The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza (tr. Sarah Booker). Feminist Press. 200pp, $16.95.
Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest is a novel riddled with holes, disappearances that have the effect of warping and obscuring the world its reader inhabits. If this book were to have a single guiding principle, it might be these words: “Disappearance is contagious. Everyone knows this.” The narrator’s confidence in this fact is a bit alarming, and may come as news to the reader. Is disappearance a physical illness and this book some kind of existential science fiction treatise? Well, yes and no.
It’s hard to assert definitively just what this book is, although what is clear is that, in Rivera Garza’s world, disappearances are not unconnected—they propagate through a chain reaction, through physical contact, as the narrator goes on to explain almost scientifically, as if we were dealing with an outbreak of the flu. In fact, disappearance in this book is often referred to in medical terms, as an “epidemic,” or else in political terms, as a “conspiracy.” Either way, the fact is that these disappearances are all connected, whether by microscopic bacteria, by the secret crimes committed by a police state, or by some other insidious means.
But what, exactly, does it mean to disappear in Cristina Rivera Garza’s novel? Disappearances occur in multiple forms, both as seemingly passive actions—a memory or piece of information the narrator has forgotten or failed to mention; a made-up language that has not been deciphered for us—and active ones—the deliberate silencing of women with morphine; mysterious cover-ups; a stolen manuscript; and of course death. Even the fact that the narrator left behind his previous life to move to this strange, isolated town to work for a sanatorium is a kind of disappearance, a conclusion that the narrator himself reaches: “I became aware, perhaps like never before, that this community formed around a handful of failing souls was, in fact, disappeared.”
In her introduction to the English translation of her novel, Rivera Garza emphasizes the disappearances of women, in both specific and general terms, “from our factories and our history.” Alluding to the widely publicized femicides between 1993 and 2003 of hundreds of women—a significant number of which worked in maquiladoras—in Ciudad Juárez, she emphasizes the violence at the heart of disappearance. And while the disappearance of women from history is often regarded as a more passive act—a failure to recognize or remember—we have to wonder whether this other kind of disappearance is not also a violent one.
The multiple meanings of disappearance are deliberately, beautifully conflated through the character of Amparo Dávila. Carrying the name of a real Mexican writer and appearing almost out of nowhere on the narrator’s doorstep one night, Amparo Dávila is the first to declare openly her status as a disappeared person; in response to the narrator’s inquiry about what she is writing in her notebook, she responds simply: “My disappearance.”
Significantly, Amparo Dávila is also the first to be associated with the iliac crest. In his somewhat muddled recollections of the night Dávila arrived, the narrator distinctly recalls, not once but twice, the moment when, after letting the mysterious woman in from the cold rain, he sees her right hip bone poking out from between the hem of her T-shirt and elastic waistband of her skirt. This bone, which elicits fear in the narrator in one telling and sexual excitement in another, is not mentioned by name, since the narrator seems to have forgotten the word: “It took me a long time to remember the specific name for that bone, but, without a doubt, the search began at that moment.” The bone only appears by name—the iliac crest—closer to the end of the novel, where, we might say, the search concludes. Though this search is not a linear one, and nor is it the only element at work in this novel, it is a significant thread stretching beneath the surface, linking ideas together under its own subtle logic.
Bones are the domain of doctors, morticians, and archeologists. Whether they are used to identify a corpse, or if their impressions are left in fossils and used to draw conclusions about creatures who lived before us, we ascribe meaning to them, reconstructing the flesh and skin, scales and feathers around them with our imagination. Rivera Garza echoes this idea in her introduction by asserting that “our bones are our ultimate testimony,” before asking, somewhat ominously, “Will we be betrayed by our bones?” This question gets at the heart of The Iliac Crest and generates new questions about the impenetrability of identity, how we are remembered, and who decides which version of history is told. It also reminds us that bones are a fraction of the self, that bones tell one version of the story, and that just because we encounter characters in their physical form does not mean that they have not disappeared; there are other aspects of the self to lose besides the physical.
When we talk about identity and the “self,” it’s easy to become abstract and stumble into the frightening territory of cliché. But the narrator’s treatment of Amparo Dávila is not an abstract curiosity about the properties of the “self.” Instead, he regards her with a mixture of fear, sexual desire, jealousy, rage, and skepticism. And it is the skepticism in particular that explains the narrator’s fascination with Amparo Dávila’s bones; he is less interested in her identity than in her authenticity.
Right from Dávila’s mysterious appearance, it’s clear that this book is not your typical, “realist” story—its characters hardly ever respond to circumstances in ways you would expect, identities are in a constant state of flux, and its lack of specificity at times puts it within the realm of fables and dreamscapes. After Dávila’s arrival, the narrator’s ex-lover, whom he calls “the Betrayed,” shows up too, and both women inexplicably take up residence in the narrator’s home, devising their own indecipherable language. Dávila claims to need the narrator’s help in finding a stolen manuscript, and at the same time both women claim to know that the narrator harbors a secret—he is actually a woman. While vehemently denying their claim, he begins to search for the true identity of Dávila. Suspicion—both ours and the narrator’s—is at the heart of all these strange, overlapping plot lines.
The question of female authenticity arises almost immediately once Amparo Dávila takes up residence in the narrator’s home. Opening up about her life, she initially comes across a bit paranoid; as she proceeds to seemingly hint at some grand conspiracy to sabotage her writing career, complaining of how her typewriters fell apart, her pencils disappeared, and her house’s electrical power began to go out regularly. But amid these semi-delusional rantings, Amparo Dávila lands on what is in fact a very penetrating truth:
“And the suspicions of the critics,” she said in an injured voice, “sowing discord and mistrust everywhere, constantly. Was I really able to write this or that? Was I who I said I was? Was I an imposter? How unbearable it all became!”
Much of the genius of Rivera Garza’s strange novel is in how she places these blisteringly fierce truths into the mouths of suspicious, downright unreliable characters, the narrator included. And she certainly makes no effort to help us distinguish truth from subterfuge. The technique is somewhat similar to that utilized in the now-ubiquitous 1944 film Gaslight, in which Ingrid Bergman’s character is manipulated by her husband into believing that she is going crazy, in order to keep her from discovering a very real and disturbing truth that she has begun to suspect. Except that in this case, it is Rivera Garza who is gaslighting us; you could almost say that she herself takes on the technique of those critics who are “sowing discord and mistrust everywhere, constantly.” The difference is that her purpose is not to cover up a crime but rather to expose a series of crimes inherent in our culture and in language itself. One needn’t know much about who Amparo Dávila is in order to understand this point: the narrative of the female writer forced to defend her work and authenticity to a group of mainly male critics is commonplace enough that a reader doesn’t have to search far to find examples.
Rivera Garza’s tale of the female writer made to defend her own identity and authorship resonates with the skepticism surrounding Elena Ferrante as her works reached the heights of international fame. Critics and journalists, seizing on Ferrante’s popularity and anonymity, made a game out of guessing who she could be, including completely unwarranted claims that the author of the Neapolitan series was in fact a man, or a group of men. One journalist even claimed to know that she was none other than the famous Italian writer Domenico Starnone.
Some argue that by creating a pseudonym, Ferrante invited this kind of debate, and yet several critics surpassed general speculation and debate when they challenged the abilities of her gender. Taken together, their articles paint a disturbing picture. The implications were, at best, that female writers ought to be regarded with skepticism, and, at worst, that good quality literature could not belong to a female author. These inquiries reached their endpoint when a reporter with The New York Review of Books went to outrageous lengths to uncover her identity and disparage her for being disingenuous. While his efforts certainly raise questions about ethics, at least we can say that he put an end to the suspicion around Ferrante’s gender. And all those who had guessed that she was in fact a man had to bite their tongues.
Such questions about authenticity, authorship, and quality are among the insidious questions that critics asked of Amparo Dávila, and they are the very same questions that pester the narrator: Is she who she says she is? Is she an imposter? It’s unclear when exactly his suspicions begin—perhaps the moment he sees her hip bone poking out?—but one day he decides to look her up in the phone book while visiting North City and his suspicions are confirmed: there is another, much older Amparo Dávila living in South City. It is only at this point that he becomes conscious of the fact that he has been skeptical of her all along. We could call this an instinct or we could call this sexism; the border between the two is intentionally ambiguous.
Here we see a singular person, Amparo Dávila, split in two: one younger and missing, and the other older and visible to the world. Our narrator adapts his own language in light of this revelation, going so far as to rename the first Amparo Dávila “the False One,” “the False Double,” and “the Disappeared Liar,” as opposed to the second Amparo Dávila, whom he christens “the True One.” The novel takes the binary opposition at the center of Western society and turns it to overdrive. There is “the True one” and “the False One,” the “Betrayed” (the narrator’s ex-lover) and the “Betrayer” (the narrator); North City and South City, among others. Like language itself, these entities are defined by what they are not. They cannot exist without their counterparts.
And yet in all of these cases there exists an exception to the binary, a third option, which is defined in relation to the binary but not necessarily as the opposite of either term, so that the exception is not merely defined by what it is not. The narrator and the sanatorium he works at is neither in North City nor South City but somewhere in between; the patients of the sanatorium are neither fully dead nor alive but some in-between state; the narrator’s gender is questioned several times and ultimately left ambiguous. This may help explain why aspects of this novel feel so hard to define, so unrooted. We are used to understanding things in terms of binaries, and here we are presented with elements refusing to settle on one or the other.
Gender is the most complicated binary that the novel takes on. And this brings us back to the iliac crest, which, among other things, can be used to determine a human’s biological sex. While the narrator repeatedly identifies himself as male throughout the book, both Amparo Dávilas and the Betrayed claim to know that he is a woman. The narrator goes so far as to check his genitals to assure himself of his manliness and yet, remembering the importance of the iliac crest to this book, to the potential betrayal of our bones, we find our confidence in his assertions waning throughout the book. In keeping with this obliteration of standard binaries, the matter of the narrator being male or female is disrupted by a strange claim that the narrator used to be a tree.
Toward the beginning of the novel—that is, before the gender binary is disrupted, before the possibility of more than two Amparo Dávilas is raised—I too was looking for some sort of answer. I, too, wanted to know whether Amparo Dávila, the first one, was really Amparo Dávila. And I, too, wanted to know if the narrator was male or female. Authenticity, the search for a single, authentic truth, operates within the logic of binaries. Are you really this or are you not this? Mexican critics wanted to know whether Amparo Dávila wrote the things she did or if she did not write them. Italian and American critics wanted to know if Elena Ferrante was a man or a woman. As soon as a third element emerges—the possibility of an in-between, maybe several in-betweens—the desire to know is replaced by another desire: the desire to explore the world in its complexity, to explore these in-betweens.
The narrator puts it best when he says, “I had stopped asking what really happened in order to explore the foundation of reality itself.” It is this metaphysical leap that frees him from his obsessive need to know one way or another. And it is by revealing this foundation of reality, before it was divided and cut up into binaries, that the novel escapes from the structures it set up for itself. Finishing the book, I had no greater insight into the narrator’s gender, nor did I locate any definitively “true” Amparo Dávila.
Instead, I found myself curious to explore the foundation of reality itself. When I let go of this drive to know “what really happened,” I became more attuned to the rich density of the text, the infinite in-betweens that refused simplicity. Scenes that baffled me when I considered them merely as a means to answering some larger question took on new shades of truthfulness when regarded in their own right, generating a slough of new associations and further questions. It’s liberating as a reader to have the chance to move around so much in a book, to have the freedom to ask so many questions without having some kind of trajectory laid out for you. In this way The Iliac Crest avoids collapsing into a fable full of generalizations, or a treatise against gender binaries, or any other number of things this novel could have been; rather, it seems to contain a multitude of novels, exploring a multitude of realities, experienced simultaneously. The result is exhilarating.
Sarah Coolidge is the online editor for the Center for the Art of Translation. Her writing on photography and literature has been featured in The Quarterly Conversation, the Zyzzyva blog, and Zócalo Public Square.
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