For Barbara Ware (1)
En el tren de los muertos received Honorable Mention in the Contest Premio Fondo Nacional de las Artes in 1997; its author, Mireya Keller, has won numerous prizes, primarily for her short stories, in Chile and Argentina; she is also a prize-winning poet. (2) She was born in Santiago, has resided in several latin American countries and in Rome. Since 1992, she has lived in Buenos Aires where, since 1996, she has worked with a group of four writers to produce the radio program "Contextos." Her novel reveals her imaginative power and her mastery of a lyrical style that opens the suffocation of grief to chronicle its manifestations within the members of a large family. The death she depicts is perhaps the most poignant, the death of a child of about four or five years old, the youngest child of a family of five children, and one who was its pet, its most-loved and doted upon latecomer, born after the fourth child had already reached her mid teens. Death is always difficult to comprehend, never more so than when its strikes down a child. (3) Within the novel Keller contrasts the death of one of the grandmother, a loss painful to assimilate but finally comprehensible because of her advanced age, with the death of the young child Esperanza. The loss of this child devastates the entire family, especially the mother, whose world is shattered by this evidence of Nature's (and God's) injustice.
My purpose as the first critic to undertake a thorough analysis of this novel is to comment generally upon its form and content, especially its socio-political level, then to demonstrate specially how and why Keller incorporated the music and the person of Gustav Mahler into her novel. I shall concentrate upon how such incorporation affects the novel's structure and why it is so useful to Keller in the development of her theme, the mother's reconciliation with nature and the cyle of life and death. Further, I shall analyze both Keller's and Mahler's reliance on the feminine archetypes of Jungian psychology, as explicated by Eric Neumann. Finally, I shall turn to the novelist herself for an autobiograpical commentary on the importance of Mahler and Jungian psychology to her novel.
Style, Plot, Characters and Theme
Keller incorporates elements of magic realism into her novel. Its narrator is Esperanza, the dead child, who enters into the minds of the other family members, but to the largest extent into those of her mother, Maria, and of her older sister, Marianela. Esperanza observes and reports on the family's male members from a more external perspective; these members include her father Jose, and her older brothers, Jose, Juan, and Jorge. The central motif of the novel is the train of the dead, upon which Maria and Esperanza embark, to traverse a route across the Southern Cone. Maria comments that the route might just as well have been the North-South trajectory from the cordillera to the frozen ice caps of the Southern extremity, but she prefers the East-West route, for it begins and ends at the oceans: the West with its cliffs overlooking the cold Pacific and the East with its sands extending the golden tones of the pampas. The suggestion of the arbitrariness of the route universalizes the train, intimating that it runs anywhere in this world, where death everywhere exerts its dominion. At the same time the exact evocation of the geography of the region gives the novel its particularity.
Most of the dead who occupy the train are, like Esperanza, physically dead, though they may be vibrantly alive spiritually. One of the train's occupants, Maria, exemplifies the opposite characteristics: she is physically alive but psychologically dead. Her depression ensuing from the death of her child has caused her to withdraw from the world of the living. Following the dictates of magic realism, Keller makes this withdrawal from the family in Santiago remains within the bounds of ordinary reality; Keller depicts him retreating to the country ranch where he feverishly and obsessively renovates the house. …