In literary matters, there are few things I find more disconcerting than when I read a book that I expect to be excellent and I get almost nothing from it. The Taiga Syndrome, alas, falls into this category.
The Taiga Syndrome (Dorothy, A Publishing Project, 2018) was written by an acclaimed Mexican writer, Cristina Rivera Garza (first published in 2012 as El mal de la taiga) and has been co-translated by Suzanne Jill Levine (a lauded scholar and translator) and Aviva Kana.
This means that the narrative, characters and language of this novella are not accidental. This is not a mis-translation, so what I found discomforting about it cannot be dismisses as errors of translation, which I wondered it might have been as I began to [mis]read the book.
The Taiga Syndrome, too, does not have overstated buzz: I’ve heard about it, I’ve seen it about, but I haven’t had it slammed into my face. No one has gone wild with praise for it, which is exactly why my response to it has left me so confused.
For me, The Taiga Syndrome was too vague and too flat to be engaging. There are some wonderful images, particularly the descriptions of the Taiga (the northern forests of Eurasia and America), of wolves, of small imp-like creatures and of a Stig-of-the-Dump type forest child. But – but but but – doesn’t a book needs to be more than a collection of well-wrought images when it’s presented as a narrative???
The thing is, I think I read The Taiga Syndrome wrong. Yes, I do think that’s a weird phrase to write, but I think – in this case – it’s accurate.
The last book I read was final volume of In Search of Lost Time, so even on a purely comparative basis, whatever I read next was going to suffer.
Is anything as good as Proust? Has anything – other than Knausgaard’s My Struggle (knowingly modelled on Proust) – had a more long term influence on my readerly and thus writerly life? The answer is no.
Proust is a dense, but pleasurable read. It is meandering and poetic, digressive and complex. I plucked The Taiga Syndrome off my shelves because it was short and described itself as a sorta dystopian boreal riff on detective fiction. This is a fair description, but to me it implies something of less complexity than the book as it is, it implies it is a text that is deserving and needful of far less attention than I wanted to give.
I read The Taiga Syndrome like I expected it to be a literary thriller: maybe a bit supernatural, maybe a bit allegorical, but I read it, tired, looking for something easy. This isn’t that at all.
I think The Taiga Syndrome should be consumed in the same way as poetry.
That is how it felt, as it neared its end and I realised the vagueness and the weirdness wasn’t going to dissipate.
If I’d been less distracted when I started reading this, maybe I would have paid more attention to the tonal and thematic reminders of Twin Peaks. To clarify, this isn’t as shit as Twin Peaks, but it is also about the mysteries and mythologies of the forested world.
It is about folklore and animals, gore and repression. It is about sinister, unexplained but unexplainable forces that somehow simultaneously hold freedom and oppression.
There is a true freedom to be found in the woods and the cold, but it comes at a price. What is the price?
I dunno I dunno I dunno.
There is a passage in Finding Time Again where the narrator discusses book collecting and a wish to own, not volumes of literary significance, but those of personal significance. Finding editions that match those one had as a child, read on holiday, gifted to a lover, etc. For many pages, the idea that when we read a book affects how we read it is espoused, and this is kinda the central kernel of my “critical approach” (lol) on this blog. How we feel when we read something impacts our understanding of it.
A book read in one afternoon session on a beach is different from one read in thirty minute blocks during a week’s commute, much as one we read when we’re falling in love is different from one we read when grieving.
In some ways, I am grieving Proust today, but in other ways I am grieving myself. Proust writes so much about writing and about thinking about writing that there is a reason he is considered a writers’ writer.
How we feel impacts how we do anything.
That is why The Taiga Syndrome swung and missed for me: I read it wrong.
It reminded me of Bolaño, but I haven’t read Bolaño for years, so who knows if that was an accurate comparison.
I read The Taiga Syndrome like it would be simple and blunt. It is neither. It is rich and enveloping and easy to get lost in, like the taiga itself. I should have read it in the way I read poetry. That is what I should have done, but I didn’t.
It’s not Proust, but most things aren’t, and I think The Taiga Syndrome deserves a different – and closer, more generous – reading. If its reputation builds maybe I’ll read it in Spanish.
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