La Negra y Blanca
by Deena Metzger
Hand to Hand Publishing, 2011
La Negra y Blanca is a book with several designations on the cover – it’s described as a fugue, a commentary, and a novel.
I had to look up fugue to see what it meant in a literary context, only to find that it is a dissociative state caused by severe mental stress, or a musical composition in several voices, in which the themes are played by all the instruments, sometimes in counterpoint.
La Negra y Blanca is certainly not a novel in the traditional sense of the word, with a protagonist who overcomes obstacles and transforms into a better version of him or herself along the way. The book recently won the PEN/Oakland-Josephine Miles Awards created to honor writers of exceptional works often not acknowledged by the mainstream literary community.
It is certainly out of the mainstream. Perhaps this is a commentary, but then we would have to decide on what. The politics of Guatemala? The state of literature in Latin America? The life of the author, Deena Metzger?
I would like to call this book a meditation. Much of it is addressed to the author’s dear friend, Victor Perera, a professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, who apparently suffered a stroke while swimming that rendered him aphasic. Perera was unable to tell anyone, exactly, what befell him that day in a lake in Berkeley. It is open to more than idle speculation, because it coincided with a time when Perera was actively working against the military dictatorship in his home country of Guatemala; he had reported some suspicious activity, including the theft of his laptop and papers, and might have been the target of a failed murder by drowning. Perera died five years later, in 2003.
Yet much of this book is taken up with the life of another Guatemalan author in exile, Mario Monteforte Toledo, and his mistress, known in the book only as La Negra. Now we are entering murkier waters, fictional characters openly based on real people, behaviors that may or may not have taken place, coffees drunk, words exchanged. The author, Deena Metzger, folds herself into a personage called Blanca who visits the indigenous woman La Negra in the little house in Mexico City Monteforte has built for her. He lives elsewhere with his socially acceptable wife, and has grown sons.
Monteforte also has an adult daughter, Morena, by another indigenous woman. He kidnaps her as an infant and has her raised in his home. She remains restless, rootless all of her life, but befriends Blanca in the United States, giving Blanca entry to this messy domestic situation, and the larger mess of American intervention in Latin America on the behalf of brutal dictators. Blanca, Morena, her husband, Blanca’s lover, and Perera make a sort of pilgrimage to the village of Morena’s birth:
… we each carried something, our own story not yet unified with each other’s stories, but still each had rescued, was still rescuing something from history, the boot of history that tramples everything.
La Negra y Blanca, reads, much of the time, like a fable – the beautiful houses, the innately wise and magical indigenous women who control the men on whom they are dependent. Like the second book of Don Quixote, at least some of the characters are aware that they are constructs in a book, being manipulated by Metzger. She insists on her right to tell this story, but her sentences, some of them lovely, wrap around themselves to form a tangle from which we long to free ourselves. We are trapped most of the time in the house of the mistress, waiting for – what?
As a twenty-first-century Latina of mixed ancestry, I want La Negra to step out from Monteforte’s shadow and reclaim her place in the sun. But as someone with many relatives in Mexico, I know the reality of the culture precludes such a simple solution. My criticism of her behavior from a later generation and a place of financial security would further illustrate the complexity of La Negra’s condition. Meanwhile, the ghost of Victor Perera hovers in the background, waiting for the story to be told, the story that will free the people of Guatemala and end, once and for all, the horror and tortures inflicted by the Inquisition on his ancestors in Spain, and now the mountain people of Guatemala.
I would like to wrest this stranded story away from Metzger and write the ending myself, a cathartic introduction of justice and the dissipation of horrible secrets. I would like to smash the perfect table in the perfect sunlight of La Negra’s little house, and ask Monteforte where his money came from, why he can live so well in exile, if not on the backs of the people in Guatemala whose lives are still being destroyed with each tree that is cut down. But I can only offer fictional resolutions, speculations leaning towards the optimistic in order to provide a satisfying conclusion. Perera, as the recipient of this tale, would never accept a fictional ending, or rather, an untrue ending. He only told the truth. Perhaps Metzger understood this. So how would one end this novel?
“The Inquisition never ended,” Perera said the one time that we met, a brief but intense conversation weeks before his accident. Both the descendants of Sephardic Jews, our ancestors dispersed to the ends of the earth in order to save their own lives. “It is still going on.”
I had read his 1995 memoir, The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey (Alfred A. Knopf), and still offer it to others as a good introduction to the history of the Sephardic Jews. I have not read his books on the indigenous people of Guatemala who have tried to preserve their old ways in the face of destruction and exploitation. He recognized the impulse to maim and murder complete strangers as the reflex of all oppressive governments, genocide as a sort of cancer on the human race that cannot be excised neatly from one culture and so from all cultures. Perera had been in the process of writing a book about whales when he was struck down. Optimistic in spite of everything he had seen and heard, Perera was convinced that the whales had interspecies advice for us floundering humans.
Perhaps these are the questions that Blanca, Metzger’s stand-in, wants to ask: How do we end this suffering? How do we change men whose greed renders the value of other humans nil? Her inability to plainly articulate these questions strikes me as a form of aphasia, the pen and the tongue unwilling to say what the human race is, so far, incapable of controlling in itself. Nevertheless, the PEN/Oakland awards committee recognized that we must continue to bring these questions forward time and again until we effect change.
The best answer I have heard so far came from Ariel Dorfman when discussing his play, Widows, on NPR.
“There’s nothing more wonderful and magical, nothing more fantastic, nothing stronger and nothing more inspiring than people who have nothing demanding everything. That’s real magic.”
Kathleen Alcalá is the author of Spirits of the Ordinary and four other books set in the southwest and Mexico. She teaches Creative Writing at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, and is a member and past president of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies)