There are books that get so close to being sublime that plot becomes almost irrelevant. Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Sydrome has a plot, but it’s exploration of memory, the way it uses language to communicate the ethereal, and the dreamy atmosphere punctuated by scenes of longing, investigation of a mystery, and brutality eventually overpower everything else and push the narrative into a realm where plot isn’t always the most crucial element.
The Taiga Syndrome is a short novel that follows an unnamed female ex-detective who heads to the Taiga in search of a couple who escaped there. She goes there because a betrayed husband is convinced his second ex-wife wants him to track her down for some reason. The ex-detective gets a translator and heads into the cold, unforgiving forest to find start her mission. Instead of snow and trees, what she finds in her quest are a plethora of strange things, situations, stories, and people. Furthermore, there is a lot of information that is lost, (re)shaped, and transformed in translation, so she is never entirely sure of some things. To make matters worse, her mission is haunted by classic stories like Little Red riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. As the ex-detective moves forward with her quest with a keen eye and taking notes, there is something in every bizarre experience that turns the lessons she’s receiving into psychological and emotional experiences that show her a new truth: sometimes leaving everything behind and jumping into an uncertain future in a faraway place is, more than the best choice, the only option.
The writing in The Taiga Syndrome is stunning. Rivera Garza walks a fine line between the dreamy language of fairytales, the bluntness and economy of language of crime fiction, and something else, something ineffable that is entirely hers. This mix of styles, which work incredibly well together, and the book’s short chapters keep the narrative moving forward at all times. Also, there are many things hiding in the story. For example, there is an exploration of memory, of the way we see things after things have been seen, that is a treat for careful readers. Then there is the deconstruction of crime fiction wrapped in a short discourse about surviving an investigation:
That, with time, I had become accustomed to the hollow moments of an investigation is true. There are hours, days even, sometimes months or years when nothing happens: Those are the gaps in an investigation. In other words, those moments are life. The detective who wins a case, who solves it, is usually the one who weathers those lapses. Resources are needed, of course. But above all, you need patience, that rare gift; or you need something else to think about—a certain capacity for distraction. You need a place inside the self, your own language where you can hide. You need a refuge, yes. Any refuge.
The deceptively simple plot here, as mentioned above, takes a backseat to the driving forces that make The Taiga Syndrome a unique reading experience. More than entertainment and walking readers to the resolution of a case, Rivera Garza is concerned with showing how memory acts inside us, how bluntness, mystery, and nature can inhabit the same space as eerie visions, uncertainty, miscommunication, and enchanted language. Lastly, this is a narrative that pushes against the truths at the core of recollection: almost nothing is exactly what is remembered. This revelation comes in many forms, and other people is just one of them (filtered, again, through translation):
How the woman had vomited. On the bed, beside the man’s body. How, from that vomit, from that jumble of bones and saliva and bile, from that truly nauseating smell, from that unbearable substance, those things had appeared. Those things the boy had drawn later, much later, at the request of the translator. On a sunny morning. A spectacular morning.
This novella accomplishes a lot in 128 pages. It’s enigmatic and somewhat creepy, but also as lyrical as a poem and full of a kind of slight surrealism that brings to mind classic fairytales. That said, perhaps the books biggest accomplishment is that is teases readers even beyond the last page. This is a satisfying read, but also one that leaves readers wanting more…and wondering if they are right about the conclusions, wondering if their ideas are correct in a world where language is a shifting animal and exile is at once punishment and paradise. If you like your literature unnerving and sprinkled with the strangest kind of magic, don’t miss this one.
The Taiga Syndrome
by Cristina Rivera Garza; translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana
Dorothy, a publishing project; 128 p.