Cristina Rivera-Garza: Nadie me verá llorar (No One Will See Me Cry)
Joaquín Buitrago works as a photographer in a mental hospital in Mexico City at the beginning of the twentieth century. As a child, his first photographic memory was when, just by his house, he saw a badly beaten woman. The impression was like a photographic imprint on his mind. He took to photographing bodies in the morgue, not the whole body but only parts, such as the blue fingernails of a man who had committed suicide or the marks on the neck of a woman who had been strangled. At the Academy, he was highly critical of Mexico City. His friends would take him around the city to show him the glories of it. He would take them to the morgue or the flophouses or the hospitals for the indigent, to show them the seamy side of the city. Things changed a bit when he met Diamantina but it soon became apparent that this was a relationship that would not work and Diamantina moved on to Vera Cruz.
Now, he has a variety of problems. He had initially been a successful society photographer but then, in 1897, he had travelled to Rome, where he met Alberta. He divides his life in the period before he met Alberta and the period after he met her. Since he met her and lost her, his life has changed. Indeed, it has effectively gone downhill. He has worked in a prison as a photographer. He has photographed prostitutes, hoping, in his own way, to find a woman like Alberta. Now he is employed by a large mental hospital to photograph their patients. Not only has his career gone downhill. He is now addicted to morphine and finds difficulty in sleeping.
Matilda Burgos is one of the patients there and he has to photograph her. How does one come to be a photographer of crazy people? she asks him. He is amazed that one of the patients would ask him this question and suddenly he is transported back to Rome, Alberta and the impossible light of Rome. He has seen Matilda before, he thinks. When he was photographing prostitutes, she was one of his subjects. He learns from the doctors that she is beyond help. When he talks to her, as he does afterwards, at times she seems normal but at other times she seems in a different world.
He wants to find out more about her. He cannot have access to the records so he befriends one of the doctors, Eduardo Oligochea, to see if he can learn more. The doctor is at first reluctant to become friends with a mere photographer but gradually they do become closer. We learn that, like most of the characters in this book, the doctor has had an unhappy relationship. Eventually, the doctor lets him see her file and he also does some research in the National Library. Gradually, we are given Matilda’s story. She is originally from Papantla, a small town near Vera Cruz, which had been known for its vanilla. Her father spent his time drinking chuchiqui, the local brew but remained sober enough to take a French painter and Matilda to El Tajín a pre-Columbian pyramid, which really impressed Matilda.
With her father a drunk and her mother not averse to the local brew, she clearly has no future in Papantla. A local teacher, seeing her potential, pays for her to go and stay with her uncle, Marcos Burgos, in Mexico City. He and his wife have no children but agree to look after her, not least because he wants to test his theories on her. Marcos is a successful doctor and has very strong views on hygiene (e.g. Decent women bathe every day before six o’clock in the morning, always. Matilda never forgets this dictum). He also believed that sending women to school was a waste of time and a bad investment, though he did let Matilda go and work for a woman doctor, something very rare in Mexico in those days.
Matilda gets involved in a group fighting for social justice – Rivera-Garza gives us lots of examples where this is lacking in Mexico – when a wounded young man ends up in her room. The group is led by Diamantina, Joaquín’s first love, who, among other things, teaches Matilda to play the piano. She does not like Marcos Burgos and believes women should enter the kingdom of heaven with books, with music, not with brooms and dust rags. But Diamantina again disappears and Matilda eventually ends up a prostitute, where Joaquín photographs her, as she eventually admits. She even manages to escape that, first by acting and then with a US engineer but he, too, disappears, after they spend most of the Mexican Revolution hiding out in an abandoned town. Eventually, she and Joaquín will get together and their finances are helped by Joaquín inheriting a large sum of money from his father. That, however, is not the end of the story.
As well as the story of Joaquín and Matilda, we have learned of several of the other inmates, all of whom have their own problems. Indeed, Eduardo, who likes to have things clearly labelled and ordered, finds it difficult to categorise them all, though Joaquín reproaches him for looking at the cases purely as a psychiatrist and not as a human, We also learn of Eduardo’s love life, as unsuccessful as everyone else’s.
While the main story is of Joaquín and Matilda, it goes off on tangents on several occasions, though these tangents are generally interesting and illuminating. There seem to be several themes. The first is that social justice in Mexico, at least Mexico of the early twentieth century, is limited and clearly favours the rich. This could be said to apply to many (most?) countries even now. The second is that women suffer most, again something that is still the case in most if not all of the world. Thirdly, that love is not the answer. Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, is that the world is a madhouse and there is probably not a great deal of difference between the patients in an insane asylum and the world at large. Rivera-Garza does tell her story well and it is generally not easy to tell where it might be going. The world or, at least, Mexico, is generally a sad place in her view and she may well be right.
First published by Tusquets in 1999
First English translation by Curbstone Press in 2003
Translated by Andrew Hurley