Intimate Portraits in Times of Crisis

DetransitoDe tránsito
Author: Martha Bátiz Zuk
Publisher: Terranova Editores

Santo Domingo, 2014
Review by Néstor E. Rodríguez

In “Writing Short Stories”, one of the few essays rescued from the personal writings of Flannery O’Connor after her death in 1964, the American writer defines the story as “a dramatic event that involves a person, because he is a person, and a particular person—that is, because he shares in the general human condition and in some specific human situation.” O’Connor’s comments on the art of writing stories are enlightening for an analysis of the superb short story collection De tránsito(2014), by Mexican-Canadian writer Martha Bátiz, recently published by the Puerto Rican publisher Terranova.

To write a book is relatively simple; what is not so easy is to write a work. Bátiz has been clear about her vocation since she first launched her writing career at the tender age of 23, when she began publishing her stories in the Mexican magazine Uno más uno. Her name is well-known not only in her native Mexico and in the Spanish-speaking literary world in general, but also in the literary world of English Canada, thanks to the publication of The Wolf’s Mouth (2009), the English translation of her novel Boca de lobo (2007), which was nominated for the Dominican “Casa de Teatro” International Book Award.

The stories that make up De tránsito, drawn from two earlier short story collections, A todos los voy a matar (2000) and La primera taza de café (2007), are completely free of stylistic artificiality. As in the works of the great masters of short fiction, there is nothing extraneous in Bátiz’s narratives, and in this sense her stories prove perfect demonstrations of her ability to produce that jolt in the reader that is an intrinsic part of any intense aesthetic experience.

Bátiz’s narrative skill allows the conflicts faced by her characters to be experienced as dilemmas that might easily have confronted the reader who follows their stories as they unfold. It is precisely this rare ability to combine technical virtuosity with the capacity to portray in her characters the “human condition” spoken of by O’Connor that makes this unique author’s work particularly captivating.

Juan Rulfo once suggested that in the art of storytelling there are only three themes: “love, life and death”, and that the work of the writer consists in exploring effective variations of these archetypes. Bátiz echoes this prescription of her compatriot by constructing stories of extraordinary depth in which she masterfully weaves memorable elaborations on the three themes to which Rulfo refers. Indeed, in the thirteen stories that comprise De tránsito, life, love and death intersect to create a perfect balance. The protagonists of the stories are female characters faced with extreme situations that more often than not lead to unexpected outcomes and horrific endings.

One story in particular, aptly located in the middle of the collection, is of remarkable contemporary relevance. The story in question is titled “Día de Plaza”. In this intense tale, Bátiz reflects on the massacre of students, teachers and workers by the Mexican army in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco on October 2, 1968.

The perspective chosen for her story is that of the daughter of the man responsible for giving the order to repress the protestors: Mexican President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. The young woman returns to the scene of the massacre years later to attend an anniversary commemoration of the event, seeking answers to the anguish that has plagued her for years in exile. Her anguish is a moral anguish: her daughter’s love will not allow her to resent her father, but her love of the land of her childhood and its inhabitants, crushed by the state repression of that time, will not leave her in peace.

As she marches with the protestors, the protaognist in “Día de Plaza” comes to understand that she is also in mourning, like those mothers still crying for their murdered children. It is with this overwhelming certainty that the story ends: “It is right that I should leave here with this bitter taste. It is right that I should leave with the dust of my streets on my feet. That way I will never forget what was lost. And although my body may belong nowhere, as I leave something tells me that it is true, that I am not mistaken: at this moment my heart belongs here, because I cannot stop weeping either.”

46 years on from the Tlatelolco massacre, the grief of the narrator in “Día de Plaza” can be heard in the cry of civil society in the Mexico of today, a country tormented once again by state violence with a brutality perhaps even fiercer than that of the Tlatelolco Plaza, with 43 students missing for more than three months with little more than horrific conjectures as to their whereabouts.

In 1958, while in exile in Puerto Rico, María Zambrano wrote a lucid treatise on the human condition titled Persona y democracia (“Person and Democracy”), in which she elaborated the idea of the emergence of a new type of individual, marked by the post-war crisis. According to this Spanish philosopher, only at such moments of crisis can we glimpse a utopian horizon on which hope may appear. The type of communion with pain that the protagonist of “Día de Plaza” shares with her compatriots reveals to us how, in spite of the ongoing institutional crisis in Mexico, there is still hope of a possible redemption, and it is precisely this longing for salvation in times of crisis that makes the intimate explorations in the stories of Martha Bátiz an exercise that is as masterful as it is urgently necessary.

Translated by Martin Boyd

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