There’s a phrase from a Borges poem that I can’t get out of my head. It’s short, just four spare words, less than a line, scavenged from its original place in the poem and repurposed as the title of a now-famous Colombian memoir: El olvido que seremos. I remember the words not for themselves but because my father and I once had an impassioned disagreement about their potential translation, and by extension their meaning. I thought the English version had to be something like “the forgetting we become”: the inevitability that our lives and everything we create inside them—all we deposit into the world, the love we dish out and accept back and plead for hopelessly—will be forgotten by anyone who might’ve once been around to remember us. Memory is a frail casing; one day, finally, we’ll be gone. But my father had a different opinion. He believed the phrase could be translated like this: “We become what we forget.” El olvido que seremos: how the many things that jump the ship of our memory come to haunt and define us, long after (either by choice or by neglect) we’ve forgotten them.
I wish I could ask Francisco Goldman—or his doppelgänger protagonist, Francisco Goldberg—about the Borges phrase. I’m sure both men, in whatever real or imagined world, would have some scrupulous, incandescent thing to say about its meaning. Both have read Borges and likely know about his many idiosyncrasies, his fear of mirrors, his blindness, his claim that languages aren’t essentially synonymous, his avowal that he was constantly in love. Both, I suspect, would understand all the vast and unconquerable distances at play: between one language and another, between any two distinct readings of the world, between any one father and his son.
Goldman’s Monkey Boy—his fifth novel, alongside a book of investigative journalism and a chronicle of Mexico City—is a book something like that Borges phrase: closely examined, it might come to mean the very opposite of what you first believed it to mean, until its true meaning, untranslatable, seems composed of the very act of self-diversion, an accumulation of disparate and irreconcilable meanings. First it is a story about an older man visiting home. Then it’s a love story. Then it’s a story about war. Then it’s a story about familial violence. Before, during, and after, in the novel’s many wanderings and creases, it’s a story about all we cannot know about one another and our own selves in the past, and the lengths we go to pursue inaccessible truths.
Francisco Goldberg is born in suburban Boston to a Guatemalan mother and a Russian Jewish father. Like Goldman did, he spends part of his early childhood in Guatemala, then moves back to the US after being diagnosed at three with tuberculosis. Home again, he is the object of many corresponding cruelties: his father’s abuse, rampant bullying at school and racialized taunting (from which the book gets its title), the confoundments of early love. Later he will become a novelist and a journalist, as Goldman himself did, covering the Central American wars in the 1980s, living far away from his family as a seminomad, more or less incapable of maintaining long-term love. When he’s made aware of a threat to his life as a consequence of his politically incisive journalism, he is forced back home, from Mexico City to New York City, and then to New England on a weekend trip to visit his mamita and a cast of other women from his past.
The entire book takes place over the five days of that trip, beginning on the Amtrak train from New York to Boston, and is divided into sections labeled: “Thursday,” “Friday,” “Saturday,” and “Sunday.” But it is also true to say that the novel spans decades and generations—from the stories of his parents’ respective childhoods, to vivid recollections of his own childhood and early adult life, to his failed romances of years past, to his current obsessive love interest, Lulú López. Francisco’s heart is moored to Lulú, but we meet her only through a series of ambiguous text messages, or else in the past tense. “Nothing happens only when it happens,” writes the poet Ross Gay. In Monkey Boy, nothing is happening when it happens: the action-ridden scenes of the book—the teenage first kiss, the sex, the near-death childhood beatings, the war times and funerals—are never depicted but instead are recalled from the safe distance of years away. This form allows us to encounter a mind in the throes of retrospection, but it comes at the cost of some narrative heat, the feeling of really living inside scenes as they take place. I believe it is an inevitable and ultimately worthwhile trade-off, though—proximity and distance having their respective, interminable capacities and blind spots (like two drawings of the same jacaranda tree, one sketched from one hundred feet away, the other while looking up from the shade under its branches, neither more necessarily true or beautiful, and each the evidence of the other’s limitations). Inside Goldman’s enveloping language, we move frenetically between the present and the past, with the mimicked arbitrariness of memory. By the end of the book, the day-section demarcations feel almost like a joke.
“Five days a week and sometimes on Saturdays, too, my father used to get up at 5:45 a.m. to go to work at the Potashnik Tooth Corporation.” This is the beginning of Monkey Boy, the very first line. It reminds me, instantly and almost uncannily, of the beautiful Robert Hayden poem “Those Winter Sundays”: “Sundays too my father got up early / and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold.” The similarity of the subject, plus that identical hanging “too”—the lines feel like cousins. Whether or not the allusion is intended, perhaps the poem and the sentence can be read together as a prophecy of the book’s journeying and deepest aims. Over the course of the long weekend, Francisco visits his mother, two of his childhood nannies, his high school unrequited love, and is headed to see his sister as the novel ends. But all the while he is searching most desperately for his late father, the man whose oil-and-water mix of love and violence has colored his life in bruise-tones. Goldman’s prose—its dexterity, its twin grace and force—is put to full use in his writing about a son struggling to recollect his father, to both remember him and make him a coherent figure in his mind, all the while perpetually stuck in his orbit—ever propelled by him, unable to get a good, stilled look. I hear one of the last lines of that Hayden poem in Goldman’s book, too, repeating like a breath or a pulse: “What did I know, what did I know…”
I must confess I find it hard to critique a Francisco Goldman novel, since his work means so much to me; a few years ago, reading Say Her Name made me want to become a writer. It was the novel that showed how deep thinking can be a means of traveling toward our pain, and not—as it so often is—a form of protection from it. But I do believe rigorous love invites, even requires, critique. It’s in that spirit that I’ve been thinking about Francisco’s various love interests in the book. Each is decidedly singular, brought to us in high pixelation—and some of the most stunning lines arise from Francisco’s elaborate thinking about his romantic sagas of the past and present. But I’m not sure if these women ever stop being artfully crafted instruments and become characters, if they ever stand on their own outside their utility to the plot or as mirrors or windows through which the protagonist gets to look. Perhaps we are crammed so tightly inside our protagonist’s mind that it is the work of the novel to encounter the world not only through his various insights but also through his delusions. I wonder if his romantic partners could have been given more room to breathe in the story, and where that might have led the book’s questions.
In one remembered scene, Francisco visits the corpse of a torture victim in a Guatemalan morgue, then immediately afterward goes out for quiche with his colleague. It sets him wondering how those two experiences could possibly “fit coherently together inside the same hour—or even inside the same life?” It is a question that returns to us again and again across the pages of Monkey Boy. How can a father wage both love and brutality against his children? How does a childhood full of bullying and shame fit together with an entirely distinct adult life of writing, traveling, romance, and spurts of measured loneliness? Goldman has given us a protagonist made in his image—Goldberg—half-white and half-Guatemalan, half-Jewish and half-Catholic, as incoherent as our families and our nations. Goldberg can’t turn his mind off or look away from the stitching artificially holding disparate things together. The result is the kind of thoroughly contemplated, self-aware beauty in ideas that thrums a novel into life.
I don’t know what either Francisco would say about that Borges quote, if they would decide it was I or my father who had a better translation. After recounting a childhood memory in Guatemala of passing a toy truck through the bars of a window to strangers on the other side, another boy and his mother, Francisco wonders if memory is “like the broken-off half of a mysterious amulet that can only be made whole if that now-grown little boy remembers it, too, and we can somehow meet and put our pieces together.” This is one example of the kind of high-wattage thinking found again and again in Goldman’s work, often accompanied by some line or reference to a piece of literature; it’s an idea weighty and textured enough to hold in our hands. Memory is piecemeal, and complete memory is irretrievable. Maybe forgetting, like memory, the Franciscos would tell me, is just as necessary and incomplete. We both remember and forget to go on living. Goldman is a master writer—of personal and national myths, adorned like colonial-era costumes or false teeth. In Monkey Boy, he leaves nothing at bay, attending to the most important questions facing our nation and the most gentle questions turning in our hearts. It is a book, like any journey across vast distances, that we cannot help but commit to imperfect, passionate memory.