The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza
Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine & Aviva Kana
Dorothy, a publishing project, October 2018
128 pages / Amazon
I’ve been thinking of madness and of grief, of the first few weeks after my sister died when the two merged to bend and blur my reality. My grief and my madness were my taiga, like the taiga of Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome (translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Levine and Aviva Kana), a cold, wild land that first drowned and then gripped me – abruptly I was within it and I had never not been. In the months later, I have clawed myself out of its brambles and its vines, stumbled somehow back to known land and now, as Garza’s unnamed narrator does, remember this taiga from a distance as a dream, as if during those weeks the veil between reality and irreality broke open and tangled me somewhere in its midst.
In The Taiga Syndrome, Garza fractures time, disrupting it into a non-linear progression that blends the life of the mind with reality, meditating on the experience of memory in the present and acknowledging that “nothing happens as it is written.” The narrator, a detective chasing two lovers who have fled to the taiga—a vast, untouched expanse beyond the border of “civilization”– is enticed by the woman of this pair who has left a trail of correspondences like a trail of breadcrumbs, seemingly wanting to be found. Garza confronts the old fairytales of Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel & Gretl, breaking them open to reveal their sinister insides and then subverting them into insidious threads that tangle into the narrative: a wolf licks its paws outside the cabin where the lovers’ stayed, the lovers are remembered and described by the townspeople on the border of the taiga as “the little girl and boy”, the man who has tasked the narrator with this case has white teeth and a thick Adams apple – is he indeed the wolf?
Garza deals with translation and language: the narrator must find a translator, “a speaker of their tongue who would translate everything into [her] tongue”. She and the translator become a pair themselves, mirroring the lovers they’ve been sent to find. They travel to the taiga, speaking in a shared “third tongue”. Memory functions here as its own language; the sensation of it, limited by language. The narrator’s memories are searing and immediate. They follow no linear path, they arrive nowhere, they populate the novel as fiercely as the wolf who tracks wanderers, who bares its teeth, who paces outside the house where the lovers the narrator has been sent to find copulate and sleep and eat and stay. In one such memory, she writes:
I remember the movement of jaws, constant and dreadful. Opening and closing. Chewing. Swallowing. I remember how the voracity of my own chewing made me close my eyes…Above all, I remember the sound of lips, gnawing and talking at the same time, and the grease shining on those lips.
I remember the attempts at eating. Food put on a plate. Little piles of it: wet, glistening meat & cold, rubber cheese. It was plastic food. It would break my teeth. It would stick in my stomach. It was food for dolls.
I remember the attempts at sleep. The attempts at waking. Finally, waking from a sleep so black & so blank it was as if during the night I had died too.
Above all, I remember the way my hand no longer seemed my hand, my feet no longer my feet, my body not mine & gravity? How could I trust it?
Garza grapples with memory’s disruption, its bucking of time. Memory negates the logic of time and the logic of truth. As the novel progresses the narrator’s description of the wolfish man who sent her on this journey changes from “man who had had two wives” to “man who was waiting for news” to questioning the man’s existence. Further from “civilization” and closer to taiga, the narrator’s life before the journey blurs. She cannot distinguish truth from embellishment, highlighting the fallacy of memory. A memory is a rendering, no closer to truth than a tale and yet, in its grip, we succumb; a memory is an experience, as present as the present. It takes over, invades, and for a moment, occupies.
I have a memory of my sister & I. I have many memories of us. They come to me sometimes, unprovoked. I welcome them. When they come, I forget the logic of life. When they come, I live in them. When they come, I live them.
My sister & I we are in my parents’ living room she is knitting I am reading there is sun it is always sunny in California my sister wears a sweatshirt she wears patterned socks the socks have cats on them she has a cat named Oscar I love cats she is allergic she takes allergy pills she loves Oscar the house is quiet the fridge hums you forget how loud until it stops humming the living room is yellow my sister knits a scarf but I can’t remember the color now was it yellow like the living room was it orange maybe it was
The Taiga Syndrome asks us to consider the allure of the unknown, the temptation to test and resist madness, the places in which outsiders intrude, the strength of intuition. It asks us to consider the untruth of borders, the slippery nature of time and the lenses through which the imprecision of language and memory filter our perceived existence.
I am on the couch I am not reading I am just sitting my sister’s socks have all been washed and paired they are in my childhood dresser I wear a pair of her socks because I have forgotten my own I guess they are mine now if I want them is anything still hers