In a State of Memory


In a State of Memory is a novelistic memoir about exile, displacement, and return. Tununa Mercado explores the psychological and physical effects of the narrator's transition into a life in exile: the splintering of her identity, the difficulties of incorporating herself into a host culture, her physical illness, and the haunting memories of her past and the loved ones she left behind. In exile the narrator is constantly confronted with the vicariousness of her experiences -- she wears secondhand clothes, buys ...
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In a State of Memory is a novelistic memoir about exile, displacement, and return. Tununa Mercado explores the psychological and physical effects of the narrator's transition into a life in exile: the splintering of her identity, the difficulties of incorporating herself into a host culture, her physical illness, and the haunting memories of her past and the loved ones she left behind. In exile the narrator is constantly confronted with the vicariousness of her experiences -- she wears secondhand clothes, buys secondhand furniture, and experiences other people's lives at second hand. After periods of exile in France and Mexico, she returns to Buenos Aires and finds it difficult to recognize the city, to attach memories to particular places. Through flashbacks, recollections, and short narratives, this story powerfully communicates an individual's experience of exile from an emotional and psychological perspective while at the same time linking the individual experience to the collective one.
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Editorial Reviews

Women's Review of Books

"Mercado is a deft storyteller and phrasemaker. . . . The book is full of sensuous, luxuriant, lapel-grabbing writing, exciting to read. . . . She has taken up the challenge of reconstructing the unimaginable and found a way to create a state and statement of memory. I was here, the voice says. This is what it was like. Come with me."—Women's Review of Books
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803282698
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2001
  • Series: Latin American Women Writers Series
  • Pages: 156
  • Product dimensions: 0.39 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Kahn is an English teacher and translator who lives in Buenos Aires.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Illness

The name Cindal, whose spelling escapes me, comes backto me time and again along with a man and the words ofthat man incessantly repeated in the waiting room of apsychiatric clinic. Tell him to do something for me, please! Tell him todo something for me! I have an ulcer! I have an ulcer! he cried, not alittle repetitively. While he begged and pleaded, I imagined afactory in some part of his body, at the pit of his stomach judgingfrom the way he was doubled over, clutching at his waist, insome part of his body where ulcers were bursting without remissionor pity. The patients, assembled in the waiting room forproblems that were quite minor compared to Cindal's terminalsituation, were frozen, gripped by his shrieks and howls. The receptionist,to whom Cindal appealed to see the doctor, had noidea how to deal with the unusual case that had barged into theoffice with no prior phone call, no appointment, and no previousvisits, but that nonetheless did not seem a violent man.She disappeared toward the interior of the clinic and reappearedwith the message that the doctor could not attend to him, thathe was presently in a session, and that he would see the scheduledgroup in the waiting room next. The man then approachedand pleaded with us, in a voice trembling with suffering, togrant him a few minutes of our hour. But the hour was sacred,and although we were willing to surrender some terrain of ourmadness so that he could unburden himself of his own, the psychiatristwas adamant: he would not see him.

    One is so helpless in the hands of psychiatrists asto be incapableof even questioning their dictates; one comes to supposethat, in the presumed transferential submission, the doctor mayhave chosen an effective therapeutic tactic when deciding to set adesperate and unscheduled patient straight. He wanted to setCindal straight, to make him see that he could not simply manipulatehis own madness, nor other people's time; so, finally,Cindal went away, though not without pleading once more to beadmitted to the hospital: Please, commit me! The psychiatrist, oncein his office, maintained a strict silence and would not respondto a single one of our questions; I understand that over timepsychiatrists have perfected this analytical, beyond-the-gravesilence insofar as anyone desperate for immediate answers isconcerned. Cindal hanged himself that very night.

    I cannot stop thinking about Cindal. Who might have mournedhim, who mourns him still; I wonder who other than I remembershim, doubled over in pain, pitiful, suffering his ulcerthe way one does daily chores, the way one does schoolwork, inthe waiting room of death, tracing resplendent red letters withthe blood seeping from the wounds of his ulcer, bleeding internallyand finally departing, dragging himself to the other world,drowned in his own blood. He would get up, I suppose, in themorning or at night, or after a short daytime nap during whichhe may have succeeded in subduing his pain, he would awakenand find himself yet again with the ulcer, not a solitary, isolatedulcer but one in permanent communication with his mind, as ifit were all one and the same thing, the ulcer and the terror, theterror unleashed by the ulcer, or the ulcer unleashed by the terror.Ulcer and terror were inseparable for Cindal during thosesleepless hours of his day. He would double over and howl,pleading for help.

    People like that who suffer with such conviction—this wassaid after Cindal had hung himself from a rope—must be leftalone, nothing can be done for them; and when such peopleseek and find their own death, it is commonly agreed that theyhave found peace, that they have gently slipped away, and that, inthe end, they have ceased to suffer. Cindal was left to die becauseit was thought that death was what he really wanted andthat sooner or later he was going to have his way. Cindal, whosename returns to my memory with regularity, always with thestress on the letter i, whose twisted posture appears over andover, was left to die because his demands could not be answeredand because demands of that nature do nothing but interferewith the lives of others and undermine the plenitude to whicheveryone has a right. No one who lives his or her life in conformity,replete with projects and certainties, no one who enjoyslife's constant gratifications, can let down their guard andpermit people like Cindal to enter their world, a person whodid not make appointments, who did not book passages, andwho even arrived late, at the final tattered shreds of the sanitythat a psychiatrist's couch might have offered him.

    Cindal's name often sprang to mind when I found myself insituations similar to the one he had endured, imploringly, in thepsychiatrist's waiting room. There is a vast difference, however,between his demands and mine. He seemed determined to proclaimhis at the top of his lungs, as if all restraint had abandonedhim and there was nothing left to hide his self-pity. He could nolonger control his entreaties, he had fallen to his knees in genuflection,bent over, no sense of pride could halt his most certainend. While I, on the other hand, obstinately postpone anyoutburst of anguish, partly due to my good upbringing, notwishing to ruin anyone else's party, employing any number ofstratagems in an effort to disguise the agonizing peaks of the afflictionthat assaults me. I would find it so very difficult to exposemy affliction, to disappoint those around me, to have themsee that the poem's ancient "force that through the green fusedrives the flower, drives my green age ..." was, in fact, the perfectincubator for ulcers and gastritis, and to throw away thetranquility with which they watched me while away the hoursand the days would have served no purpose at all.

    In strict therapeutic terms, psychoanalysis has never beenvery generous to me. To be perfectly honest, I never had accessto any individual and horizontal clinical treatment where I couldspill the material of my unconscious mind; for financial reasons,I always had to attend group sessions in which I succeeded, withlittle effort, in concealing my anguish and vulnerability from mycompanions as well as, perhaps, from the sagacity of the psychiatrist;I managed to share in the collective laughter or tears,aided by my good manners and a certain sense of the ridiculousthat, because of its cynicism, might better be described asbitterness.

    So, I never received any individualized attention throughwhich I might have discerned my conflicts in a specialized andspecific way; no psychiatrist ever concerned himself with me inparticular, thus leaving my immense capacity for transferencewithout outlet other than the various forms of dependence ondoctors of all kinds, including dentists, gynecologists, and,above all, faith healers of the most varied species: witch doctors,shamans, and "masters," all of whom endeavored to cleanse mybody. Using sprigs of mint and basil, censers of myrrh and incense,garlic cloves, lotions, coconut shells, oracles, and othertechniques of chance, they tried to cure me of my ailments andsave me from evil spells, and indeed at times they succeeded, forthere cannot exist a more fertile ground for such cures than mypoor body and soul.

    In 1967, seven days after the death of Che Guevara, which soradically devastated our lives, and just before I was to embark ona trip to France for an extended stay, that same psychiatrist Ihave already mentioned, who had me in his group for three yearsand who so mercilessly dispensed with Cindal, seeing that Imight founder in my transatlantic trajectory, allotted severalhours of individual attention to me, during which I failed toutter a single word; alone, without the crutch of the group, I fellsilent, I had nothing to say to my analyst, not one manifestationof the unconscious slipped out, not one dream, and he too remainedsilent during those two or three sessions, without myever finding out what his evaluation of my psychiatric conditionwas, or whether through his silence he had condemned or absolvedme, or if he simply had nothing to say; but in fact, sensingthat I might not have the strength to survive the approachingchanges, he gave me the address of a Swiss psychiatrist whospoke Spanish as a result of having lived and worked in Argentina;he told me that he was going to correspond with her on mybehalf, and I went so far as to imagine that he was going to sendalong my diagnosis; the idea that I might have an existence as acase calmed me down a bit: my health, or my mental illness, hadassumed a singular character. And it is not inappropriate to speakof a mental illness since it was constantly impressed upon us duringour therapy sessions that we were there as mental patients.

    Once in France, realizing that I was indeed in no condition tobear up under such a "change," a euphemism used to designate acritical moment, I wrote the promised letter to the Swiss psychoanalystthe very day after my arrival. I wasted no time; havingbarely unpacked my suitcases and those of my family, I began towrite the letter in which I explained that until recently I hadbeen the patient of doctor so-and-so and that he, for his part,would be writing soon regarding my case and that I wanted tomeet with her to begin treatment. I suggested biweekly sessionsand explained that I was living scarcely a hundred kilometersfrom Geneva, where she had her clinic, and that my idea was tomake an initial trip just to review my sufferings with her. Theletter was written, of course, in Spanish, not only because shehad command of that language but also because I did not speak aword of French. I only knew how to recite a fragment of Nausea,by Sartre, which I had often read aloud and even committed tomemory in the French class I attended for two weeks beforeleaving Buenos Aires. I was almost tempted to transcribe thefragment in order to illustrate the anguish I was in, but I did not:the mere act of sending the letter, of setting my sights on a therapeuticgoal, made me feel better. And so extreme is my therapeuticdisposition, and so inveterate, that once the letter wassent, at that precise instant, I placed all my hopes on Switzerland.

    It was a cruel beginning to winter, very cruel; the roads werecovered with snow, and I was aware that the trip between Besançonand Geneva could be plagued with misadventures. I envisagedtraveling through frozen forests on white trains, traversingwhite countries, and I felt a sudden rush of panic that could onlybe eased by thoughts of my imminent cure; I was going to crossover the iced landscape, but the ice was not going to break beneathmy feet—I was not going to get my tail wet, like the fox inthe I Ching during his winter journey—because I was going tohave individual, prolonged, radicalized psychiatric treatment.

    I never had the opportunity to test the ice; Madame Spira,who, judging by her fame, might well have been psychoanalystto Queen Juliana, could not "for the moment" take on a biweeklycommitment; her hours were all taken. There was nomention in her letter of having received my case from BuenosAires, no letter had forwarded me to her adoptive care, no referenceto my psychoanalyst at all; she said she was at my servicefor some future time, asked me to excuse her, and, meanwhile,remained sincerely mine. Her answer did not surprise me: I hadalready realized that the feat of paying for analysis in Swissfrancs, trips that would involve winding through mountains andbordering cliffs, paid in Swiss francs, weekly lodging near or farfrom Lake Geneva, paid in Swiss francs, all of this had, for severalweeks now, seemed rather laughable and disproportionate,a poor person's fantasy. Once again, I had failed in my attemptto obtain a profound, individual treatment, of the sort to whichthousands of Argentine women and men had gained rightful accessover the last thirty years.

    I have always contented myself with surrogate treatments.Upon my return to Argentina after that stay in France, for example,the same psychoanalyst who had put me in contact withMadame Spira, without the least idea of the outlandishness ofhis proposal, referred me to another one of his colleagues, thistime a local one who, once again, given my financial situation,placed me in group therapy. Now, my very first experience ofgroup analysis had involved hallucinogens. And every time I haverelated this experience succinctly and almost truthfully, my listenershave tended to assume a rather deadpan expression that,more than indifference, betrayed a decision to maintain a certaindistance from a budding danger of contagion; when I saythat we dropped acid, psilocybin, or mescaline, fearsome namesthat they are, they prefer not to listen; rather, they scrutinize mefor signs of lasting damage.

    The fact is that such therapy with psychotropic drugs was nolonger in vogue when I went to my new psychoanalyst; after thecoup of '66, these treatments were first questioned and thenforbidden: for ideological or moral reasons, and uncritically confusingpsychiatric uses with drug dependency, they discarded,without having made any progress, a technique that induced hallucinations.Abandoning ourselves to the effects of chemicals,we had taken flight toward our points of origin, not, of course,without a very high cost at the moment, because anyone whosupposes that these kinds of incursions produce pleasure, unadulteratedpleasure, is quite mistaken: the emotional upheavalprovoked by a return to any such point of origin—be it the maternaluterus, the bastion of the species, the echo of the primalorphan scream, or any such thing—is not to be wished onanyone, and only because we had been convinced of the medicalnature of these practices did the group give in to and accept therisk of losing or winning everything in a single session.

    Given that it was no longer possible to take peyote or psilocybin,and without anyone thinking to question the law that prohibitedit, the group would gather around the psychoanalystwithout the benefits of acid, exposed only to the effects of herbird-woman stare. Upon leaving her office, we would go to oneor another of our houses to smoke hashish or some other flowerbud that might serve as an acid substitute. On one of those occasionsI puffed a bit too enthusiastically on the joint, and by thetime I got home my head was so splintered that when I wantedto say I, I said she, and I had to beg them to piece me back together,to restore me to my niche, my dwelling place previous tothat moment of reckless unselfconsciousness; but it was not easyreturning me to myself, or uprooting me from myself, or gainingaccess to that other of whom I could catch only glimpses, orsnaring that additional other who would not let me go, and Icould not distinguish between that other who had to be drivenaway and that other who was mine and had to be retained.

    In spite of the dearth of palliatives that psychoanalysis offeredme, a sort of plumbing of my inner depths, I never ceased deliveringmyself to its manes. In the throes of exile, when every daysome fresh, horrible piece of news arrived from Argentina, andoften it came to us via telephone calls from just about anywhereon earth, including our native land, and frequently we were toldof the murder of someone, or of several, or of a particularlyclose friend of ours, almost family, or of two or three who hadshared with me and my loved ones some form of bond, in thosecruelest of moments when one could do nothing but sit on theedge of the bed and cry, to live was to survive. But one of thosedays the burden got to be too much, a day when the aura ofdeath to which we were subjected was too present and immediate,and I felt my health begin to crumble. The spasms of gastritis,which would later occur with severity, were at that timebarely a diffuse pain in the pit of my stomach, a vague sensationsimilar to that which lingers after receiving an accidental blowwhile roughhousing as a child. Mostly my afflictions were concentratedin my throat, which obstinately incubated a host of inflammationsand blisters that were resistant to all antibiotics.Hardened like tar, the mucous membrane rigid and slippery, theglands swollen, not one cilium vibrating with the passage of airor the sound of my voice, coated with an extensive colony ofgolden bacteria, my throat, it seemed, was the site at which myown death was being engendered.

    Suffering cramps in my neck and an incipient septicemia, myend was almost surely drawing near; I went to doctors, clinics,and laboratories and was subjected to all kinds of tests; in vain Ipoured my blood into test tubes and sent my liquids away to becultured; nothing happened, the cure passed me by without somuch as a nod. If my life had been painted as a retable, I wouldhave appeared on my sickbed in a room so filled with fever thatthe ceiling would bulge, the window on the wall would have thecurtains drawn back to allow the light of the Holy Spirit toenter: the scene of a miracle, of rejuvenation by a luminous, unearthlylight. A legend would caption the miracle cure: "Whenall hope of keeping her alive had been lost, she was commendedto the Virgin and cured by her Grace in the last days of Octoberin the year of our Lord, nineteen-hundred-seventy-six." The featwas really the doing of a homeopath and the result of a remedyof Marigold 1-30, diluted in a glass of water and ingested at half-hourintervals at first, then once every hour, and, finally, threetimes per day.

    I was lucky because no one ventured to suggest that my problemwas psychological; it was accepted as something natural thatI should go to a medical doctor. When other people living in exilecomplained of a loss of energy, they were told that suchsymptoms were to be expected, that depression was the logicaloutcome of having been uprooted from one's home, particularlyafter so many losses and so much terror and pain endured in Argentina.They were advised to see a psychoanalyst who, as wascustomary, adhered to the political convictions of whatevergroup they belonged to. This analyst, to whom the recently arrivedwould entrust themselves, was most likely to stick to hissphere of training and not recommend laboratory tests, holdingtrue to his particular ideas regarding depression, in which casethe organism would play dirty tricks on itself, and the illnesswould continue its evolution, discouraging both the analyst andthe patient; the analyst would refer his patient elsewhere, a poorlyconsidered course of action whose consequence was, in effect,nothing more than a referral from one set of hands toanother, from one ear to another, from the couch to the chair,with fluctuating interpretations of the symptoms: mistaking rigidityfor hysteria, neurological disorder for returning to thewomb, incontinence for attention-winning strategies, and so on.

    One spends an entire lifetime trying to find support, trying tomake the paltry psychic mass stick to external structures in aneffort to give them some kind of shape; one seeks the society ofothers, be they persons, animals, or things, to fuse oneself tothem; one adopts habits hoping, through repetition, to avoid unhappiness.Our resources are inexhaustible and renewable dayby day; at times they operate like incantations, ingenuous vowsthat hour after hour are deposited upon small domestic altarsand for which we hope to receive compensation. If there is a fullmoon, for example, one closes the window so as to impede theexacerbation of the madness produced by its rays; and if thewind howls, one closes the window to bar the entry of its demons;if, however, a bird sings, one turns an attentive ear so thatthe benefit of its trill may penetrate. A person is in permanentrelation to the external world; whatever intrudes from theother side of the wall conditions one's movements and ordersone's rituals; a person strives, fundamentally, to be part of agroup, to belong to the flock, supposing with good reason thatthis belonging might provide distance from madness or, at least,from uncertainty.

    What I had to lay out before a psychiatrist or, on another levelor to a different degree, to a psychoanalyst was a series of nucleithat would not disappear. They were, or are, states of helplessness,a frailty when facing daily events; I had to explain to theanalyst that any competitive situation provoked in me an imperiousneed to flee and avoid engaging in battle; if the confrontationcentered upon my merits, the impulse to erase myself fromthe battlefield would become an inextinguishable focus of all myanxieties; as if by defining my capabilities in order to gain a position,I also put my very existence on trial.

    I could never compete for positions very well, and if by sometwist of fate I was ever positively appraised, the evaluation wasnot the product of a contest in which I was selected as oneamong many, but, perhaps, thereafter or as an aside, as if it wereonly through an afterthought that my merits were discovered.Brilliance unperceived or brilliance imperceptible to otherswere some of the interpretations generated by my psychotherapists,in seated sessions obtained at a discount. For this reason, Ihave always had a profound empathy and pity for all who submitthemselves to the imposition of having to belong to some sphereof existence on account of which they agree to demonstrateknowledge, force, or valor. To submit to an exam, a judgment, acontest, to any kind of jury, to be assessed by an equal so thatthey can pronounce a verdict and determine a grade, all such situations,unavoidable if one wishes to live in society, have alwaysbeen humiliating and cruel predicaments for me, and I have persistentlytried to avoid them, like one fleeing from evil.

    Still, in order to make a living, and with acceptable criteriafor "overcoming" difficulties, I have consented to enter intothese extreme situations. For example, one of the challengesthat produced the greatest suffering for me was accepting, in flagrantdefiance of my terrible phobia, a teaching position at theUniversity of Besançon, where, as I believe I mentioned before,my family and I spent a so-called first exile after the coup d'étatof '66. There, while my psychosomatic manifestations foundtheir way into my spinal column, a week after our arrival and afterwriting the letter to Queen Juliana's psychoanalyst, I had tobegin teaching Latin American Literature and Civilization to agroup of twenty-five students, people who were studying Spanishand who had their hopes set on an overseas position. My firstclass and all others that followed, without exception—wascommitted in its entirety to sixty printed pages, at one read-aloudpage per minute, to round out the hour required of me.


Excerpted from In a State of Memory by TUNUNA MERCADO. Copyright © 1990 by Tununa Mercado.
Translation copyright © 2001 University of Nebraska Press.Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Translator's Preface ix
Introduction xiii
The Illness 1
The Cold That Never Comes 18
Poor Person's Body 28
Curriculum Vitae 41
Oracles 47
The Order of the Day 55
Emissary 60
Cellular Chambers 65
The Furtive Species 73
The Guided Visit 82
Houses 91
Embassy 96
Container 101
Phenomenology 108
Exposure 116
The Wall 142
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