ghost of a life she fell into living and working in New York City, and the ghost of Gilberto Owen, an obscure Latin American poet who lived in Harlem in the late 1920s.

And for a book of ghosts it is brilliantly, shockingly alive.

crowdThe novel opens with a deceptively simple narrative feel. Contemporary domestic life is played out against her reflections on her past life in New York City when she was younger, unencumbered and working as a translator for a small independent publisher. She catalogues the friends and lovers that drifted through her spare apartment. One day she happens to encounter the work of Gilberto Owen on a search for potential material for translation, but before long her professional interest turns into an obsession. She tries to pass off her translations of his work as translations by a better known poet, an attempt that comes dangerously close to succeeding. She rescues a dead plant from the roof of the building he once lived in. She imagines that she sees him in the subway – more than once. Finally it is clear to her that she must leave:

“In the subway, on my way home, I saw Owen for the last time. I believe he waved to me. But by then it did not matter, I’d lost my enthusiasm. Something had broken. the ghost, it was obvious, was me.”

For all the empty space in her earlier life, married life is clearly suffocating our narrator. She continually finds herself unable to breathe, struggling to focus on her writing in a large house, cluttered with toys, distracted by the demands of her children – simply referred to as “the boy” and “the baby” – and the jealous curiosity of her architect husband. As the fictionalized first person account of Owen’s life begins to assume a greater prominence within the story, her marriage starts to unravel (or perhaps she simply writes her husband into the background) while the overall narrative structure seems to disintegrate, boundaries blur. The novel within the novel becomes enmeshed with her day-to-day life, folding back on and re-envisioning the experiences recounted from her earlier life in New York. Or was that Owen’s life?

Echoing the continually reshaped game of hide and seek between mother and son running throughout this novel, Faces in the Crowd lays out a metafictional game of hide and seek. Can a horizontal novel be told vertically? How is such a story to be read? Where in translation does truth lie? And when can you play with truth? It winds up to a delightfully oblique ending. Or lack of ending – rather, an invitation to imagine, to reread.

I opened this book completely unprepared for the heart-stopping luminosity of the prose or the way that the narrative is fragmented and rebuilt to create a rich meditation on the nature of story telling. Valeria Luiselli demonstrates a maturity and confidence that belies her age without ever falling into a heavily somber tone. The translation by Christina MacSweeney maintains the lively, poetic flow of this impressive debut. I was pleasantly surprised by this intelligent and enjoyable read.

Faces in the Crowd has been longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award (BTBA).

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney                Coffee House Press, 2014

Border crossing ahead: Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

“You don’t lift other people’s petticoats.
You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business.
You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to let rot.
You are the door, not the one who walks through it.”

signsA sinkhole opens up in the road in the opening passage of Yuri Herrera’s brilliantly inventive Signs Preceding the End of the World. Makina, a streetwise young Mexican woman charged by her mother with a mission to deliver a message to her brother who has disappeared across the border in the US, just narrowly misses being swept into its depth. Or does she? She is a wary customer, old beyond her years, capable of communicating in native, latin and anglo tongue – a skill that has secured the task of manning the central switchboard in her hometown and has equipped her, as well anyone might be, for the daunting task her mother has set out.

The rules outlined above are those that Makina holds close. Securing her safe passage will require making deals with a series of shady characters and her hardened discretion will be vital if she is to reach her destination. The language matches her pace. The short chapters, clipped sentences, and unique vocabulary hurry along, sweeping the reader with it as if time is of the essence and dare not be wasted. There is no time for for frivolities, Makina – and with her the reader – must be on the alert. This is a dangerous journey. It is one that many desperate people make every day. On the far side, the world to be navigated is both familiar and strange.

“The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint. Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing.”

But for the illegal migrant, temporary or permanent, the risks are real. The rewards often elusive, the costs high.

This slim novel is filled with passages of vivid intensity. Dark, epic in scope if not in scale, a few hours with Herrera is akin to a journey with Dante or Lewis Carroll. Right through to the final breath taking passages, I would challenge a reader to not emerge gasping for air.

Another wonderful offering from And Other Stories, Signs Preceding the End of the World is a deeply rewarding way to spend a few hours. In the Translator’s Note at the end of the novel, Lisa Hillman describes the joys and challenges she faced in capturing the right tone and shaping the language to preserve the magic and power of the original text. The result is an absolutely compulsive read. Highly, highly recommended.

Now, after this brief respite, back to reading the International Foreign Fiction Prize long list with my fellow bloggers on this year’s shadow jury.