The Taiga Syndrome is a beguiling and dream-like novella exploring lost love and the wish to disappear. It is impossible to characterise but is part fairytale and part noir fiction, blending in magical elements to create a shimmering, slippery story.
The Taiga Syndrome follows an unnamed ex-detective, tempted by one last job searching for a couple who have fled to the wilderness of the taiga – a boreal forest with high latitudes and freezing temperatures – in an unnamed country.
The detective’s client is a man looking for his wife, who has run off with another man. He has given the detective oblique messages that have been sent back from the taiga, and that suggest the woman want to be found. One telegram asks, “what are we letting in when we say goodbye?” while another reads, “never did the distant strike so close”. A third provides a foreboding description of the “taiga syndrome”:
The taiga is in fact a disease, a syndrome. Some people flee the monotonous terrain even when they know they can’t escape. Some people take flight, suicidal, without considering the speed, their goal, what lies beyond. Some of them dance. The more I talked the more incredible it all sounded to me.
Armed with these letters, a photograph of the woman (which reminds the narrator of Hansel and Gretel) and a translator who doesn’t speak her language, the detective follows the trail of crumbs to try and find the couple and bring the woman home.
When the detective and the translator get to a village where the fugitives stayed, eyewitness accounts about what happened to the couple sound so outlandish it’s tempting to blame the language barrier, but what the narrator sees with her own eyes is stranger still. At this point any logical narrative plot is done away with. Life on the edge of the Taiga become surreal – a wolf visits their room every night, drunk lumberjacks parade a feral child in the town square and they visit a bordello where the main attraction are copulating homunculi.
As the atmosphere becomes more strange, the client and the job fade into the background and we are asked to question what, if anything actually exists. Nothing is fully articulated, much less explained. The story becomes fragmentary and dreamlike, following its own internal logic that needs to be appreciated rather than decoded.
In the report I would write for the man who had had two wives, I would ask him to take into account that nothing had happened exactly as I claimed. I would tell him that nothing happens as it is written, and I would constantly repeat this or something like it.
Considered one of the greatest Mexican authors writing today, Rivera Garza here interweaves her thriller with poetry and magic realism, creating a contemporary fable that is both unique and tied to the fairytale tradition. Darker versions of the tales we all know run through The Taiga Syndrome, stories of Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood shot through with the atmosphere of The Brothers Grimm suggest that anything might, and will happen.
The question of translation arises, of how stories are told and retold through the ages. As they spend more time together, the detective and the translator end up communicating in “a language that was not strictly his nor mine, a third space, a second tongue in common”.
Hansel was there. Gretel was there. At one point there was a wolf. Once upon a time there was. Or there would have been. ‘No, I don’t’, I would say to him, telling him the truth once again. ‘Sometimes’ I would want to continue, but I would be stopped by a blow. Or by the dark.
Rivera Garza has a clear taste for the ambiguous and the unresolved; she alludes as much to the ambiance of the noir novel to the surreal uncanniness of a fairy tale. Added to this, the novella is written in the indirect tense, distancing itself even further from the reader and suggesting that collective subjectivity is impossible to find.
I found The Taiga Syndrome to be very reminiscent of Ice by Anna Kavan, featuring as it does, a nameless narrator on an obsessive hallucinatory quest against the backdrop of an unforgiving landscape that feels like a sentient presence.
The Taiga Syndrome is almost impossible to characterize and Rivera Garza’s skill and prose elevate it beyond genre or classification. It is a work of elusive power and striking imagery that almost requires a second reading. Its’ dream-like structure and ruptures in narrative plotting make it unique and almost impossible to classify.
With its ambiguous structure, fracturing plot and lack of focus, The Taiga Syndrome could have been a muddled mess, however it is beautifully written, wonderfully open-ended and is one of those books that it is often best just to go with to see where it will take you.
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