That was the first and last time I saw Aura Estrada. She died on July 25, 2007, in the unlikeliest of accidents on a beach in Mexico, just after her thirtieth birthday and just before her and Frank's second anniversary. This is the tragedy that opens Say Her Name, a book that that serves as a memorial to Aura, a memoir of love and loss and a meditation on the mystery of other lives.
I feel somewhat guilty now for having such cheerful memories of that wedding. Instead of being a happy prelude to a happy marriage, it is a high point of a tragic story, and I feel like thinking too happily of it is only to make the tragic loss even harder. My father, a friend of Frank, invited me to come to the wedding. At the time I was taking a little bit of time away from college, so it was easy enough to go. We turned it into a big trip, and my father and I spent the week or so preceding the wedding traveling through Michoacán, spending a day or two in a few of the tiny, magical villages scattered around the state. Uruápan, famous for a beautiful tropical park and for it's wonderful coffee, sold in burlap bags in just about every shop; Paracho, the guitar-making center of Mexico, where the main street is lined with luthiers (and curiously, home of the “Gilb” guitar factory) and the center of town has an outdoor stage where concerts are held during the annual Guitar Festival; San Miguel de Allende itself, the beautiful town that Mexico has declared a historical monument, a cobble-stone lined city where many Americans buy houses and where most of the wedding guests stayed, where the pre-wedding party was held. For me it was an incredible time, an introduction to a different Mexico, more local and more varied than one can appreciate from far away.
It was also an introduction to something of the glamour of the writing world. I grew up around writers, but I grew up largely around a world of Texas writers, which is a different thing entirely from the kind of extremely intelligent, cosmopolitan, well-educated, well-dressed and largely New York-based writing world that I found at the wedding. It was fantastic to be around so many people who knew so much, who had written books, who had read so many books, who were so effortlessly and unashamedly smart. I can remember being served tequila by Jon Lee Anderson's (the war reporter, now at The New Yorker) teenage son. I remember finding out that someone at my table had written a couple of history books, I remember meeting Chuck Siebert, a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine (and married to Frank's ex-wife, the “Gus” of the book), I remember meeting Colm Tóibín (although I couldn't even make sense out of the name when Colm himself said it with an Irish accent that took me a bit of getting used to); and all of this amidst what is still the biggest wedding I've ever seen. A new and completely different world to me, one I remember staring at in fascination wanting to be a part of.
Say Her Name, in spite of the autobiographical elements of the work, is labeled as a novel. I think, however, that it works better as well-observed study of Goldman's own love and loss than as a novel about love. Its impossible to exactly how much of the book is based on hard fact, but I suspect it is a very high percentage. I found the work more impressive for the authenticity and depth of the feelings it captures than for its strictly literary qualities, so it is more as a memoir and a memorial than a novel that I think of it.
The book begins with a retelling of a Julio Cortázar's story about a writer observing an axolotl (a lizard-y creature) through a glass every day and always wondering what it was like to be an axolotl until one day without warning, very suddenly and in mid-sentence, becomes the axololotl, wondering what the man outside the glass is thinking. Frank tells us it was a favorite story of Aura, and he tells us that when they first went to Paris, Aura wanted nothing more than to go to the Jardin des Plantes of the story and see the axolotl, only to learn that there were none there. She cried, and Frank, not such a crier himself, was left to wonder what is must be like to be Aura.
The story, at least as told by Goldman, hints at a kind of obsessive but hopeless observation, a wordly desire for complete knowledge that can only be satisfied by something supernatural, a complete and total metamorphosis. That desire, that obsessiveness and that hopelessness, is the driving force of this book.
It is, as Goldman himself says after the story, him observing Aura, giving us the story of a girl raised in Mexico City by a hard-working, hard-driving and extremely devoted mother, leaving Mexico to join the international republic of literature, and then a prodigiously smart woman climbing up the academic career path studying semiotics and literary theory, even though her real desire was to become a real writer, a writer of novels and stories like her beloved Cortázar and like Borges and Bolaño. He wants to know absolutely everything about her, know every thought that she ever had, to truly know what it would be like to be Aura, as though to counter the fact that she is no more.
I have to suspect that Goldman, sharing with many writers a suspicion of overly opaque academic literary theorists, downplayed Aura's academic interests. What he does say of them seems to indicate that she took her academic career, with its intense discussions of such things as the value of “the literary text” and the psychoanalytical ideas of Jacques Lacan, very seriously. She was, after all, a getting a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Columbia, which is no small thing. It was clear she had doubts about the professional future that, unless her writing career took off, lay ahead of her. But it is an open question whether these doubts were a normal aspect of a young woman's transition out of student life and into an academic career, or were, signs of awakening to her own potential of becoming a creative writer, something that he himself could more readily appreciate.
Along with his meditations on the possibilities of Aura's life is Goldman observing his past self from a few years ago, the Frank who was in love, the man saw the whole world differently because of that love. A writer can treat every example of love as distinctive, the details of every love story making the emotions themselves unique. Or he can treat love as a universal, a glorious state of mind achieved through relationships with other people, the details only important for showing a path to that it. This book leans toward the latter, and I think the book is at its best when it stays there, and when Frank is able to capture, however fleetingly, his own perspective on the world while he was in that state of love. The details of Aura's life and the details of the relationship that fill the book don't always fit neatly into the mold of a typical, fairy-tale love story, and I don't think Goldman means them to. Rather they are a testament to a full and complex life that Aura lived, and how everything connected to that life has been transformed by Goldman's love and loss. They show us of how different the world looks through the eyes of a man in love—that increasingly distant creature that Goldman wants so badly to become.
Goldman does capture some of his old perspective, and we get glimpses of a different world that Aura brought Goldman into, a wondrous world exemplified by extreme sorrow at a missing axolotl in Paris—an entirely new consciousness, one of youth and innocence and passions:
Early on in the book we learn of his fear that he's lost contact with this world, commenting that “when I was with Aura, I was still connected through her to the global empire of youth, and that now I wasn't.” He provides plenty of evidence of Aura's youthfulness and his ability to find the beauty in it. One suspects that this ability may have caused him to exaggerate this aspect of Aura's personality, making her seem, in spite of her obvious professionalism, independence and academic success (all of which are, to be fair, shown in the book), to be sometimes almost childish. Whatever it was, it had a profound effect on him that is easy to see on every page.It was all new for me, this degree of intimacy and trust and its requirements: an expansion of attention and a concurrent narrowing of focus to be able to take in everything, past and present, inside the radius of Aura's life that I could; to try to understand at least as much as she would allow; to be able to understand at least as much as she would allow; to be able to anticipate and protect, to be always ready. Love was new to me, believe it or not.
Goldman also writes of his occasional glimpses into the divine, feminine world that love brings—and how getting those glimpses can sometimes lead men down paths that are somewhat less than love-filled. Looking for a diamond ring that he'd given Aura, Goldman has almost given up when he puts the the search in the hands of a woman:
Wait, let me think, said Valentina. I'm good at figuring things like this out. Anyway, women tend to use the same logic when they hide their jewelry.She finds the ring immediately, and Goldman given another reason to marvel at this mystery that is woman. Sometimes his longing for women turns him towards other women, even during his mourning, and he is open about these affairs, though they are a little difficult to read about. It is also a bit of feminine wisdom that gives what I'd say is the saddest moment of the book, a description of one more incomplete metamorphosis:
A woman friend of mine—a bit older than me and the mother of a recently married young daughter—said that Aura still belonged more to her mother than to me, that Juanita had still been Aura's “rightful caretaker.” She meant no unkindness, and was only expressing what seemed obvious to her.I close with another line from the book, words to say that not everything was change and metamorphosis.
You hadn't had time yet to make Aura all your own, she said. Once you'd had a child and started a family of your own, that metamorphosis would have been complete.
Say her name. It will always be her name. Not even death can steal it. Same alive as dead, always. Aura Estrada.