Death in the afternoon

Goldman transforms gnawing grief into a remarkable, touching elegy

In “Say Her Name,’’ Francisco Goldman laments the loss of his young wife, Aura, killed in a swimming accident in Mexico. In “Say Her Name,’’ Francisco Goldman laments the loss of his young wife, Aura, killed in a swimming accident in Mexico. (Rachel Cobb)
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / April 3, 2011

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To call Francisco Goldman’s book about the death of his young Mexican wife an elegy hardly represents it. Lament is closer, but insufficient. It is a chain of eruptions, a meteor shower; not just telling but bombarding us in a loss that glitters. With the power and fine temper of its writing, it is as much poem as prose.

It stands with other remarkable texts of mourning; in particular with Federico Garcia Lorca’s plunging cataract of tribute to the slain bullfighter Ignacio Sanchez Mejias. Most notably in that poem’s climactic third section, “Cuerpo Presente’’ (The body. Here.).

Goldman has sounded the depths of anguish over his Aura — killed in a swimming mishap in Mexico — by piling up each grave and silly detail of their life together so as to compel her here. Like the altar he and two of her friends erected when he returned to the empty apartment: two books, her sunglasses, a hat, a wallet, a hair brush with several hairs tangled in it. All surmounted by her wedding dress draped across the mirror.

“Say Her Name’’ is listed as a “novel/memoir.’’ The author has made some fictional changes, filling in details of his wife’s early life, making composites of several peripheral characters, and a dreamlike epilogue set in France. In all important respects, though, it is a memoir; one that attempts no resolution, no reconciliation. Set roughly from the vantage of a year after Aura died, it jerks feverishly back and forth. With its spasms of obdurate mourning, it centers on their four years together, goes back to his and her earlier days, advances into his stony bereavement, tells of the unforgiving enmity of Aura’s mother, who blames him for her daughter’s death.

The details of the death itself (in her first venture at body surfing Aura was driven head-down into the sand, breaking her back) are only recounted near the end. Like the fatal Pacific wave that Goldman thinks of as starting thousands of miles away, his book has gathered force for 300 pages, darkly shadowing the comic quirks, the tender pleasures, the intimacy, the distances, while making them dazzle.

Chronicle of a death foretold, you could think, recalling another Latin American writer (Goldman is half Guatemalan). It is only because Goldman has depicted his years with the quicksilver Aura with such endearing wit that its end strikes with such desolate force. Tragedy, after all, has little to do with sadness.

The effort to get Aura from a remote village to a Mexico City hospital, barely alive, her only words as he attempts mouth-to-mouth resuscitation were “I can’t breathe’’ and “Love me a lot’’ was beset with maddening screw-ups that add up to creeping nightmare. Goldman conveys the horror; also the basilisk glare of Juanita, her fiercely protective mother, who threatens him with legal action.

These are tense set pieces, respectively heart-breaking and chilling. They generate the book’s propulsive drama. What they propel, though, is its most remarkable achievement: the incandescent portrait of a marriage of opposites.

In his late 40s when they met, Goldman had had a series of affairs, and gone through what he describes as five years of emotional sterility. A novelist of some repute, he was on a New York University panel to discuss the work of a young Mexican writer.

Aura, in her 20s and studying literature at Brown, had come by bus to attend. She and the Mexican writer were close; but during the reception afterward it was mostly the gob-smacked Goldman she talked to. And in a hesitant chain of approaches and retreats over the next half-year they came together.

Aura was small, pixie-like, spontaneous, and innocently seductive. Or perhaps seductively innocent. She was a passionate observer of their lives’ details and of Francisco, whom she lavished with demonstrative endearments and brainy demands. He was more settled and seemingly sensible but utterly open to her joyful magic.

Twenty years separated them; her beauty and his froggy middle-aged looks joined them. “Ay, mi amor, qué feo eres’’ (“my love, how ugly you are’’), she would exclaim, tugging at his jowls. “Poor you, you don’t a have neck.’’ She worried he would die, leaving her bereft. He promised to live to 75; she would be 55 and young enough to find someone else.

They lived in Brooklyn, where he wrote; she made an arduous commute to Columbia where she was studying for an advanced degree in Latin American literature. Sometimes she would phone him to join her for lunch. An hour each way. What about my work, he wondered, but went nevertheless. An outrageous demand, and he desperately mourns it.

There are sober hints beneath her combative, infinitely winning charm. Her burning ambition was to be an extraordinary writer; she struggled with short stories and a sketch of a novel. Goldman prints some of it; what we read is an almost that might or might not have ripened. He offers it along with everything else he evokes of her. Like the rest, it affects us through his unreconciled sorrow and the artistry of the offering — made to confer on her something of the immortality she craved. Would she have succeeded? Possibly not, but he has.

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at richardgeder@gmail .com.

By Francisco Goldman
Grove, 350 pp., $24