Before  by  Carmen Boullosa  tr.  Peter Bush  (Deep Vellum, Aug, 2016)  Reviewed by  Anna Zalokostas

by Carmen Boullosa
tr. Peter Bush
(Deep Vellum, Aug, 2016)

Reviewed by Anna Zalokostas

Taking place somewhere between the worlds of the living and the dead, between dream life and waking life, between what is real and what is imagined, Carmen Boullosa’s early novel Before meets the everyday with bewilderment. In this dream world of childhood, realism is nothing short of an act of magic; the supernatural suffuses the ordinary. Ghosts speak, a wardrobe transforms drawings into physical objects, the kitchen scissors breathe heavily under a bed pillow, a turtle bleeds, a petticoat is marked with stigmata, an embroidery needle pierces the maid’s hand without producing a speck of blood. And a young girl hears strange noises at night—footsteps that keep pursuing her, closing in on her in the dark.

That young girl is the novel’s unnamed narrator. But nothing is quite what it seems in Boullosa’s world, where the ground continuously shifts beneath our feet. Our narrator is already dead when the book begins; she speaks to us as a ghost. Originally published in 1989 when Boullosa was already an established poet living in Mexico City, Before (translated by Peter Bush) is the second novel she wrote and—following Samantha Schnee’s 2015 translation of Texas: The Grand Theft —the latest proof that her work is experiencing a contemporary resurgence in the Anglosphere. Boullosa’s prolific output spans across a variety of forms and styles, from poetry and plays to historical fiction and investigate journalism, and much of her work is dedicated to emphasizing those narratives that traditional histories have silenced or ignored. Like a séance relaying message from another world, Before invites us to commune with its dead.

Weaving together childlike wonder, quiet melancholy, and playful humor, Before follows the narrator as she revisits her childhood, telling us about the fear that tormented her as a young girl and that, even now, she has trouble shaking. Attempting to give us an understanding of who she was and how she got to this point, she summons various memories, laying out and examining each scene individually, extracting precisely what she needs us to understand before she can move onto the next memory. Though she tries to be as direct as possible in her recollection, the drift of memory resists the grid of narrative, and so what unfolds is a story told in pieces, a collection of moments suspended in time, glimpses of a Mexico City childhood circa 1954.

Cutting across space and time, these anecdotes are connected to what she calls, in the opening pages, “my fear, my panic, my terror.” What is she afraid of? The footsteps are, at least at the novel’s start, the primary source of the narrator’s fear. As the story progresses, though, we grow to suspect that the strange noises don’t explain this fear entirely. Children are often scared—of bogeymen, of child-snatchers, of shadows projected by streetlights, of going to the bathroom by themselves, “of anything and everything”—but the narrator disavows these classic childhood fears. “I wasn’t a timid child,” she says, and even goes so far as to say she was brave. But she’s no longer as she was, she goes on to explain:

Now, am I easily scared? Yes, in a thousand ways. For example? I’d not be able, not be brave enough to repeat what I experienced as a girl. My memories make me fearful, and undermine the serenity of memory…

I didn’t lie when I assured you it was a pleasure to have recourse in memories. It’s true even if it scares me. I wouldn’t dare live through what I experienced as a child because, once recollected, the facts turn into dangerous needles that could sew up my heart, sear my soul, and turn my soul into strips of dead flesh. As we live we hardly realize we are alive…To relive what we’ve seen by the lucid light of memory would be unbearable and, as far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t be brave enough.

Memory has itself become a source of fear, and the narrator is much more frightened as a ghost than she was as a young girl. Revisiting the past threatens to kill her (never mind that she’s already dead); repetition is as terrifying as the initial trauma. And while she finds it impossible to live with memory, she finds it just as impossible to “falsify images and events,” and she insists: “everything I’ve told you was real, I haven’t invented a single word…there’d be no point in imagining. Either I overcome the fear I feel (and enjoy the pleasure) remembering and shaping the words that describe my memories, or I keep quiet.”

Before returns again and again to this issue of fear: the fear the narrator experienced as a child; the fear she experiences now as a ghost; the fear she sees on her mother’s face at the scene of her own birth. “I return to the fear, a woman’s fear: the young woman bathed in sweat, her body suffering the violence of birth stripped of all coquettish charms, visibly beautiful.” She is, for a ghost, strangely preoccupied with the body, and Boullosa’s novel foregrounds the social and historical forces that shape and attempt to contain the female body. If the narrator’s fear encompasses much more than the strange nighttime noises, her fear is, in part, an anxiety over the external forces over which she has no influence and from which she has no escape. Even the home, which is (especially during childhood) normally a place of safety, is the site of unpredictable and frightening events. Close to her death the narrator realizes: “I began to feel the problem wasn’t in the house and with me: the threats from everything that wasn’t persecuting me were merely an indication that something fatal was being plotted out­side the house.”

Touching on childhood memories of envy, shame, guilt, pleasure, confusion, and discovery, Before is both a ghost story and a coming-of-age story, and the encroaching steps signal the end of the narrator’s naïve childhood as much as her imminent physical death. The social and historical suppression of the female body, encouraged by the all-girls’ Catholic school the narrator attends, makes its physical changes seem both shocking and upsetting, a future to be avoided. Camping with the equivalent of the girl scouts, she watches a girl leave the group to change in private in an effort to hide her body from the gazes of the group. After the narrator’s attempts to offer this shy adolescent sympathy are rebuffed, she tells us: “Then I was the one who turned over and thought: ‘This will never happen to me, I won’t let it,’ and, thinking that, I fell asleep, not realizing my wishful fantasy would contribute to my own damnation.” Her period arrives at the precise moment of her death, when the footsteps finally catch up to her. Looking down at the blood running down her legs, she thinks: “What had snapped inside me? I thought: ‘It’s because I dreamed no more’ . . .” Imagination dies with the oncome of adolescence, and both coincide with her transformation into a ghost.

Both also immediately follow the death of her mother. Or rather, the death of Esther, who both is and isn’t the narrator’s mother. “Although I’d always seen her in a very distinctive light, I loved her as much as if she were my mother,” she says after sharing a memory of the scene of her own birth with a clarity that would be impossible if impossibility were not the foundation of Boullosa’s world. But Esther clearly is her mother, a role she inhabits along with being a painter. Toward the end of the novel, after Esther has died, a woman asks if it is really possible to have children, a home, and a profession—the question baffles the narrator. The influence of the Catholic Church, where the pleasures of the body are suppressed, and where representations of femininity are primarily confined within the maternal, is felt strongly in this tension, and in the narratives of sacrifice and martyrdom that recur throughout the novel. “I didn’t need to compare myself to the flesh of the martyrs, as my schoolmates were doing, to know how puny I was,” the narrator admits after a school lesson on the lives of the saints. Stigmata appear several times, too: in addition to the petticoat and the maid’s hand, there is a strange drawing of a body covered in small nails that the narrator produces in Esther’s studio, and the mark of red nail polish left on the narrator’s chest when another girl pinches her nipple. Finally, when the narrator does die—when the noises which she often describes as persecuting her finally deliver her to death—she rises up (not after three days, but immediately), her body “with no other defense, now weightless.”

And though Esther dies while the narrator rushes into her studio, trying to hide from the terrifying noises that pursue her through the house, her death isn’t a sacrifice. Or, it’s not an offering of her own body in place of her daughter’s, though the moment of her death is the one time when the narrator is finally able to call Esther her mother: “oh, Esther, I loved you so much, so much, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom . . .” Esther’s death is a sacrifice indistinguishable from plain death, a physical fact that remains as incomprehensible as the rest of the material world, whose physical laws continue to elude us as eucalyptus trees move on their own volition and water burns the skin. When Esther dies, the narrator asks: “Why didn’t I go with her? She wouldn’t have saved my life, of course, no need to say I’d have lost that with her as well, but what is the point of thinking about that now. It’s too late, too late for me to regret anything, anything at all.” If the narrator filters the memories of her childhood through the religious narratives of the church, those stories meet their limits when it comes to this event. Its incomprehensibility is shocking and devastating, as surreal as the world in which it takes place.

In a 2001 interview with BOMB magazine, Boullosa speaks of the way children are like “strangers to the world . . . they do not know the rules for living in a society, they have not yet mastered language, and they are unaware of most social rules and customs. With time, children learn codes, but before they do, they are, to a certain extent, like foreigners.” Before exposes rather than explains this strangeness of the everyday. So that even as the narrator feels driven to tell her story, her story isn’t one of making sense out of nonsensical things. She never tries to explain the noises, doesn’t want to know where they come from or how they develop—definitions, she says, “would have only brought ingredients to swell the fear.” The world may be mysterious, but Boullosa isn’t interested in uncovering the mystery; she revels in it. 

Language is too slippery, memories flood in from all sides, events don’t quite fit together like they should, the world remains bewildering, incomprehensible. Though it seems like the drama of the footsteps could be summarized in a few simple words, no words are so simple as to remain self-evident. As the narrator asks, “What is ‘closing in?’ The question was never put, and it was never explained in a few words who ‘she’ was . . .” No amount of language can make the story work because stories don’t work. There are some events that can’t be processed, can’t be shaped into a narrative, and a mother’s death might be one. Though she wants to affirm a “form to the formlessness,” death doesn’t make sense no matter how you arrange the memories of the life that preceded it.

But things don’t have to make sense in order to be able to talk about them. And though revisiting the traumatic scene of the narrator’s mother’s death might not guarantee catharsis or mastery, it does open up a position from which it become possible to speak. Telling her story isn’t so much about the story as it is about her telling of it—not because it takes away the fearfulness of her memories, their power to hurt her, and not because it offers her retroactive control of the traumatic experience, but because it allows her to communicate across the absolute loneliness and solitude crystallized in death, the “darkness [where] there are no external bounds” from which she urgently speaks. Her memories are, after all, the only thing she has left: “I am only an ounce of flesh that memories keep from rotting, from being consumed by maggots and flies, from final extinction.” In communicating the events of her childhood, the narrator seeks not to silence the past, but to find a way to live with it in the present.

Before begins with the female body, a body haunted by memory, a body turned into a ghost, rendered invisible and silent. Boullosa shows us the ways in which the female body remains suppressed, circumscribed within predefined roles; against this suppression arise the difficulty and urgency of speech. The official narratives—of childhood and womanhood, of heresy, sacrifice and salvation — structure not just how we understand and remember our experiences, but how we talk about and write our histories. There are events that don’t fit into these preexisting narratives, though, moments that spill out and resist meaning. Boullosa asks us to consider what gets left out of these official narratives: what do they eclipse, pass over, or ignore? At what moments do they fail? It’s the gaps between the social doctrine and lived experience that give rise to revelation.


Anna Zalokostas's writing has appeared in Full Stop, Music & Literature, and 3:AM Magazine.