Oh, stag of mine, darling stag, my one and only

Dear Ariana,

Die, My Love (2017, tr. Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff. Original: Matate, Amor, 2012) is all about voice: a short musical piece of sustained rage, lashing out at the reader like a trapped animal screaming for the hunter’s redeeming shot.

We are inside the spinning mind of an unnamed young mother living in a foreign countryside with her husband and toddler. From the beginning, we have a sense that she is in the middle of some kind of mental breakdown: she is at odds with her family, with the rural landscape around her, her neighbours, her body, her house, herself.

She feels trapped in marriage and motherhood, fantasizes about harming herself, feels “afraid of the harm she could cause the new-born”. There are hints of her husband’s infidelity and abusive character, but her (perhaps unreliable) image of him oscillates between a monster and a pariah. She blames him, she blames herself, she blames her baby, the landscape, the language, the sky, the stag’s golden eye staring at her. In a fragmented way, going back and forth in time, we are given flashbacks to her wedding day, her pregnancy, a short trip to the seaside, a party.

She fears for her son, thinks often that the baby is crying (only to find him sleeping silently in his crib – “as though a few seconds of his cries had been recorded and were playing back of their own accord“), and fantasizes about all the violent ways the child might hurt himself (or be hurt by by her). “And if I want to leave my baby in the car when it’s forty degrees out with the heat index, I will. And don’t tell me it’s illegal. If I want to opt for illegality, if I want to become one of those women who go around freezing their foetuses, then I will. If I want to spend twenty years in jail or go on the run, then I won’t rule those possibilities out either.”

At times, she plays the role of a happy wife, at others she takes pride in embarrassing people with her odd, animal-like behaviour. She develops an obsession with a neighbour, writing in his voice at one point (“Now I’m speaking as him”): he is “the stranger on the motorbike” or “the figure of the unknown man”, a man with whom she might or might not have had an affair. He comes and goes, like a presence in a dream, and we don’t know exactly who is stalking whom, nor whether he is a figment of her imagination, the faceless, unknown man of a dream or a sexual fantasy. At one point, she is sent off to a mental institution, but comes back unscathed.

The narrative balances itself in the contrast between the banality and boredom of the protagonist’s daily life and the brutality of her imagination and her desire – so that her bestiality ends up by exposing the conventional lives of the people around her as equally grotesque and bestial, but in different ways.

She feels trapped and stifled by motherhood, marriage, and the conventional norms that force her to be gentle and kind. She seems to be desperately longing to break out – but what she is breaking out of is less certain: her body, her mind, her husband, her baby, her house, her life, the glass door she is constantly crossing back and forth? “I throw out the heavy nappy and walk towards the patio doors. I always toy with the idea of going right through the glass and cutting every inch of my body, always aiming to pass through my own shadow. But just before I hit it, I stop myself and slide it open.”

What does the glass door stand for? Is it a door to or from herself? Is it some sort of barrier to a real, fulfilled life? Or a passage to hallucination? She seems to be constantly seeing herself and others through this glass, darkly. Whenever she tries to bridge this separation or to cross to the other side, it feels like she is jumping from one parallel existence to the next, between life and death, reality and imagination. Is it a glass door or a bell jar?

Does it stand for incommunicability? Our protagonist is a foreign woman thrown in a place alien to her, and there are hints that she is not able to speak the language of the place properly – which also implies that she is not understood and not really listened to. Like an animal, she is unable to articulate her feelings and her self in a way that the people on the other side of the glass would understand or accept. And, even when she does, they refuse to read it as such: it translates as an animal scream into the void. She does not belong, she is in the margins, she is on the edge. She is behind the glass door.

And we are trapped inside the bell jar with her. Oddly enough, her voice keeps coming from some place on the outside, like an out-of-the-body experience, blurring the line between the interior and exterior. She is at once the trapped animal and the voyeuristic hunter, examining her own life from above, stepping outside herself to become the witness of her own debasement.

It is tempting to try to impose a diagnose on her – maybe she is suffering from postpartum depression, or she is a victim of male abuse, or she is struggling to retain a sense of self in the face of motherhood, or she is a psychotic person… Or perhaps this temptation to explain her away is simply just another trap. She is constantly eluding us, eluding our language, our conventions and categories – like a wild beast.

She finds solace in retreating to the woods, as if she were inhabiting the borderline between domesticity and wildness, and the book is full of animal imagery. Her baby is described as a beast she cannot control nor understand: “And I think about how the child is a wild animal, about another person carrying your heart forever”. It feels as though the child were scarcely human, more like a creature with whom our protagonist is not able to have any sense of connection or kinship: “I don’t know what we’re doing with our tiny deformity, with our flesh. What we’re doing with our conjoined entrails.” Often, she mistakes her child’s cry for a flock birds screaming.

Our protagonist is constantly comparing herself to animals or acting like one: “I heard a gunshot and turned my head furtively, ingenuously, like a faun”; “I want to snarl, to howl, but instead I let the mosquitoes bite me”; “I feel like a spider the moment the water hits”. At one point, the couple’s car hits a stag, but the animal manages to survive, and resurfaces at several points in the story: “The stag used to appear at nightfall and linger between the woods and the garden”. The stag assumes an elusive meaning and seems to represent something in our protagonist – perhaps her freedom, her wildness, her will to live: “What saves me tonight, and every other night, has nothing to do with my husband’s love or my son’s. What saves me is the stag’s golden eye, still staring at me”; “Oh, stag of mine, darling stag, my one and only. I hope you’re out there”.

The last scene in the book reminded me of the accident with the stag, as if it were its distorted mirror image: “At first, I felt nothing but pain. The kind of pain a person doesn’t share, not even with herself. I was in mourning for a long time, but there came a moment when, like the widow who unlocks her front door for the first time, who eats dinner in silence for the first time, who gets into bed alone for the first time, I felt a sadness that was exhilarating, wild.” Once again, she is walking away into the woods, hurt but alive, much like the stag had ran off after being hit by the car: “The stag ran off as best it could, limping, as though it didn’t understand it had survived.” This final scene also reminded me of the final scene in The Awakening (1899), with your protagonist walking into the woods as Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier swam away into the sea, merging with it, losing her boundaries, becoming elemental – albeit with a more positive note.

You are playing with the in-between, blurring the fences between animal and human, as our protagonist is unable to control her instincts and to submit to reason and conventional rules: “And as my family gradually succumbs to the radiation of infidelity, I stick my hand through the barbed wire that separates beasts from men and hope the horse will gallop with its jaw hanging open and release its desire”.

You are also blurring the lines between bestiality and “high culture”: while being proud of acting like a beast, our protagonist keeps herself apart from the others around her through an armour of cultural references – Mrs. Dalloway, Zelda Fitzgerald, Mozart’s Divertimento in D major, K334, Glenn Gould playing English Suite No. 1. It feels almost as though her bell jar were vibrating with a song no one can hear – like her baby’s imaginary cries. “Take me, an educated woman, a university graduate – I’m more of an animal than those half-dead foxes, their faces stained red, sticks propping their mouths wide open“.

A dog is injured in the same car accident with the stag, and, unable to cope with its whimpering and pain, our protagonist shoots it in the night. Her reaction to the dog’s whimper disturbingly mirrors her reaction to her child’s cry, and we have the unsettling feeling that her real aim lies elsewhere: the husband, the baby, herself. Who is the love in the title, which love is the one to die? Is the trigger pulled by mercy or by rage? All we know is that the stag survives, the dog dies. Domesticity is blown up, but wildness comes to visit sometimes, lingering on the edge of the garden, like an enticing bait.

Yours truly,

J.


The Wilton Diptych (c. 1395–1399), unknown author

“I hope the first word my son says is a beautiful one. That matters more to me than his health insurance. And if it isn’t, I’d rather he didn’t speak at all. I want him to say magnolia, to say compassion, not Mum or Dad, not water. I want him to say dalliance.” – Ariana Harwicz, Die, My Love

*

His presence is my mouth’s desire made flesh. It is longing for lightning and watching the sky answer you. It is asking for the texture of white sand and seeing the town become a beach. It is wishing for a horse and having one walk slowly by, brushing against you with his back. – Ariana Harwicz, Die, My Love

*

He opened my legs wide. He poked around with his calloused hands. Desire is the last thing there is in my cries. And when his piece of flesh entered my hole (if that’s what making love is), I longed for a white room with a sea breeze blowing through it, the salt stinging the cuts on my shredded tongue. – Ariana Harwicz, Die, My Love

*

I dreamt it was drizzling, but it wasn’t. It was the sound of butterfly wings flapping together. That light sensuality of nocturnal butterflies. My heart was beating in my ears. – Ariana Harwicz, Die, My Love


About the book

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