Ghostly Presence in the Present: A Review of Julia Alvarez’s In the Name of Salomé

“Every time the storyteller relates a fresh episode to his public, he presides over a real invocation…The present is no longer turned in upon itself but spread out for all to see.” – Franz Fanon

In Julia Alvarez’s In the Name of Salomé, the truth of history is absent; it is a ghostly presence that can only be seen in an ethereal sense. Alvarez attempts to reinscribe the invisible past of a colonized nation through the storytelling of Camila, Salomé’s daughter. The ghostly presence of the past serves as a reinforcement of strength for the colonized and they are able to reclaim their heritage through the fresh retelling of the past. Camila, like the colonized, attempts to create a future for herself and her nation by pulling the past into the present.

Camila begins her journey of self-discovery by telling her friend, Marion, Salomé’s story. She tells Marion, “I’ll have to start with my mother, which means at the birth of la patria…” (8). For Camila, as well as for all of the colonized people, the story of the personal past is synonymous with the national past. Through Camila’s storytelling she is able to reconnect with the ghostly relations of Salomé’s past, as well as her own.

When Marion interrupts her with “I thought you were finally going to talk about yourself…” (8) Camila answers “I am talking about myself” (8). Salomé’s past becomes Camila’s past and Salomé’s ghostly presence is Camila’s present. And it is not only Salomé that haunts Camila. She says “More and more there are so many ghosts. People now gone for years reappear in these brief resurrections!” (46). The ghosts of relatives, of political figures, and even of minor characters in her life that somehow became major figures. All of these ghostly presences she resurrects in her story to Marion. The physical act of recreating this history creates a present that allows Camila access to a future.

In the present, Camila draws strength from the ghostly presence of her mother with a prayer her aunt Mon taught her as a child, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of Salomé, my mother.” (243). Alvarez is likewise suggesting that the colonized people should draw strength from the recreating and reimagining of a world that no longer exists. The poet, Jorge Guillén, tells Camila, “We die if we forget. We die if we remember” (113). The past becomes a ghostly battleground that is perpetually a paradox. There is no future in forgetting, yet there is bitterness and sorrow in remembering.

In addition to being comforted by the past, Camila’s present is also disturbed by the ghosts of her past. When her father dies she finds him everywhere. She observes that her dead father appears to her in strange places, such as “…in the shape beneath my iron…” (103). Her would be lover likewise takes on the ghostly image of her dead father. She feels that her lover “…had been sent back into my life as my father’s ghost” (103). Her past haunts her in the present and she is powerless to order her future while her father’s ghost intrudes.

While her father’s ghost is at times overwhelming, Salomé’s ghost becomes oppressive. She says of her mother’s ghost, “What an oppressive ghost my mother has become! I, too, am an occupied territory” (207). The present is always occupied by the past, especially when the past that is unknown. Camila’s mother died when Camila was only three years old and therefore Camila has a difficult time conjuring up the ghost of her mother. Hence, she has a difficult time confronting the past. “To summon strength from a fading memory that every year became less real until all that was left of her mother was the story of her mother” (5) Alvarez tells us of Camila. Salomé’s story is Camila’s only way to the future.

But this ghost of her mother is a ghostly image that cannot be connected with, not even in the darkness. Camila says about her mother that “Contrary to the behavior of most ghosts, … mother’s face never appears in the darkness” (205). Camila has no interaction with the ghosts, she is disconnected from the ghosts and from her past, just as the colonized are disconnected from their past. In order to reclaim their heritage they must confront the ghosts of their past. Everywhere Camila turns she finds her mother and the pressures of the invisible past. She looks to the sky for comfort and even that “…blank, blue expanse fills with the ghostly features of her mother” (203).

The past lies hidden in a world that no longer exists and the ghosts of the past are the only ones who can explain the reasoning behind the motives of the past. Camila sorts through her mother’s trunk and finds odds and ends related to a past she cannot comprehend. She ponders, “What these things mean, only the dead can tell” (45). The past surrounds and shrouds Camila, the past of her mother, “…the ghost of her mother everywhere” (292) and the past of her country, “Just introducing these ghosts by name has recalled them so vividly…” (42).

As Camila reaches her own time to join the ghostly world of the past, she observes that, “More and more, my loved ones surface in their young replacements…” (333). In order to create a future, the past must be brought into the present; the ghosts must re-emerge in the present generations in order to continue their tasks. Camila realizes that “…at last I found her the only place we ever find the dead: among the living” (335). The present is recreated by the past, creating a future. She realizes that the best way to confront the ghostly images of the past is “…to finally face each one squarely. Maybe that is the only way to exorcise ghosts. To become them” (42).

© Karen Hamilton Silvestri 2007

About Karen Y. Hamilton

Walt Whitman says about his autobiography, Specimen Days “…At any rate I obey my happy hour’s command, which seems curiously imperative. May-be, if don’t do anything else, I shall send out the most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed.” This is what I feel at this juncture of my life, the need to gather together memories of my ancestors as well as my own memories into some semblance of order. Because all of those fragments, all of the fragments that make up any life, become stories. I am the mother of three sons, who affectionately (I hope!) call me 'gypsy mom' because I tend to wander around a bit soaking in the universe's wonders. I am currently working towards an MFA in Creative Writing at Florida Atlantic University. I have published essays with Heritage Press, Florida Living, and the St. Pauls Review. I am currently working on a book of poems about the Florida Everglades pioneers and a memoir about grief and the bonds of friendship. I live in my hometown, Jupiter, Florida and work as a freelance writer and curriculum specialist.
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