With the announcement of this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist a matter of weeks away, preparations for the big event are well underway at Tony’s Reading List. In addition to putting the Shadow Panel through its paces (more to come on that very soon), I’ve been considering what might make the cut (as you may have seen in my recent predictions post). Having speculated on possible contenders, I’m now taking some time before the announcement to examine a few books I mentioned in that post, but hadn’t actually got around to trying myself. Canny organisation or a waste of time? We won’t find out until the 13th of March, but let’s hope at least one of my next few choices does end up on the longlist 😉
And Other Stories have had a liking for Latin-American fiction since their inception, and Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest (translated by Sarah Booker) is merely the latest in a long line of intriguing works. This short, enigmatic novel has a man opening his door on a rainy night to an unknown woman, who promptly invites herself in. Apart from introducing herself as Amparo Dávila, she’s strangely reticent for an uninvited guest, and when the man’s next visitor arrives, an ex-girlfriend who has come down with an illness, Dávila takes the woman (whom the man simply calls ‘the Betrayed’) up to a bedroom and starts to care for her.
From this bizarre beginning, the story develops into a surreal piece in which the narrator becomes an outsider in his own home, shut out by two women who had never met before that night. Time passes, and he decides to learn more about Dávila in an attempt to understand who she is and what she’s doing here, but in doing so, he also discovers more about himself. You see, it appears that many of the people he meets over the course of the novel claim to know more about him than he does himself, and even the pronoun he uses to describe himself is now uncertain…
As you might imagine, if you were looking for a nice, relaxing, straight-forward read (to while away a rainy night, perhaps…), The Iliac Crest ain’t it. It’s one of those mind-bending Kafkaesque creations where the reader is never quite sure what’s going on, and suspects that the writer might have lost their way at times, too. At its core is a search for identity, and while the start seems to position the book as a simple mission to learn more about the intruder, it swiftly becomes evident that it’s the narrator whose identity is being questioned.
The setting Rivera Garza creates only enhances this eerie feel. The man works as a doctor at a hospital by the sea, a glorified palliative-care unit acting as the last refuge for those waiting for death. The world outside appears to consist of a nameless state with two main urban centres, South City and North City, which are entered via military checkpoints, but with a lack of real elaboration, it’s all rather featureless and bland. What develops from this is a dreamlike atmosphere, with the narrator not the only one wondering where we are:
You need the ocean for this: to stop believing in reality. To ask yourself impossible questions. To not know. To cease knowing. To become intoxicated by the smell. To close your eyes. To stop believing in reality.
p.76 (And Other Stories, 2018)
That sounds suspiciously like the author’s instructions to her readers 😉
The story, what little of it there is, revolves around Dávila’s quest to reverse her ‘disappearance’. She asks her reluctant host to find a lost manuscript she believes to be at the hospital, and this leads him to search further afield for more information about her. A visit to South City does bring a new discovery, but it isn’t what he expected. As it turns out, uncovering the identity of the real Amparo Dávila is slightly more difficult than he could have imagined.
There’s a lot to like about The Iliac Crest. It’s certainly well written, with excellent work by Booker, a story that’s elegant, and yet claustrophobic. The writer manages to show how her creation is led to doubt himself and what he thinks he is by the conversations he has with the women in his life, all of whom seem to know more about his true nature than he does. This doubt has much to do with gender identity, and even after some rather vigorous sexual adventures on one of his outings, questions remain as to how much of a man he really is.
In truth, though, while always interesting, The Iliac Crest can be a little hard to follow, and Booker’s Translator’s Note helps us to understand why. Much of the confusion (for English-language readers) comes from the extent to which the text is culturally bound. Dávila is a real name, a Mexican writer most original readers would recognise immediately, and certain scenes from the novel play on Dávila’s own work. The book is apparently also a way of exploring a different kind of disappearance, that of women being ‘removed’, to put it discreetly, in the writer’s home country, a topic that wouldn’t have jumped out at me if it hadn’t been mentioned.
In addition to the political aspects flying overhead unnoticed, I’d have to say that the book isn’t always clear about what the point of it all is, with the handling a little too subtle for the average Anglophone reader. Yes, it’s enjoyable to read, but there’s a sense it’s not really going anywhere. In the words of the narrator himself:
So is this what it was all about? I asked myself suddenly, as if I could’ve come up with an appropriate response. In fact, I had no idea what I meant. (p.86)
Quoted without comment 😉
There’s definitely a certain something about the book, and I suspect a reread would reveal more of its secrets, particularly in terms of the gender question. The scenes where the narrator attempts to stand up to the women he meets, only to be left bewildered by their sympathetic and slightly mocking replies, hint at a truth that remains just out of the hero’s (and the reader’s) reach. In truth, I don’t think this will make the MBIP longlist, but it’s certainly worth a look if you have a spare hour or two – unless you’re busy with unexpected guests, that is…