Small Clever Rooms
SPL Book Bingo Book 5: No One Will See Me Cry
This is the fifth in my series of posts about books I read for Seattle Public Library’s 2019 Book Bingo. For the “by an author from Mexico or Canada” square, I read No One Will See Me Cry, by Cristina Rivera-Garza, translated to English by Andrew Hurley. Straight up: I had a tough time with this book, and I might have a tough time writing about it. But I’ll see what I can do.
Where to begin with this book? It’s yet another fragmentary, disjointed narrative of the kind I’ve been subjecting myself to a lot these days: it leaps backwards and forwards in time and probably 70% of it is taken up with one or another character telling stories from deep in their past. In the book’s present of 1920, not much happens: a morphine-addicted photographer, Joaquín Buitrago, sees a woman, Matilda Burgos, in an insane asylum that has employed him to photograph the inmates. He realizes that he had photographed her in a bordello back when she was a prostitute and he was in the habit of photographing prostitutes, and becomes obsessed with finding out her story. With some help from the apparently indifferently scrupulous doctor, Eduardo Oligochea, who admitted Matilda, he gains access to Matilda’s history first through her file and eventually through her own telling. They leave the asylum together under unclear circumstances and move into a house together. Joaquín enlists Eduardo’s help again to collect an inheritance dependent on his being free of his morphine addiction, which he is not, in the hopes of being able to support himself and Matilda indefinitely. Matilda leaves him anyway.
More than any other book I’ve read for Book Bingo, thinking about No One Will See Me Cry feels like stretching my brain, like there’s a muscle in my head that I threaten to pull by reaching for threads in this story and trying to pull them together into something cohesive. But after pondering it for a while, if I had to name the central theme of No One Will See Me Cry, it’s the way that modernization and colonialism — what Dr. Oligochea calls “reason” at the book’s most chilling twist — sweep those not willing or able to fall in line into madness, penury or death at the fringes of “civilized” society.
Characters and events allude to the price of progress everywhere in this novel. Matilda Burgos reminisces about vanilla, which her father farmed before his descent into alcoholism:
But once you take it away from the trees, vanilla turns bitter, did you know that? Now the flower is no longer in the hands of Indians, but under the very watchful eyes of processors and politicians. Those men, they’re white, mestizos, Europeans. … They are men of violence.
An insane asylum inmate, morphine-addicted, says to Eduardo Oligochea, avatar of modernity, precision, exactitude, as the doctor constructs profiles of his patients:
I was saying that I do not believe in the boredom of the future, that [morphine] is the only thing that can save me from the absurd dreams of generals and presidents. I was saying that people like you, doctor, are going to drive this country straight to ruin.
A successful attorney looks on prodigal son Joaquín and muses fatuously:
Disenchantment, disillusionment is in vogue these days. Touching upon it is an index of intelligence, the mark of a refined spirit. Without it, the others would not be able to justify progress. Their own. Among certain successful men, losers are beautiful beings, not to mention essential in the complex interactions of modern life.
Joaquín seems to be the main character of the story, but his role is mostly that of historian, chronicler, archivist, suitable to his profession as a photographer. Several pictures handled throughout the course of the novel bear his initials. But his own history is interesting mostly insofar as it intersects with that of Matilda, the object of his fascination.
Matilda’s story, when we finally get to it, feels like the real kernel of the novel, despite that we’re given many superficial reasons to doubt it: after her monologue about her father the vanilla farmer, Matilda says “But I’m crazy, Joaquín, so don’t pay me any mind. Don’t believe a word of this.” Dr. Oligochea says of her in his psychiatric report, “She suffers from an eccentric imagination and has a clear tendency to invent stories,” and says to Joaquín, “Don’t tell me you believe her stories are true.” But Joaquín does believe her; through his belief, we have little choice but to do so too.
I suspect I’d have had more success understanding this story if I’d known more about Mexican history going in. But still: I looked up the event in Río Blanco in January, 1907 that is alluded to in a few places, including what’s arguably the tragic climax of the main plotline, but never explained. It was a workers’ riot stemming from a strike. The novel’s most mythic figure, the pianist Diamantina Vicario who captivates both Joaquín and Matilda in turn, is a devotee of “the Cause” of revolution, socialism. And though the turmoil in Mexico in the early 20th century happens mostly in the background of the events of No One Will See Me Cry, it still seems to steer Joaquín and especially Matilda toward tragedy, marginalization and hardship at every turn. One doesn’t need to know the details to get the sense of being ground beneath the wheels of progress.
Besides the historical context, I wish I’d had more of a sense of the theme I mentioned above when I started this novel. Flipping through it again to make sense of it for this post has been more enjoyable with some idea of how it’s supposed to fit together; it has all the hallmarks of a story that’s less about what happens and more about what those events can be made to say.
Some of those hallmarks stand in opposition to a rousing story. There’s a dream-like logic to the events of No One Will See Me Cry, marked by inexplicable coincidences like the revolutionary Cástulo Rodriguez just kind of… showing up, bleeding, in Matilda Burgos’s room while she’s under the care of her rigidly hygenic uncle. There’s the unexplained lacuna when Joaquín takes Matilda away from the insane asylum: does he sneak her out? Does Dr. Oligochea give permission? There’s the dialogue, full of strange non sequiturs, turns of phrase, and self-contradictions. Matilda says on one page “Really, I don’t remember anything” and on the very next, “I remember everything, absolutely everything.” Other characters say things like “If you had been loved, Eduardo, you would know that it is never fortunate to be loved by a woman” and “All things are possible, Joaquín, except peace. Had you not noticed that?” The men have a collective obsession with “the first woman,” apparently roughly equivalent to “the one who got away.” Much of this either made no sense to me or seemed eye-rollingly melodramatic.
Despite all that, though, I think No One Will See Me Cry was a success for how it sparked my curiosity for the ambient history I never learned and some kind of deeper meaning to this strange and fractured story. I’d recommend it, but I do think I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d known what to look for when I started and I hope I’ve provided that if you decide to give it a try.