A review of The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza

Circumventing Memory through Windowpanes in The Taiga Syndrome

Written by Shilo Niziolek

The Taiga Syndrome
by Cristina Rivera Garza
Dorothy, a publishing project
October 1, 2018, Paperback, 128 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0997366679

In many ways, The Taiga Syndrome, written by Cristina Rivera Garza, is about memory and imagination. You don’t come to the Taiga; the Taiga enters you through a light shining through a windowpane that you are compelled to look through for reasons unknown. The Taiga Syndrome follows a private detective who is enlisted by a wealthy businessman to go to the Taiga in search of his second wife, who left with another man she was seen dancing with, but for some time continued to send her husband one-line letters from various cities in the Taiga. Through the narrator’s journey with a translator in the Taiga she encounters many things that don’t quite make sense, or seem as if they are hallucinations, but appear as real to her as her own hands. Eventually, they find the “insane couple” and discover what she should have already known, that the woman will not return with her to her husband. This is told through a series of events that bend the edges of reality, stretching the bounds of what she experiences versus what she thinks she sees. From the very first chapter Garza shows us that we’ve entered a realm of contradictions: “’What are you really looking for?’—they asked without daring to say so.” Where thoughts aren’t always communicated through words, and what we think we know or want to know may not be true,” And I, who didn’t exactly know, followed their steps like a shadow, back to the village over snow-covered trails” (7). The use of windows works to create the mythos of the piece, a realm of possibility, imagination, abstraction, and memory which are seen through the surrealist lens. For Garza, windows act as a portal or bridge to what we know, what we think we know, and what we choose to know or believe. Windows become the tool through which the reader examines the narrator’s experience of a moment. Garza writes, “I remember the salt. I remember the linen curtains that give shape to the ocean wind. Someone said that when we open the windows wide, that the salt helps us remember who we are. Or how” (50).  The barrier allows a sense of distance; we can hold memory up to the light and see the holes, see the ways in which memory mutates into imagination, the perceived memory of a moment translates into a new moment, building, folding, and layering over the next. But, as in this quote, to transport to this memory through imagination one must first open the window, in the same way that our memories live inside our subconscious mind, but a force must give access to them, whether it is intentional reaching into memory, or it is a sound, smell, feeling, such as the visceral feeling of ocean wind and the smell of salt, that give rise to this access of memory. Garza weaves this narrative tool which builds throughout the text until we are looking at a memory through the layers of windows, creating an indirect and altogether different experience from where the memory began. Windows are a portal to memory, come to the window, throw it open, and the salt will bring you back to that time, to that place, to who you were in a different moment in a different time, but now you will look at it through the frame and glass of this time, changing what you knew then and what you think you know now. 

Throughout the entirety of The Taiga Syndrome there is a pervasive quality of the reader experiencing what feels like a balance disorder. The reader is traveling great distances: moving, spiraling outwards, twisting inward, and yet the whole time standing still. What remains? Is what we saw what we really saw? Is our experience of it shaped by the lens, the window through which we saw it? By the end of the book I am truly unsure of what took place, as each moment layers over the next. So, let’s access what I know, or what I think that I know. There was a man and a woman who wandered into the Taiga. There was a man and a woman, a translator and a detective, who wandered into the Taiga. There was a long and unexpected love affair. A forest. A wolf at the door. Many screams. The endless trees. Window after window, both peering in and looking out. A sea of lumberjacks. A sea. An empty blue pool. There was a man looking for his wife. A translator that may or may not be a wolf. A feral child that’s also a man. There are so many questions that I don’t need the answers to. These questions are unimportant because it is the felt experience, the lived experience of reading the novel that are important, not the traditional mystery and answers one receives in most novels, but the moving through time and space, through abstract concepts into concrete details, the swarm of uncertainty, that gives the novel a pervasive quality of kinesthetic connectivity. Garza writes:

“I remember what I meant to tell him in the bustling café whose windows were grazed by ocean salt, that clingy, inescapable substance that reminds us who we are—or how we are—when we feel it on our skin or tongue. Instead of taking the money from his hand and nodding in agreement, I remember I wanted to tell him that, in the end, no one knows why someone leaves. No one can be sure.” (18)

Throughout the text Garza uses the words “I remember” to preface so much of what comes next. It is this idea of remembering and the knowing that the act of remembering changes the memory into something other, into a story instead of an event. The narrator must say “I remember” repeatedly as if she must prove to herself what it is that she remembers, to make sense of her experience of what is remembered. The reader understands that what matters is the telling of the story, not the answers that the story may reveal. 

It seems the entirety of the text is preoccupied with seeing, with being seen, and with the understanding that what we see or think we see isn’t always as it seems. 

“When she wondered what a bird would see through our windows, I would have wanted to tell her: ‘Just like cats, of any kind, their idea of space is more elastic, less dependent on gravity than that of humans. It makes sense that time is also different for them, that this large window that separates us vibrates with questions whose answers or implications we ignore. Like we ignore who is asking or answering them” (116).  

What the bird sees, what the bird remembers, looking in through the window, is different than what the person looking out at the bird sees. In this section, Garza uses the bird as the window, the frame in which she is remembering, and which eventually leads her back to the window, “I remember the bird’s eyes. Above all, I remember the question the woman wrote so often in her journal about whether the bird could see her through the windows. I remember the miniscule handwriting, page after page, asking this question” (70). And, if what the narrator remembers is always sifting, churning, changing, than what the reader remembers of the text may sift and change too as we look at it through the lens of the book and the frame of the remembered experience of what came before as one continues reading the book. The wolf at the door is the grandmother, the wolf at the door is a feral boy, the wolf at the door is the translator, the wolf at the door is the man you love, the wolf at the door is your own hunger, prowling. 

Through memory and imagination, the text has access to the liminal place where the reader accepts the mutation of memory as a reflection of the memory, not in fact the event itself. Memory becomes the frame, the frame is what the story is built on, how stories are told. Garza uses windows as a sort of double-speak, in that the window is the lens through which we are seeing the story, seeing memory, and storytelling itself is a window, both are always somewhat unreliable, for they are limited but their confined view. Garza understands this uncertainty and even names it here: “My new method was to recount a series of events without disregarding insanity or doubt. This form of writing wasn’t about telling things how they were or how they could be or could have been; it was about how they still vibrate, right now, in the imagination” (21). Things may not make sense but that doesn’t mean they don’t make sense. Through the window of Cristina Rivera Garza’s imagination, we reach into the emotional-intuitive realm of vibrations, where the very last thing anyone will find in the work is a hand to hold to guide them through, yet in the distance, through the glass, we find the dull glow of a lantern light to follow. Garza writes, “I remember the passage of the light. The word: ‘filter.’ The word: ‘wedge.’ Above all, I remember that everything we see, we through a crack. I remember, right now, how it saves us” (66). The book itself is the crack through which we are seeing and the passage of the light comes through this moment of remembrance when we are staring out a window being transported to the Taiga, transported to a woman’s body who keeps record of everything she sees knowing that later, even she may not believe in it. 

The window, the memory of the window, is what vibrates, as if a wild storm has arisen and is shaking the glass in its frame. Memory itself is intangible. Garza writes: 

“Memory dangles these windows in front of me, at daybreak, just barely covered by a thin linen curtain. Then the same windows in the middle of the day, opened wide. The windows again in the evening, and above all, I remember the hands on them, all over the glass. And the nostalgia of this, of what’s on the other side, the great beyond, as it used to be called” (69).

“Memory dangles” implies the looseness of the memory; it is not concrete, it is as flimsy, as fluid, as a sheer curtain blowing in the wind, it is translated from memory into imagination and the narrator is propelled back into time where her hands pressed on the glass. Were they smaller hands? Does she imagine her hands as smaller, as a younger version of herself who dreams of leaving that place in which her view was only ever the windows and what is outside of them, reflecting back at her the reverse image of herself? Or, in the mutation of memory, are the hands on the glass now that of an adult version of herself, transformed by the lens of time? The nostalgia of the moment comes not from the moment itself but the memory of the moment, the idea of a separate time outside of the time the narrator is currently in, in which she imagines looking out those same memories of her childhood. Time here isn’t linear, it is swirling all around, and yet, there is a distance, a barrier, a pane of glass. Garza writes:

“Above all, I remember the wind. The way it tousled the long hair of a girl who no longer existed. Its howl. Its persistent howling. I remember, above all, how it pounded the windows of a house by the sea. The fear of seeing everything smashed into smithereens. The fear of having been left alone, in a room, forgotten on a slip of land that has been transformed, thanks to the vigorous wind, into an island, adrift. I remember how my hands trembled and how I covered my face with blankets in order not to see. Not to see anything” (97). 

The window, or the memory of the window, doesn’t just give us access to time, but it gives access to feeling. The narrator reaches through the open window and grabs hold of childhood fear, of aching loneliness, of what it means to wish to not see. The text isn’t only preoccupied with the ways we see, the variations on memory, imagination, perspective, but also the ways in which we wish we could see, or more aptly, unsee. How the body wants to remember to re-remember, to change what we saw, to delete or hide of shroud what has been seen, what we wish we could unlearn, unknow. Garza uses the window to capture the sensation of the way trauma revisits us through memory, and how it often comes at inexplicable times, like here when the image of an empty pool gives rise to negative emotion from a past memory unnamed: “The pool belonged to an older man who supervised the local lumber industry. It was terrifying to see it through the large windows of his living room: a blue pool with countless golden leaves scattered on its motionless surface” (53). What is it that strikes terror in the narrator? Is it the empty pool itself, or the remembered feeling of the terror she had as a child, looking out a large window into a storm? If we can mutate past fear into the present, traverse and pull emotion through a window in time, then can we change time altogether? Rewrite history? Abstract it, turn memory into a kaleidoscope with just a twist of the light? Or, is it that time itself makes reality feel fluid, slippery, an intangible thing? 

And, if we can alter memory through the use of time, what is to stop imagination from circumventing memory, taking it over like a great wave overlaps a ship, taking from one moment what was one thing and making it something new. Garza writes:

“And suddenly that moment produced the window. And the window produced the spectator. And those three elements together made the romance real. The passion. Someone longed for a freedom that was really an infernal abyss. Someone places hands, now motionless, on the window. Someone who wanted to escape but wouldn’t escape and could only watch” (73). 

Where there was a blank wall there is now an entirely different, yet remembered, space that wasn’t there moments before. The writing replaces an infernal abyss, something that isn’t concrete, into something recognizable, a memory of a window and the feelings that window brought with it. Where there was a blank wall there is now a window and through the window there is someone looking in at the person peering out. What does it mean to be the spectator? To be looking at the window from the opposite side. In this scene, the feral child that roams free around this small village in the Taiga, collecting scraps and finding warm places to nest, is the one looking in. The narrator, a private detective and writer, is usually the observer, watching others, collecting data to lead her to where she wants to go, but in this scene, she is the one being watched and scrutinized. She understands that she is in a place where she is not the observer but the observed, motioning to the understanding that the memory that the feral child will have of this moment, of this place in time, will be altogether different than her remembrance of it. Two sides of the same window do not equate to a single solid memory.  The imagination has procured the memory and in procuring has created the moment again. But what would the memory look like from the other side of the window? Only imagination can conjure up that side of the memory, that side of the window. Imagination, the imagined window, brings the narrator into something that had previously not existed. Garza points to the way imagination can bring us close to the thing being imagined in this section: “What is between imagining a forest and living in a forest? What brings together the writing of a forest with the lived experience of a forest?” (99). What is between imagining a window and looking out an actual window? What brings together the memory of looking out a window with the actual lived experience of standing in front of a window looking out? The only difference is the frame. 

The Taiga Syndrome isn’t just a story, it’s an emotional and intuitive landscape of memory and of imagined memory. “’Everyone wants a forest sometimes,’ he muttered to himself, looking at something through the window. ‘You have nice light in here,” he said, changing—or perhaps circling back to—the subject” (114-115). The light that streams through a window is different every hour, every minute. The silhouettes that dance across the room are reflections, ghosts of the actual subject, the tree outside dancing in the wind is just a glimmer, a dance played across the plaster of a wall inside. We can’t see what is the past the tree, what is a little to the left or the right, below or above. It is only through memory and imagination that we can get a complete picture, that we can understand that one thing isn’t actually one thing, it is multiple, it is a fractal of experience, impressions, perceptions, beliefs, desires. A window isn’t just a pane of glass it is a portal through time, it is a bridge through which we cross to enter a different realm, it is a frame through which we can choose to see or to not see. 

Throughout the text Garza challenges the readers memory of what came before in the text using the window, but also through the pervasive repeated “I remember(s)” that occur throughout the text. Each time a thing is remembered it is changed, slightly altered. Which begs the question, how is what we have read previously in the text altered through both the frame of our own remembrance of it and the continual recollections of the narrator? By using the window motif, is she actively changing what happens in the text and in the memory of the reader or is she simply offering commentary on the way remembering changes memory? Or is it a bit of both? 

About the reviewer: Shilo Niziolek’s (she/her) cnf book, FEVER, is out from Querencia Press. Her chapbook, A Thousand Winters In Me, is out from Gasher Press. I Am Not An Erosion: Poems Against Decay, a micro chapbook of collage poetry was part of Ghost City Press’s online summer series 2022. Her work has appeared in Pork Belly Press, [PANK], Juked, Entropy, Oregon Humanities, HerStry, among others, and is forthcoming in West Trade Review, Phoebe Journal, Crab Creek Review, Alice Says Go Fuck Yourself, Wishbone Words, Literary Mama, Sunday Mornings at the River and Pumpernickel House.  Shilo holds an MFA from New England College and is Associate Faculty at Clackamas Community College.