“I’m not going to grow up because I’m dead. But how I would like to…”
There are stories which depend on what is occurring to provide impact, or food-for-thought. Some stories rely on their characters to convey meaning. Some on literary pyrotechnics, exploding the language, mutilating styles and upending expectations. I am reminded somewhat of John Updike’s Rabbit series, which disarmed reviewers and puzzled (American) readers by using the present tense to describe the life of Harry Angstrom. The same story, told in a different way, offers new layers of meaning, importance, depth, interest. Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style is a monument to this concept.
Gabriela Damián Miravete short story, They Will Dream in the Garden (trans. Adrian Demopulos), uses different tenses to convey meaning and provide impact, and in this it is extremely effective. The technique is unsettling, particularly at first when we don’t yet understand what is going on, or where, or how, or to whom. Characters are initially vague – there is a ‘Caretaker’ and an ‘apprentice Teacher’, which calls to mind the possibility of a fable, or a strange future, or an allegory of some kind.
What is happening, instead, is that a woman, Marisela, who was once young and is now old, and when she was young, experienced tragedy, and turned her life away from the living and instead started to celebrate the dead, Marisela has created a museum of sorts, a mausoleum of a kind, in which the women who have died from violence are captured in holograms, brought back to life in a crippled, sad and somewhat hopeful way. And at the end of her life Marisela has created within the minds of the nation enough understanding of the importance of this museum that children visit, to learn and to remember the dead girls:
The assistants will check that everything is in good condition to receive the visitors, because in the mid-morning many groups of first graders will arrive accompanied by their teachers, some of them still apprentices. They will come out of the vehicles between tiny shouts of excitement and stumbles. The apprentice Teacher will warn them “No running!”, with a girl in his arms who had fallen asleep during the trip, with her mouth half-open and cheeks colored.
The story is mostly written as a series of events which will occur – it is the future, told now in the present. This is an exhaustive way of reading, and is rather taxing on the mind. But this serves to force the reader to stay attentive, to pay greater attention than perhaps they ordinarily might, and to focus more clearly on what is being conveyed. It’s an effective – though tiring – technique. When there is a break, a shift to past tense, the mind relaxes, reading becomes more comfortable, and the tension lifts. Maybe you weren’t aware that it existed, but as soon as past tense writing appears – a tightness around the shoulders vanishes. Again, an effective technique.
Every one of the murdered women, with her body and her name, would be replicated in a three-dimensional hologram using testimonies and materials provided by their relatives, friends and, above all, the information recovered from their personal email accounts and social media: photographs, videos, letters, conversations… everything would be used to recreate in the most precise way their voices, their movements, their reactions; to, in some way, bring them back to life.
It’s fascinating that Damián Miravete chose to write the dead girls using the future tense. It highlights and makes concrete the future for a group of people who don’t have a future. They can’t – they’re dead. But it’s the only way they are described within the text. However she came about this concept, of describing characters who could only have a past, using only words denoting the future, it’s quite stunning, and the realisation of exactly the construction of the text is extremely satisfying. It makes the fact of the girls being dead even sadder, because we are experiencing directly that which has been taken from them – and taken forcibly, with violence and terror and sexual savagery.
We don’t know at first that this future tense is describing the daily life of these dead-girl holograms. That’s left to halfway through the story, which leaves the reader scratching their head. We don’t yet know the purpose of the technique. Many questions are raised at the outset, and their answers are satisfying, if sad. So many dead women. So many destroyed dreams. Damián Miravete is able to highlight this problem in an oblique manner, and by using a rarely utilised literary technique her social commentary is significant and powerful.
This is a very strong story, and it’s difficult to overstate how important the style is in conveying the strengths of the piece. It is tough to read, at least at first, because the technique is likely unfamiliar to most readers, and is besides that challenging irrespective of familiarity. The small sections highlighting Marisela’s past and how she came to create this monument to the dead function as breathing spaces for the reader – they are told with ordinary prose (if such a thing exists), and relax any kind of structural sophistication. Instead, they lay bare the stark harshness that is – or can be – the lot of the woman in Mexico, suffering under machismo, bluntly aware that to be poor and female means that sexual violence is a part of the broad brushstrokes of one’s life.
Style, form, technique – they aren’t everything, but when they combine as effectively as here it can really expand the possibilities of how certain kinds of stories can or should be written. I’m gushing, somewhat, because I was so impressed with the story and how it utilised these complex structures to tell what is, at its heart, a simple story – the story of a woman who has seen so much violence in her life that she stands up and, in her own way, says no.
They Will Dream in the Garden is a short story by Mexican writer Gabriela Damián Miravete, and was translated by Adrian Demopulos. You can read the story online at Latin American Literature Today.
|Author||Gabriela Damián Miravete|
|Title||They Will Dream in the Garden|
|Publisher||Latin American Literature Today|
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