The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza (trans. Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana) — Steven Felicelli


While her previously translated works (The Iliac Crest and No one Will See Me Cry) are grounded in the politics and history of her native Mexico, Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome offers a timeless, “boreal” fairy tale. Its inchoate eroticism and arch asides evoke authors as disparate as Amelia Gray and Halldór Laxness; Herbert Marcuse and Helen Oyeyemi; Anna Kavan and Donald Barthelme; (Lars von Trier and Walt Disney)—but Rivera Garza’s fabular elements create a singularly inclement climate.

Unto this arctic clime (the Taiga) comes a nameless “writer of noir novellas,” dispatched as envoy of a deserted husband. A reluctant emissary, our author/detective narrator (à la Auster) must track down her client’s “second wife,” with the help of a taciturn translator and fellow “outsider.” (The excluded figure prominently in Rivera Garza’s work.) As they puzzle over laconic leads (cryptic telegrams, elliptic testimony), they are alternately engaged and cold-shouldered by the inhabitants of that wintry wasteland.

The obscure object of their investigation rapidly evolves on this short trek (119 pages) through a frozen forest primeval. Their primary clue is a mysterious telegram, which has piqued the narrator’s “all-consuming weakness for forms of writing no longer in use” and drawn her into the fray. Further clues are ferreted from the journal of “the second wife,” as writing reveals itself as such. Rivera Garza has here nested narratives (her modus operandi) and the telling of tales takes center stage, though we are warned,

Nothing happens as it is written.

Upon examination, the indigenous eye-witnesses refer to the “second wife” and her new lover as the “Taiga couple”—portraying them as lost children. As the tale unfolds, the darkened path of adulterers in flight becomes a trail of breadcrumbs left by a hallucinatory Hansel and Gretel. Dreamy refrains, fairy tale footnotes and subordinate clause non-sequiturs (That there are long tresses of hair… That the word “frenzy.”) punctuate the author’s record of the detective’s investigation of the woman’s darkest fears/desires (the second wife’s whereabouts becoming a secondary concern).

author and translator succumb to the spell of this enchanted elsewhere and begin to abide its dream logic

Encountering a wolf cub, homunculi sex show, and a mysterious waterwheel (That there was a waterwheel.), author and translator succumb to the spell of this enchanted elsewhere and begin to abide its dream logic. Somewhere in the miasmic haze of symbols and surrogates (spectral, corporeal), a feral boy emerges, evoking Truffaut’s L’Enfant Sauvage.

This is what I wanted to get at, the moment when this peculiar romance is established between the feral child, the window, and the spectator.

This wild child embodies all that is primitive, primal in the human animal. The menace he portends is akin to that of the shadowy wolf who prowls the margins of this icy Eden and the lusty lumberjacks who swing their axes through its pristine forest. Rivera Garza has dealt with gender identity in previous work and this “boreal” milieu is an Ur-gendered and yet persona-fluid playground for deceptively absolute identities/desires. The distinction between adult and child, human and animal, reality and illusion are blurred within each storybook mise-en-scene, as author/detective delves deeper and deeper into the mystery. Her vague longing and attendant dread never quite surface to resolve this ambivalence and we are left in the vacated premise of what undergirds our buttoned-up behavior in the real world.

The experience of Taiga acquaints one with the disequilibrium of desire. It entices only to elude. Confides in you and then laughs up its sleeve. These faux naïve flirtations diddle the erogenous zones of the reader’s brain as a sub-textual tickler teases our archetypal (androcentric) myths. The Taiga Syndrome is a little book about a big drive that has taken on the appearance of something superficial, childish, tongue-in-cheek, thinly veiling the depth it plumbs. It feels a bit like being told a dirty joke about original sin and the meaning of life.

Diaphanously translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana, this deceivingly spare, noir fairy tale can be read (devoured) at a sitting, but the subconscious wounds it (in)exacts may fester in one’s non-fiction ever after.

Cristina Rivera Garza is the award-winning author of six novels, three collections of stories, five collections of poetry, and three non-fiction books. Originally written in Spanish, these works have been translated into English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Korean, and more. Born in Mexico in 1964, she has lived in the United States since 1989. She is Distinguished Professor in Hispanic Studies and Director of Creative Writing at the University of Houston.

Suzanne Jill Levine has received many honors for her translations of Latin American literature. She is the author of Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions (FSG) and The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction (Dalkey Archive Press). Her editions include the Penguin Paperback Classics series of Jorge Luis Borges’s essays and poetry.

Aviva Kana is a PhD candidate in Hispanic literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her work focuses on Latin American literature, gender, translation, and applied linguistics. Her translations have been published in Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, PEN America, Latin American Literature Today, and Fiction.

Steven Felicelli is the author of two novels (Notes Toward a Monograph of the Moment/Six Gallery Press, White/Purgatorio Press) and book reviews appearing in/at The Rumpus, The Millions, The Collagist, Necessary Fiction, Minor Literature(s), Rain Taxi, Berfrois and The Critical Flame. He was born in Chicago and currently lives in the Bay Area with his wife and their three children. @purgatoriobooks