Greek Tragedy a la Mexicana

When I recommended Jennifer Clement’s remarkable novel about the life of a servant to my Mexican friends, one of them replied, “If her name is Jennifer Clement, how can she write about Mexico? Nos ve con ojos de gringo.” (She sees us through foreign eyes.) This, in turn, reminded me of the four-year-old who asked, “Why doesn’t the world look blue if my eyes are blue?”

If my Mexican acquaintance decides not to read A True Story Based on Lies–or anything written by someone who views the world with ojos de gringo–she is going to have to renounce Malcolm Lowry, Graham Greene, Langston Hughes, and Katherine Ann Porter, to name just a few. Some of the most discerning literature about Mexico and elsewhere, of course, has been written by foreigners. (Think of de Tocqueville on the United States or–far more recently–Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni; Paul Scott and E.M. Forster on India, Vikram Seth on England, etc.) I could have told her all that, but I didn’t. Like Clement, I am also an American who resides in Mexico and writes in English. As foreigners our words sometimes generate hostility and suspicion. But I would like to believe that one can go through life thinking American but feeling Mexican. Or, to paraphrase W.S. Merwin’s observation of Clement in his introduction to her first poetry collection, The Next Stranger, “She thinks in English, but dreams in Spanish.”

In any case, Jennifer Clement is hardly a foreigner, since she was just a year-old when her parents moved to Mexico, and has resided here ever since, with the exception of university studies in the United States and France. A widely published poet, she is the recipient of this country’s prestigious Sistema Nacional de Creadores grant, founded the San Miguel Poetry Week, and is currently Deputy Director of the literary festival, Letras en el Golfo. Her memoir, The Widow Basquiat, made the “Booksellers’ Choice” list in the United Kingdom, and A True Story was a finalist for the William Faulkner Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction. Clement possesses that rare ability to cut through the nonsense. In writing about prejudice, the social order, male domination, corruption and servitude, she identifies basic realities about Mexico, but does so with compassion, honesty, and humor. Prior to writing her latest book, Clement interviewed over thirty domestic workers and their employers, and many of the incidents described here are based on actual accounts. In so doing, she imparts an authentic voice to a generally neglected subject. Aside from Elena Poniatowska’s Here’s to You, Jesusa, I can think of no other servant-protagonist in literature about Mexico. (One famous Mexican writer, on learning A True Story dealt with a servant, asked, “An English servant?”)

For those who don’t know Mexico well–and even for those who do–understanding the reality confronting a servant and the gap between her life and our own is, if not impossible, often so disturbing we tend to paper it over with lies. (I recently hired a sixteen-year old maid who is the mother of a two-year old child, the product of rape by a family member. With a second-grade education, she can read and write, but when she came to work here, did not know how to tell time, open the car door, use a vacuum cleaner, or answer the phone. Many young women who leave their homes in the countryside to work as maids in Mexico City are illiterate; others do not speak Spanish.)

Leonora, the protagonist of Clement’s novel, is one of seven children born of an unmarried mother. The family lives outside Mexico City and subsists by collecting the branches used in making the witch-like brooms employed by gardeners and street cleaners. Leonora believes she is “… a broom-child. My voice sounds like sweeping. Comb, rake, brush, sweep against stone, dirt, and grass. Dry, brittle sound. Scratch. A rasp and scrape without vowels. A long shhhhhhhhh.” When she is seven, her mother sends her and her sisters to a convent where they are taught scripture, to read and write, and to perform the basic domestic chores which will prepare them to work as servants for Mexico City’s well-to-do families. Six years later Leonora is sent to the O’Conners. (The surname reflects the 19th century migration of Irish workers to Mexico and their subsequent assimilation.) At fifteen she is overwhelmed and possessed by her employer: “She felt him step on her shadow as if he had stepped on the train of her dress. …He lifted her up and carried her on his hip to the bedroom. He placed a towel on the bed first.” As a result of a brief union Leonora gives birth to Aura, and Mr. O’Conner instructs his wife, Lourdes, to raise the child as their own.

Although the story is simple, the structure is more complex, moving back and forth between sequences involving Leonora, which take place in the past, prior to Aura’s birth, and Aura’s accounts, written as a youngster many years later. Only toward the end of the book do the two time frames converge. The writer allows us to distinguish between time sequences and voices through her use of chapter titles. All chapters preceded by the title Some things were overheard and some said it was all a rumor recount Leonora’s story in the third person, interspersed with the voice she hears “like prayers” in her head. She has been taught never to speak what she thinks because this will give her power. “One never knows what God is thinking.” Her internal voice is indicated by italics: We know how to be quiet. Our thoughts are whispers. Shhhhhhhh. Chapters entitled Every leaf is a mouth are also written in the first person, but are narrated by Aura, whose name echoes her mother’s. “[Leonora] Says that I am a broom child just as she is,” she writes. “She thinks we are dark like tree bark and that our arms look like branches and our fingers look like twigs.” Leonora tells Aura that she realizes a leaf is like a hand “with veins and everything. I knew then that trees were like people, only very quiet. And once, when there was a lot of wind, the tree was crying. I realized that the leaves were also mouths.”

Clement weaves together psalms, vernacular, Mexican folk songs, and highly evocative imagery. She skillfully combines poetry and prose; her use of rhythm, refrain, and repetition pulls the reader along like an undertow, adding a sense of urgency. A True Story sounds, at times, like liturgy, but occasionally reminds us of the soap operas that all the women in the household watch, seated together on the edge of the bed in the servant’s room. Nonetheless, the overall effect comes closer to Greek tragedy in which a ritual limpia or cleansing, rather than a Delphic oracle seals Leonora’s fate. As in Greek tragedy, well disposed souls–in this case the “kitchen chorus” composed of Sofia, the cook, a purveyor of popular lore and a voice of moderation, and, to a lesser extent, Josefa, the housemaid–attempt to protect her and avert disaster. We sometimes believe they will, because the rumors and lies–the lies referred to in the title–make it possible for us to doubt the resolution. But as a series of violent acts foreshadow the inevitable tragedy, we come to realize the outcome is beyond the control of mere mortals.

Like poetry, A True Story can be read on many different levels. It welcomes incursions into the treacherous swamp of symbolic interpretation, and one must take care not to read too much into it. But a superficial examination will reveal that one of the book’s central concerns is the make-up of Mexican society and the conflicts it engenders: Leonora represents ancient Mexico and a mystical world view. She is at one with nature, in contrast to O’Conner, who represents foreign influence. He is a provocateur; she is the recipient or victim of the provocation. He is rational, rather than mystic, and at odds with nature. (As a child he was slashed by a branch and an ugly scar disfigures his face.) In the same way “nature” deformed him, he deforms nature and in particular the women, Leonora and his wife, Lourdes. The latter believes her husband’s infidelities have contaminated her: She carries his lovers inside her and hears their voices and reads their thoughts. Aura, the product of the union between O’Conner and Leonora, combines her father’s European rationalism with her mother’s Indian mysticism. She lives in a body that–quite literally–is at war with itself, a symbol of modern Mexico.

In thinking about Clement’s novel, I began to form another image of Mexico: the country as a rug. I can see the author bending down and lifting the corner of that rug to reveal the litter hidden underneath–resignation in face of suffering, violence, poverty, superstition, wisdom and magic. She uses a pen instead of a broom. It scratches across the page. Dry, brittle sound. A rasp and scrape without vowels. A long shhhhhhhhh.

Her poet’s voice sounds like sweeping.

Diana Anhalt is a poet and writer in Mexico City. The author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (Archer Books), she dreams in English and in Spanish.

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Published at 12:00 am CST