The opening paragraph of Paulette Jonguitud’s Mildew* involves a clever repetition:
Never forgive, I said that morning just as I do every morning, by the window, waiting for dawn. Never forgive. Whom? Constanza? Which one of them? Never forgive her, the young Constanza, or myself, the old one? I did not know, all I knew was: I was never to forgive.
‘It hasn’t been that long, mother, it’s normal you feel lonely,’ my daughter Agustina had said a few days before. I don’t feel lonely, it’s this house that suddenly has an echo.
First is the mention of two women sharing the same first name, a young and an old Constanza, something which creates an immediate doubling. Two women, both needing forgiveness. Second is that last word echo and how it so casually evokes an emptiness that both contains and repeats itself. More doubling. There is also the subtle image of a figure at a window; a pre-dawn moment that most likely involves a reflection as well as the implied experience of looking out while looking in. And, finally, there is the actual printed repetition of the word forgive—four times in five lines!—along with a single repetition of the word lonely.
This idea of doubling and echo winds its way throughout the entire novel, because even the premise of Mildew is dual. There are two stories running alongside one another—the story of a woman whose husband has fallen in love with their niece, and the story of a woman who finds a green spot on her body. And not just anywhere.
I went into the bathroom and undressed in front of the mirror. I did not find in my reflection the young woman I had been just seconds ago. I examined my body, a personal audition that I fail every morning. Big feet, varicose ankles, wide thighs.
A slight prickling in the pubis made me look down and I found a green spot, half hidden by pubic hair. It looked like a mole, irregular in form and velvety to the touch. It seemed to be covered by grey powder. I scratched but it did not go away. If anything the spot looked even larger.
Within a few lines, Jonguitud confirms what is first here only an allusion to Macbeth. Constanza is a costume designer for a local theatre group and six months before the novel opens, she made the costumes for this very play. References to theatre abound and this again reinforces the idea of doubling: scenes on stage within the scenes of the novel that give the reader two “stages” of action, careful insinuations that characters might be playing “roles,” specific theatrical movements within a longer story, even the growing spot of mildew on Constanza’s body is discussed in terms of costume. And the first person direct-to-reader narrative perspective plays right into this; it isn’t too much of a stretch to consider Mildew a form of or even an homage to Shakespearean soliloquy. With these careful allusions and parallels, Jonguitud enriches a short text with great depth and complexity.
Alongside this intertextual depth, there is a tremendous amount of story packed into these 91 beautifully printed pages. An entire history condensed into a single day, an entire family and their respective pasts brought out in quick but vivid portraits. Constanza tells of her childhood, her parents and siblings, and eventually explains how she came to raise her sister’s child, the younger Constanza, and what that experience was like—not just for her but for the rest of the family. If we believe Constanza, it was not a pleasant experience and the younger Constanza was a source of constant tension and family crisis.
Mildew is an unsettling and uncomfortable text. Not just because it moves through a variety of dark questions – including difficult questions of female desire – but from a structural and narrative perspective as well. Extending the idea of the novel as an echo of Shakespearean soliloquy, it stretches out the very strengths of that form—the way it builds tension through abrupt movements of thought, how it integrates past/present reflections, allusions to action that has occurred “off-scene.” And like many of the best soliloquies, there is a rising sense of madness as Constanza vents her thoughts and emotions.
The marvelous parallel to her increasing unsteadiness (and perhaps increasing untrustworthiness as narrator) is the mildew growing down the trunk of her body. By the middle of the book, Constanza’s leg is nearly completely covered:
I sat on the floor, among the plants. My green leg smelled like a dark basement, an old closet, it smelled forgotten. I saw then that the mildew had extended beyond my toes and had wide filaments, long like pine needles. From one of my toes a branch was now growing.
From this point on, the narrative (which was not particularly linear in the first place) begins to fragment even further. Each short chapter is somehow more jarring than the one preceding it, and the scenes become difficult to puzzle out in terms of timeline. There is a sense—fantastically carried off by Jonguitud—that the story is both building toward a big event and racing as quickly as possible away from a different big event. This, again, is another kind of doubling and it makes for great tension within the novel’s structure.
At only 91 pages, Mildew is a deceptively simple book. Its brevity and relatively unadorned prose belie what is more layered and difficult. This is a novel with a psychological and emotional intensity that invites careful reading and re-reading, and resists immediate interpretation.
*Mildew is translated into English (from Spanish) by the author and published by the marvelous CB Editions.