The Sad Passions is Veronica Gonzalez- Peña’s second novel after Twin Time: or, How Death Befell Me (2007) both published by Semiotext(e). Its episodic narrative spans three generations and is told by five very different women from the same family who are separated and united by emotional convulsions that span half a century. The narration moves from the significant year of 1964 in which American post-war power and consumer culture asserted itself on a world stage. In this context the fragile family history that begins in Mexico is told by distinct voices that articulate an emotional maelstrom at the heart of which lies a mad mother and her four daughters. Each of these women creates a narrative peculiar to their sensibility. This is Claudia, the mother, describing her elopement at seventeen with M, her equally young husband: “I’d never done anything like that, wandered around like a stray dog, like a person with no home, with no past” (40). Thus begins what will remain for much of the book the family’s experience of the pain of deracination and relocation; inevitably the search for a home becomes a crucial theme in the lives that we see intersect over the next half-century.
This is a family chronicle but despite the Jamesian scope – and a love of long dense sentences – the novel’s tonal shifts and multiple voices come from a collage aesthetic that belongs to a decidedly modern sensibility. That is, James filtered through Eliot’s ‘policemen doing funny voices’. Gonzalez- Peña uses these intertwining voices as a field in which various narrative lines intersect and play off each other as in musical counterpoint. But while contemporary writers who use a collage aesthetic often emphasize the variety and clash of differences for dramatic effect , Gonzalez- Peña inter-cuts the various voices like a classicist, seeking a unified field to unite its disparate parts, thus creating an exquisite and moving panorama of late 20th century life in Mexico and the US.
Claudia elopes as a form of escape from a middle class family in Mexico; she leaves with Miguel, a romantic, wandering, guitar player who will remain her husband – on and off – for the next twenty years. She travels around the US but remains unsettled and never quite melts into the great majority as she is supposed to. She starts to see visions, and ends up in a mental clinic, receiving electro shock treatments while she is seven months pregnant with her first of four daughters. Claudia came of age in the sixties and the novel shuns the “Magic Realism” that is associated with the writers of that generation to proclaim both the inadequacy of that ‘magic’ and the novel’s independence from the powerful pull of that aesthetic as it has come to dominate Spanish speaking literature for half a century. This is how Claudia remembers the shock treatments meant her new husband authorizes to presumably help her overcome her visions: “They tied me up liquid and held me down solid and shoved something cold and hard into my mouth and then they gave me those shocks in my head. They held me down tight and tied me up hard and have me electricity shooting into my head he watched them while they did it. I was seven months pregnant with our first baby, you understand; I don’t think I’ve mentioned that. Did I already tell you that?” (48). The repetition here speaks volumes in a very moving and subtle way about just how lost Claudia is in the world.
When Julia, the second child, is given away to a distant relative in Los Angels the child seems to disappear, from the family’s perspective, into the labyrinth of Los Angeles. The child that makes the transition to American culture is the one who acts as witness, who needs to go back to go forward, and we see the greater part of the family history through her point of view. Julia rebels against her mother’s dark madness and becomes an art historian. As rational as her mother is mad she is articulate about art history but her very eloquence is – sometimes without her knowing it – haunted by ghosts from the past and a longing to come to terms with that darkness. Gonzalez- Peña brilliantly mimics the language of art catalog writing to center Julia’s voice: “And this morning, after a bad night’s sleep I find myself wanting to write about Robert Barry; wanting to write about gas, about the way in “the Inert Gas Series” we are being asked to look at this invisible substance. But how do you photograph that which is to the naked eye not there. We look and we look but all we see is the paraphernalia surrounding that gas” (72). Julia’s obsession with an artist’s work that is “there and not there” perfectly mirrors her family background and her life in the US – and that of countless immigrants who have made similar journeys in which the baggage left behind becomes progressively more important over time until this invisible baggage takes hold of the imagination and comes to dominate a life. Of course this happens in such an attenuated manner over time that most people are unable to articulate it. But this novel does – here Julia digresses while discussing art: “The tiny motion, the rubbing in earth, the repetitive mark, a symbolizing of something that otherwise seems impossible to define…. The same painting painted over and over except for some tiny gradation, Agnes Martin, like Gertrude Stein’s repetition, always this, but also always already on the way to becoming that… But what does this all mean for someone like my mother, for whom process never builds, for whom process and time only equal a chaos that never adds up to anything at all. Even as I deeply want to believe in transformation, I also wish for definition, for the stories – of which there are many – to add up to something, to someone, to a thing or person intelligible, say able…. And yet they do not” (77).
The novel’s central themes of memory, trauma, and reconciliation (or lack of it) are also central to the work of W.G. Sebald who used images in his startlingly original novels that appeared at the end of the last century. Gonzalez- Peña, like Sebald, deals with complexity and allusive voices within the text and the images have an oblique and often mysterious relation to the text that creates a narrative palimpsest that gives the novel extraordinary depth. But unlike Sebald, Gonzalez- Peña also uses images that are taken directly from well-known contemporary art history, parodying art catalogs and architectural monographs with a beautiful sense of play. The art historical references touch on Ad Reinhart, Mark Rothko and the modernist Long Island houses of Tony Smith – monuments to a sincere rationalist enterprise that Julia longs to inhabit – in every sense. Her ideas about contemporary art tell us as much about the art historian as the art. Not surprisingly most of the art she discusses deals with the human body as a site – a landscape of trauma – where themes of transgression, loss and mortality play themselves out, such as we find in the work of Hans Bellmer which is discussed at length, leading to a remembrance of Julia’s father; and Ana Mendieta, “a body struggling with matter” (75); and Francesca Woodman, whose brilliant photograph from her series done in Rome graces the books cover. As Julia ponders the image of Woodman dangling precariously from a door frame she concentrates on the empty chair: “Who once occupied that weighted absence, and where has this person gone?” (332). Yet, just as importantly, we see that Julia comes to understand the limitations of rationalist art historical writing. The invisible luggage of the past proves itself to be neither fixed nor codified – as history usually regards art – but is highly unstable, ambiguous and perhaps ultimately unknowable.
While disappearance and madness are at the center of the novel, the work moves beyond the destabilizing effects of both, towards a reconciliation of the past with the present that fully earns the gravitas of its complex narrative strategy. The theme of exile and reconciliation has been at the center of several novels –Isabel Allende’s The Infinite Plan (1991), or The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien by Oscar Hijuelos (1993). But Gonzalez- Peña handles the material without resorting to the sentimentality or mythologizing peculiar to ‘Magic Realism’ and its variants, by bringing the material back to the everyday, no matter how far the metaphors and the literary allusions may take us – the concrete always makes itself present and felt. Julia: “I know what it is to be and not to be, to one day be playing in the garden, and the next be a girl suddenly gone missing, a living absence; and since that initial heartbreak I have held myself in that in-between space, where it seems, almost, that you are playing at life…so terrified of finally actually disappearing that somehow you don’t allow yourself to ever be fully there at all” (334). For the exile one of the greatest self-imposed misfortunes is that they are not only a foreigner in the place where they have arrived, but over a span of time they come to be a foreigner in the place from which they came. Exiles are always somewhere else – looking off into some indeterminate space not located on a map – lost in second thoughts. The alienation and frustration in Julia’s voice is palpable and speaks volumes, not simply about her but about emigrants from countless generations.
The discussion of Francesca Woodman’s work is followed by the introduction of a letter from Sandra, Julia’s estranged younger sister, who announces that she will be coming to New York for a visit. This short, startling, and beautiful ending articulates what makes this family chronicle so moving: We see how families completely destroy each other during the day and into the night and then the following morning there is another precarious beginning as everyone gets together to talk while coffee gets passed around and someone makes breakfast. Gonzalez- Peña’s The Sad Passions tell us what this fragile beginning might look like for Mexicans and Americans – and those “in that in-between space” as Julia describes it – at the beginning of the new millennia.
George Porcari has lived in Lima, Peru and New York. He has taught film history at
the Art Center College in California for ten years. He currently works as a
photographer, a filmmaker and a librarian in Los Angeles. He is currently
completing a book on the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and some his work can be
seen in the website lightmonkey.net