Blood witness

By Ronald Cummings

The Torturer’s Wife, by Thomas Glave
City Lights Books, ISBN 978-0-87286-466-5, 262 pp

In the title story of Jamaican-American Thomas Glave’s new fiction collection, one of a chorus of dead women, all with bodies now bearing marks of violence (severed arms, missing teeth, “a necklace of blood”), muses that “Being a witness is never easy.The Torturer’s Wife is a book in which we are palpably aware of this fact. In these disturbing and unsettling stories the process of bearing witness is fraught with difficulty both for the teller and the audience. They are not easy stories to read. Not only does the book deal with difficult themes (war, death, disease, tyranny, oppression, homophobia), but its experimental style — marked by disruptions and disjunctures — consciously calls attention to the difficulty of constructing ordered narratives out of painful, traumatic, and often tragic experiences.

The traumas of memory, discovery, and lost hope are recurring features in the lives of Glave’s characters. In the title story, the wife of a military general of an unnamed island discovers the truth about the atrocities sanctioned by her husband’s regime. The heartrending results of her discoveries provide the framework for an exploration of the consequences of state tyranny on individual lives and the wider body politic. This violence is given material presence in the form of a torrent of falling vaginas and other body parts which resound in clamorous, recurring thuds. This clatter of body parts serves to signal the main character’s experience of psychological fragmentation and descent into madness, but is also a symbol of the far-reaching effects of state-sanctioned bloodshed.

“Invasion: Evening Two” also focuses on the human toll of militarised state action. Here Glave returns to themes of imperial and military domination which he powerfully confronted in his critique of post-9/11 geopolitics in his book of essays Words to Our Now (2005). The story is set in the moment and the immediate aftermath of a military invasion. It documents the panic which accompanies the second coming of the invading army: “flames, smoke. Rubble. An inferno of bombs. Grenades . . . rifle shots aimed from roofs, and exploding missiles.” In striking contrast to the bedlam of falling bombs (thunderously resonant like the falling vaginas before), and the resulting “stench of fresh remains,” is a moment of intimacy shared between two men from different backgrounds, both displaced by the invasion. In the face of the ever-looming possibility of death and annihilation, the narrative focuses fleetingly but poignantly on how empathy, the imagination, and desire exist as potential spaces through which the dispossessed might resist and survive the domination and violence of oppressive regimes. Yet the hope that these spaces offer is represented as fragile, always existing on the verge of quick and painful extinction.

Glave’s stories frequently explore moments of personal and social fragmentation. We meet characters at points of crisis in their ordered lives and relationships. In “South Beach, 1992”, two men grapple with the knowledge that one is now infected with HIV. “He Who Would Have Become ‘Joshua’, 1791” imagines the transatlantic movement of captured black bodies and the trauma of separation from the life they once knew. “Woman Impossible Task” describes a woman alone now after the rain of grenades and “the time of light” and explosion, trying to make bread. Her attempt at this simple domestic task is now rendered impossible, movingly underscoring the fact that her former life is gone: “One cannot find flour or children.”

Fragmentation in these stories is not only psychological and social, but also experienced bodily. Dismembered, discarded, scarred, and burned body parts litter these pages. The impact of cultures of violence is indelibly marked on the bodies of those who survive their incursions and those who do not. Perhaps the most vivid example occurs in the title story, but images of mangled bodies are spread throughout all these narratives. “Invasion: Evening Two”, “Between”, and “Woman Impossible Task” all invoke piles of severed heads, shoulders, legs, fingers. In the end, when one considers the collection as whole, it might be important to ask whether greater restraint in the invocation of this kind of bodily violence might not give greater symbolic resonance to these images.

The tension between order and chaos, wholeness and fragmentation is also manifested at the level of form. Unexpected line breaks, poem-like lines and refrains, ellipses, and italicised passages form part of these narratives. The stories use various narrative perspectives, splicing together interior monologues, dialogues, fragments of memory, dreams, and voices of the dead. Their often surreal and dream-like quality is also striking. Stories like “The Blue Globes”, “Milk/Sea; Sentience”, and “Woman Impossible Task” might best be described as lyrical meditations, in which the wonder of the symbolic is often given primacy over narrative and meaning. In “Milk/Sea; Sentience”, for instance, a flowing sea of milk becomes the primary textual focus. The story narrates milk everywhere, yet “though the rivers and streams and lakes of milk portended something altogether new . . . what that new thing might be not one of the dreamers could possibly guess.” In many ways the experience of the dreamers, their inscrutable relationship with the dream-text, is akin to the experience of the reader of this collection. Stories often take on the texture of dreamscapes: enigmatic, elusive, difficult to decode.

This enigmatic quality is heightened by the nature of Glave’s sentence construction. His sentences are often long and ponderous, extending, in some instances, for significant portions of a page. The technique is effective in some stories, less so in others. In “The Blue Globes”, the use of long sentences with multiple clauses creates a vivid stream-of-consciousness effect. In other stories — like “Between”, where the narrative is shared between two characters — the undifferentiated continuity in this linguistic style and the absence of more varied semantic constructions means that the artifice of an individuated character consciousness is eroded.

The Torturer’s Wife is a book that deals with difficult subjects in complex and searching ways. Readers who come to this collection will have to engage with this combination of difficulty in theme and treatment of subject matter, and will ultimately have to decide if this difficulty is repaid by necessary re-readings of these stories.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2010

Ronald Cummings is a Jamaican PhD student in the School of English at the University of Leeds. His work focuses on queer Caribbean literature and culture, and discourses of marronage.