Who could resist a book with a bright yellow cover and a red hot chili pepper? It was only after I brought my haul home from the library that I realized I had two books with a title that started off “leaving.” My husband says if I bring home more books like this next time, he’s going to start getting his affairs in order.
The book begins with the narrator writing as an exile in Germany (the exile theme appears again for me) in 1997 and returns to 1961 when she, Delmira, was an eight-year-old girl in Agustini, Mexico. So where does Tabasco fit in? Apparently mostly in the title because Agustini is in the state of Tabasco, but the story if firmly set in Agustini and the tiny world there like the tiny world of so many towns, like the little town I grew up in, and in which Delmira’s family, the Ulloas, dominate life and a good portion of the town’s economy.
Delmira lives with her eccentric mother and grandmother and a cast of Indian servant women—a house of women only. Her uncle, Gustavo, sails in and out and dotes on her in a way that only an uncle can. Her father is a phantom who lives in Europe and about whom Delmira knows very little.
Delmira is acutely aware of her family’s status in their little town, but does not realize how her privileged status has impacted her until she is in her room undressing after a communist demonstration in her little ville and she becomes aware of her nanny, who is about her same age, as she throws her clothes on the floor for the servant to pick up.
At one point Delmira is traveling with her mother and the town priest to say mass for the surrounding villages. They stop between two villages so she can nap, as is their custom on these trips. However, on one afternoon she awakens to the sounds and then the sights of her mother and the priest having sex in a hammock they’ve strung between two trees.
The book takes an interesting turn when Delmira begins recounting what seems like a set of Biblical plagues striking Agustini–birds who can’t fly, frogs raining against windows, etc., which occur for ten Sundays, but then she falls ill with yellow fever and is no longer sure whether or not these events happened. The plagues are no less fantastic than the tales her grandmother tells regularly before bed as the serving women comb out her hair.
The native people of Tabasco are supporting characters in the story. They come to market, they hear mass before the inhabitants of the town, they work on the farms, they work in the houses. Their women are violated by the men of the town like farm animals and then castigated by the women of the town for their less morals. Their stories are the untold tragedies that form the backdrop of the privileged life of Delmira and her fellow whites in Agustini.
Near the end of the book, Delmira learns the power of words and print when she prints a flier and signs her name to it as part of the communist demonstration in Agustini in protest of the roadside massacre of a local man. She flier is sent to an outside newspaper and soon federal police are swarming the town and arresting Delmira, the priest and the local secondary school teacher. They are only saved through the intervention of Uncle Gustavo, who is friends with the governor. Delmira is then spirited out of the country to Germany, where she remains until the start of the story in 1997. In the concluding chapter Delmira doesn’t tell us what has happened to her since she arrived in Germany. She sketches the bones and muses about the selves she has invented. She says:
“I want to tell stories, to fill my readers the way my grandmother filled those nights when she failed to slide her hand over my head and failed to stroke my back and never uttered a single word of tenderness or planted a kiss on my cheek. Filling life out that way, with dreaming, with writing, leaping from one story to the next. But if I’m out of breath after disclosing merely the ups and downs fo my childhood, if I haven’t managed to tell you how I got fired from my job in Berlin, how I modified passages in the work of Lope out of rebelliousness or plain boredom, how I tried to imitate those passages in real life, how I walked through the valley of the shadow of the lie, poisoning my everday life and my daily acquaintainces, I know I won’t be able to get my second wind and tell you a true story about something that never happened or happened only in the world of the imagination, surging to the surface full of fiery force, exposing life’s meanings. Here I’ve just managed to tell you who I once was, the only thing I have ever really been. Shall I now become a writer and desert my old self? For the present I don’t dare venture an answer to that. I simply don’t know what I’m going to be. I don’t know if I dare go back home, leaving behind all the other places I’ve known, or if there’ll be a square centimeter of Agustini that I’d recognize…..”
Another story of exile and of the need to write to realize who we’re called to be.
I leave the novel certain that I’m missing something. And I think I have to leave home to find it.
Boullosa, Carmen. Leaving Tabasco. Trans. Geoff Hargreaves. Grove Press, NY: 2001.