Listen to Jaquira Díaz read “Ghosts”.
On “Ghosts” by Jaquira Díaz
Love in a time of war—one of literature’s most ancient, most lasting, themes. And “Ghosts” thrusts its dramatic tensions upon us right from the start: “Three weeks before we pull the body from the river, I find Kofi waiting for me behind our camp. . . .” These first two clauses sweep over us with both the anticipatory suspense of knowing there’s a body to be found and this implicitly sinister Kofi found waiting for the narrator. There’s a story here all right, and I’m hooked, at least enough to keep me reading.
But truth is, I remain skeptical precisely because it’s a war story. One might assume that, given an explosive mix of mayhem, fear, and a fair dollop of sex, a writer has all the ingredients to a potent recipe and can’t go wrong. In fact, however, that’s rarely the case, especially when it comes to literary fiction.
Literature, by its very nature, presupposes a certain distance from the tale being told. The author or narrator typically creates an arm’s-length quality (often a kind of irony) from the dramatic action itself. This distance engenders the telling of the tale in the first place, as well as the challenges of reading it: a wrestling to understand, at least to some degree, what happens and its effect on the central characters. This is what differentiates literary writing from genre stories—created as entertainment for both children and adults. Such pleasures (which I often share) are all about the satisfaction of losing oneself in the vivid rush of action. Who done it? Did they get the bad guys? There’s no deeper thrust for judgment or what may be an unsettling insight.
In other words, for every brilliant and ambitious story such as The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, sweeping us into the darkness of the Vietnamese war, hundreds and thousands of others describe the horrors and exhilarations of combat and what surrounds it, without aspiring to literary pretensions. They want to tell it just like it was, no distance, no effort to interpret. It’s story with a nose pressed hard against the window.
So what segment of this spectrum does “Ghosts” inhabit? Well, on the side of action it surely offers swift and vivid drama. Here’s Kofi again, lurking, while Vega, the narrator, uses the latrine:
Then he pulls on the handle again, harder this time, and I worry that the makeshift lock will come loose, that he’ll catch me with my cammi trousers around my ankles. I know what will happen if he bursts through the door. I waste no time. After I pull up my trousers, I take one step back and with all the strength I can muster, I kick the outhouse door. It flies open, lock breaking, then a crash I assume is wood against Kofi’s skull. When I step out, he’s flat on his back covering his nose and mouth with both hands. His flaccid penis hangs out of his shorts. He is still moaning.
The prose here—and throughout the story—is taut, precise, visual, visceral. Jaquira Díaz can write—that much is clear.
What one grasps early on, moreover, is the story’s literary ambition. Yes, it has a narrative “present,” when the central action unfolds, but it also touches on other of Vega’s military deployments. Whether in Iraq or here in Campo Verde or earlier on the mean streets of Miami with her mother, both dying and threatening to kill her, Vega’s life has been characterized by violence and isolation and a desperate instinct for survival. And in Campo Verde she even discovers a measure of love, of a sort:
I feel my way to Ramos’s tent in the dark. He’s awake and doesn’t seem all that surprised to see me. He pulls off his shirt, and I’m glad I don’t have to endure the awkwardness of his rejection and then to face him in the morning. Our faces are slick with sweat, our necks sunburned and covered in grime. My hair is knotted. We reek of motor oil and mosquito repellent and foot powder, and when he goes down on me, I’m sure he imagines his wife.
So if I were looking for perspective and distance and the wrestle for meaning, there’s plenty to find here.
I’m also a reader attuned to a story’s structure, a signal of its artfulness. At the end of “Ghosts,” for example, we finally encounter what we were promised from the start: that body in the river, a young boy who no one in the village will claim, save Kofi.
No one comes to the boy’s burial. No one claims him except for Kofi. He takes it upon himself, maybe because he knows that when he dies, there will be no one to do the digging, no one to leave flowers over an unmarked grave. When it is my time, no one will come for me either.
As they watch Kofi hacking a grave out of the soil from a distance, Vega and Ramos hold hands. But the reader recognizes the connection as tentative, temporary, in keeping with every sinew of this fine and haunting tale.