Cielos de la Tierra
Novela casi histórica, novela de utopía, novela abierta y novela-retrato, Cielos de la Tierra es una mirada al fin del siglo y a los desengaños e ilusiones del hombre moderno, metáfora de la destrucción y de la desesperanza.
Cielos de la Tierra es, además, una nueva propuesta literaria que recoge tres manuscritos en un texto: por un lado, la crónica escrita en el siglo XVI por Hernando de Rivas, quien ya viejo narra en latín la verdadera historia del Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlateloco, y a espaldas de uss contemporáneos esconde su manuscrito. Por otra parte, la versión de Estela Díaz, quien en la difícil década de los noventa encuentra el manuscrito y cree hallar en él una reflexión sobre el presente y su historia personal, por lo que se aboca a paleografiarlo, traducirlo, y a su vez a esconderlo, siguiendo el juego de Hernando, incluyendo también su retrato personal.
Finalmente, Lear, una mujer de la comunidad de sobrevivientes del futuro, recibe el manuscrito que Estela ha escondido, y al tiempo que traduce el texto y su versión de la historia de Hernando, cuenta su vida en L’Atlántide. La utopía, casi impecable, adolesce de un defecto irreparable: la prohibición de la memoria que llevará a la abolición del lenguaje, cuyas repercusiones presenciará el lector de estas páginas.
Edición: Alfaguara, México, 1997, 369 pp.
La novela es una intensa búsqueda interior con tres personajes que son uno solo, la reflexión sobre el pasado perdido se anuda con la reafirmación de éste en el presente; no así el futuro, puesto que las imágenes de destrucción se muestran certeras; hay, es cierto, el profundo amor por la literatura, por la palabra, qunque no parece ser sufciienta. Cielos de la Tierra es una novela pesimista, desoladora, en la que sólo se halla consuelo no en la muerte, sino en la escritura viva.
Excelsior, agosto de 1997.
Daniel Rodríguez Barrón:
En Cielos de la Tierra, Carmen Boullosa ensaya las relaciones entre hisotira, memoria y lenguaje; en el mundo de Lear se corre el riesgo de que se implante la “Reforma del lenguaje” que abolirá el uso de las palabras escritas u orales en favor de la comunicación sólo mediante las imágenes, así como, para quien lo pida, podría amputarse la parte del cerebra que se relaciona con la “capacidad de lengua de la persona”.
… Con Cielos de la Tierra, Carmen Boullosa ha creado una hermosa metáfora sobre los peligros de la utopía y del olvido, una metáfora que ha sido considerada por muchos otros autores, y que más de una vez ha dado grandes obras; me hace pensar en la ilusión del hombre perfecto que termina en la más absoluta abyección en La isla del doctor Moreau, en la protagonista que en medio de la destruccción total sigue narrando como si hubiera posibilidad de que su historia llegara a algunas manos; me hace pensar en Kalki de Gore Vidal, y por la obsesión del control que ejercen sobre los individuos las sociedades más avanzadas recuerda a varias películas
… Boullosa sabe explorar la trágica convicción de Mutis de que sin importar el grado de erosión al que han llegado las palabras aún tienen “el poder de invocar la memoria de otros tiempos y las imaginaciones, y lo que fue, por la ley arbitraria de la realidad, imposible.”
El semanario de Novedades, 6 de julio 1997.
Daína Chaviano, Newsweek:
Pertenece a una de las últimas generaciones de autoras mexicanas que han desarrollado un estilo intimista, sin desdeñar las complejidades de la historia. Y admite que, además de escribir, leer y pasar horas perezosas con sus hijos, le gusta bailar y el vino tinto.
Así es Carmen Boullosa, una de las mujeres que han venido a sacudir los esquemas, mostrando un encantador desparpajo, no exento de feminidad, que convierte sus libros en universos muy personales. Desde sus poemarios … Boullosa ha estado trabajando en una literatura emparentada, de cierta forma, con la novelística surrealista de esa precursora del feminismo que es Anaïs Nin… aunque esta vez, su sello es indudablemente latino.
En la novela Cielos de la Tierra, como en las anteriores, la trama parece transcurrir cercana a esos niveles por donde se mueve el subconsciente. Sus personajes deambulan por mundos interiores de gran complejidad y de variada lectura. Y el lector llega a sentir que, si avanza más en ellos, caerá en un pozo sin fin, como el de Alicia cuando iba corriendo tras el conejo. Y es que adentrarse en la época de L’Atlantide, en el antiguo Tenochtitlan y en el México de los años 90, puede resultar una especie de mäelstrom dalinesco. “Curioso y más que curioso”, como diría el personaje de Carroll.
Cielos de la Tierra es una utopía llena de misterios y recovecos sinuosos que están ahí, pero que nos cuesta atrapar… y en ellos radica su mayor encanto, pues aunque la trama se mueve en diferentes tiempos históricos o cuasi históricos, todo sirve de pretexto para reflexionar sobre las interioridades de la existencia humana, transcurra ésta en el pasado, en el presente, o en el futuro.
Newsweek en español, 24 de septiembre de 1997.
J. Ernesto Ayala-Dip, El País
La propuesta de Carmen Boullosa es antiutópica. El mejor remedio para los melancólicos de demasiados cielos. Que haya siempre alguien para hablarnos del infierno, nos dice la escritora en esta inteligente novela.
El País, Madrid, 17 de enero, 1998.
A Spiritual Proposal for the New Millennium in Cielos de la Tierra, Earthly Heavens, by Carmen Boullosa, Juanita Garciagodoy, NDSU, Volume 2, 2000 / ISSN: 1533-0842
I Notes about spirituality and Mexican literature
It is difficult for humans to deny our spirituality. Many seek altered states of consciousness to transcend the material and the intellectual realms. Throughout our species’ history, it has been most common to establish a religion–normally one per society–that facilitates and directs such experiences and that presents a philosophy which both helps adherents make sense of the world and carries ethical norms. It also usually supports, supplements, or complements a political hierarchy. But in the century the end of which we have recently witnessed, things changed, at least among a growing number who have had the good fortune to study and travel and to know people from cultures, tongues, and religions different from the one of our original community.
With what results for our religious orientation? I know few intellectuals entirely satisfied by an established religion. We have too many questions; we know too much, think too much, are too open to the other to consider it alien, to negate its wisdom and goodness. Some have found that answers proposed by other philosophies, ritual systems, and religions to the mysteries of life and death sometimes satisfy us more than those furnished by our own.
I am eager to see how Mexican authors work with spiritual themes. What do these insightful, intelligent, cultivated people who know well their society and their own self observe? How do they present traditions which themselves distill fine syncretisms? Do they express sympathy towards an official religion? For all of them as does Sara Sefchovich in The Lady of Dreams? Do they rearticulate Judeo-Christian traditions as she does in Too Much Love, and as does Brianda Domecq in Domestic Bestiary and The Saint of Cabora? Are they devotees of Guadalupe? Are they mystics? Atheists?
Several writers consider these matters through their fiction, representing the vitality of Mexican spirituality, animated by pre-Columbian beliefs and practices and sustained by popular Catholicism and contemporary culture. For example, in Christopher Unborn and The Law of Love, both Carlos Fuentes and Laura Esquivel, respectively, include devotees of the Virgin of Guadalupe and "New Age."
II Notes about Cielos de la Tierra, Earthly Heavens
The as yet untranslated Cielos de la Tierra, Earthly Heavens, published in 1997, on which I focus today, has three unequal parts set at: the dawn of the Spanish colonization of Mexico, the decade of 1990, and a post apocalyptic future. The colonial and future parts are longer than the 90s one. Through this novel, Carmen Boullosa contemplates, among other things, the spiritual consequences of violence. Earthly Heavens implies that both the criminality of many politicians and that of some poor and unemployed people which weighs so heavily on the residents of the Mexico City of our days that many feel they live in a different country from that in which they were born and raised, have ties to historical malfeasance. This violence could result in a dystopia. I do not intend to do a complete reading of the novel; I want only to explore the possibility that it contains a spiritual proposal for Mexico’s future.
On the one hand, Carmen Boullosa seems to think it unlikely that Mexico will ever give up Christianity, which she implies introduced violence and chaos to Mexico when it faced Aboriginal? practices. On the other hand, Boullosa proposes that study can satisfy our spiritual longing. In particular, her novel suggests that historical literature, our cultural memory, invites us not only to experience the past, but to recognize and choose the good in life. We have the example of the two female narrators who are faithful to their anthropological, literary project to paleograph and translate an ancient text, very conscious of the importance of memory and of the value that "los hombres de la historia," the people of history–that is, us–had.
What Lear (whose name you should pronounce in Spanish so as not to confuse her with Shakespeare’s king)–the female protagonist narrator of the future section of Earthly Heavens studies gives her the fortitude to separate from her neighbors–and note that only 39 people inhabit L'Atlàntide–and resist joining them in a "bath of forgetfulness" which definitively deprives them of language. Boullosa joins a tradition of writers who see a kind of soteriological path in the creation and appreciation of literature. She says, "¿Y por qué sí los libros?," and I translate:
So, why books? Because books conquer death in a very different way than we survivors have managed to do. ... Books have always been memory towards times past and future, and towards times that never were or could not be or cannot be or might have been.(21)
Books extend our potential to experience and imagine as, perhaps, nothing else can. The very fact of our conference attests to this profoundly.
III Notes about the character Fray Hernando
The narrator protagonist of the colonial third of the novel is Friar Hernando de Rivas, true name of an outstanding Indigenous student at the Royal School of the Holy Cross, Tlatelolco, established by Juan de Zumárraga, Pedro de Gante,
and other Franciscan missionaries in 1536 and abandoned a few decades thereafter. Fray Hernando’s spiritual life, in Boullosa’s fabulation, encompasses childhood innocence, depression upon being separated from his mother to whom he is rather oedipally attached, and a conversion to Christianity whence he ascends to an impressive mystical culmination still at a tender age. In his senectude, he is entirely disillusioned by the Franciscan mission and by monastic life. Despite the sad ending, don Hernando’s manuscript inspires his translators: Estela in the twentieth century, and Lear in a future distant even for us.
Fray Hernando’s spiritual peripateia follows the Franciscan project to train an Indigenous elite for the priesthood. Said project was begun with great hope and enthusiasm, but before long, it was forsaken due to a hornet’s nest of cultural differences, ecclesiastical and colonial politics, and a twisted theology that denied Amerindians a religious role beyond the secular. According to Fray Hernando, behind that theology was envy of the Amerindians’ intelligence and talent as scholars, and envy of the converts’ religious enthusiasm, as if these would diminish the intelligence, talent, and religious commitment of the conquering, proselytizing Spaniards. He also attributes the failure, the bitterness, and the cruelty that accentuate his life and that of so many others to envy, described as poison that feeds violence in the Valley of Anáhuac. He says, "This poison arrived with the Spaniards to these lands, not because they brought it, but because it was produced here in their presence and their sight. Is that how our land avenged our defeat?" (225)
And to explain the failure of the School of Tlatelolco, fray Hernando says:
Nobody could doubt that [we pupils of the School of Tlatelolco] were the best and most advanced, but this business about being Indians... Was reality insufficient to contradict their conviction about our nature? ... The Spaniards (the "Christians" as they’re called outside Tlatelolco ...) do not like Indians to have an advantage over them. ... These lands do not forgive the best. If I were a poet, I would say: These are the Heavens of Envy. (220f)
Friar Juan de Zumárraga’s and other Spanish Franciscans’ loss of commitment to the pedagogical project, added to Fray Hernando’s loss of faith, indicates that part of what the title of the novel means is that Boullosa, or at least her implied speaker, does not recognize "heaven" as a theological topos. The title denies a transcendental conceit and affirms that the only heavens we can recognize are the earthly, astronomical phenomenon. By discounting the notion of a place of eternal perfection, as symbolic as it may in itself be, does Boullosa counsel her reader to resign herself to being able to know only the earthly heavens? The novel holds out no hope that Fray Hernando will recover his faith before he dies, nor that the residents of l’Atlàntide will recover their speech, nor that Lear will find a spirituality alien to her upbringing. Unlike us gathered here today with international colleagues, Lear has no access to a community beyond her own, except through the libraries spared by the Final Big Bang.
Earthly Heavens tells this part of the story as the spiritual biography of the male protagonist in which, as I said, he attains as a child what Saint Teresa of Avila called the unitive and illuminative mystical states, but it ends in profound disillusion. An old man, don Hernando writes with tragic resignation:
Now I neither advance nor retreat according to the dictates of my spirit... [M]y soul advances and retreats senselessly, coming and going, expressing its fury in minuscule steps.... I can say no more; this is all I am, the prisoner of a pile of ill-dressed bones, the mud patch in which dreams, faiths, horses, purities, punishments, and sins were mired. (249)
Lear comments that Hernando never explains his loss of faith. At one point, he asks himself what happened; at another, he suggests how and when it left him: He describes the famous "auto de fe" that made him suffer acutely, when don Carlos Ometochtzin Chichimecatecuhtli, an Indigenous noble scarcely twenty years old, was murdered by the Church (another historical event, one that was critical in the demise of the Tlatelolco School). About two years his junior, Hernando had replaced don Carlos at the Franciscans’ school. From his earliest childhood, Hernando had admired the beauty and audacity of don Carlos. Having witnessed his brutal death, he says:
Somehow, I identified with him, I was him. Somehow through his punishment I suffered ... a martyrdom that denounced hagiographic rhetoric, that crumbled Christian principles, for ... angels did not come to see him die, nor did he levitate before being burned. ... The torturers ... bore divine words in their mouth. As soon as I saw and knew this, something stirred within me, and I was never able completely to resettle it, and my child’s soul did not realize that, for the first time, I was tasting the flavor of revenge and envy, so abundant in these lands. (281)
Boullosa illustrates the irony that this officially sanctioned murder, this absurdly called "act of faith" committed by the absurdly qualified "Holy" Office of the Inquisition and headed by Zumárraga himself, instead of increasing the sanctity of Catholic officials and Christian faith, does the contrary. The Mexican boy did not suffer from moral blindness. He could see the huge difference between the Biblical lessons about love, forgiveness, and kindness and the practical lessons of hate, envy, and unimaginable cruelty. How could he avoid the impact of what he had witnessed?
IV Notes about Lear, Boullosa’s character
Earthly Heavens contains a parallel plot to the one that describes the life of Hernando de Rivas. The narrator protagonist Lear is an academic of strong character which, with her passion for studying the past, brings her into opposition with her fellow "atlántidos." They have cut all ties to the "people of History" who destroyed ourselves upon destroying nature. Says Lear: "nobody in L'Atlàntide will want to recognize our forebears nor our origins in the people of History (25)." The atlántidos live in a kind of exaggerated "gated community" of strict social control. They consider it a utopia:
Our house is Heaven-on-Earth (like that of the first man and his first mate in the Biblical legend), a paradise with no vegetation, suspended in the middle of heaven.
We live in this enormous, slightly flattened, transparent sphere, without visible walls or floors ... in a place that is the opposite of a house, a castle, or a cave.
We have vanquisehd illness and old age, and it has been a long, long time since any of us has tasted death. (18)
There are two main elements in Lear’s life. In what had been Mexico and Europe, she visits the remains of libraries that survived the final conflagration. In one of them she finds Estela’s twentieth-century manuscript, in itself a translation of Hernando’s sixteenth-century manuscript. She dedicates loving time and effort to transcribing this manuscript despite being criticized and discouraged for it by her companions. The atlántidos, except for Lear, are convinced that only the present and the future are important. She says:
My studies are toward the past, and it is to be faithful to the past that I write, but it is not true that my research disconnects me from the present.... It is believed now in L'Atlàntide that we should only attend to the present and the future, that it is imperative to forget the past because it was nothing but a lesson in errors, since in it was edified the destruction of Nature... (18)
The other principal element in Lear’s story is that she witnesses the degeneration of her companions who are so convinced of the benefits of forgetfulness that they decide to renounce language, not only as an option, but by means of destroying the part of the brain in which linguistic abilities reside. Hence they become neoprimitives curiously similar to the inhabitants of the planet Korma in The Law of Love. They lose their humanity, and, needless to say, the respect, affection, and patience of the solitary Lear who lives for history. It is her spiritual path, her discipline, her delight, her inspiration.
V Notes about study as a spiritual path, a conclusion
Carmen Boullosa proves very conscious of what her reader seems capable of believing. She does not propose that we return to ancient Mesoamerican religions, nor that we accept whole one of the religions that colonizers and immigrants have planted in Mexican soil. She recognizes that humans have spiritual needs pointless to negate. In The Law of Love, Laura Esquivel proffers relatively conventional paths and beliefs that have gained some degree of acceptance, most recently under the rubric of New Age, such as meditation, reincarnation, and the need to behave with some sense about the ultimate results of our actions. In The Lady of Dreams, Sefchovich puts forward the easy way of accepting the spirituality (or lack thereof) of the mainstream. Boullosa, in Earthly Heavens, suggests related paths that writers, artists, and scholars have walked for generations: the creation, study, and appreciation of art and history.
What animates Lear and what Boullosa offers us as hope is the love of study that opens "the doors of perception" to the other. I am not convinced that the intellectual experience is potentially as powerful and satisfying as the spiritual or mystical experience described in the chapter in which fray Hernando attains mystical union, ecstasy, and absolute love for the world and all its inhabitants. But it is true that the creation and study of art and history can lead to transcendental experiences. Just remember that the word studium is Latin for the etymologically Greek word zeal. An article in Harvard Magazine spoke about beauty and aesthetics, and presented a series of quotations I adduce:
"Simone Weil wrote that seeing something beautiful ‘de-centers’ you–it makes you give up your position as the imaginative center of the world," says [Elaine] Scarry. "Similarly, Iris Murdoch writes that beauty creates a type of ‘un-selfing’–the sight of a bird, or a bank of sweet peas, or a lovely cloud formation, breaks us out of our narrow egos. Anything that creates un-selfing, she thought, is conducive to goodness and ethics. And the best example is beauty."
"The willingness to continually revisxe one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education," Scarry writes. "One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky." (Lambert)
Lear is not seeking education as such, but she is on a scholarly quest for beauty. She studies Hernando’s autobiography selflessly, or as Scarry might put it, un-selfed. The text inspires her to live alone on her planet, following her own philosophy and her own commitment to full consciousness, unlike the other atlántidos. She is accompanied only by her fellow scholar Estela, dead centuries before Lear was born, and by the author of that even more ancient memoir.
In the end I must recognize the realism of this postmodern author of the turn of the century, who seems to be telling us that we must accept the transcendental dimension of life, but that we cannot aspire to a spiritual path not genuinely our own, meaning that, regardless of what we were taught as children, our spirituality must be appropriate for our own nature, our own work, our own sense of truth and righteousness. The satisfaction of such a quest will keep us from being, like Hernando and Lear, internal, invisible exiles in our society. As Gautama Buddha advised: Work out your salvation with diligence. Intellectuals like Lear–and us–cannot aim much higher.
Macalester College, St. Paul, MN