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Luisa Valenzuela's «He Who Searches»

Margo Glantz

Perhaps one of the keys to the narrative of Luisa Valenzuela is not in the difficulty of naming reality but in the impossibility of giving things their true names, as if something were «true» in a reality which itself is imperfect, always on the verge of coming apart, something on the point of exploding, like a universe in perpetual war, about which one can only stammer, «Strange things happen here», and about which there is only one certainty: we are always «as in a war», and what is necessary are «other weapons», names which harmonize with the texts.

As early as in Clara, a novel which respects the traditional conventions of realism (in the sense of having a linear chronology and a narrative which aims at being «truthful»), one of the problems facing Clara, the young prostitute, is the plurality of bodies that approach her in the anonymity of her trade, carnality perceived only in a horizontal position in a fly-by-night hotel bed. The possibility of being called «Clara» changes nothing; Clara is an empty name, colorless, which at most contrasts with the trade, through which pass several women of curiously equivocal names, Santa or Clara. But if the body of Clara is an interchangeable body and therefore anonymous, any name will serve, or none: Clara in her transparency is not defined by her name:

Clara... a name like that's confusing. No guy would dare touch a woman called Clara. In my case, Cacho called me Mary Magdalene, after the most important whore in the world. Cacho also invented the name Monona. I have lots of names, like artists and thieves. If he gets to know you, I'm sure Cacho will give you another name, you'll see. Imagine, my name was Daisy.

A prostitute is known by a false name or a surname. A prostitute may well be a headless body, and suddenly change at a bazaar into a girl representing an Aztec flower. And curiously, the possibility of exercising a trade that renders one headless is converted into a destiny defined by an a-historical name because it plays upon an ambiguity, that produced by the Aztec word and its bloody connotations. Suddenly the blood and the names are assassinated. Clara may be murdered and the allusion affects the plot from a trade exercised to earn a living, she passes to a full signification: Clara loses her head and, upon losing it, her body recovers its true identity, that of a body without a name.

In Los heréticos (the story collection included in Clara: Thirteen Stories and a Novel), one tale stands out: «Foresaken Women». Now it is a question of a girl who is aristocratic but financially ruined: her immense house is being emptied as she exchanges furniture and precious objects for food. The girl fantasizes, she is in true reality (a revealing phrase) crazy. A Sèvres vase, some baroque angels, a little Boulle chair covered in gold leaf, a grand piano, an English dresser with three sections and three mirrors, a Capodimonte soup-bowl, appear by turns in that immense dark house and pass through the space to disappear. The girl remains, wrapped in a tunic or naked, always dreaming, nameless. She imagines men's bodies, a face:

He has green eyes and a tender smile and big wrinkles when he laughs, though he never seems to laugh... I picture mine with green eyes, curly hair, and a sad smile; above all, those wrinkles that extend from his mouth and stir me so much. But he's so sad, poor thing. It's not my fault: I'd like him happy and carefree, but he slips through my fingers and becomes sad. But for him to be happy, I'd have to change his face, and his is the only man's face I can remember. For that matter, mine is the only woman's face.

The grocer hands over foodstuffs and soon will appear to demand her body. The fantasy man is repetitive and tireless in her memory, and in spite of everything lacks a name. It could be Alberto, Mario, Jorge, Eduardo. The prostitute finds a nom de guerre and uses it as a weapon against the multiple bodies with varied and useless names that respond to empty and fortuitous encounters, undefined. The «foresaken woman» imagines men, one specific one with traits copied from her own, although the identity is washed away by the lack of a family name; a whole trajectory separates the body from its name, and it does not manage to detect it because it escapes upon finding no support in concrete letters which would give it corporeal substance; rather, it is the expression of a negativity, of a non-existence.

The identity has changed, nevertheless. Now the undefined, indefinite one is the man. Or perhaps it isn't that simple. A change is needed, and one moves to a different body. The nameless woman busies herself with a repetitive man, identical to himself because he is different only from the other body, the one in front of him, the feminine body. It isn't even a question of the primeval couple, because they (Adam and Eve) exhibit not only their nude bodies but the sign of their names. The foresaken woman is hardly noticeable, and in order to have definite limits in the immensity of unpopulated space (once historical, once classified within a social context), she invents names that are joined to a single face, hers, her own -the unnameable one. It is not therefore a change; it is the narcissistic projection of the image, but not reflected, because she lacks even a mirror; it is the juxtaposition of the two sexes in a single face and the disintegration of the unnameable-chaos, in short, if we must name it.

And now we are in the realm of transsexuality. In an interview with Luisa Valenzuela, Elena Urrutia reproduces a fragment of a text which the novelist read as response to a question asked during the Third Inter-American Conference of Women Writers, which took place in Ottawa, «Is There a Feminine Voice in Literature?»

What is it about a feminine voice when it isn't a matter of singing? And still less in literature, a creative phenomenon which is born in that no-man's zone called the unconscious, the locus of an absolutely transsexual convention where words are forged and metaphors are organized. Among other things, the writer's social function -it has already been said- resides in giving voice to those who have no voice. What importance can there be in the timbre or register of the voice, supposing that there is a difference, when it is a question of expressing the discourse?

But Luisa contradicts herself in writing. That voice which is sought, that voice which is out of harmony in spite of not being music, is a female voice, perplexed and autistic, lost in the delirium of a misunderstood, nameless corporeal state; it is a voice that attempts to give a name to the gaze which has been imposed by the other, by the Father, as Lacan would say, that phallic and authoritarian voice that constructs the body and makes it anonymous to convert the woman into a female, and there is no place anywhere that the female is more fully a detestable body, an interchangeable body, than in the carnal space of the prostitute.

And it is precisely a prostitute who invades the text of He Who Searches. It is a man, now with a name, mutilated, who misses his body and longs for that of the woman, or perhaps the body of the woman, split into Mother Earth (although still prostituted), mysterious, unknown. We have gone from a girl (Clara) who, disoriented, enters a life of prostitution ingenuously to end up headless, a woman who exercises the trade as a priestess, as initiator of quests, a bloody, sacred thread which leads to the labyrinth of different spaces and geographies. The protagonist seeks her through transvestism, usurping another's identity, using masks.

The prostitute of this war convokes the ceremonies, propitiates them, incarnates them. It is the man who observes her, astounded, uncomprehending, having recourse to the oldest and the newest means to surround her. First he is a psychiatrist and shares the knowledge which he imagines he has acquired about her with his wife, Beatriz, the bearer of enigmas. Psycho-analysis, perhaps a science, or also an operative practice, doesn't help him, and he seeks to initiate himself into the magic of archaic cultures, into witchcraft, and into the hallucinatory mushrooms. Barcelona, Mexico and Buenos Aires are the sites to which he travels. AZ pursues all the identities and never finds them, not in transvestism, nor in mescaline, nor in Voodoo, nor in science. He remains as though ecstatic before the enigma of the great female body, the Bitch, and at most becomes a cat, an animal frequently employed by Valenzuela in an obsession for metaphors:

I would have to sniff this sentence up, down, and sideways, hold it up to the light and look through it, try to discover if anything of myself is caught in it -who indeed was left with a grain of pepper bigger than a house and now that the time for biting has come I feel my tongue, my mouth, my entire person burning, blazing like fire. But I shouldn't worry about that intrusion of mine on other levels of life: she's a valid subject for study, a rare example, so I must concentrate on my work and not allow myself to be distracted by prior events beside the point.

Transsexuality acted out in transvestism exemplifies a lack. Identity is missing because one doesn't know how to name the body; it has only been given the name imposed by the Other, by the Father. The body is transformed, by which it is disguised, acquiring other connotations, whenever it is dressed in the finery which the different ceremonies require. Ceremonies are empty rituals, however, they do not respond to a ritual lived and learned as personal history. They are ceremonies learned through borrowing, practiced by people looking at another history, the one still inside the myth, the one carried in the intestines, those parts of the body which Occidental culture names with revulsion. Didn't Borges say that the viscera of animals are the most disgusting part? He refers to a body from which it is necessary to erase certain parts because they are filthy and vile. Transsexuality is performed with a mask that hides and confuses that visceral nature. Because, what else are the genitals but viscera? And Luisa intuits it and unmasks a language and integrates the animals, sometimes felines, sometimes rodents, but always dirty: «Well, madam, poor, with ratskin, with a perpetual appetite for running through sewers eating garbage. People like that are necessary in this world so that others' hair will always stand on end. People like this lady always ready for an active war, face to face».

El gato eficaz (The Efficient Cat) isn't efficient, he barely has certain notions of civility. One becomes bogged down in disguises and descends the animal scale which Darwin so proudly discovered. But if man comes from the monkey, woman comes from the cat and from the rat.

The alien gaze of others has created for us an alien, alienated body. The Female is double: she is an idealized woman and she is a monster. But since Borges said it well, let us continue quoting him: «Monster does not mean something horrible; it means something worthy of being shown». And woman has always been shown, a thing shown before herself, though she has never looked at herself in the mirror. The gaze must be transvestite, and spell out transsexuality.

And now we have finally arrived at the story «Other Weapons». The name is shouted with all its letters, not so much in the whip which destroys the back of the tortured woman, not so much in the pistol which is used as the definitive sign of the battle -the ancient struggle which old Strindberg portrayed with such perfection- that battle wherein man and woman look at each other with their weapons in hand, hoping to be able to give the final blow and decide which side will be the winner. No; those are not the weapons. The weapons are in the gaze, that disorbited look which desperately seeks a reflection, a voice which will not sing the song of the Muses integrated in the milennary Lauras or Beatrices, nor even the devoured Woman who is the Prostitute, the Great Bitch, that woman whom the Melancholy Ruffian kicks around in the books of Arit, or that woman that Junta Larson places in the brothels or pleasure palaces constructed by Onetti. No, the voice that fuels the echo now wants to be in unison, its own Narcissus.