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Sergio Galindo: Nudo [Knot]

The theme of this novel could well be summed up by a famous quote from another novel set in Mexico – No se puede vivir sin amar which translates as You cannot live without loving and is frequently used by Geoffrey Firmin in Under the Volcano. Apart from that, there are no similarities between the two books.

This book tells the story of a group of people, initially four and then five. They are so close that one of the characters says they are like a a ménage à quatre, to which another of the characters retorts that they are like a ménage a catre (catre being the Spanish for bed), though there is not much jumping around between beds as the remark implies. They will later be called a ménage à cinq. The two main characters are Allan and Nan Brown, née Park. He is English and she is Canadian. Only later in the book do we learn their back story. In 1939, her father died leaving her an orphan at aged fifteen. Her uncle and aunt in Toronto were reluctant to look after her and could not sort out her father’s tangled financial affairs, so she went to stay with her father’s best friend, Don Ulises Duarte, in Mexico City. He was a lawyer and was able to sort out the financial complications. Initially, it was planned that she would stay with the Duarte’s for a short while but she remained there for a while. The Duartes had a nine year old son, Daniel. Daniel taught Nan Spanish and she taught him in English. She later went to London to work as a nurse during the war, where she met Allan Brown, an artist and six years her senior. They fell in love and married. After the war, for his health (he had been wounded during the war) they decided to move to Mexico, specifically to San Miguel de Allende, an artists’ community, where much of the novel is set.

Daniel is the other male member of the group, having very much kept in touch with Nan. The remaining two are Daniel’s two wives. The first is Ivonne Kraus. She had been born to Mexican Jews who were living in Paris. In 1939, when Ivonne was four, they decided that it would be a good idea to leave Paris and return home, which they did. The sea journey was very traumatic for the young Ivonne. Her parents – Paul and Ivonne – seemed to spend all the time absorbed with one another, ignoring their daughter, to her chagrin. In addition, she felt every roll of the boat and did not have a happy voyage. Her mother – the Spanish text calls her Ivonne-mother – was obsessed with her husband. He was obsessed with women, though not alway his wife. This, not surprisingly, causes a lot of distress to Ivonne-mother, who is well aware of her fading charms.

Daniel and Ivonne and Paul met and married but the marriage was never happy, though she soon became part of the ménage à quatre. Allan wonders whether he and Nan were responsible for the breakup but it is clear that the marriage is not working early on. Two things, at least in Daniel’s mind, push it over the brink. The first occurs when Ivonne is expected to join them in San Miguel de Allende but only turns up several hours late. She accepts a drink, which she quickly swallows but seems generally unperturbed, till she casually and without any obvious upset, casually mentions in conversation that her mother killed herself early that evening and that is why she was late. The second is Tom Hardley. He is an Englishman who is nominally in Mexico to sort out the estate of the cousin of a cousin but, in reality, his family want him out of the way.

After his divorce from Ivonne, Tom meets the very glamorous Laura and the pair fall in love and marry and she is accepted into the group, though Ivonne is still very much part of it as well. What makes this book interesting is the dynamic of the group. They are all nominally on good terms but, underneath, there is a lot of tension, sexual and otherwise. They tend to drink a lot, which sometimes brings out the worse in them. Often they argue quite a lot. Indeed, they even have a mechanism for when things do get out of hand, which is someone says Let’s talk about the Sistine chapel, as that is deemed to be an uncontroversial topic. Much of the time Galindo skilfully shows the tension simmering underneath and not quite revealing itself. Things, however, do finally go wrong when Nan, drunk, suggest to Daniel a quick fling and Daniel admits that he has always loved her and readily complies. Nan is afterwards full of remorse and confesses all to Allan and says that she has to go away for a while. But it is love (and sex) that keeps them together and can drive them apart and not just the five, but Paul and Ivonne-mother, Tom Hardley and even Ivonne-mother’s maid. No se puede vivir sin amar.

Publishing history

First published by Joaquín Mortiz in 1970
No English translation