Say Her Name : A Novel

  • By Francisco Goldman
  • Grove Press
  • 288 pp.

This elegiac tribute blurs the line between memoir and fiction.

Say Her Name, Francisco Goldman’s intimate and elegiac tribute to his late wife, Aura Estrada, initially reads like the latest entry in a long list of tragic love stories starting with Orpheus and Eurydice. That alone would suffice to make this a compelling read. But Mr. Goldman goes further. Like Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking) and John Bayley (Elegy for Iris), Mr. Goldman mercilessly immerses the reader in mourning’s abyss. He extols his young wife’s beauty and brilliance and entrusts to his reader a meticulous, unflinching study of survivor’s guilt. But the real accomplishment of Say Her Name is its proof that art can restore the dead to life. On a Mexican beach where Ms. Estrada lay paralyzed, her back broken in a July 2007 bodysurfing accident, Mr. Goldman administered mouth-to-mouth respiration, breathing for her again and again to no avail. Say Her Name, however, sustains Aura Estrada for the ages.

Numerous settings are fully realized, giving a memoir-like truthfulness to the action unfolding in New York and Mexico City. There are scenes of Paris, where Ms. Estrada had set the novel she was writing before her death; of the beach at Mezunte in Oaxaca, on Mexico’s Pacific Coast; at hospitals in Pochulta, Huatulco and, finally, Pedregal, near Mexico City, where she died.

The novel blends in elements of memoir, inviting the reader to puzzle over distinctions between the fictional Aura and Francisco and the real Ms. Estrada and Mr. Goldman. The novel’s fictional truths begin in real-life truths: the love affair and marriage of Mr. Goldman (author of previous novels The Divine Husband, The Long Night of White Chickens and The Ordinary Seaman, and of the nonfiction The Art of Political Murder) and the vivacious Ms. Estrada, the precocious only child of a doting mother; Ms. Estrada’s stellar doctoral work in Latin American literary studies at Columbia; her authorship of numerous stories and essays on Latin American fiction; her work on her own novel. The tragedy that took Ms. Estrada’s life at the beach at Mazunte 26 days before their second wedding anniversary is also true, as are Mr. Goldman’s ensuing efforts to both examine his culpability and immortalize her.

Central to this novel is the making and blurring of distinctions. Whose mourning is deeper, the mother’s or the husband’s? Which legacy is truer, ashes or written words? After Aura’s death, Francisco fights a bitter war with his mother-in-law, Juanita, who keeps Aura’s ashes. Francisco, however, keeps Aura’s diaries, laptop and handwritten notes, from which, Pygmalion-like, he reconstructs a fully rounded, wise, soulful, funny Aura, satisfying his longing to know what it was like to be her.

Assembling an altar to Aura in their Brooklyn apartment, Francisco turns insignificant remnants of her life into talismans — a tube of shampoo left behind in their Mazunte hotel room, for example. Totally bereft, he would daily “open a drawer and hold a pile of her clothes to my nose, frustrated that they smelled more of the drawer’s wood than of Aura, and sometimes I emptied out a drawer on the bed and lay facedown in her clothes.” Every scene, replete with such vivid imagery, is redolent with love.

Nonfiction elements — short, elegant essays on the literature of bereavement, ocean-wave science, jargon-free literary analysis — help Mr. Goldman blur other distinctions. In a brilliant, opening explication of Julio Cortázar’s short story “Axolotl,” the reader is made to peer through murky aquarium glass in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes at a pinkly beautiful, broad-smiling, nearly extinct Mexican reptile with funny ears. Suddenly, mid-sentence, Cortázar’s third-person narrator becomes the “I” of the axolotl. The passage haunts the rest of the novel: Like Cortázar’s narrator, Francisco wills himself into Aura’s mind, lovingly and repeatedly mentioning her wide smile and pretty ears. Later, Francisco finds in Aura’s laptop her notes from a disappointing seminar on literary theorist Henri Foucault’s essay “What Is an Author?” Francisco reads what had frustrated Aura, then responds:The essay seemed to me like a dazzling web woven by an insane genius spider. I read to the part where Foucault cites Saint Jerome’s contention that even an author’s name has no credibility as an individual trademark, because different individuals could have the same name, or someone could write under someone else’s name, and so on.”

Such literary riffs serve the novel’s goal of dissolving boundaries among characters, real and fictional. Similarly, stunning hallucinatory passages reminiscent of magic realism dissolve boundaries between reality and imagination, the living and the dead.

Francisco strives to relive Aura’s memories. He revives her playful imagination, lively good humor and sensuous, passionate intellect; he keeps her mind and voice alive, fulfilling her promise of literary greatness. His dreams evoke her physical presence. Francisco seems to become Aura.

The novel is non-sequential and repetitive. We know the end from the start; details and images reappear, piecemeal, throughout. This, of course, is how the mind works, offering memory’s crumbs in no apparent order, again and again. In a final chapter, however, Francisco recounts in orderly sequence all the horrifying events at Mezunte, in the ambulances, at the hospitals. His retelling is both a reliving and a confession that provide neither relief nor absolution.

Thanks to Mr. Goldman’s transparent and never lofty  prose, the reader inhabits Francisco’s head, his memory, his crotch, his bed. If any criticism could be leveled at this novel, it is its relentless embarrassment of the reader, who becomes a voyeur, peering through the veil of another human being’s inscrutability. (Camus’s L’Étranger comes to mind.) Perhaps Ms. Estrada might not have wanted others to read her notes. The reader squirms at witnessing Francisco’s shabby efforts to suppress his misery in the years after Aura’s death.

Some readers might regard the novel’s relentlessness as hyperbolic. Reading Say Her Name is total immersion in a deep-grieving, tortured soul, belying Shakespeare’s words in “Richard II”: “My grief lies all within, and these external manners of lament are merely shadows to the unseen grief that swells with silence in the tortured soul.” Near the end Francisco asks, “Could a shadowy facsimile of Aura’s soul or self be grafted onto mine? Was it maybe already there and would they see it?” This reader’s resounding answer: Yes.

Rhoda Trooboff, a longtime literature and writing teacher at National Cathedral School in Washington, DC, is a publisher of children’s books at Tenley Circle Press, Ltd.

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