Don’t Cry for Me, Guatemala

Guatemala…doesn’t exist. I know, I lived there.”

—Georges Arnaud,The Wages of Fear

The meaning of the word “bilocation” seems obvious: being in two places at the same time, like a god or a car rental company. But its usual application, and its central definition in Francisco Goldman’s capacious new novel, involves more of a mystery. It still means being in two places at the same time, but in a way that single human beings are not supposed to be able to manage. Like a sixteenth-century nun who is simultaneously asleep in Europe and doing God’s work in the Americas:

In deep prayer trances, Sor María de Agreda had traveled from her convent in Spain to the other side of the world…where she went among the heathen tribes, converting souls, teaching catechism, inspiring the Indians to go in search of Spanish priests to come and baptize them…. Sor María was often wounded on these missionary journeys…. Yet because she was in both places at once… she never broke her vow of perpetual cloister.

Or like a nineteenth-century nun who is both working in a brothel and safe at home in her convent, “deep in prayer.” Or like a poet and revolutionary who is living in New York while begetting a child on a ship sailing up the California coast.

All three of these instances occur in The Divine Husband, and taken together hint at one of Goldman’s recurring themes. Bilocation is the religious delusion of one woman, the pathetic self-deception of another, and the creative fantasy of yet another, who refuses to let the mere physical absence of her poet deprive him of paternity. And bilocation is also the ordinary condition of anyone who lives in one place and thinks of elsewhere. “Even from a simple realistic point of view,” Proust writes, “the countries we long for occupy a far larger place in our actual life, at any given moment, than the country in which we happen to be.” “In our actual life,” “dans notre vie véritable,” not just in our minds. For the characters in Goldman’s fiction there is always another country. Or rather, there are always two countries. Neither can be fully lived in or fully forgotten, which means bilocation is all there is.

In his first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens (1992), a young woman, born in Guatemala, brought up in the United States, returns home and then tries to break with her native country as if it were a troublesome lover. She breaks with it only by getting killed there. The narrator of the same book, half Catholic/half Jewish, half Guatemalan/half North American, says different origins “can’t always exist comfortably inside just one person.” “You’ve been born into a kind of labyrinth, you have to pick and choose your way through it.”

In Goldman’s second novel, The Ordinary Seaman (1997), a group of illegally employed Central Americans live on an unsailable ship …

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