Women In Translation Month is a great opportunity for me to sort out my bookshelves, find female translated literature, make a new “to be read” pile and see how far through that pile I can get. With Cristina Rivera-Garza’s “No One Will See Me Cry” I personally have absolutely no idea why this book is sitting on my shelves, I don’t recall buying it, I don’t recall reading anything about it which would have prompted my purchase, although I did plan a “World Heritage Listed” literature challenge in 2014, which never got any traction and this work was on my planned reading list – why? I have no idea. However I am glad it was on my shelves….let’s see why.
Our novel opens with Joaquín “a tense man, a man who feels comfortable only on the margins of days, behind mirrors” a morphine addicted photographer working at the insane asylum photographing the inmates.
One of the inmates, Matilda, asks him “How does one come to be a photographer of crazy people?” and this sparks a memory in Joaquín, he’s met her before, in a bordello:
Like all the other women whose portraits he had made in that particular bordello, Matilda chose the scene and the poses. Some of the women preferred to remain in their own rooms, lying on the same mattresses they worked on. Other, though, suggested a visit to a nearby brook. Some removed their clothes without the slightest hesitation, while others chose exotic Chinese regalia, and a few decided to face the camera in their customary dishabille. They had all no doubt seen the erotic postcards then in vogue on the market, and although Joaquín explained that heir photographs had no commercial value whatsoever, most of them went through efforts partly ludicrous, partly sincere ti imitate the languid or provocative poses of divas such as Adela Eisenhower or Eduwiges Chateau. Then, as the session went on and Joaquín’s unthreatening attitude managed to create a tenuous confidence, some of the models, never many, would begin to “flow,” as he called it. When that happened, it would be slow, almost subterranean, and might even pass unnoticed. At those times, Joaquín always thought about the movements of a sunflower. Sometimes it was just a gesture of amazement, a flicker of shyness or disgust and tiredness, the interrogation barelu visible on the face: “What the hell am I doing here?” And then the women would turn inward once more, to the place where they saw themselves as they wished to see themselves. And that was the exact place that the photographer yearned to know, yearned to halt forever. The place where a woman accepted herself. There, seductiveness did not turn outward, nor was it one-way; there, in a gesture indivisible and unique, seductiveness was not a hook but a map. Joaquín was convinced that it was possible to reach that place. Joaquín Buitrago had still believed in the impossible that day when Matilda removed her clothes with no embarrassment whatever and, reclining on the marble table as she sought his eyes behind the lens, she asked him:
“How does one come to be a photographer of whores?”
Joaquín becomes obsessed with Matilda, a fellow liver on the margins of society, and hatches a plan to get closer to her, and her story by beforeinding the asylum’s Chief Doctor, eventually getting to borrow Matilda’s file. Joaquín researches Matilda’s background in the local library.
We then enter a period of “interviews” or discussions between Joaquín and Matilda and we learn that she is originally from a vanilla growing village, and moved to the city to be under the care of her uncle at age fifteen. Matilda’s story of moving from housekeeper to lover to cigarette factory worker to prostitution is slowly revealed to us:
In Mexico City, twelve percent of the women between fifteen and thirty years of age were prostitutes, or had been at some time. Many of them were orphans and single women, although there were also widows, married women, even women with children. They had been maids, seamstresses, washerwomen, machine operators, and street vendors, and they had probably never earned more than twenty-five centavos a day. Of those who bothered to answer the questions on the registry, half reported that they had been forced into prostitution by poverty, the other half by vice, or a certain personal propensity for the profession. The story that Matilda decided to tell the women where she worked was that she had been dishonoured by a furtive love affair. Lying skilfully, she told of her seduction by a law student and, tears coming to her eyes, she related in detail his cruel abandonment of her and the inevitable expulsion from her family home. They had all told the same story since Santa made it famous, and they had all proven its efficacy. It softened the hearts and wallets of the men that paid them for their services, and also left the men convinced that fornication had actually been an act of charity. Thus, the morality of both the men and their whores remained unsullied.
But this is not a simple tale of a former prostitute being sent to an insane asylum and then coming across a photographer from her past. We follow Matilda’s journey from housekeeper onwards toward love and living in a desolate silver mining village with an engineer who is certain he’ll make his fortune, she is wooed by six metres of pure silk.
We also have Joaquín’s tale, of morphine addiction, of staring at the ceilings, of being disinherited by his own family, unless he can become clean of the drug, his wasted talent, his propensity for remaining alone.
Light also plays an important part in our tale, the stark black and white photographic image being brought to life with our two protagonists through many references to daylight, night time, the qualities and shades of light, breaks in clouds and more. Verbally we are given a wonderful image of the starkness of the times.
We also have the historical element, what progress means to Mexico in the 1920’s, the political influences of the time and of course a detailed historical analysis of insanity treatment. There is one chapter in the novel which explores a number of inmates of the asylum, the self admitted, the morphine addicted, the religious fervours, schizophrenics and the notations of the attending doctors.
In an interview for “BalleTrista” author Cristina Rivera-Garza explains how the work came about, from finding a medical file in an archive:
CF: Joaquín and Matilda, the two protagonists of No One Will See Me Cry, are very damaged people, and the book is quite dark in tone. What was your inspiration for these complex characters?
CRG: She comes directly out of a medical file I found at the archive of the General Insane Asylum—her picture, in which she could not hide a smile, fascinated me from the very beginning. It was a gesture I could not accommodate easily in my notion of insanity or mental institutions or even history at large. A novel is at times just that: a place for a gesture that seems to be out of place.
Joaquín emerged out of the initials an anonymous photographer wrote at the bottom of some porn portraits taken during the early twentieth century in Mexico City. How does someone become a photographer of the mad?—that question, not the most optimistic of all, defined his character.
For the full interview go to http://www.belletrista.com/2010/issue5/features_1.php
Beautifully researched and poetic in style and tone, in summary this is an novel full of ephemeral snippets, a story of unrequited love, an historical gem, a search for meaning in a world that is progressing too fast. Another glittering addition to my Women In Translation Month reading.