AUGUST 17, 2011
Both of them deaf to the fiddle in the hands
Of the death’s-head shadowing their song.
These Flemish lovers flourish; not for long.
Yet desolation, stalled in paint, spares the little country
Foolish, delicate, in the lower right-hand corner.
— From “Two Views of a Cadaver Room” (1957) by Sylvia Plath
IN HER POEM “Two Views of a Cadaver Room,” Sylvia Plath describes Bruegel’s 16th-century plague painting, The Triumph of Death. In this painting, two lovers inhabit a small area in the corner of the canvas. Blind in their “little country” to the devastation the Black Death is wreaking all around them, these two have eyes only for each other, a love-awed blissful pair. In his heartbreaking new book, Say Her Name, Francisco Goldman and his young wife, Aura Estrada are, like the two lovers in Bruegel’s painting, so enthralled by each other that they see little of the darkness in the world around them. Theirs is that love most of us long for — deep and passionate and playful, blind to everything around it; when death invades their idyll, it seems particularly devastating. For Goldman, everything is torn away.
In the work of art — not quite novel, not quite memoir — he made about the loss of his wife in a terrible swimming accident in Oaxaca, Mexico, Goldman is both the lover in Bruegel’s painting and the painter. He is the blissful subject, but he is also the artist, in full creative command. His objective is to immortalize their love, even as death looms over every page. Goldman fully illustrates the scope and depth of his loss, publically prosecuting himself for Aura’s death before partially exonerating his guilt — and he does all these things in a beautifully written, deftly playful literary work.
This book begins like the opening of a trial, “Aura died on July 25, 2007,” and right away we feel that Goldman intends to hide nothing from us; he has us completely under his storytelling spell. The book is a gift to her memory as much as a reckoning of her death. That he is able to hit us with the shock of that loss again and again demonstrates his artistic control even in his deep desolation.
Goldman started writing Say Her Name only a few months after a freak wave took Aura’s life in Oaxaca, an accident that, toward the end of the book, he finally describes with painful, clinical precision. Aura was 30, beautiful, and just embarking on a literary career. They had been together for five years, married for nearly two, and were on a much-needed vacation. She, a Fulbright scholar and Spanish-language literature PhD candidate at Columbia, had also enrolled in a graduate creative writing program in New York. She was simultaneously writing reviews and stories, researching and plotting a novel while chipping away at her dissertation. To get her through, Francisco would ask her to imagine the beach they had visited many times before. “This summer, mi amor, two weeks at the beach in Mazunte. We’ll rent a beach house. Just three more months to go!” Only two days into this much anticipated vacation, the errant wave broke her spine.
In Goldman’s hands, that wave takes on a life of its own, becoming a sentient and purposeful being, even exchanging identities with the author. “Am I the wave?” he repeatedly asks, the self really becoming liquid here, as the guilt of a man who has watched his wife die pours itself into that fantastical transmutation. “This is the moment that decided everything: if I am the wave, this is when I begin to crest, with an aching surge of love inside my chest.” He blames himself for all of it — for falling in love with her, for allowing her to fall in love with him, for marrying her, for taking her to that beach, for teaching her to bodysurf, for allowing her to be the spontaneous, joyful person she was, for not being able to settle her, to calm her exuberance, to take care of her as he had promised her mother he would. When Aura’s mother, Juanita, blames him for her daughter’s death, we are shocked at the unfairness of the claim. When he blames himself, we understand it as his attempt to make sense of that which is senseless.
The beaches in Oaxaca, where the couple had previously rented a house with Aura’s cousin, are in fact known for their wild surf. But not this beach, in Mazunte. They had chosen this beach because it was calmer than most in the area. No fatal accidents had ever been recorded here, a detail that underscores the freakish nature of the tragedy.
It was after the deep trauma of her death, and the painful and confounding attempts of Aura’s incredibly protective mother to have him officially blamed and even arrested, that Goldman began the project of this book. He wrote it, he says, “as a way of keeping Aura near me.” Time and again he throws into question the idea of writing as catharsis, as a way of moving through trauma. What he’s attempting here is a calling up of his beloved through art, not only as some form of artistic spiritualism, but in order to actualize the real Aura — to bring her to life on the page. For Goldman, this book is a way of holding onto Aura’s reality, the detailed specificity of her living being. As he moves through all the grief literature he can find, reading and rereading books on death as if a duty, Goldman asks the heartbreaking question, which goes against these books’ central premise: what if you don’t want to let go? What if you don’t let go?
Goldman met Aura when he was 47 and she was 25 and a prospective graduate student at Columbia. On their first date they are in Mexico City and, in a quiet moment at her apartment, Goldman intuits that which is later confirmed: what Aura really wants is to be a writer — in strong defiance of her powerful mother’s will. Juanita has plans for Aura: she will become the academic that Juanita, a single mother, was never able to be. Goldman encourages Aura to set her own goals even if they terrify her. With his support, and defying not just her mother but also Columbia’s rule that students make a singular, full-time commitment to the university, Aura enrolls in a second graduate program in fiction writing at Hunter. And though pursuing the thing she most wants is often terrifying and exhausting for her, she is very happy. She writes short stories, many of them subsequently published, and is working on a novel about a Lacanian analyst when she dies.
Goldman’s book is structured by emotion — he is building a case for his love — and the narrative moves fluidly through time. The book opens with Aura’s death, but then we see her as a child in Mexico City, a sharp-tongued teenager in high school, a promising student at the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico). Goldman touches on every chapter of her life to create “as beautiful a record as I could leave of who she was.” When Goldman first meets her at a New York literary event, he says, “I really believed that this was the way it happened: at the most unexpected moment you met somebody, there was a magical connection, an instant complicity, and your life changed.” At dinner that night, they are seated across from Salman Rushdie but are already cloistered in their intimacy and oblivious to him, and everyone else. “We sat close together at a corner of the table, knees touching, drinking wine, talking and laughing.” Hours later, Aura recites George Herbert in a dive bar in Brooklyn, “A Mexico City girl standing in a Brooklyn bar reciting seventeenth-century English religious poetry. In the history of the borough, had that ever happened before?” And all this before their first official date.
How funny Aura is, her raspy voice telling Goldman that he is lucky to be with her, again and again:
You are so lucky, Francisco, she would say. You are the luckiest man on earth, to have a young and intelligent, talented wife who loves you the way I do. Do you know how lucky you are?
I know mi amor. I’m the luckiest guy alive.
You are, Francisco, you really are.
I am. I know.
Or on other occasions, teasing him about his looks:
Often in the mornings, when Aura had just woken up, she would turn to me in bed and say, ¿Ay mi amor, que feo eres. Por qué me casé contigo?, her voice sweet and impish. Oh, my love, how ugly you are. Why did I marry you?
¿Soy feo? I’d ask sadly. This was one of our routines.
Si, mi amor, she’d say, eres feo, pobrecito. And she’d kiss me and we’d laugh.
Or she’d tease him about his age: “Poor you, you’re old. She’d say sometimes, too, whenever I couldn’t stay awake if we were in bed watching a DVD or television.”
Aura is so vibrant on these pages, that we are shocked afresh with each reminder of her death; and thus we feel an infinitesimal fraction of what Goldman must feel every time he is hit with the fact that she will not be coming home from school that day, that she will not again sit in the chair she has set up on the fire escape, at which she smokes her occasional cigarettes, and which he named her “Journey chair,” that though he feels her there, she is not really in his bed.
He can forget, for a little bit, and then an old woman crossing the street in Brooklyn throws him back into the pain of loss, so that he finds himself weeping on the street. “The thought was like a silent bomb: Aura will never find out about being old, she’ll never get to look back on her own long life.”
How do you conjure someone up? How do you bring them back? Goldman sees Aura; he feels her in his bed, in his apartment; he finishes her family business, meets her estranged father in order to ask the questions Aura was never able to ask. Often, he addresses her directly: “Is this really happening, mi amor? Am I really back in Brooklyn again without you?” Goldman researches Aura’s book, taking a trip to the utopian asylum in France, La Ferte, that figures in her unfinished novel. He even imagines himself a character in that novel. “I was Marcelo, the psychoanalyst, climbing the stairs, on my way to work with some patients. Isn’t my young wife waiting for me at home?”
He also takes up with Ana Eva, the young waitress who used to serve them Sunday brunch. Aura had tutored Ana Eva for her English exams, and helped her with a final paper. After Aura’s death, Ana Eva tells Goldman that Aura has come to her: “Just a few days ago I felt her voice inside of me, asking me to take care of you, Francisco.” Goldman soon decides he is in love with this young woman, but we readers see the darkness driving him; his need to replicate is worrisome. He lets Ana Eva into his life, but his and Aura’s wedding rings, which he wears on a chain around his neck, fall onto Ana Eva’s face as they make love.
After a month, Goldman tells Ana Eva he must leave her. A few days before, Ana Eva had wept at the enormity of the task of caring for Goldman. “I can’t anymore, I can’t sleep next to her wedding dress anymore, and feel her all around me, I can’t, lo intenté pero ya no puedo, Ayyy, Aura, perdóname!”
He had wanted Ana Eva to eat with the same gusto as Aura, to be able to converse with him about literature, to understand him, as had Aura, when he became critical of his father. Here, with Nabokovian deftness, Goldman the artist shows us the heart-rending recklessness of Goldman the broken lover with his desperate need to replicate not only with Ana Eva, but subsequently with much younger women, including an art student in Berlin. “She was only twenty-five, the same age as Aura when we’d met, but now it was five years later… .” Like some Freudian repetition of the traumatic event (and which, Freud contends, is part of the death drive), he seems bent on replacing Aura. And in his desperation, he suggests, he turns into a Lothario.
Goldman searches for Aura in other, less obvious places as well. He sees her in the tree in front of his apartment, greeting it as if it is Aura, even kissing it before ascending the steps of his building. “Hello my love.” When he forgets one evening, he runs out in the middle of the wintry night, and apologizes to the tree. On New Year’s Eve, a year after Aura’s death, while very drunk, he is hit by a car. Later, he falls, hard, on the stairs leading out of the subway; his inability to rise up and out of the subterranean darkness and into the light without first inflicting great pain upon himself seems a clear metaphor for his struggle. “What did it mean?” he asks. Survivor’s guilt? A desire to externalize the pain he suffers? A wish to join his beloved? (He says that he is no longer afraid of death.) Goldman allows for the full, irreducible complexity of his grief.
Bruegel’s painting both celebrates and reveals the folly of those two besotted, oblivious lovers. Such a fully cloistered love is an illusion — no love exists in a bubble; the world always seeps in. Goldman the writer also reveals the cracks and vulnerabilities in his much-mourned and vaunted love. He and Aura, he admits, came together partially to compensate for old familial wounds. “Aura and I both grew up around parental unhappiness, rage, and, to different degrees, violence.” Aura’s painful abandonment by her father was profoundly traumatic. Goldman himself had a deeply distressing relationship to his own father. Aura and her mother had an intense, overly dependent involvement. Still, Goldman longed after the familial bonds Aura offered him, even as he found Juanita controlling and critical. In one of the most poignant moments of self-excoriation, he writes, “What shames me now was the way, when we were with Aura’s mother, that I sometimes let immaturity masquerade as youthfulness, so that when I was spoken to as if I were practically still an adolescent, or a man-boy, niñote, I’d allow myself to feel camouflaged and even flattered.”
All this reminds us that love is flawed, that the coming together of two people is a complicated affair, and that love is delicate partially because of all of these lines of fracture in a union that the couple must struggle to contain.
Say Her Name puts many things into question, including its very form: Is this a novel? A memoir? Some twisted version of both? This is a book of a life lost, but Goldman brings Aura back through the magic of storytelling, and with his own insistence that she is still there with him. In his shifting position as both subject and author, Goldman puts into practice one of our most liquid literary tropes, that of the unreliable narrator — and this is where Goldman as artist really takes over. It is in the interstice between the position of artist and subject that the magic of this book occurs. Francisco Goldman the subject is presented as completely vulnerable, overcome by anguish, unable to move forward as a result of his loss. But it is Francisco Goldman the artist who creates this unforgettable narrator, with all his grief, compulsions, case-building, and proclamations of enduring love. Is he not also the artist in complete control of his enterprise, and thus of our sympathy and emotion?
Goldman lures Aura back to life in these pages; we hear her voice, see her pixie eyes gazing back at us. He evokes their great companionable love, and courageously, meticulously describes Aura’s terrible death. He both prosecutes himself and builds the case for his exoneration. This is no straightforward retelling of their story; our footing constantly slips on a shifting foundation, the unsure ground of mourning. Of the author’s love, however, we are never in doubt; it never wavers and — given life by Goldman’s consummate artistry — it drives the book.