Cristina Rivera Garza’s writing embodies the experience of fully entering a landscape’s soul. The immersion begins early — on the second page of Rivera Garza’s translated edition of her latest novel “The Taiga Syndrome,” a house is described as “[having] the air of a last refuge,” — and the wilderness doesn’t stay on the boundaries of the page, but sinks through the reader’s body. Rivera Garza’s words spoken in the Rotunda Multipurpose room Feb. 20 captured the sinking presence of the wintery evening.
Rivera Garza has written poetry, novels and short story collections. She has also won some of Mexico’s most prestigious literary honors for her tales, which often invoke mystery through the roundabout way she introduces certainties of the story — the “facts” in the mystery of “The Taiga Syndrome” are nestled in the atmosphere of a befuddling place.
Although this novel contends with much more than just plot in its prose, the story is about a detective’s quest to find a mad couple who have run away deep into the Taiga forest. The female detective at the core of the tale is never named, and neither is her translator. Her identity mostly remains a mystery — one which exists within the mystery she’s been tasked to solve. The man who hired her also remains mostly anonymous but is given a humorous moniker — “the man who had two wives” — and is scarcely characterized, except by the opinions of the detective. The entire journey hinges on uncertainty, building on simple facts, like the two-wived man receiving a telegram from an ex-wife and becoming convinced that she wants him to find her. The runaway ex-wife’s truth is a root of the detective’s curiosity. This intentional withholding of details gives the tale another layer of mystery for the reader to piece together. Roberto Rodriguez-Estrada, M.F.A. candidate in prose, shared a quote in their introduction that called “The Taiga Syndrome” “both quietly poetic and narratively unhinged.”
Although her manipulation of clarity can be applauded for all its literary genius, the absence of detail Rivera Garza provides can be infuriating. It’s definitely meant to be. This intentional absence mirrors the uncertainties of the detective’s search, which continuously bump up against the trials of translating the search to those who might be helpful — other travelers at the campsites who may have seen this mad couple on the run.
Rivera Garza writes about these translation trials from a place of personal experience. She called her translators her co-authors, and in a tone of clear respect said, “Translating is an extreme sport … translating is magical.” One chapter in the novel, named “Tongue to Tongue,” has a completely different English translation similar to “something of your language in my language,” but this direct shift loses the implication of eroticism present in the Spanish original. Rivera Garza and her translators reportedly labored over this until she received a call at two in the morning — “‘Tongue to tongue!’ And that’s exactly what I was trying to say.”
One gets the sense that Rivera Garza has spent a lot of time in a forest. Though Garza was born in the north country of Mexico where forests are sparse, she spoke about living in Toluca — the highest town in Mexico — and how the forests there spurred her engagement. “Toluca is in the outskirts of a huge volcano and the bottom is surrounded by forest,” factors which contributed to the reasons why she was intrigued by this landscape. Although Rivera Garza said she had no personal experience with a Taiga forest, the anxieties of the terrain’s vast solitude permeated her imagination.
The glimpse Rivera Garza shared of her upcoming piece — “Grieving” — omits the mystery and eeriness she previously undertook in her work, replacing it with distilled beauty. The piece’s prose ruminates on words through repetition — in a way that bears a resemblance to obsession in grief. Cristina Rivera Garza’s prose orbits through microscopic hints of a landscape — “the stilts of an egret, a vulture overhead” — before arriving on a declaration that clarifies location with startling directness. Here, she explained that “This is a wetland.” The piece asserts the “beating of an oriole’s wings” are above. Rivera Garza shows collections of what is seen, what is felt and pieces together what can be told. Her writing is incandescent and progresses into a world that most readers haven’t explored before — a world of surprising streams that run awry.