Barrelhouse Reviews: The Taiga Syndrome, by Christina Rivera Garza

Reviewed by M. Leon Stewart


There is a very specific pleasure that can be mined from disorientation. This claim may seem bold, especially in an increasingly chaotic twenty-first century life. If one seeks a proof of concept, however, one needs to look no further than the new translation of The Taiga Syndrome by Christina Rivera Garza (trans. Suzanne Jull Levine and Aviva Kana, Dorothy, A Publishing Project, 2018).

The pleasure of disorientation is one that Rivera Garza delivers on many different levels. At its surface, the novel presents itself as a relatively trite noir story. The protagonist, an unnamed detective, goes back for One Last Job, in this case a search in the eponymous taiga to find her client's second wife (and her new partner) who, he believes, are sending him a breadcrumb-trail of telegrams as a Dan Brown, National Treasure style SOS. The reader may already realize from this extremely brief synopsis, and from the basis of the noir genre, that this work prides itself wheeling and dealing in secrets. 

Rivera Garza doesn't leave it there, though. Behind the somewhat lacking premise is an individual plot that is well-planned, well-executed, and thoroughly committed to being nonlinear and indirect. Beyond the plot itself, Rivera Garza keeps her characters all behind a basic mask of anonymity; nobody — not the protagonist, not the client, not the target — are ever given names. It may seem like a detail like this is not significant, but in such an adventurous narrative landscape, Rivera Garza serves to disorient the reader further. Then, in what is an oft-commented-upon extra layer of confusion, the protagonist must use a translator during her job. Here, it is perhaps easiest to peel back the curtain and see the wizardry of Rivera Garza at work. She describes in section VII (“Tongue to Tongue”):


I remember how many times I repeated the same phrase: “tongue to tongue: a speaker of their tongue who would translate everything into my tongue.” A smile, no, a laugh. A look of intrigue or distress; a sigh or something more serene.


In one small passage, the reader is treated to a dose of absolute confusion: the detective’s frustrations with getting a translator in the first place, as well as the unclear reaction of the objects of her explanation. This is framed again on an even greater scale in a later passage of the same section:


            ...the translator had made me repeat the question several times, and then had said it several times himself until the inhabitants of the village in the Taiga could understand it and answer. And then we had to wait—translator, inhabitants, myself—until the action, showing the candle and articulating the words “we don’t have electricity”, was heard and understood, first with surprise, and then, finally, with disbelief.


The protagonist is more than simply separated from her familiar surroundings for this job. She is in the wilderness, completely unfamiliar with the landscape of the locals, and her language — the essential part of nearly every interaction a person can have — must pass through the filter of another person, both outgoing and incoming. Rivera Garza does not fool around with letting her reader know that her protagonist worries about this constantly. It is often noted after something is heard that it may be true, or it may be entirely wrong. In addition to her own limitations with language, the protagonist must suffer with so many other factors that the reader is drawn into the dilemma of the detective nearly seamlessly. The narrative is not just a detective case waiting to be solved; it is an entire perspective on life that needs to sort itself out, one that detective and reader have in common to some extent.


How in the world is this a pleasurable reading experience? Reader, if I knew what exactly it is, I would not hesitate to tell you, but alas, the approximate art of reviewing will have to do. I imagine it is akin to the joy of being in a sensory deprivation tank — floating, capable of supernatural focus, terrifying but revealing — which is just the response that Rivera Garza is able to arouse in the reader.


The novel prides itself, both in the broad sense of disorientation and in a more particular scope of some uncomfortable, borderline-horror scenes, on inverting expectations of the familiar. Whether with the image of dolls or action figures, the familiar folklore of Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, or simply the idea of physical love, Rivera Garza is skilled and driving a wedge into a familiar concept and tearing it wide open into a fantastic, terrifying thing. Take, for instance, a passage from section XXI, “The Large Window That Vibrates”:


Above all, I remember the spines of the trees, swaying slightly. The howling. I remember the thin red thread that stretched between lips, my lips, toward the snow, and from there to one of the three corners of the sky. I remember the clouds, so gray. Is there really a wild animal about to jump? Such delicate creatures. I remember the glass of the window, broken into so many pieces. My cheekbone. My forehead. I remember my mouth, toothless.      


Such talent should not be taken lightly. Rivera Garza's work is deeply impacting and skillfully executed, in perhaps what is one of the best indie releases of the last year. As the temperatures continue to dip, consider an expedition to the taiga with Christina Rivera Garza and her detective — it will doubtless be one that you won't soon forget.

M. Leon Stewart (he/they) is a queer writer & library worker. He lives with his partner & their cat in Lancaster, PA, and can be found on Twitter @MLeonStewart.