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from the October 2006 issue

The Garden of Voices

From The Secret Gardens of Mogador: Voices of the Earth

TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: In The Secret Gardens of Mogador: Voices of the Earth, Alberto Ruy-Sánchez transports his readers once again to Mogador, ancient name for the city of Essaouira on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, a walled labyrinth of winding streets, marketplaces, bathhouses, and hidden gardens that serves as the locus of desire for much of the author's narrative fiction. In this novel, Ruy-Sánchez examines the complex nature of enduring intimacy, particularly, the daily challenge of recreating the magical moment when paradise was first discovered in the body of the beloved. The novel is comprised of four parts or spirals, of nine chapters each, narrated in a mesmerizing, poetic language the author describes as a "prose of intensities." In the first spiral, the reader learns that two events have converged in the life of Hassiba, the protagonist of the novel, to cause her to reject her lover after four months of blissful passion: the physical and psychological transformations brought on by pregnancy, and the subsequent melancholy to which she succumbs over the recent death of her father, the Grand Gardener of Mogador. Upon finding himself expelled from Hassiba's most intimate garden, the narrator pleads for another opportunity to prove that he can attune his caresses to her altering desires. She agrees that he may enter her private ryad provided that every night he describe to her one of the secret gardens of Mogador, each one a tribute to the cultivation of passion and desire. Desperate to regain paradise lost, the narrator takes on the role of "a new Scheherezade," transforming himself into a voice so that he may once again inhabit the body of his beloved. Readers who are familiar with the work of Jorge Luis Borges will recognize the influence of the master in the poetic prose of Alberto Ruy-Sánchez. In a French review of his book, Comment la mélancolie est arrivée á Mogador, a critic refers to Ruy-Sánchez as a "sexualized Borges":

Comment la mélancolie est arrivée á MogadorParmi le jeunes, le seul á l'hauteur de Borges par sa culture est son experience de l'étrange est Ruy-Sánchez. Dans quelques uns de ses recits surgi l'ombre de Borges mais intensement sexualisé. Cette dimension erotique, si refoulé dans l'univers Borgesien, fleuri heureuse en Ruy-Sánchez sans rien entamer de l'inquietante étrangeté de l'aieul argentin. C'est comme si Borges est Octavio Paz avaient eu un fils avec Italo Calvino et Pasolini. Voil, mon avis, les quatre points cardinaux de l'univers de Alberto Ruy-Sánchez, qualifié par son traducteur Gabriel Iaculli comme "un orphique." Ruy-Sánchez pays homage to Jorge Luis Borges in "The Garden of Voices," chapter five of the fourth spiral of The Secret Gardens of Mogador.

The Secret Gardens of Mogador.The Secret Gardens of Mogador: Voices of the Earth

Fourth Spiral: Intimate and Minimal Gardens Part Five: The Garden of Voices

In an ancient corner of Mogador, city of countless immigrations, of blood and tongues and dreams that intersect in an infinite arabesque, there once was a small but very vibrant Chinatown whose interior gardens were not created with plants but stones. According to legend, those strange rocks had been brought by sea from distant countries where silk was sold. Besides their beauty, they had the natural gift of covering themselves with a spongy red moss that spread quickly. That is why in the city they would say that the humidity there made the stones grow until they touched the sky, and that only the clouds could soothe them.

In that same legendary corner of Mogador, very near the walls, between the East Gate and the sea, there is a garden of crickets whose blind gardener keeps them singing all day long. If you visit it in the morning, you will see the gardener vigorously shredding all the plants he finds, including the most beautiful and rare. That always upsets those who see him for the first time, unaware that in this garden there are no leaves or flowers except those torn and placed in the small cages by that man as food for his crickets.

The gardener knows which plants each tiny creature loves to eat and which can lower or raise their pitch. He classifies and names the flowers for their digestive values, that is, for the range of sounds that they may help to emit once digested, as if the only or principle reason for being of each flower was to transform itself into a beautiful cricket song. "The flower is to the song what the caterpillar is to the butterfly. Astonishing metamorphosis," he would tell his visitors.

We are also intrigued by the boxes made of wood, ivory, or bone, where he keeps his crickets. Some are quite simple, but no less beautiful, with straw bars and sliding doors over small wooden tongues. They hang from the trees like fruits that sing when someone draws near. Others are tiny statues. The gardener himself has adorned them with rare woods and inscribed in calligraphy the name he gives each cricket, a name originating from the range of sounds it produces. He also carves a sign that describes its place in the garden of voices.

Before him, his father did this, and his grandfather, and the father of his grandfather. One hundred years ago there were twenty decorative cages tended by his great-grandfather like an exquisite orchard. His son multiplied the orchard by five and the grandson by ten. Thus this gardener inherited a thousand cages and a small fortune to maintain them, plus the family tradition refined by three generations before him, not counting the centuries this art was cultivated in China. Over twenty-five years this man has made the garden grow and now there are nearly three thousand cages that form labyrinthine paths, a web similar to that created by the streets of the city. Those who cannot orient themselves by their sounds run the risk of losing themselves forever in this garden. Shouts for help would be useless, just one more among many.

There are many things, besides food, that may alter the chanting of the crickets, and one of them is invisible and powerful. It is desire. The gardener knows that placing some cages next to others will lead to enthusiastic chirps of courtship throughout the night. And he knows that if he separates them, little by little a deep sorrowful tone dominates that song. Distance is an imaginary chord of desires that he fine tunes continuously.

The love song of these creatures is so poignant and resolute that for a very long time the poets of Mogador and its surroundings have compared it to the intuitive passion one body has for another. Ibn Hazm says that when two lovers look at each other from a distance "all the crickets of their bodies tingle hungrily."

Aziz Al-Gazali writes that in Mogador the crickets search for the warmth of fire, which is why they stay in kitchens, near the community bread ovens, or by the cauldrons of the public steam baths, the hamman, where often they are displayed as an emblem, carved in the entrance. The story is also told that in the house of a woman named Fatma, "who saw her senses flower suddenly in the surprising light of desire, the crickets had nestled beneath her bed and sang like springtime and summer, even on the rawest days of winter."

Everyone in Mogador seems to agree that crickets sing differently during each season of the year and are even capable of announcing their arrival. Well trained, they can measure the temperature of the day precisely. This gardener always goes to extremes and has raised a type of cricket that can measure the temperature of the body. It is particularly small and its voice is faint and low but vibrates forcefully. They call this species "the smile of the moon." According to observations, it begins singing when the desire between two people increases, and naturally their body heat as well. Some carry the crickets on their romantic encounters, hidden in their clothes, very close to the skin, to feel the vibration of their song rather than hear it.

That is why Ibn Hazm, in a book that follows his poetic manual of love The Necklace of the Dove, includes a chapter in which he instructs us to search with patience and sustained expectation between the thousand folds of the beloved's garments for those denouncing crickets. Then he advises the lover to continue searching the folds of his mistress's naked body as if to find in them a thousand "smiles of the moon."

In this garden of Mogador, before the sun rises, when a light blanket of dew falls over the cages depositing in them several heavy drops, the crickets can be heard drinking. Their whistling moistens, their happiness gurgles. If they drink too much before the sun rises, they emit a strange involuntary vibration as if they were quivering from cold.

Some afternoons when the wind is still the blind gardener tries to enter the clouds of mosquitoes that gather on the southern beach at sunset. He lets them bite him until, inflated with blood, they can no longer fly, and he captures them easily to offer as a delicacy to some of his crickets, particularly those dark obese ones that, while eating, sing their joy with deep notes like heavy bells.

The gardener recognizes each one by its sounds. He knows that science has developed several efficient methods for classifying them, but he only cares to distinguish them by their voices, which he does with remarkable precision. He has come to identify with certainty 2,633 different types of sounds. He had to subtract four from his list this year when he realized that the crickets did not make them, but he himself, or rather his body: upon walking hastily, breathing heavily on hot days, sighing with joy while listening to his creatures, digesting with difficulty those leaves and flowers that his animals left untouched and he did not wish to waste.

When night falls, a scribe approaches the garden cautiously to offer his services should the gardener wish to record new sounds. His list grows and each description becomes more precise. So, for example, next to Echoes of drops over fire: sound 1,327, reads the description: "Like saliva between the teeth; like a sudden longing to drink. This repeats itself in intervals of ten drops, each alike."

But the gardener is never satisfied with his transcription in words and so he has invented a type of score with small river stones of different shapes that he places on a long table. Although some would consider this display of pebbles worthless, he is convinced that the annotation, which only he understands, is also a tactile map of the sounds of his garden. At night he catches himself humming it out loud. On more than one occasion, his own chanting of the map has led him to shift the cages and thus modify the composition of his unusual pebble bed.

Moved by the intensity of certain voices in his garden and brimming with pride for achieving them, some of the sounds discovered by him appear on the list with his own name. They are his creatures. And the stories he likes to tell about each cage, about how he trapped or was able to incubate each insect, about the life and habits of his little beasts, could excite whoever had the good fortune to hear them, as if The Canterbury Tales, or those of the Decameron or The Arabian Nights were inspired by this garden of crickets.

He has learned to control many of those hundreds of insect sounds. He can make them reproduce: in a way he is capable of sowing them. He experiences his greatest happiness when he hears them blossom, mature.

At times even what others see and what he only touches becomes a sound for this blind man, if it is truly amazing. That happens in different ways but especially with a creature that came to Mogador by boat from a walled city of Guinea. It is a strange type of beautiful grasshopper that reigns over his garden pretentiously: its wings, more beautiful and shimmering than a Morpho butterfly, are twice the size of its body. They are green and yellow and purple. And the chirping of this cricket unfolds that spectrum in a way that only the gardener hears.

For him, blind from birth, like his father and grandfather, space does not exist if it does not produce sounds. The very idea of a silent garden is something he cannot imagine. Voices sprout around him, they flower, grow orchards, create an enveloping enclosure, sensations of distance and intimacy, of depth and resounding perspective, of beauty from afar, and naturally of desire. Perhaps that is why some say that the gardener is not blind, but merely closes his eyes most of the day in order to reproduce the feeling of walking among voices, sown, blossoming, and gathered.

I always recall that garden whenever you touch me with closed eyes and your breathing changes with mine. When at night my name intertwines indecipherably with yours. When we no longer know what we tell each other, and tenderness flows in long vowels, sighs, moans, and hoarse whispers. When I explore in you, even in the folds of your dreams, the most ephemeral smiles of the moon. When I think of you and hear you as my garden of voices.

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