The first love in Elena Garro’s novella First Love isn’t exactly what you might expect.
For one thing, it isn’t about teenagers nor about the sweaty, fevered lust that love can be. For another, it involves Siegfried, a 20-year-old German prisoner-of-war, still in custody after the recently ended World War II, and Barbara, who is at least 30 and has her daughter, maybe 10, who is walking near the two when the discussion of first love takes place.
Indeed, it is from the daughter’s point of view that the scene unfolds this way:
Suddenly, she glanced back and saw the outline of Siegfried and her mother as they shone brilliantly against the darkness, as if a halo circled around their blond hair and their golden bodies tanned by the sun. They were very far behind…
“Barbara, you are my first love,” said Siegfried, with eyes cast down, as his friends walked far ahead.
“And you are the first person to love me,” Barbara answers, almost ashamed, as she stood in front of that young man who looked upon her with such intensity.”
Siegfried is one of seven German POWs whom Barbara and her daughter, also named Barbara, have befriended in a town near the Normandy beach in France. The two Barbaras, who may be Americans, have come from their home in Paris for a vacation, away from the man who is the unloving husband of the mother and the father of the child.
While many in the town look down on the prisoners and on the two Barbaras for associating with the young men, the constrictions of the situation limit the extent to which much of a romance can develop beyond longing glances.
That seems to be the point, not just in First Love but also in Garro’s other novella Look for My Obituary.
Both are about doomed love.
Garro, who was once married to poet Octavio Paz, was 80 and a year away from her death when these two novellas were published together in 1997 by Curbstone Press. They had won Garro the 1996 Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz Prize, named for the 17th century nun who is a major figure in the literary history of Mexico.
These novellas are about people drawn together into relationships that can’t fully mesh. They are about small moments of connection, and about moments that occur in a life but cannot be extended.
For instance, at one point in First Love, Barbara the daughter is hanging out with the Germans as they are on a work crew breaking rocks. Her mother is back at the hotel.
They played for a while and then went back to work. Barbara helped to carry the small rocks they gave her. And there, in the countryside open for all to see, without objects to fight over, without interests, with no past or future, the slightest gestures were full of meaning. Barbara would never forget their voices or their actions.
While they split the rocks, they would make-believe they were precious stones and then baptize them with names before giving them to her.
“This emerald is for Barbara,” and they would give her a pebble she would store at the side of the path.
Each stone had a secret history. Sometimes Siegfried, at other times Klaus or Christian, would relate the legend.
“The sea and police cars”
In Look for My Obituary, set in Mexico City around 1960, Manuel, in a loveless arranged marriage, falls in love with Irene, the mysterious girl who, on a dark night in the rain, jumps into his car asking him to escape a mugger.
They meet in the night whenever she tells Manuel to find her, and, for the most part, they simply drive around the city for a while until, when his back is turned, she flees into the dark.
He associated her name with the sea and with the police cars when they travel across the city whining, indicating a serious, unseen danger for the pedestrians, who are frightened as they pass by. “Irene, Selene, Sirena,” he said, mechanically to himself, and he knew he was in danger.
That translates: “Irene, Moon, Mermaid.”
The story is suffused with an unclear, uncertain feel of danger. After all, there is its title Look for My Obituary.
Irene tells Manuel that someone is trying to kill her. “Don’t say silly things,” he replies.
“Day after tomorrow you’ll find my obituary in the papers,” she sobbed, hiding herself in his chest.
“Made of ashes”
These novellas aren’t about romances that might have been.
They are about relationships that are fractured at their heart from the beginning, loves that were never going to be able to work. And everyone, even seemingly clueless Manuel and the child Barbara, know that arms are reaching across chasms that will not be bridged.
Despite the yearning, despite hopes and despite even vague plans, there is no expectation of a happy ending.
At one point, Irene asks Manuel, “Am I your love?
“Imagine that you are. Imagine that you are my love, that I can’t live without you…the world turns to ashes when I can’t see you. Furthermore, now I know it was always made of ashes…”
…”You are also my love…What are we going to do?” she asked calmly.
Yet, even as she asks, she knows there is nothing to do.
And Manuel knows, too.
Patrick T. Reardon