The Taiga Syndrome, by Cristina Rivera Garza (Original title: El mal de la taiga; paperback; English edition publisher: Dorothy – A Publishing Project; October 1, 2018; translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana, 128 pp.)

What is the Taiga? And what is the “Taiga Syndrome?  The Taiga is a snowy, fir-forested region in the high northern latitudes, from about 50°N to 70°N, which occurs in the northern parts of Canada, Alaska, Sweden, Finland, and much of Norway, Russia and northern Mongolia. By contrast, Mexico, the homeland of the author of The Taiga Syndrome, Cristina Rivera Garza, is mostly hot, arid, nowhere near 50°N, and gets practically no snow. Garza wrote this novel in Spanish in 2012. A Mexican, Spanish-speaking author or not, the novel perfectly and powerfully evokes the Taiga. It is like a pop-up picture book – it looks normal and quite nondescript on the outside (it’s a small format and just 128 pages long), but once you open it extraordinary dioramas unfold.

The original book was published as El mal de la taiga. The Spanish title, literally translated is “the evil of the Taiga” gives the reader a better foretaste of the strange and ominous events in the book than the medical-sounding term “syndrome”.

Labels don’t work

Sometimes, a novel is hard to pin down and that makes it a fascinating puzzle to solve. However, nothing that you argue about in your head makes this novel any clearer. You can stick labels on it, mentally place it in a category of fiction, use some appropriate-sounding terminology, but it won’t help. It stays exactly the way the author probably intended – luminousmysterious and bothersome. That’s The Taiga Syndrome. The plot is about a former detective and a translator who go into the Taiga on commission to find a woman who has run away from her life, husband, and home town.

Finland is almost entirely covered with Palearctic Boreal Taiga forest. These photos are from the Bronze Age Burial Site of Sammallahdenmäki, near Rauma. (Photos by M.F. O’Brien, Finland, 2017)

It is so atmospheric that I thought surely Garza must have gone to the Taiga in Finland or Sweden or somewhere far north, and walked there, smelled the air, listened to the wind blowing loudly over her ears, observed the dense, ancient trees, the mounds of moss, the lichen-covered rocks and banks of heather. And she must have seen the forest as full of reminders of wolves, lost children, magic and wicked people – like in Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, etc. The Taiga does that to people’s minds.

“‘But you must know about the Taiga Syndrome, right?’ he asked after he had finally stopped laughing, after taking a large sip from the effervescent liquid in his glass. ‘It seems,’ he continued, almost whispering, ‘that certain inhabitants of the Taiga region begin to suffer terrible anxiety attacks and make suicidal attempts to escape.’ He fell silent. ‘Impossible to do when you’re surrounded by the same terrain for five thousand kilometers,’ he concluded with a sigh.” (p.11)

That infernal “that”

Garza’s references to fairy tales and peculiar incidents (a feral child, and a wolf that leaves a trail like a thread of blood) make the novel appear to have elements of Magic Realism. However, in the Taiga, what seems weird is just how things are. But what also makes the novel strange is a quirk in Garza’s writing: Sentences that start with the word “that”. For instance “That it….”, That they…”, “That I…” Almost every chapter starts like this. It is unnatural in English, kind of obtuse and overly formal, and it makes you forget what the meaning of the sentence was in the first place.

It could have happened during translation, but I doubt it was a fluke. I think the translators kept the word order like this because it is a strategy used by Garza to place the focus in these declamatory statements on the clause that explains the subject, or raises doubt about it, rather than on the subject of the sentence itself. Like so:

That it had been a long time since I investigated anything was not a lie.” (p.20)

(Parsed by Google Cloud Natural Language) Here you can clearly see that the clause “that it had been a long time” is at the opposite end, the start, of the sentence, as opposed to the central noun subject (nsubj), which is “I” and the verb associated with “I”, which is “investigated”.  “It” in this sentence, describes “long time” rather than “I”, the person who is making the statement.

Now , if Garza had just changed the word order slightly and made the statement direct, to “It is true that I had not investigated anything for a long time”, this would result:

Here you can easily identify what the subjects are in each clause, as is common in English. The subject and pronoun of the sentence (“I”) is close to the start of the sentence, and the denoted object (dobj) “anything” is clearly identified.  (In English, the typical sentence  word order is subject-verb-object.)

Parsing sentences is painful, that’s the truth, and I’m rusty at it. But I think that the use of this kind of formal, laborious sentence form, often for much longer, more complicated statements, has the effect of distracting and confusing the reader. Vice versa, it also reinforces the idea that the narrator is busy writing a formal “report” –  which she is – which is full of convoluted legalese. You know, like when police spokespeople make public statements at a crime scene.

Is it worth reading?

What is the lasting impression of the book, other than the use of “that”? Mental images of deep forest, danger, extreme weather, and lingering questions about what it means to “get lost” or “leave everything behind”. It is a beautiful book to read. (Sjón’s recommendation proved right.) Garza packs so much clarity into such a little book, that you will never again think of the Taiga without also having a mental picture of a distinctly dangerous, wild place:

“I had never heard thunder in a place so packed with trees. The booming of the sky made me tremble. The wing beats of birds with no names, that couldn’t have names. The violently clashing branches. The heart of the forest suddenly seemed to beat rapidly. ‘Breathlessly’ is an adverb with rhythm. We all looked up at the sky and in unison looked back at the things on Earth. There was a translator, a detective, a couple of fugitives. Once upon a time there was. We kept looking at each other like that for a while, motionless, terrified. As if the world were churning and, fearful that everything would turn upside down, that the heavens would abruptly vomit en masse, we had just begun to understand.” (p. 103)

The heavens vomiting a storm – now that is an image that will stay with you. Ultimately, I think that this is a memorable depiction of loneliness and estrangement in the loneliest, largest forest in the world.

About the author

Cristina Rivera Garza (born October 1, 1964) is a Mexican author and professor best known for her fictional work, with various novels such as Nadie me verá llorar winning a number of Mexico’s highest literary awards as well as awards abroad. She’s on Twitter criveragarza.

She was born in the state of Tamaulipas, near the U.S. border and currently she is Head of Section, Literature/Writing at the University of California, San Diego – and if you really want to, her email address is on her bio page on the university’s website and you can email her.

Awards she has won include the Juan Vicente Melo National Short Story Award, The Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize (the only author to win this award twice) and the Anna Seghers International Prize. She writes a column for Literal Magazine, and some articles are in Spanish, others are translated, and some are in English. Her books have been translated into multiple languages, including French, Italian, Portuguese, and Korean. Three of her seven novels are available in English:

  • Nadie me verá llorar (Mexico/Barcelona: Tusquets, 1999). José Rubén Romero National Book Award, 1997; IMPAC-CONARTE-ITESM Award, 1999; International Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Award, 2001. (No One Will See me Cry, translated by Andrew Hurley, ed. NU Press, 2003)

  • La cresta de Ilión (Mexico/Barcelona: Tusquets, 2002). Rómulo Gallegos Iberoamerican Award (2003) runner-up. (Il segreto, translated by R. Schenardi, ed. Voland, 2010) The Iliac crest, translated by Sarah Booker, ed. Feminist press, 2017)

  • Lo anterior (Mexico: Tusquets, 2004)

  • La muerte me da (Mexico/Barcelona: Tusquets, 2007), International Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Award, 2009.

  • Verde Shanghai (Mexico: Tusquets, 2011)

  • El mal de la taiga (Mexico: Tusquets, 2012); English edition: The Taiga Syndrome, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana (Dorothy, 2018)

  • Nadie me verá llorar (Mexico: Tusquets, 2014)

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