Lost in the City: Tree of Desire and Serafin

[ Fiction ]

Lost in the City: Tree of Desire and Serafin

By Ignacio Solares

These two novels by one of Mexico’s premier writers illuminate many aspects of contemporary Mexican life.

1998

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Paperback

5.5 x 8.5 | 154 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-77732-3

Cristina, the young protagonist of Tree of Desire, and her little brother Joaquín run away from a home that is outwardly normal, but inwardly disfunctional. Lost on the streets of Mexico City, they confront some of the most terrifying aspects of city life. Or is it all a dream? The story suggests, without confirming, that sexual abuse has driven Cristina to her desperate escape. But is it an escape? Are they awakening from a dream, or reentering a nightmare?

Serafín, too, is lost in the city. Searching for his father who has deserted the family, he is virtually helpless amid the city dangers. Serafín finds compassion in surprising places, but will he survive to return to his mother and their rural village?

These two novels by one of Mexico's premier writers illuminate many aspects of contemporary Mexican life. Solares describes Mexico's different social classes with Dickensian realism. His focus on young protagonists, unusual in Mexican literature, opens a window onto problems of children's vulnerability that know no national borders. At the same time, his use of elements of the fantastic and the paranormal, and his evocative writing style, make reading his novels a most pleasurable experience.

  • Preface
  • Tree of Desire
  • Serafín

Ignacio Solares is a major figure in contemporary Mexican literature: the author of a dozen novels and several plays (some based on his novels), editor of the cultural supplement to the weekly magazine Siempre, and director of the Department of Literature at the National University of Mexico (UNAM). His awards and honors include two fellowships at the Centro Mexicano de Escritores (1975, 1977), the Magda Donato Prize (1988), the Diana/Novedades International Prize (1991), the National Prize for Cultural Journalism (1993), membership on the National Council for Culture and the Arts (CNCA, since 1994), and a Guggenheim fellowship (1996).

Life in Mexico City—you might even say the life of Mexico City—is basic material in Solares' novels. They are stories of personal relationships sensitively detailed, with natural dialogue and the use of special effects that may be called "supernatural" (not the "magical realism" so often noted in Latin American fiction). In more recent novels, Solares adds a historical dimension by focusing on the experiences of some of Mexico's revolutionary leaders, the great figures that defined the political beginnings of modern Mexico. Intensely human, credible characters inhabit all of these narratives.

Solares was born in Ciudad Juárez in 1945, but he has never been a regional novelist. Rather, both his life and his interpretation of Mexico seem to extend outward from the capital city, always recognizing the centrality of that sprawling mass of humanity. His first novel, Puerta del cíelo (1976), focuses on a young man of modest background who works as a bellboy in a Mexico City hotel. Outward relationships are interwoven with the protagonist's inward realities and, surprisingly, with visits from the Holy Virgin. This kind of supernatural effect became a hallmark of Solares' novels. He followed the first novel with a documentary narrative about alcohol-induced visions (Delirium tremens, 1979). His next novel, Anónimo (1980), opens with the startling statement "it seems laughable, but that night I woke up being somebody else." This novel proceeds to test the limits of reality in ways that may remind readers of the play and film Heaven Can Wait.

During the 1980s, Solares produced three notable novellas: El arbol del deseo (Tree of Desire), Serafín, and La fórmula de la inmortalidad. Each of the three stories features a juvenile protagonist who is quite real, and some kind of supernatural effect (such as telepathy). Late in the decade, Solares published a major novel about twentieth-century Mexico City, Casas de encantamiento (1987), that folds three time periods into each other, thereby projecting certain essential qualities of the place.

Near the end of the decade, Solares published his first historical/ political novel, Madero, el otro (1989). This story deals with the conflict between idealism and political expediency in the leadership of President Madero. (Solares discovered that Madero communicated supernaturally with a deceased younger brother.) The success of this novel led to others featuring historical figures: one about Felipe Angeles (1991), another about an archetypal postrevolution president (El gran elector, 1993; presented on stage in 1991), and a third about the invasion of the United States by the forces of Pancho Villa (Columbus, 1996). Another well-known figure, Plutarco Elias Calles, is the protagonist of one of Solares' plays (El jefe máximo, 1991).

Published in 1994, Solares' Nen, la inútil returns to the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Nen, an Aztec girl, is raped by a young conquistador who could have had her as a willing lover. This incident is a metaphor for the convergence of the two cultures as perceived by Solares. Here, as in all his work, he seeks an understanding of the society in which he is an important actor.

***

In the two novellas translated here, Tree of Desire and Serafín, Solares demonstrates his particular adeptness at portraying the complex lives of young people-an unusual subject in contemporary Latin American fiction. Cristina, the ten-year-old protagonist of Tree of Desire, runs away from a home that is outwardly normal but inwardly dysfunctional. She takes her four-year-old brother with her, and confronts some of the humbler and more troubling aspects of life in Mexico City. Or is it all a dream? If it is a dream, Cristina also dreams within that dream. Solares' narrative, deceptively simple on its surface, suggests that the terrifying city may be a metaphor of Cristina's life within the family, a nightmare that may not come to an end with the end of the story.

Serafín, in the novel that bears his name, is a boy (eleven or twelve years old) who lives in rural Mexico. His father has left the family for Mexico City, taking the village beauty with him. Serafín's mother sends the boy, by himself, to look for his father. Woven into this story of cruelty and compassion, of connections maintained and broken, is an account of a failed protest march against the injustices suffered by rural Mexicans. In portraying the homespun intellectual leader of this movement, Solares explores the social and economic background that has led to Serafín's plight.

Serafín's world intersects Cristina's, but does not parallel it. Her story moves from middle-class to lower-class within Mexico City; Serafín's story instead moves from a rural to an urban environment. The two novels, read together, offer a multidimensional view of contemporary life in Mexico.

"Papá?"

She woke up frightened, the way she used to when Papá and Mamá had to take her to sleep with them because as soon as they put out the light, she saw faces in the window, heard the door to the street open, and death came to sit at the foot of the bed.

Only now it was Papá's shouting that awakened her. "Papá?"

Maybe they didn't hear her. It seemed to her the shouts and the dry thud of steps came out of the depths of the dream, and again the nightmare's cobweb extended one of its threads into the reality and dimness of the room.

She rubbed her eyelids.

Sometimes rubbing her eyelids and letting her eyes get used to the faint light from the street filtering through the mesh curtains was enough for her to discover the world was calm, and turn quietly to sleep again, burying herself in the pillow's foam.

But not that night. On the contrary, it seemed every shout—really just one, that echoed into many—suddenly brought back images supposedly forgotten: a shout with the feverish face of a man climbing the stairs holding a bloody knife in his hand; a shout with the livid face of a condemned man looking at her through the window as if begging her to pray for him; a shout with the face of death now sitting in the chair next to her bed, smiling.

"Hi, Cristy, been a long time since we've seen each other."

And Cristina screamed:

"Papá!"

The silence that followed her scream made her think, yes, it was a nightmare that had lasted beyond her sleep. But a moment later Mamá entered, stepping as quietly as a cat, and came over to the bed—her eyes swollen, damp. She told her, please go back to sleep, nothing was happening, she and Papá were talking but now they were going to bed. Cristina didn't answer, but after looking at her carefully, pulled the covers over her head, and hardly heard her mother's last words, my precious little girl, sleep well; tomorrow you have to get up early to go to school, my darling. She heard her leave the bedroom, dragging her feet. Cristina lowered the covers. Mamá had left behind a large shadow, leaning over, her hands lifted up like wings. It did not go away, as though separated from her, the real image of Mamá.

She got up fearfully, as if breaking a serious rule, and went to open the door. Turning the handle slowly so they wouldn't hear it, she opened the door slightly and looked through the crack into the dining room at the scene she already knew well, that she had dreamed and imagined and now became real—Papá walking around and around the table, waving his hands. And Mamá seated with her elbows on the table, covering her eyes, sobbing. Papá was gradually raising the tone of his voice, his words bouncing all over the room, his yelling as much a part of her as her first memories, her first images of the world. And Mamá, daring to answer from time to time with a brief sentence, burning and sharp, like an arrow seeking his heart, which inflamed him even more.

It seemed to Cristina her parents were awakening a volcano that would end up destroying them. She put her hands over her ears and squeezed her eyelids shut. Closing the door with a hard push, she ran back to bed, holding back a sob. She covered her head with the pillow, and the sob turned into convulsive, uncontrolled weeping that choked her and made the pillow stick to her face. Maybe Mamá had come back to ask her to calm down and maybe Papá, too, but Cristina heard only herself; her crying filled the world. She kept the pillow on her face as she was slowly falling asleep, and her weeping died down, becoming sighs that sounded as if she were breathless, imprisoned by her own dreams.

Serafín watched sadness move into his house the night Papá left. Papá had been drinking all afternoon, as usual in those days, and as soon as night fell, he got up with difficulty, took his poncho from the spike that served as clothes rack, and said, I'm going to Mexico City to see if things go better for me there because here they are as bad as they can get. In the heavy silence his kiss on Mamá's forehead sounded more like a complaint than a caress. Serafín and his brothers were watching, sitting on some torn, lumpy straw mattresses. A hazy light from a kerosene lamp hanging from the ceiling swung back and forth, creating long shadows like tall phantoms on the adobe walls.

After he left, the only sound was Mamá's crying, deep, slow, guttural. Bent over the table, her distorted face in her hands, her eyes that seemed to follow Papá wherever it was he had gone.

"Your papá has gone away, Serafín," she said in a voice like a thread interlaced in her crying.

"Yes, he's gone."

"And there's nothing to do."

"Yes, Mamá. There's nothing to do."

With that nothing to do, she reacted. She passed her hand in front of her eyes as if removing a shadow and went with her children to pray below the picture of Jesus with His Heart in Flames that she had inherited from his grandmother, who had died in that same house of an illness called fright.

Serafín had felt more loving warmth from his grandmother than he had ever felt from his mother or father. But his grandmother had died of fright and now his father had gone away. The wind outside brought noise from a long way off, and he felt sadness expanding.

***

In Aguichapan the people were best at growing corn, but that year the crop had been very poor. They ate what they could and struggled along. Serafín's papá had walked all over the area looking for work until he was worn out. He sold chickens and straw hats in the market, worked as a peon building a dam and drilling a tunnel. He even went as far as Tierra Blanca to cut cane. From one place to another, following the hopes and rumors of work.

"They say there's something over there, I'd better go, even if it's far away."

Or:

"Right here in the next town, some streets are being paved." Serafín went with him because he had stopped going to school ever since his father had a fistfight with the teacher in the cantina after a bitter discussion about politics, one of those in which no one agreed.

He had hardly begun to make out the meaning of letters, but he liked the mystery that surrounded them. It was much more entertaining and less tiring than working in the soil. Who would enjoy and not get tired of carrying a basket full of sombreros on your back for hours and hours? Or walking and walking along the grassy foothills on the way to possible jobs, better than the ones before but almost always nonexistent, the mirages of bad times. And returning by the same empty road, with more dust in your eyes than going, just the two of them, father and son, their only company the occasional passage of a drove of pack animals, as forsaken in the world as they were.

Papá would say:

"I'm not going to let myself rot here in Aguichapan. Better to die right now."

So he looked for work outside. His hope was always outside of Aguichapan, away from the people of Aguichapan. A dumb bunch, he used to tell them.

***

One starry night when they were crossing a river on a barge, sitting on the boxes they had to carry to the other shore, Papá said:

"I have to go to Mexico City, to see what's there."

It was the first time Serafín heard that such an idea had occurred to his Papá.

"Lots of people go and never come back," Serafín told him, taking refuge against his father's strong chest, trying to get inside. "And the reason is there's work to spare there."

Serafín tried to imagine Mexico City while he breathed in the air of the stars falling over him. And a strange sensation, close to happiness, invaded him, as when he spent too much time looking at the star-filled sky. The barge proceeded slowly across the dense water.

When he was tired, his father felt the need to drink. Even the little money Uncle Flaviano lent them went entirely to drink. He collapsed on the table of unpolished pine that stuck splinters in your clothes when you brushed against it, looking at things only he could see.

***

Days later—without Papá the days got mixed up, sadness made them all seem the same—Mamá explained to him and his brothers that it was not true that Papá had left with another woman, as they were saying in town. He went in order to better himself. There in the city there was lots of work, and soon he was going to come back with a lot of money and presents.

"He's thinking about us," Mamá said in a voice not even she believed. "Even though he's far away, he's thinking about us." Serafín felt a red flush rising to his cheeks and, although he did not want to say so, said:

"He took Cipriano's daughter with him. On his way to the high way, he went by for her and took her with him. Leo told me."

"It's gossip," she replied, putting a sharp note in her voice.

He just put his face down to hide.

Not until he was alone could he cry while looking at a sad afternoon.

In the distance the horizon was no more than a smooth line of copper wire.

***

The strong winds went away, it rained, and there was a calming, iridescent light, with the earth smoothed out, covering itself with dry leaves. But contrary to what Mamá thought, Papá did not come back. Things were getting worse for them. And nobody would lend them anything. It was the same for all the people in Aguichapan, because they all asked each other but no one had anything to lend.

So he decided to go to the city to find his father. He was the oldest son, so he was the one to do it.

At first Mamá did not want him to go.

"I've already lost your father. Now I'm going to lose you."

Then she agreed, as if by then everything seemed to be the same to her. Or maybe because she knew where her husband was living in the city and she hoped if his oldest son arrived looking for him, he would change his mind.

"Here, look for him with this man, at this telephone."

She prepared a bag for him with a little food and a letter in an envelope.

"Give this to your papá yourself."

It was some time later before Serafín knew what the letter said, but he held it up before his eyes so much he almost guessed what was in it.

Ignacio Solares is an award-winning novelist and playwright. He also serves as Director of Literature at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Carolyn Brushwood is a professional translator. John Brushwood is Professor Emeritus of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Kansas.