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Diamela Eltit: Vaca sagrada (Sacred Cow)

This book was written while Pinochet was still in power in Chile. Though it is not overtly a political book – there are some political references but not many – it is clear that the basic principle behind the book is political.

We follow the story of a Chilean woman during this period. She is the narrator and is not named, with one proviso. She meets and is involved with a woman called Francisca who may or may not be her alter ego. This is, by a long way, not the only inconsistency in this book.

When we first meet her, she is in the middle of crisis (she spends most of the book in a crisis). I was consumed by elusive desires and driven by insecurity towards a shattering destiny. I’d already acquired the habit of constant lying. In other words, she is going to be an unreliable narrator, as, indeed, she is. She is also an alcoholic.

At this point in her life, she meets Manuel. Manuel tries to help her, bring me back to a reality I found the more unbearable whenever I opened my eyes. They are different. She is a city dweller, while Manuel is from the South, which he describes as his greatest gift. Specifically, he is from Pucatrihue, which he describes as his passion. A few lines later, she will say he left the South because he hated it and Pucatrihue is hell.

Marta, Manuel’s wife, to meet our narrator. Its seems that Manuel is more upset by the meeting than Marta. It also seems that our narrator has another boyfriend, Sergio, with whom she torments Manuel. Talking about their respective other partners seems to sexually excite them both.

Manuel will eventually leave to go back to the South with his family, where he will be arrested. She seems fonder of him during their separation though she also hopes she will rediscover a part of myself I had lost.

The focus now shifts to Sergio but also to her cousin, Ana, and to Francisca, who may or may not be her alter ego, as mentioned. The key issue that she now shows us is violence and blood. Blood appears regularly. She describes in some details her very heavy menstrual periods but also the injuries she incurs. For example, we first meet Francisca when she is lying, injured, with a badly bruised eye. As we learn later that Sergio hit her in the eye, it is this that leads us to suspect that Francisca and the narrator are – possibly – the same person.

The images of blood and violence are not limited to her. We see a grim tale of an elderly bitch dog, trying to give birth when she is clearly too old to have puppies and bleeding profusely in doing so. There are plenty of other images of blood and violence throughout the book.

Her relationships, particularly with Manuel and Sergio, often turn to violence, both physical as well as screaming and swearing at one another. It seems that each of the individuals in the relationship gets more pleasure from hurting and tormenting the other and often trying to make the other jealous, than having a fulfilling, loving, passionate relationship.

Things get worse for our narrator, as she has financial problems. She cannot find a job and is partially dependent on her cousin, Ana, for money. But it is not only her financial situation that is getting worse but also her physical one. As her personal, mental situation deteriorates, so does her body.

The political situation does creep in. She thinks she is being followed. She meets some women who favour a new constitution. Their demands are tattooed on their thighs and buttocks, more evidence of the violence done to women’s bodies. In particular, they are complaining about the lack of proper housing, and want to have more living space.

In the end, she feels that city is consuming her and that she has no place there any more. There is only one way out – to head South, to look for Manuel, to see if, as she says, he still exists. The South amounted to no more than an empty word signifying the position of a putative body and respite from the insecurity of my life.

It is clear that, for Eltit, the battle that was taking place in Chile had as its battleground, at least in part, women’s bodies. The violence done to them (and, as we saw, not just human females), the blood and gore and violence of that era often come from women and, all too often, women as victims of men. This is not an easy book to read but Eltit certainly makes her point, even if she cannot openly criticise the Pinochet regime.

Publishing history

First published by Planeta in 1991
First English translation by Serpent’s Tail in 1995
Translated by Amanda Hopkinson