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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Greek Tragedy a la Mexicana BY DIANA AHNALT A True Story Based on Lies by Jennifer Clement Cannongate 164 pages, $21.95 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 ye con ojos de gringo.” in turn, reminded me of the four-yearold 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 gringoshe 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 orfar more recentlyChitra Banerjee Divakaruni; Paul Scott and E.M. Forster on India, 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 yearold 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 servantprotagonist in literature about Mexico. \(One famous Mexican writer, on learning A True Story dealt with a servant, For those who don’t know Mexico welland 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; othLeonora, 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 suboverwhelmed 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. 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11/8/02