Carmen Boullosa has achieved a whispered, confessional first person in her exploration
of the power of memory
Carmen Boullosa, translated by Geoff Hargreaves
2001, Atlantic Books
Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez
HOW IRONIC is to think that the wild imagination of a feminist writer such as the Mexican-born Carmen Boullosa would prophetically, but playfully, create a character capable of envisaging in detail how a terrible flu epidemic breaks out, killing off every member of the human race one by one, simply because the winter, lead-grey sky she is looking at is soooo depressing. But such is the point of departure of Leaving Tabasco.
The title of the English version of this book, called in the original Spanish Treinta Años (“Thirty Years”), is rather strange. If this was done for commercial reasons (Tabasco sauce is quite exotic and Thirty Years may not sound as sexy), the whole point of the story is to display how three decades can certainly shake up a place sunken in pre-Columbian ways, but not really change it.
As for the novel, it is hot: Leaving Tabasco is a wonderful mélange of colonial and indigenous myths, historical facts and natural realities amid lush forest imagery in which the main theme is the power of memory and the search for narrative forms.
Time-traveller Delmira is a translator and editor living in a cold and distant latitude, away from the warm and exuberant land of her birth, the town of Agustini in Tabasco. Although clearly not the Uruguayan poet – Delmira Agustini was one of Latin America’s greatest female writers – she is a girl who, in many ways, could have been crafted as a homage to the fair and daring modernist: light-skinned, angelic looking, the daughter of a distinguished family with all she has ever needed, overprotected, surrounded by women and rather spoiled. She was also a precocious child, whose only hope was to escape her petty world, and with a burning ambition to write.
The things Delmira sees with a rational eye end up engraved in her mind as mystical and exotic literary sketches (her imagination is her means of escape). But reality is almost as imaginative as her mind. A moment of annoyance while travelling on the U-Bahn triggers a flashback to her childhood days – of earthquakes, birds that rained down, house-eating vegetation, people she knew who levitated, grew stigmata and disappeared into their own pee, or a magical traveller in a tent who would reveal her true past and the key to her future. She feels that her life is about to change.
While remembering how the town’s hours and years went by in lethargy, the reader sinks into the dreamlike atmosphere of Delmira’s upper-class house, created in part by her prematurely aged and very prejudiced grandmother whose way of closing each day is by narrating in vivid bedtime tales the history of the family and of Agustini. These stories tend to be more like tall tales, bordering on the absurd, but somehow they are poetic and even make sense.
With the arrival of the Sixties, her miniskirt and the first glimpses of modernity, Delmira and her village will suddenly wake up from their tropical slumber. A teacher manages to convince her family to send her to Agustini’s secondary school rather than a finishing school in a big city, and Delmira will soon find out that those people she would not be supposed to speak to share the same hopes and dreams.
It is at this point that the plot thickens and Mexico’s never-ending dilemma will be flagged: the abyss between the artificial realm of the white-skinned upper classes and the true Hades of the indigenous population. Think of yourself paying a visit today to San Juan Chamula, where the Indians walk with Nike trainers and tape recorders listening to the Rolling Stones – the same people that believe the saints from the town’s main church wander at night to the river carrying mirrors to comb their hair. A quaint universe, but beware – reality will sink its teeth into you if you dare to steal the villagers’ picturesque souls by taking their photos.
Boullosa is well-known in Mexico, more as the author of satirical plays, and is also a poet and theatre writer currently living and teaching in New York. When she wrote Treinta Años, she expected to achieve a whispered, almost confessional first person, different to her more traditionally loud narrative style, and she does what it says on the tin. Boullosa masters the right tempo in every scene, from Delmira’s life at eight to her years as a teenager and woman, taking it to a dramatic vortex by page 216.
The author has explained that Treinta Años was not an easy novel to write as it is a very cerebral simplification of ideas inspired by her own grandmother’s true but tall stories through which reality, such as historical and political events, becomes unreal.
The result is a beautiful book, but one that is not post-cardish and is radically different from novels written by other well known Mexican women writers such as Laura Esquivel. It is interesting to note that Boullosa joins the growing ranks of Mexican women authors to find their way into English. Some non-Mexican readers may find Treinta Años difficult to understand and even shocking, but Hispanic readers will certainly find it entertaining and very much in tune with their reality.
Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer
You can find out more about this author at: http://www.carmenboullosa.net/esp/