Fear always starts from zero because it has the virtue – or defect, depending on how you look at it – of erasing precedents, assumptions, and histories. You always experience it for the first time.
The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker, is a surreal story that explores the nature of identity, the boundary between reality and fiction, and the masculine and feminine. One stormy night, the narrator is visited by two women: one of them presents herself as the Mexican author Amparo Dávila, and the second woman is his former lover, who is simply referred to as “the Betrayed”. Both women take up residence in the narrator’s house, and gradually begin to challenge his fixed perception of the world. Moreover, the women soon develop a very close bond, and even a private language, excluding the narrator from their conversations, and making him increasingly uneasy and frustrated about the situation.
The novel seems to navigate an atmospheric dreamscape and, as the story develops, the narrative becomes increasingly confusing, thus, similarly to the narrator, who is scrambling to regain control over his sense of reality, you, as the reader, struggle to piece together all the vague elements to make sense of this story.
What stuck out to me the most in this book was how it handled the theme of erasure and marginalisation of people. By playing with the concept of false versions of people, and blurring the line between truth and fiction, male and female, madness and sanity, the book examines some of the elements that form a person’s unique identity. The narrator is forced to experience the terror of being questioned about some of the fundamental elements of his identity. At the same time, you get the sense that, deep down, the narrator is yearning to escape from the rigid and artificial borders that are constructed and imposed by society, and that don’t always correspond to the truth. The book repeatedly emphasizes the narrator’s love for the ocean, and some of the most beautiful and contemplative passages in the book come from the sections where he is thinking about the ocean, which seems to be a way for him to temporarily escape from reality.
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.
I think it’s best to go into this book without knowing too much about it, and just let the book take you wherever it is trying to take you, however, that being said, some prior knowledge of Mexican literature might enhance the reading experience. The book also includes a Translator’s Note at the end, which provides some much needed context. As the translator points out, a key element of the novel is the way language is used to explore the division between male and female, and, while I felt that the story was artfully rendered into English, I could’t help but think that some of the more subtle nuances of language might have been lost in translation, so this is one of those books that makes me sad by reminding me that I can’t read in Spanish. Maybe someday. 🙂