A Forensic Novel
It was in a seminar on Hegel and Modernism that I first heard the phrase “the Spirit is a bone.” In that turbulent stream of complex texts and abstract concepts, I was, I suppose, staying afloat, doing my best to make sense of that difficulty while also forming something like my own way of thinking and writing.
In that context, “the Spirit is a bone” felt comforting. Its simple, fatalistic concision seemed to say that in the end, we are just stuff: calcium deposits elaborately cloaked in flesh, masquerading as subjects endowed with reason. It reminded me of the Spanish Baroque—specifically, of how Luis de Góngora described the inexorable decay of aging and death, wherein we become “dirt, and smoke, and dust, and shadow, and nothing.” Or across the Atlantic and decades later, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s own iteration of this trope: she contemplates her portrait and dismisses it pithily as mere “corpse and dust, shadow and nothingness.”
Today, Googling these two lines, rereading the two sonnets, fiddling with the translations, the second one seems to speak more eloquently about the knowing disillusionment I felt back then. A portrait, Sor Juana writes from her cloister in Mexico City, is an “engaño”—a “counterfeit,” in Samuel Beckett’s translation. (A spectacle, I would add.) It lies to us, makes us believe there is something really there, something transcendent in those eyes or in that gesture, an illusion of depth. A Hieronymite nun, Sor Juana spoke a different vocabulary than Hegel would over a century later, but I imagine she could have also said, with him, “the Spirit is a bone.”
The phrase has stayed with me over the years. I could say that it visits me periodically. I find versions of it sometimes hidden in poems or essays. Or I simply summon it up at unexpected moments. I pronounce it silently; I imagine the improbability of my skeleton, its creaking fragility; I remember something essential about myself.
Such was my experience recently as I read The Iliac Crest, Sarah Booker’s extraordinary translation of Cristina Rivera Garza’s 2002 novel, recently published by Feminist Press. Bones are everywhere in this short Gothic novel, set on a desolate stretch of the coast, in a small medical community that lies between a place called North City and another called South City. Medicine undergirds the entire text, in fact: the title refers to the upper and outer region of the ilium, the largest bone of the human pelvis, a diagram of which adorns the book’s cover. And the narrative is itself framed by mentions of this body part. The story opens with the sudden arrival of a strange woman at the house of a doctor, who is also our narrator. He is first captivated by her eyes: “Stars suspended in a devastating catlike face.” But as his gaze descends her body, it is a glimpse of her slightly protruding hip bone, whose anatomical name he cannot recall, that provokes in him the potent mix of desire and fear and curiosity that drives the narrative forward. By the last chapter, the woman is gone and the narrator has forgotten her eyes, her face. He finally remembers, however, the name of the bone:
The ilium, one of three regions that make up the hip bone. Wide and curved, its wings extend from either side of the dorsal spine. At the uppermost point of the ilium’s wings is the iliac crest. From there, from Ilion, from her crest, Odysseus departed on his return to Ithaca after the war.
Ilion, an Archaic name for Troy, gives us both the Iliad and the scientific name for the hip bone. The former tale often serves as a point of origin for the idea of “Western literature,” with all the erasures, delusions, and aspirations contained in this notion, but here it is just part of the body. The etymology of the word “ilium” thus seems to suggest, indirectly, the bony materiality of culture.
In her prefatory remarks to the translation, Rivera Garza mentions bones, as does Elena Poniatowska in her epilogue. “Our bodies are keys that open only certain doors,” the author writes. “Our bodies speak indeed, and our bones are our ultimate testimony. Will we be betrayed by our bones?” She contemplates this question as part of her meditation on borders and the demand to present oneself, to answer for one’s body, to the agents who police them—part and parcel of life in the borderlands of her native Mexico and the United States, where she currently lives. Similarly, in the novel, we follow the narrator’s passage through checkpoints, presenting documents with a smile indicative of one’s propriety. “You had to prove,” he comments summarily, “that you belonged to the state.”
But Rivera Garza’s question—“Will we be betrayed by our bones?”—alludes to more than the circumstances of citizenship. Bones tell stories. Preserved, disinterred, they reveal to the paleontologist or archaeologist information about past species and past civilizations. Or they might speak to other experts, to forensic investigators for example, about more recent lives and deaths. The late Mexican journalist Sergio González Rodríguez titled his 2006 book about the epidemic of feminicides around Ciudad Juárez Huesos en el desierto, or “bones in the desert.” In a world where such cases of gendered violence were taken seriously by the responsible authorities (a different world, that is, not the one we occupy), the pelvis, among the bones in the body, might be of particular interest. As the narrator of The Iliac Crest tells us at the novel’s end, “the pelvis is the most definitive area to determine the sex of an individual.”
If our bones will betray us, if they can betray us, it is because they have stories to tell. Like the rings of a tree, our bones have secrets to share with those who know how to listen. And in fact, much of the plot of The Iliac Crest turns on a secret. “I know you are a woman,” the houseguest breathes into the narrator’s ear one evening. The doctor does not immediately react, but the revelation of the secret, the dramatic display of the power inherent in its possession, interrupts his internal world and sense of self.
While, as Booker emphasizes in her notes on the translation, the narrator overwhelmingly uses masculine pronouns to refer to himself, other characters employ the feminine form of address. The fear of being outed as a woman drives the protagonist to paranoia. While driving with two young women in his car on their way to a party, the narrator fantasizes about having sex with them. But then, suddenly remembering his secret, he grows angry and abruptly pulls over.
I stopped the car on the side of the highway and, with the pretext that I was going to take a piss behind a bush, I hid to touch myself and confirm that everything was still in its place: my penis and my testicles and my scrotum and all the evidence that flagrantly contradicted Amparo Dávila’s assertion. Taking advantage of the moment, I quickly masturbated and returned, a little more relaxed, to the car.
This frantic affirmation of his manhood is a common occurrence in the novel, particularly early on. The narrator addresses his female readers directly to explain how men think and do things. He is strongly invested in maintaining a self-image of scoffing masculinity. As the pages advance, however, this character becomes more doubtful internally and ambiguous externally. “There, at the water’s edge, I concluded that, when all is said and done, if by some stroke of misfortune I was actually a woman, nothing would change. There was no reason for me to become sweeter or crueler.”
“Nothing would change,” and yet discovering oneself to be a woman would be a “stroke of misfortune.” The latter affirmation responds to the strictures that characterize the lives of the women surrounding the narrator. To take the most important example, the woman who arrives at his house at the novel’s outset is named Amparo Dávila. She arrives to stay, and she spends her days writing. The first morning, she says she is writing about her disappearance. The second, she tells the narrator that she had been a great writer, her career undermined by a conspiracy that began small—her typewriters sabotaged, her pencils stolen—and ended in mob violence. The narrator, we are not surprised to learn, disbelieves her story.
This woman is not Amparo Dávila, but rather one of many “emissaries” acting in her place. The narrator eventually discovers and visits the real Amparo, whose disappearance inspired a movement to, as she puts it, “safeguard [her] words.” This character, in turn, stands in for the real-life Amparo Dávila, a mid-twentieth-century Mexican writer who has been marginalized in relation to the national literary canon. Among the many historical threads that this short book draws on, a central one is the multitude of practical difficulties long experienced by women writers in Mexico and elsewhere.
In her introduction, Rivera Garza draws a direct connection between the historical marginalization of women writers and the context of gendered violence in and around Ciudad Juárez in which this novel, originally published in 2002, appeared: “When women disappear from our factories and our history—from our lives—we have to reexamine what is normal.” Violence is to be expected when dismissiveness, hostility, and repression are the norm. The narrator seems aware of this fact, which explains his terror at the possibility of his repressed secret being revealed.
At the same time, however, he also believes that, were he a woman, “[n]othing would change.” What I understand from this apparent contradiction is that the narrator sees gender, or any other system of classification, as a matrix of positions, with power distributed differentially throughout it. Hence the relative absence of proper names in this novel. Characters play parts like “the Betrayed,” “the False One,” and “the Emissaries”—appelatives that indicate a role to be assumed. Hence also his observation that among the administrative employees in the hospital where he works, the women are just as capable of “indifference and professed maliciousness” as their male counterparts. “Nothing would change” because, in the end, these are simply positions to be occupied.
Like much of Rivera Garza’s writings, The Iliac Crest thus simultaneously explores the pathos of individual experience and the indifference of that experience in the world at large. Whether in her historical study of an important Mexican mental institution (La Castañeda) or in the novel (Nadie me verá llorar) that grew out of that research, whether in essays on the fate of bodies (Dolerse) or the fate of writing (Los muertos indóciles) under neoliberal governance, whether in short stories or poems or, most recently, in a marvelous study of Juan Rulfo as a writer and a worker—in all these cases, this author confronts us with characters or subjects who are, at first glance, unremarkable or interchangeable, who are like dry leaves blown by the uncaring winds of history, but who are, at the same time, completely engrossing and hopelessly unique. Her characters are passionately drawn and unforgettable. They are, like everyone else, themselves cogs in the cold wheels of time.
This is why the dominant image of bones bears out so brilliantly here. Stripped of all that animates them and gives them character, bones are purely residual—they are what remain after a life has ended and flesh has decayed. But they also have stories to tell about that life, whether through DNA analysis or through simple visual examination. They are at once anonymous and individual, just like all earthly beings. Any understanding of our material situation, however we define it, begins with acceptance of this duality between specificity and generality. It is for this reason that The Iliac Crest matters today: it carries out a sophisticated, dynamic inquiry into language, gender, and power, and leaves its readers transformed by its lyrical investigation of what it means to inhabit a body.
Craig Epplin is an associate professor at Portland State University, where he teaches classes on Latin American literature and visual arts.