Saturday, February 18, 2017

Stranger, by David Bergen

Image from the Star

In the Guatemalan highlands, by a lovely volcanic lake, Iso tends to foreign women who come to the fertility clinic seeking help to conceive. Told from her point of view, Bergen's story rings utterly true. In her first interaction with Dr. Eric Mann, Iso turns "away slightly"..."in order to pay him respect, " as the author telegraphs the gulf of culture between Iso and the American.

Against her better judgment, Iso fall in love with the doctor. But when his estranged wife arrives for spa treatments, he maintains the fiction of their marriage. Cut by the hollowness of Eric's professions of love, Iso tells herself that words, "like the husk of the coffee bean,..cover what is essential." Soon after, Eric crashes his motorcycle, and flees the country to avoid the consequences.

Pregnant and abandoned by Eric, Iso initially seeks comfort in a local man. Roberto has "a convincing jaw" but "no sense of consequence." Soon, she must tell him "a relationship isn't possible."

When Iso's baby is born at the clinic, a darker side of the business emerges. Women pay good money to adopt, and based on signatures extracted while she was in labour, Iso's child is taken from her within a day of the birth and handed over to Eric and Susan, back in the US.

Loving and concerned, Iso's mother, Senora Perdido, does not advise or interfere. Instead, she tells her daughter about the time she spent in America, hoping her story might help Iso. Prophetically, she expresses what she felt as a foreigner, saying "You appeared to be stupid, and you weren't noticed," unless "for your body, or to clean someone's toilet, or look after someone's child."

Senora Perdido knows that wisdom must be earned. Pouring her own secrets into her daughter's soul cannot protect Iso, who will still walk a difficult path. The mother-daughter relationship is full of love, trust, and consideration. On the last night before she leaves for the north in pursuit of her abducted baby, Iso pretends to sleep while her mother weeps, knowing that if she "had wanted to let Iso know she was sad, she would have cried during the day."

Through the choices Iso must make in el norte, America's stark social divisions appear. Needing to work illegally, she enlists a compatriot as an ally. Vitoria helps her get a health certificate, "mostly for TB but there were other diseases the rich were worried about. Especially if you're coming from the outside." As maid for a wealthy couple, Iso practices the silent "art of igual" she learned at the clinic.

When she tracks down Eric Mann, now much changed, she thinks "she should hate him, but she didn't." Laying careful plans to get her baby back from the doctor and his wife, Iso inspects her heart, and sees that hatred, though "exhilarating," is also "very dangerous." Since "passion, anguish, jealousy and anger...produce nothing but mistakes," she needs a "cold heart" to do what she must.

Back in Guatemala, her Uncle Santiago, a humble carpenter, is silently supportive. To the visitor who is sent from America to discover whether Iso has returned home with the baby, he explains that "we cannot...take away a man's honour." Then he calmly does what is necessary.

This book touches the pulse of our times, expressing the social and cultural divisions that drive people to take desperate measures. Considering the recent spate of political rhetoric designed to divide "us" from "them," its publication could hardly have been better timed.

With the authority of a kind of truth that is not factual, David Bergen's beautiful tale simultaneously cuts and heals the reader with "the knife of insight." Through the experience of his Guatemalan woman protagonist,  he bares the political, social and economic reality of this moment in human history.

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