In The Secret Gardens of Mogador: Voices of the Earth, Alberto Ruy-Sánchez transports his readers once again to Mogador, ancient name for the Arabic 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 the characters of his two previous novels. The Secret Gardens of Mogador is the third novel of a tetralogy that explores the nature of feminine and masculine desire, using as a metaphorical point of departure the four basic elements of air, water, earth, and fire. In this novel, Ruy-Sánchez examines the complex nature of enduring intimacy, in particular, the daily challenge of addressing the ever-changing desires of the other, as well as the perpetual quest to recreate the magical moment when paradise was first discovered in the body of the beloved. The novel is comprised of four parts, called spirals, each of which contains nine chapters narrated in a mesmerizing, poetic language the author describes as a “prose of intensities.”
First Spiral: The Sleepwalker’s Quest for a Voice
1. Dawn breaks, slowly . . . and it was as if the light were singing
It was in Mogador the hour when lovers rouse, their dreams still entangled between their legs, behind their eyes, in their mouths, filling their empty hands.
Between kisses they fall asleep again. The sea roars toward the sun, awakening them. But their eyes open deep within their dreams, where they love and delight each other, and also suffer at times.
It was in Mogador the hour when all the voices of the sea, the port, the streets, the plazas, the public baths, the beds, the cemeteries, and the wind entwine and tell stories.
In the Main Plaza of Mogador, a man traces an imaginary circle with his open hand and places himself in the center. It is not a perfect circle, but a spiral that rises from his feet. He raises his arms to the sky and summons the winds. He hurls a purple scarf into the air, compressing it first with his hands like a stone before casting it to the wind. It opens suddenly and descends slowly to his motionless fist, like a returning falcon: a good sign. The invisible favors him.He is the ritual storyteller, the halaiqui. This morning his voice unravels like a cautious serpent slithering from its basket. And it becomes a hypnotic call in the air. A bird of prey that captures the attention of those passing by.
Soon he is surrounded by young and old, men and women. He arouses new and old curiosities in each of them. Then the storyteller introduces himself. He comes from very far away:
I come moved by my blood. By its music. I come guided by my tongue. By its thirst. Every day I clothe myself with the winds, the tides, the moons. And here, as you listen to me, I strip all of that away. I am only the breath of what I tell. A sleepwalker’s voice. A voice anxiously seeking the intimacy of the earth.
Everyone follows the halaiqui‘s gestures with their gaze as well as their breath. He stares at each one of them. Then he changes his tone and says:
“Today I come to tell you the story of a man who became . . .”
And he pauses, as if another idea crossed his mind, interrupting him. He turns to an old man sitting in the front, who looks at him in wonder, like a child.
“Do you know what that man became?”
Then to another, further back, who lowers his eyes; to a woman who nearly escapes him; to a frightened boy.
“Can anyone tell me? I will give something special to the one who guesses. A reward, a surprise.”
A group of young people decide to try their luck. They consult each other. One convinces the rest that he has heard this story before, and boldly makes his way to the front to say:
“He became a dog.”
The halaiqui shakes his head no. Everyone laughs and then all of them feel the urge to shout what they have been thinking. Each has an idea and a hundred spring forth at the same time:
“He became a fish. No, a bird. The wind. A woman. The sea. A stone. A river. Nothing. A mosquito. A dragon. The rain. A dream. A date. A pomegranate. A cat . . .”
The halaiqui allows nearly all to have their say. Finally, he makes an abrupt gesture with his hands, demanding silence. He casts his gaze upon the eyes of everyone in the circle. He spins rapidly in the center, then stops and says slowly:
“He became a voice. A voice that seeks to be heard with special regard by the one he loves, that desires to be sown in that intimacy like a seed in the earth. A voice that wishes to be fertile, sensitive to the earth that receives it, if it is received. This is the story of a man who became a voice so that he could inhabit the body of his beloved. So that he could discover in her his paradise, his unique and secret garden. That man had to face certain challenges in order to become that voice of the earth. But as it turned out, nothing he achieved lasted for long.
“This is my story . . . and nine times nine it begins.”
2. Hassiba, the Obsessive GardenerThat morning I finally had to accept it. A strange obsession for gardens had come over Hassiba. It began like any other mania, with a strange, indecipherable expression. What did Hassiba see when she looked so intently at everything? I did not give it much thought at first.
Later, she seemed to be hypnotized by certain flowers, as if she were gazing at the sea or a fire. She wanted to plant trees in every corner of the city, and even along the streets. Not only did she wish to enter the inner courtyards of any house in Mogador that offered the slightest glimpse of a plant, but she began to look at everyone and everything as if we formed part of a garden in motion.
She would say that her friendships withered or flourished, while others became infested, and that certain people were flowers lasting only a day. Grafts, fertilizers, and pruning were some of her favorite words to describe all that she did and why she did it. In her eyes, the entire world had become the transcription of a great garden, the garden that contains all gardens.
One day, I caught her sitting by her window, offering her skin to the sun’s first rays. First her feet, then her legs, and finally the mound of her pubis, upon which she gazed as if it were a bush, a forest, a sown field. “My plants are happy,” she said smiling, without looking up from the tuft of unruly down covering her belly. An emerging dark line seemed to grow delicately toward her navel. She was content and peaceful, like someone contemplating a landscape that fills the horizon.
But I really began to worry the day she woke up excited, shouting: “The great gardener has arrived,” just as the sun was coming up. She opened the curtain enough to illuminate the edge of the bed, and undressed to offer herself to the first warm ray of the morning.
She stretched her legs gradually, then began opening them, enraptured, without touching herself, very slowly, letting her breath and pubis sway at the tenacious edge of light as she made love to the sun.
I watched her in silence, alarmed and fascinated at the same time, trembling all over, jealous of the sun’s slender fingers. I dared not touch her, or even interrupt her. My hands felt hopelessly cold.
After catching her breath, but still breathing deeply, Hassiba approached me slowly, caressed my cheek, kissed me, and whispered in my ear, with a deliberate and serious voice, that her happiness was immense, that she had been in paradise, in the garden of the sun’s fingers. I remained silent and awestruck.
That same night and the following days, I tried to slip beneath the skin of the solar phantom who had made her so happy. A greater challenge than I could have ever imagined and one that would lead me to endure strange, nearly inconceivable trials.At times it seemed impossible to get under the skin of someone who existed only in her desires. It took a while to realize that I needed to transform my movements completely, my way of listening to her and looking at her. I needed to alter the music of my blood, the cadence of my caresses.
Little by little, I was able to grow a flower here and there, then a sprout, but never truly creating a garden in her resplendent body. Undoubtedly, Hassiba’s desire had risen like the midday sun, with demanding urges that were completely unexpected, mysterious, and frankly, incomprehensible.
Then I could not control myself and made one of my most serious blunders. I began to tease her incessantly about her new gardening obsession, which Hassiba did not appreciate in the least. My comments became more and more offensive to her, although I was unaware of the harm I was inflicting.
Germinating on her skin was the feeling she was not understood. And soon she found me more and more distant, incapable of sharing her concerns, deaf to her new voice.
Nonetheless, between one callous remark and another, I kept trying, without much success, to become the intimate paradise of this obsessive woman. Only briefly was I able to do so. At the slightest hint of incomprehension, she would expel me from her body, from the realm of her body that was for me, undoubtedly, the real paradise.
From Los jardines secretos de Mogador: Voces de tierra