“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 moored at a pier in Brooklyn, remembering wars and loves at home and gazing out at a North America they can’t enter. As a final act of rebellion and sabotage they set the crippled ship in motion. It drifts across the dock and runs aground, its muddied propeller sticking up into the air. A short voyage, but enough to surprise someone who later comes looking for the ship and can’t find it. “For a split second, he thinks that somehow some great and mysterious fraud has been perpetrated on him; the ship never had anything wrong with her, and has just sailed away.” For a split second, even this rotting ship has bilocated.
The Divine Husband, Goldman’s third novel, opens in the 1870s in a convent school in an unnamed country which has the history and geography of Guatemala, and closes in contemporary New England, where our narrator has been watching a rerun of Batman—the 1960s TV show, not the later movie. Why Batman? It’s part of his research, and we’ll get to the reason. It’s also a sort of historical joke and the novel begins with a similar move. Two girls in the convent make a vow, and the keeping or breaking of that vow, we are told, will “not only influence the history of that small Central American Republic but also alter the personal lives of some of our American hemisphere’s most illustrious men of politics, literature, and industry.” And again: “If the vow was broken, history and the lives of illustrious men would unfold one way; upheld, history and men would turn out, at the least, a little-little differently.” “Illustrious” is a faint clue to the irony, but the apologetic ending of the second sentence (“at the least”) is a clearer one. “Little-little” is the narrator’s rendering of the Spanish double diminutive, where poco turns into poquito, and then into poquitito, and of course the idiom almost wrecks the whole proposition. How little could the difference be and yet remain as significant as the narrator seems to be claiming?
What is the vow? One of the girls, the rich one, Francisca, more often called Paquita, promises she will not “engage in conjugal relations” until the other girl has done the same; and the vow is very swiftly broken—indeed looks ready to be broken even at the time it is made. Does history change as a result? Well, Paquita marries Justo Rufino, a zealous liberal politician who becomes a tyrannical president of his country, thereby making her its first lady. After he is killed by a sniper “in the very first engagement of his campaign to reunite all of Central America into a single federal republic by force under his rule,” she settles in New York and lives richly off the millions he had amassed while in power. “Earlier in their marriage, during an official visit to the United States, Justo Rufino had purchased a five-story mansion in New York in his wife’s name, situated on a newly fashionable stretch of Fifth Avenue.” Now Paquita mixes with the Astors and the Vanderbilts, and ex-President Grant lives just round the corner, but it’s not clear that, apart from the society pages of the Herald Tribune, history either notices her or misses the money.
The other girl, the poor one and our heroine, María de las Nieves, becomes a nun, but that lifelong commitment doesn’t last because the new president, her friend’s husband, closes all the convents and persecutes religious orders. María de las Nieves gets a job at the British legation as a translator, and takes an adult education course with José Martí, when he spends most of the year (1877) in the still anonymous Guatemala—streets and cities and politicians are named, though, so perhaps we don’t have to be too cautious. Does this encounter alter Martí’s life, and so change history? Our heroine falls deeply in love with Martí, and he pays courteous attention to her, and apparently kisses her once. Doesn’t history need a little more, un poquitito más? Yes, but novels deal not only in what might have been but in what looks at first as if it doesn’t matter.
Martí, of course, is the poet and revolutionary I’ve already mentioned, the hero of Cuban independence and the “husband” of his country, as Goldman’s narrator says. He was an indefatigable speaker and eloquent writer and publicist. In Guatemala he was called Dr. Torrente, because he never dried up. He’s probably best known to most of us as the author of the lyrics of the popular Cuban song “Guantanamera,” but even that bit of fame is usually hidden behind Pete Seeger’s tune. “Yo soy un hombre sincero,” the poem begins, “De donde crece la palma.” “I am a simple man/From the place where the palm tree grows.” Martí was not a simple man, and he was more likely to talk about Stendhal and Sainte-Beuve than palm trees. He was not happy in Guatemala. “They have exploited my vehemence and hidden my prudence,” he wrote in a letter. “They have portrayed my silence as hostility; my reserve as pride; my small stock of knowledge as fatuous pride.” He was a “soldier of light,” he said, defeated before he started. Only temporarily and socially defeated, though. Martí continued the struggle for independence, was arrested in Cuba, sent to prison in Spain, released, and allowed to live in New York. He died in Cuba in 1895 while leading a group of rebels against the Spanish royalist army.
In 1891 Martí published a volume of poems called Versos Sencillos, Simple Verses, usually taken to be autobiographical but in any event extremely stylized. “Yo soy un hombre sincero” is the first piece. The ninth poem, however, is the one that matters to The Divine Husband, and the one that Latin American children, oblivious of Pete Seeger, all recite in school. It is about the “niña de Guatemala,” whom Goldman’s narrator, like a nineteenth-century novelist, calls “la niña de G—.” It begins:
Quiero, a la sombra de un ala,
Contar este cuento en flor:
La niña de Guatemala,
La que se murió de amor.
I want, in the shadow of a wing,
To tell this tale in flower:
The girl from Guatemala,
The one who died of love.
And it ends:
Callado, al oscurecer,
Me llamó el enterrador:
Nunca más he vuelto a ver
A la que murió de amor.
Silently, at evening,
The gravedigger summoned me:
I have never seen again
The one who died of love.
The niña is universally thought to be María García Granados, to whom Martí paid court in Guatemala, although he was engaged to be married to, and did soon marry, a Cuban woman, Carmen Zayas Bazán. She had remained in Mexico, where Martí spent two years before going to Guatemala. María died in 1878, “from pneumonia and/or tuberculosis,” Goldman’s narrator says, but of course she could have died of love too. Most diseases welcome partners. But what if the poem is not about her at all? What if it’s about María de las Nieves, another Guatemalan niña? Our narrator floats this idea, adding a few wisps of speculation about the text of the poem, but his heart’s not in it. This is just another attempt to connect his heroine to the historical big-time, and he knows his fundamental task is different: not to hoist his characters into celebrity, but to show us how the unillustrious live.
What’s important about the poem is its mention of Guatemala, the lyrical trace of Martí’s passage there, and the suggestion of all the private, forgotten lives that must surround the publicly recorded careers of famous men and women. But who is our narrator, and how many stories is he telling? He is called Francisco, like the author of the novel, although he is more often addressed, to his displeasure, as Paquito. He is writing a book about María de las Nieves, with considerable help from her daughter Mathilde—named after the character in The Red and the Black, read at the instigation of Martí, who María insists, against rumors to the contrary, is not Mathilde’s father. Mathilde lives in Wagnum, Massachusetts, and has put the whole family archive at Francisco’s disposal.
We finally learn that Mathilde’s father was a “mysterious muchacho” who appeared one day at the legation in G—, and whom María’s employers, in an ill-fated bit of late imperialist adventurism, were planning to pass off as the lost king of Mosquitia, a former British protectorate on the coast of Nicaragua. But by then the book about María de las Nieves has turned out to be about all kinds of other things too: convent life, anticlericalism, politics in nineteenth-century Guatemala, Martí’s career, the attempts of the Pinkerton agency to keep tabs on him in New York, coffee and rubber plantations and all the things that can be made from rubber (boots, balloons, condoms, etc), the adventures of María de las Nieves’s various unlucky suitors, ship travel to San Francisco, social life in New York as the century ends. One virtuoso chapter combines a failed balloon flight with a ragged baseball game, María de las Nieves’s one romantic moment with Martí, and the inadvertent discovery of where a supposedly disbanded order of nuns is hiding.
Such a description, particularly if I also mention the easy, leisurely movement of the narrative, is going to suggest the book is sprawling. But it’s not. At its spine, as a recurring focus for our attention, is the journey María de las Nieves makes with her friend Paquita up the Pacific coast from Puerto San José to San Francisco, before taking the train to her final exile in New York. The undivine husband, the man both girls used to call the Antichrist, has died, a decade or so has passed since their time together at school, and Paquita has had seven children since she broke her vow and married the tyrant. The two women talk and talk, recovering “their childhood closeness…if not entirely their trust and affection, never a simple matter anyway.” María de las Nieves has Mathilde with her, although she will tell no one who the girl’s father is.
There are stories in the book that are not connected with this voyage—that of the Jewish umbrella maker, for example, who decides, once he is in the Americas, to change his name from Ginsberg to “the solidly Polish Pryzpyz,” or of Mack Chinchilla, who seeks his fortune in the forests of Guatemala, and after many nearly fatal adventures, including guerrilla warfare and a victory in the New York marathon, marries María de las Nieves. But all the stories meet up with that of María de las Nieves, and much of hers gets told during that sea trip, another exercise in bilocation.
But if not sprawling, the novel is relaxed, and publicists’ claims about its being the great novel of the Americas are misleading. No good book should have to bear the burden of such an attribution. The Divine Husband is not struggling for greatness, it is trying to combine intimacy and reach, and it does that admirably. There is no magic realism here, but rather a good deal of old-fashioned realist realism, and a subtle defense of the magic of the imagination in the midst of it. We don’t have to believe in literal bilocation in order to see the attraction and the importance of the idea. And while this is too generous a book to debunk anything, it does invite us to think again about what we are doing when we decide which countries or stories or lives are large or small, significant or insignificant. As far as I can tell, all the known history in this novel is scrupulously respected and represented—indeed the invented portions could not be so delicate and interesting if it were not. But public history has a way of cutting a comic figure.
Take Batman, for instance. The connection has nothing to do with the double life of Bruce Wayne or his relationship with the boy wonder Robin, indeed nothing to do with any of the characters in the story. It has to do with the actor Cesar Romero, who played the Joker. Did you know, when you looked at that wild hair and carnival makeup, that you were seeing José Martí’s grandson? Goldman tells us that Romero asserted this lineage on the Jack Paar show in 1959, alluding to the “winding, hidden” paths of his grandfather’s “amorous history.” Asked to recite a poem or two by the great man, Romero came up with “Yo soy un hombre sincero/De donde crece la palma.” Romero’s claim was widely disputed, often with much indignation, and then forgotten. Only in 1990 was the matter settled, or as settled as it is likely to get, when a Mexican newspaper published an old letter from the actor’s mother saying she was Martí’s illegitimate daughter, and hence that Romero was who he said he was. The winding, hidden paths of this story are all traced in The Divine Husband.
But where does such a story leave us, and why is Francisco watching Batman? Because one episode concerns the theft of Martí’s statue from Central Park—I’m assuming Goldman has made this episode up—and is written by María de las Nieves’s son Charlie. Real and imaginary people meet up among the ramifications of Martí’s story, but don’t significantly change it, only remind us that it is endless, like all stories once you have started following all their threads. The implication, I take it, is not so much that unknown persons alter known history as that history tends to repeat itself as parody, and that living creatures, even fictional ones, matter whether they get into history or not.
So far in my account María de las Nieves has two children and two husbands: Christ the divine spouse of the novice in the convent and Mack Chinchilla who marries her in New York much later. But neither of these figures is the father of the children. Mathilde’s father, as we have seen, is the mysterious muchacho. Charlie’s father is a sailor María de las Nieves met on the long voyage to San Francisco. But to state the fictional facts this way is to miss what she would claim was her greatest imaginative achievement, the leap of mind by which she managed to sleep with three people at once. Not bad going for a person who once took a vow of chastity. María de las Nieves thinks the sailor looks like the muchacho, but at the moment of conjunction on the ship he becomes Martí too, the divine, absent husband miraculously made someone else’s flesh. “Ever since she’d read the writings of Sor María de Agreda as a novice, María de las Nieves had dreamed of experiencing mystical bilocation. Well, maybe now she had. Maybe she’d trilocated, the first ever in history to accomplish that feat: Martí, the mysterious muchacho, the young sailor, herself corporeally manifesting with all three!”
In what is perhaps the book’s best deadpan moment Mathilde says that her mother, before she married Mack Chinchilla, told him the truth about Charlie’s conception. “Which version?” Francisco asks flippantly. “You mean the shipboard trilocation?” Mathilde repeats sternly, “She told him the truth.” The literal truth or the truth of her fantasy? We can only guess, but either way our guess will take us back to the continuing preoccupations of The Divine Husband, a novel that is richly imagined in a double sense. It patiently creates and recreates people, places, and times, and for all its mockery of history, never wanders far from the plausible record. But Goldman also knows that the imagination offers its own varieties of experience, and he respects the reach of his characters’ dreams. Charlie has one father; Charlie has three fathers. These propositions are contradictory only if we think we inhabit one intractable world.
February 24, 2005