Alberto Ruy-Sánchez - She will make love with him only when he tells her about a new garden in the city. The problem is that he must search for gardens where one least expects to find them, and he may not invent them
Alberto Ruy-Sánchez, Poetics of Wonder: Passage to Mogador, Trans. by Rhonda Buchanan, White Pine Press, 2014.
"The most moving, beautiful, and eloquent expression of wonder in literature. If there has been anything new in recent literature of any type it is this undefinable book: poetry, short tales, and intelligence in each paragraph. A delight."—Jeanne Teixidor
In 1975, the Mexican writer Alberto Ruy Sánchez was a graduate student living in Paris, where he and his wife Margarita de Orellana were pursuing doctoral studies. The fall semester ended, and with time on their hands but little money to spare, they decided to take a trip to Morocco, a place that fit their budget and offered a warm escape from the cold winter in France. At that time, Ruy Sánchez had no way of knowing that the journey to Morocco would become a rite of passage, an initiation into a culture that would forever change his life and his future literary career. Upon seeing the Sahara for the first time, his childhood memories of the Sonoran Desert came rushing back to him, and in his imagination he began to erect un puente de arena, a bridge of sand that united Morocco and his native Mexico. In the souk, the colorful ceramic plates and tiles reminded him of the Mexican Talavera pottery, and the Berber rugs and tapestries evoked the intricate textiles of the Chiapas. But of all the intense moments he experienced in Morocco, the one that would have the most profound impact on him was his visit to Essaouira, a walled city on the Atlantic coast whose ancient name was Mogador. From the moment he first laid eyes on Essouira, this city has continued to obsess and seduce him like an inaccessible woman who extends with her gaze the invitation to explore her labyrinthine streets and enter her secret gardens.
Soon after that first journey to Morocco, he began to construct a quintet of novels that take place in Mogador and explore the many facets of desire: Los nombres del aire (1987, The Names of the Air), En los labios del agua (1996), Los jardines secretos de Mogador: Voces de tierra (2001, The Secret Gardens of Mogador: Voices of the Earth, 2009), and La mano del fuego: Un Kama Sutra involuntario (2007, The Hand of Fire: An Involuntary Kama Sutra). Like the last finger of the Jamsa, a fifth book, Nueve veces el asombro: Nueve veces nueve las cosas que dicen de Mogador (2005), serves as a companion to the other four novels and offers the reader a “Poetics of Wonder,” or a primer for approaching the inaccessible “city of desire.”
Hassiba, the protagonist, shares with her lover a series of intimate lessons regarding the paradoxical and wondrous nature of Mogador. The novel’s subtitle, Nueve veces nueve cosas que dicen de Mogador (Nine Times Nine Things They Say about Mogador), reflects the contents of the book: nine chapters composed of nine texts each, 81 flashes of insight that Hassiba will reveal to her lover, and in so doing, to the reader as well. In Chapter 7 of Poetics of Wonder: Passage to Mogador, Hassiba describes the wonders that may be found in the Libraries of Mogador.
Alberto Ruy-Sánchez, The Secret Gardens of Mogador, Trans. by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan, White Pine Press, 2009.
"In Mogador, the city of desire, a woman, tired of her lover’s insensitivity, decides to impose a challenge on him: she will make love with him only when he comes to tell her about a new garden in the city. The problem is, however, that there are none left and he will not be permitted to create new ones. To discover hidden gardens he will have to tune in to his most dormant emotions.
Ruy Sanchez is painter of dreams, who manages to fuse the most unblemished sensuality with the most transparent spirituality."
"In The Secret Gardens of Mogador, 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 book 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."
“Ruy-Sanchez’s works of fiction are always amazing: adventure, poetry and intelligence in a new geometry of words... His writing has nerve and agility, his intelligence is sharp without being cruel, his mood is sympathetic without complicity.” - Octavio Paz
“In the books by Ruy-Sanchez we find again the erotic conviction that allows us to read with all the skin. The erotic, in his narratives is not a subject or a phrase, it is the clay of what they are made. In his novels every experience, trivial or extraordinary, breaths through the erotic.” - Alberto Manguel
“Beautiful and disturbing..., in his books a man slowly explores a woman’s universe of mistery and poetry.” - Le Monde
“To name the air is to make it visible. Ruy Sanchez invented not only novels but a new way of reading, the way of poetic lightening stroke.”-Severo Sarduy
"Going to bed each night with The Secret Gardens of Mogador is like going to bed each night with a lover. The pages of Alberto Ruy-Sanchez’s most recent book to be translated into English drip with sensuality, wooing the reader into a story and a land of subdued, carnal rapture. Not that each page carries a lurid lovemaking scene or portraits of nudity (though the cover and accompanying illustrations reveal a nude, statuesque beauty). Rather, the various tales within this novella portray eroticism as if it were a second language, or a sixth sense; eroticism is just an everyday part of living, like breathing.
From the cover emblazoned with a scintillating muse onward, The Secret Gardens oozes with passion. The opening page jumps right into bed: lovers rouse, “their dreams still entangled between their legs,” and then they make love. At the recent PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York City,1 Ruy-Sánchez stood before a rapt audience and admitted he spent four years interviewing women about their various sexual desires before penning this book. The man did his research, and it shows:
Her skin was more sensitive in the most unexpected zones of her body, as if the sense of touch had decided to dominate the others, and the crawling ant igniting the lips of her sex had continued its secret journey, descending suddenly toward her knees. Waves of desire traversed her, up and down, from her belly to her back.
Yet all of this gushing on the author’s ability to arouse says nothing of the story itself. The Secret Gardens of Mogador, lucidly translated by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan, is the story of man under the spell of the alluring enchantress Hassiba. “Her very name was the resonant whisper of an incantation: Hassiba. Resembling a light touch, a laceration at the beginning of the word that becomes labial, almost suggesting a kiss in its final two letters.” They are lovers, but he cannot meet her needs and desires. The mysterious woman sends him on a quest through the semi-mythical town of Mogador in search of the city’s various gardens. Each night he, in a modern twist on the role of Scheherazade, must return home and tell the tale of his latest verdant finding, “each a unique tribute to the cultivation of passion and desire.” Only after he learns the mysterious ways of nature and desire can he win her over.
Mogador, (or Mogadore, or Mugadi), is an actual place in Western Morocco, and if it’s anything like it is described in The Secret Gardens, make it your next vacation destination (when you arrive, look for the girl in the market with a handful of flower petals). It may be a real city, and Ruy-Sánchez might have based his descriptions on actual visits, but to the reader it will seem mythical, with hints of the flavors of Mexico, Riyadh, and Baghdad thrown in for good measure. Ruy-Sánchez’s Mogador ultimately exists on a sensual plane rarely visited by mere mortals.
Spaces are liminal—we rarely see beyond the purview of the main characters. Just about everything is immediate: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the passion. Landscapes are mists. The constraint of the immediate orbits of the narrator and Hassiba force another level of intimacy between the reader, the characters, and their story.
Nature is heightened and often personified just as much as sensuality is elevated. Sunlight becomes a minor character, shouting, kissing, and caressing. The sun becomes a great lover, too, stroking Hassiba “ever so lightly with its radiant fingers.” In Mogador, flowers clamor for the presence of people. In one of the narrator’s recollections of a garden visit, “The Minimal Garden of Stones in the Wind,” a wind chime is created with pipes and stones: “The distance between each stone is enough for the wind to move them so that they strike each other, producing strange music. It is like a field of fragile flowers stirred by the wind.”
For me, the image of hard stones as fragile as flowers immediately recalled the multimedia artist Pipilotti Rist’s 1997 film “Ever is Over All,” in which a woman joyously breaks car windows with a flower. That, I suppose, is the magic of Mogador and of Ruy-Sánchez—the events in The Secret Gardens take us to fantastical experiences in our mind that have already happened, or that, no matter how imaginative, could happen. We are always left wanting and dreaming of more.
The sun also becomes a great gardener, but not the only one active in Mogador, for as the narrator begins to explore the various secret botanical enclaves of the ancient town, the gardener and the garden working together (becoming one) reveals itself as a theme. In various tales about gardens and groves the caretaker is a “master artist” or “patient, intelligent, and bold,” whose passionate devotion to their landscapes is the same as those of the dedication between celebrated lovers. Hassiba, too, is an impassioned devotee of the plants in her life.
But what of the narrator’s tales? What of his nightly adventures to and reports from the myriad gardens of Mogador? After the narrator embarks on this daily quest, a certain sense of foreboding simmers below the surface. There are uneasy indications that by the time we reach the last page the simmer will have reached full boil, that the worst has come of Hassiba, and that she will no longer be with her lover, or with us. This sense that something is about to happen around every corner unwittingly provides a melancholic underpinning to the novel. It does not help that from time to time throughout the tales we are told that one day Hassiba “said” this, or that another time Hassiba “went” somewhere. Suddenly and sporadically Hasssiba has gone from being a part of our present to occupying a space in the past. It is unsettling.
This change of voice may be the fault of the translator, but I doubt it. The rest of Buchanan’s translation seems so precise and inviting that such a blatant oversight is unlikely. Instead, the confusion may reveal the one flaw of the novella, if it can even be called such: soon after the narrator begins his quest to discover and re-tell his adventures of Mogador’s gardens, the voice seems to shift from the protagonist to the author himself. The tales “The Andalusi Palm Grove of Longing,” and then “The Garden of Traveling Cacti” to the very end (about twelve tales) seem to be the voice of Ruy-Sánchez. In other words, it is as if he were recalling his own travels throughout Mogador (and its various incarnations), rather than the narrator’s wanderings, only to come back to the storyline at the end of each account, and thus at the end of the book. But who can tell for sure? As mentioned already, Mogador seems to be more of a place of fantasy than reality.
Still, we read on, for the narrator is challenged to be the male Scheherazade. And he doesn’t disappoint. With tales of gardens in tiles, henna tattoos, palm groves, destroyed gardens, gardens of wind, fire, water, and more, we are delighted time and again by the sights and sounds of Mogador. Inasmuch, Ruy-Sánchez reveals himself to be a talented storyteller, one full of surprises, all told with language so floral and sensuous you can’t help but want to read The Secret Gardens aloud to your lover. It is a testament to the translator as well, that even through translation the language is as explicit and arousing as it surely is in the original Spanish. To wit:
That is how I feel as I pursue you, erecting a tower toward the sky, pausing and enjoying each instant as I reach your dewy point, which always, gently, arouses me.
In the end, The Secret Gardens of Mogador proves to be nothing short of a sensual feast. From the cover to the whispers of sex to the elegantly designed Arabic calligraphy (by Hassan Massoudy) throughout, Ruy-Sánchez’s work is scintillating. Thank goodness he spent four years researching his material. The results are sure to stir passion in both sexes." - Shaun Randol
The Scent of a Dream by Alberto Ruy-Sanchez