This review was originally published at The Rumpus on 9/8/16
Dr. Noelia Vargas Vargas, MD explains it like this: “There are two basic human conditions, being a child and being a procreator.” Inhabiting both conditions, see, makes you two people—a daughter and a mother. Dr. Vargas Vargas chose, for much of her life, to be “only” a daughter—an eternal offspringhood, as she liked to tell her husband Dr. Alfonso Semitiel, PhD.
It is 2002, and if Dr. Semitiel’s life were a photograph, its caption might be “Sabbatical as Grief: To Be a Widow Is To…”
It is 2003, and Marina Mendoza starts going to therapy to learn how to get angry. She takes her medication, smokes her cigarettes, and makes names for colors that don’t have names: blacktrick for electric black, scink for “the pale pink after you pull off a scab,” briefoamite for “the ephemeral white of sea foam.”
As translated by the great Sophie Hughes, Mexican author Laia Jufresa’s debut novel Umami is a kalaeidoscope. In four parts, five characters tell the story of the last four years within their hovel of Mexico City, the Belldrop Mews. The millennium arrives and leaves trauma in its wake: Pina’s mother leaves, six-year-old Luz drowns on a family vacation, and Dr. Vargas Vargas, famed cardiologist, dies from pancreatic cancer.
But Umami is not a dystopian treatise or hipster metafiction. It is not one of those books about a group of people who come together and decide that life is good because they laughed at the same joke at some picnic. The Belldrop Mews folk—though they see each other every day, though they share their separate grief—are not a family. They are fragments of four separate families struggling through their own fog.
The book starts with Ana in 2004. She is twelve and has negotiated her way into staying at home in Mexico for the summer. Per an agreement with her parents, she will plow, plant, and tend the yard—the goal is to build a traditional milpa—while her brothers are in Michigan at “camp.” Camp, here, is not kids in cots getting eaten to death by mosquitoes, but more “just a coded way of saying that my siblings and I spend two months with [Mom’s] stepmother, Grandma Emma, swimming among the weeds and feeding pebbles to the ducks in the lake by her house.”
It is three years since Luz’s death, and Ana’s mother Linda Walker still won’t leave the house. “She gets worse in the summertime,” Ana writes. “Like a dirty river carrying trash, the summer drags the anniversary of my sister’s death to our door. She was the youngest.” Luz, in her own chapters, is the little one who speaks with honesty, her voice rough like a dog tongue: “They all start talking weird when we come to the lake. And that’s why I’m not going to speak English. I’m never ever going to speak English.”
The book contains two mysteries. One, it seems, is for Jufresa’s audience: What are The Girls, mentioned in Dr. Semitiel’s chapters (and in one of Ana’s)? The other is for Jufresa’s characters: Why did Luz drown if she knew how to swim? English is a constant source of tension. Marina wants to learn and takes lessons from Walker for a brief time. Ana judges her parents on whether or not they can hide their accents when they speak their spouse’s mother tongue.
“English takes the edge off things, makes them feel less serious, a bit like scribbling mustaches on photos,” Marina thinks. She is distraught when her favorite bands are “changed from abstract poetry to random nouns.” To her, “translation simplifies, it schematizes: something that seemed potentially profound falls from grace and lands on its head, turning out to be nothing but a doodle.” As for the people who speak English? “Bilingualism confirms what she’s always suspected,” Jufresa writes. “If gringos were drawings, they’d be drawn with markers.” In other words, they are childish, not lasting, meant to be outgrown.
In a novel that is so wholly Mexican, in philosophy and setting, it is both comforting and disconcerting when totally American art appears. Marina’s favorite bands include Smashing Pumpkins, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cranberries; Dr. Semitiel names his laptop after Nina Simone; Pina’s mother Chela plays Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” during the last family car ride Pina can remember.
Grief, though, is neither defined by culture nor constrained by time. Yes, Jufresa could have written Umami the “normal” way—a single perspective in chronological order with first person the whole way through—instead of this backwards telescope, alternating voices and switching perspectives between first and close third. That version of Umami would be a dark, bitter thing, like molasses in the coffee grounds. Instead, Jufresa and Hughes offer a version that is complex without weight, a saffron purée. Dynamic and delicate, Umami draws our attention without pretense.