by Olga Stein
The Condesa of M. is an absorbing tale within a tale. The tale within is of a ranch-owning Mexican noblewoman, Rita, an irregular beauty, and a woman of intelligence, remarkable intuition, and an uncompromising sense of Justice. Her beloved husband dies unexpectedly but comes back as an other-wordly presence to watch over her, give her practical advice and to note with all-seeing eyes how those around his living wife and children conduct themselves. His presence is intermittant, but when he appears, he becomes that all-knowing narrator, delivering insight which even Rita, still part of the constraints of ....can not ascend to.
by Nikki Abraham
George Szanto does not want your condolences on the death of his wife, thanks all the same. She is very much alive today, as she was several years ago when her long illness and subsequent death was presumed to have occurred. A recent interview with Szanto, while he was in Toronto promoting his new book The Condesa of M, began with an anecdote that illustrates the danger of creating a fictional protagonist who shares the author's name. Chuckling at the memory, Szanto recounts his astonishment when, the last time he was in town (promoting The Underside of Stones, the first in his trilogy about Mexico of which The Condesa of M is the second instalment), the Toronto Star ran a review gravely stating that "it was a very good book but in a curious way very sad because we know that Mr. Szanto's wife had just died."
In The Underside of Stones, Jorge, the central character, first goes to Mexico because his wife has just died and he wants to change his life entirely. In The Condesa of M Jorge¨a criminologist by profession, author of a decade-long study on victims, and a volunteer Chair of the Writers-in-Prison Committee for his local branch of PEN¨returns to Mexico with his new wife Rissa and her eight-year-old daughter Kiki. It is a sort-of honeymoon trip that is combined, with reluctance on Jorge's part, with a visit organized by PEN to advocate for the release of an imprisoned writer called Mono Loro, who also happens to be an activist priest.
The priest had earlier written a book, a novelization of a legend about an 18th-century noblewoman accused of blasphemy, which Jorge reads, making The Condesa of M a story within a story. The strange tale of the Condesa Marfa Victoria, her rancho Santa Rita, its servants and workers, her family history and the unusual rituals held at a bottomless volcanic lake, becomes intertwined with the modern situation Jorge and his family find when they begin to get involved with the inhabitants of the isolated central Mexican district of Michoac▀n, where the Condesa once lived. Both stories, however real they may appear to the reader, are wholly invented by Szanto. "The book comes out of bits and pieces of life that I've lived through, and bits and pieces of Mexico that I've put together in somewhat different ways than I experienced. It is in no way autobiographical," says Szanto emphatically.
Szanto's interest in Mexico¨love affair, really¨dates from the mid-1980s, when he was teaching at McGill University in Montreal, running a program called Communications and finding himself drained by the constant politics of trying to make his small program work within the larger university. (He himself teaches comparative literature, and the lengthy list of works he has published includes literary criticism, plays, and studies of various authors, as well as fiction.)
In 1985, Szanto decided to take a whole year off to write and to recharge his energy for teaching. Wanting to go somewhere warm and relatively inexpensive, he and his wife, after considering various European options, decided on Mexico, which would not only be warm, but would also keep Szanto at least on the same continent as his ailing father, and therefore more accessible if he was needed.
What attracted Szanto when he scouted out Mexican locations was the Mexico of the Central Highlands, the Spanish 18th-century colonial Mexico rather than the coastal Mexico he had experienced before, which was "pretty, but so overrun with people just like us" that it did not seem different enough to be really intriguing. This time, landing in central Mexico, he found it¨"marvelous, just a stunning place to be. We fell in love with it, just fell in love with it, were overwhelmed by it, immediately." He found a place to live and stayed there for his year away from teaching. In fact, he reveals, the anecdote in The Underside of Stones about the earthquake that shakes the area the day after Jorge's arrival, and which stops the clock on the cathedral dome at 7:19, the hour at which it remains for the entire year of his stay, is autobiographical. Since this literally earth-shaking encounter with our ancient neighbour to the south, Mexico has seized Szanto's creative energy. After his year off, he reduced his teaching load to half-time (he has since retired from teaching entirely), and now returns as often as he can. Mexico, like some kind of intoxicant for Szanto¨to which the novels are testament¨exerts a powerful influence on his imagination.
While the books about Mexico that have resulted from this encounter are fictional, Szanto admits that "Jorge's naivetT about Mexico is most certainly my own." For instance, both The Underside of Stones and The Condesa of M. include ghost characters who behave in accordance with the laws of physics as we know it¨they are not materially solid, for instance¨but they are very much more than momentary apparitions. These beings appear to be quite matter-of-factly accepted by the living characters in the novels. Has Szanto himself actually seen ghosts? No. And he doesn't even really believe in them, at least not in the way that the characters in the novels do. He explains: "the existence of the supernatural, the presence of people who have died, that's a very Mexican kind of thing. In a curious way, I thought that the best way of coming to some kind of new understanding of Mexico myself, would be to just stay open and listen to what happens and to what people tell me. The process of accepting what one hears includes accepting the fact that weird things happen, and ghosts are around. I thought I'd just take that hypothesis and see where it would lead me."
In order to naturalize the non-natural, and get the reader to accept the supernatural in the stories, Szanto uses the character of Jorge, the newcomer who has everything to learn about Mexico. In the opening story in The Underside of Stones, Jorge at the outset is talking to a dead man. It took him, Szanto admits with a laugh, "about 80 drafts" to find the easy, natural way of introducing the dead-as-living-energy forces, beings who may not be able to eat or interact with our world, but who can talk to us¨if we have eyes to see them. The risk in introducing such characters is that the reader will either find the whole idea too fantastic to be believable and will put down the story; or that the author in working to make it believable, will lose the flow of the story and the reader's interest in the unfolding events. To Szanto's credit, in The Underside of Stones and in The Condesa of M., such characters are vitally important both to the action of the stories and the understanding of Mexico which is being conveyed.
Asked about the trilogy, Szanto describes it this way: the first book is Naive Mexico. This one is Religious Mexico, and the third one will be Political Mexico. "I knew I had to write about Religious Mexico¨I didn't know how I was going to do it but I knew I had to, partly because religion is everywhere in Mexico in one form or another, and partly because when I published The Underside of Stones one reviewer pointed out that it's impossible to write about Mexico without writing about Religious Mexico, and I think that's dead right." Religious Mexico is written from the point of view of an outsider who is more or less agnostic (as is George Szanto).
Szanto sees himself primarily as a storyteller. "Samuel Beckett towards the end of his life said, Što find a shape to satisfy the mess, that is the job of the artist now.' I think that's a great phrase, and it may be hubris but I think I can find shape to satisfy some of the mess, to give meaning where there wasn't meaning." In some ways, Szanto feels that these are not really Mexican stories, but rather "they are stories about Northern discovery of other possibilities. They have Mexican subject matter, but the attempt to make sense of one's own world can sometimes only happen in a kind of mediated or triangulated way. It's not possible in a straight naturalistic novel."
As for the political dimension, Szanto agrees that politics are central to his outlook: "the political is the active part of whatever the belief system is¨be it capital, or religion, or whatever." He's an avowed Marxist, although he points out that this is not as radical as it might once have been considered: "You know who's reading Marx now? Business executives. Marx's politics have not been very good, at least not in our time, but his economic theories¨the whole notion of business cycles, for instance¨they are common ideas now." As a writer, Szanto would rather work on fiction: "I've written my share of political tracts, and the world changed not one iota. Those are dead, but some of the stories are still being read by some people. If they work, either you reach a breadth of people¨people you might not otherwise have touched¨or you reach people at later times."
Szanto began writing stories as a teenager¨mystery, fantasy, or, as he characterizes them, "what-if" stories. His first serious writing was playwriting, but having to work with actors meant that he had less control over the final product than he does with fiction. "When theatre works, I think it's the most exciting written art form," he says. "But more often than not, it doesn't work. Also, the kinds of plays I was writing, no one wanted to produce because they were non-naturalistic. It seemed like a good time to jump ship."
Szanto counts among his influences Dickens and Balzac¨"heavy-duty 19th century story-telling. . .I still love Dickens," he says. "I was less interested when Flaubert came along and the stories became more conceptual. Also, Kafka is central to my thinking and so is Beckett." In The Condesa of M., the modern story about Jorge, his family and the imprisoned priest is intertwined with the story of a powerful 18th century condesa who lived in the area, and this story is written in a completely different style than the modern story. "I couldn't have done that without having read Dickens," says Szanto.
Szanto was also interested in the challenge of "trying to figure out how a non-male mind works." The condesa of his story is not a modern woman, but she is a strong-willed one. Szanto says that he is attracted to strong women generally.
The third book in the trilogy is almost finished. While Szanto does not elaborate, he does reveal that the character of Jorge in the next book is plunged into the politics of Mexico. "In The Condesa of M., politics is in hiding. In the next book, it's very much present as an ongoing force, and it becomes clear whom politics is serving or what politics is serving." Does that mean it will be more didactic than the previous books? Szanto rejects this idea. "I don't think Marxism comes through in any obvious way in the stories. My point of view is built on a set of principles, not a dogma. I'm not a do-or-die Marxist, but in terms of how the world works, his thinking has influenced me. There's a certain clarity of mind that comes when you use Marx for analyzing certain kinds of things, like literary texts or circumstances in the world. That's valuable in a teaching situation, but not for writing fiction. But then, I wouldn't use Dickens for my politics, either!" ˛