When the critic was eleven years old, her father took her to a private acreage where partridges and other birds were raised and released for people to hunt. As the birds were flushed from their hiding places they flew so fast the critic didn’t know how her father shot them. A sudden flight, a blast, a small mass falling back to earth. It was her job to find the dead birds and stow them in the back pouch of her father’s hunting jacket.
As they walked, she saw a partridge run ahead of them in the high, frosted grass. It refused to fly. Every time they caught up it ran away. Eventually it stopped and either out of fear or because it was tame from having been raised in captivity it let her father pick it up.
She asked if she could hold the bird and he handed it over. Its feathery body pulsed in her gloved hands. When her father reached out, she gave it back. She watched as, without warning, he put his fist around the bird’s neck and with three quick whips wrung it dead. There was a small crick-crack as the body went limp. Her eyes met her father’s. He turned his back so she could add the bird to the pouch. She did, but its death gave it a different weight. They walked on. She felt too old to cry in front of him and disliked his usual reaction; he would hug her, but his chest would vibrate with soft laughter.
Working on her review of Garza’s novel, she found a phrase she’d underlined, “an intimate and familiar deception was taking its usual place within me,” and recalled her father’s silence after killing the partridge. Brought from another language so well by Booker, it rang out clearly within what had felt inexpressible for her for so long.
Her father’s influence, the unpleasant moments, amid thousands of helpful, loving efforts he’d made, affected her as she worked. She thought about the sadness inherent in a parent’s power over a child as she tried to suss out the novel’s abstract messages about the way fear operates between men and women, its power to define so much of who we are allowed to be to each other.
After filing her review, she hung out with her younger sister and laughed about their childhoods, the weird incidents they remembered. “No prisoners on a partridge hunt, kiddo! And no pets!” It always felt good to hear her sister mock those old, harsh lessons out loud after years of facing such memories, and their shifting power, alone.
Garza’s boldest choice in the novel was to make her narrator the patriarchy. That is, his behavior is marked by secrecy, without intuition, his actions with women defined by received knowledge. He is an unnamed middle-aged doctor, wealthy, single, hetero, but with a secret. He looks back on a period of mental anguish, and the painful fracturing of self he describes is eerie, taking place in a deathly atmosphere reminiscent at times of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, guided by a crazed genius similar to the male murderer in Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler.
The doctor lives alone in a large house in a seaside gated community at “the end of the world” where “winter never ends.” One stormy night, a strangely attractive woman appears at his door and he welcomes her in. He can’t explain why. Her name is Amparo Dávila, “a great writer.” When he asks what she writes about, she replies, “my disappearance,” and adds, ominously, “A conspiracy disappeared me.” When he asks how she found him, she says, “I know you from when you were a tree.” He doesn’t address this bizarre claim, and it stands out. He keeps playing along, referring from then on to Amparo (whose name means “protection” in Spanish), as The Disappeared.
The conflict with Amparo, who questions the persona he presents to the world, even as there are hints she may in fact not exist, drives the narrative with a logic of its own.
After another woman arrives, the doctor’s former lover, whom he calls The Betrayed, the women become friends, to his dismay. As he sees it, “they did nothing but plan some kind of feminine revenge.” A moment later he backtracks, as if suddenly aware of the way his misogyny and paranoia might appear to the reader: “I told myself that men always discover, when they least expect it, that the fear women provoke in them is really the result of mad schemes that exist nowhere but in their own minds.” Moments of self-consciousness show that despite all his fugues, neuroses, and hallucinations Garza has him on the path to a greater awakening.
The conflict deepens when the women create their own language and speak it in front of him, leaving him out. This outrage, in his own house, triggers an ugly tantrum: “Every time I heard them chatting, I sunk into an immense paralyzing rage.” He concludes, “I did not want to give the women a single opportunity to feel or, even worse, demonstrate their new power over me.”
Reading this reminded the critic of her father’s joke that he could never win at home because he was completely outnumbered in a house with no other men. In her review, however, she’d mentioned Ursula K. Le Guin’s idea that languages have overt and hidden powers, and each language can be divided into mother, father, and native tongues, which are used as means to different ends.
Amparo then tells the doctor he must help her find a special manuscript stolen from her by a former patient named Juan Escutia, whom she calls “some sort of new Prometheus,” who killed himself at the hospital. “I’m sure that in it there were the codes of my memory, of my words. Of all my words,” she says.
He finds the manuscript, but while at the hospital, he faints and stays there for several days. When he returns home, Amparo says, “I know your secret.”
She crawled catlike across the carpet, moving her shoulders slowly, sensually, until she arrived at my chair. With feline grace, she perched herself on the armrest and caressed my ear. She brought her anise-scented lips close to my face and said, “I know you are a woman.” She smiled and, with nothing more, returned to her position in front of the fireplace.
Scared of what this might mean, desperate to prove his masculinity, the doctor (whose reliability as a narrator vanished the instant Amparo said she knew he used to be a tree), reports a ménage a trois with two women who hold low-level administrative jobs at the hospital. While graphic—“Amparo Dávila was wrong, I repeated to myself as my cock quickly thrust in and out of their asses. I did not have such a secret”—the sex is mechanical, like an Ikea instruction sheet for porn, inserting tab-A-into-slot-B. He’s instantly bored and wishes he were home so he could look at the sea.
That night he goes out, sees people being rounded up into police vans, looks in the phone book for Amparo Dávila, and is startled to find her address.
His meeting with the supposedly real Amparo proves fateful. Seeing her, he has a flashback to his life as a tree. She tells him the woman at his home claiming to be her is “one of the emissaries” of her writing. She also knows he used to be a tree. He tries to laugh all this off, but she retorts, calls him one of “the Incredulous Women,” and warns him, “We all know your secret. Don’t worry, but don’t try to deceive us, either.” From then on he calls this older Amparo “The True One,” and the younger woman at his house “The False One.”
His contact with The True One triggers events leading to the novel’s climax. “I turned inward. In reality, I did nothing more than that. And then something happened in the world.” He realizes that a mantra of his, “I turned back,” repeated many times in the book, represents a desire he can’t describe. “To turn back,” he says. “Something undeniably happens in the world when you turn back.” He begins to remember, or feels he’s forgotten things about himself.
His panic grows when his boss at the hospital visits his home and has no trouble speaking the women’s secret language. After a short stay in the hospital, where he may be a patient who has confused the sanitarium with a large house he thinks he owns, he visits the true Amparo again. In her presence language starts to feel more meaningful, or he has the desire for such meaning. He imagines, “Words finally like something touched and felt, words like inevitable material.”
The text’s intensity, with a strict, careful pacing shaping its moments and scenes, gave it the feel of a complex psychological drama acted out behind a veil of tropes and archetypes, a layer created by Booker’s close attention to the poetic lexicon of images and motifs Garza developed for the novel. The critic’s main objection, one she quibbled about with people online, concerned the triple-threat of paratext the publisher had added to the book: an author’s note as preface, a laudatory afterword from another author, and a translator’s note. The translator’s note was an especially significant choice that affected the reading experience, because only there, and not through footnotes in the novel, are we told that Amparo Dávila is a real Mexican writer, born in 1928; she is still living. Juan Escutia is also real, and died fighting against the United States in the Battle of Chapultepec in 1847.
When the narrator is suddenly able to speak the secret language, he soon ends up back in the hospital. Garza avoids explaining how he knows the language. There’s a hint that it’s based on the sound of water dripping into water. Perhaps it’s a tree language he once knew, or the language a tree would speak if it grew near the sea, or the language someone who has spent too much alone by the sea might speak if their only companion were a tree.
He watches Amparo Dávila disappear on the beach and considers, “The possibility of being with her, of being her.”
When the critic’s father had killed the bird with his hands he did it as if he had no other choice. He did it as if killing the bird was something that had to be said in a language his daughter needed to learn. He had paid for the chance to kill the bird, so he did. But he had also been free not to.
Had he been afraid of what she thought of him when they looked at each other then? Why hadn’t she spoken up when he gave her the dead bird and turned his back, for her to stow it in his jacket? She wished she had refused in some way.
Maybe the word no by itself would’ve been enough. Then he would’ve had to look at her again, hearing her refusal, and decide. Even if she’d had the courage to speak up back then, she had been eleven, with her breasts and hips already developing; at times her body seemed to scare her father, as if, she assumed, he knew how some other men would think when they saw her from that point on.
“Fear always starts from zero,” Garza wrote, “because it has the virtue—or defect, depending on how you look at it—of erasing precedents, assumptions, histories.”
There was no point in regretting her silence. He probably would’ve dismissed her anyway with one of his little laughs or a wave of his hand.
She couldn’t help wishing that he had acknowledged what happened, but it had been somewhat instructive seeing his courage disappear. How quickly he had turned his back, as if the task at hand was all that mattered, so she could add the bird’s body to the collection of living things warped and ruined for his amusement that day.
Matthew Jakubowski is a fiction writer and literary critic. His previous works of critifiction about literature in translation have appeared in Interfictions Online, gorse, and 3:AM Magazine. He is a contributing editor at The Critical Flame and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in West Philadelphia.