A Santo in the Image of Cristóbal García
Fiction by Rick Collignon
Unbridled Books, June 2010
Originally published in 2002, the 2010 paperback edition of Rick Collignon’s third novel in his Guadalupe series, A Santo in the Image of Cristóbal García, still manages to captivate with its unique blend of mystery and magical realism. From its initial pages, readers are transported to the imaginary, Macondo-like town of Guadalupe in New Mexico, where junipers, tortillas, vigas, ghosts and saints, bleeding trees, and memories—all of these come to life and haunt reality, especially for Flavio Montóya, who looks up from his sister’s fields at the start of the novel only to find the mountains burning. But who set the hills aflame? Was it Flavio? Was it his friend, Felix García, the eighty-year old mute, who walks out of the flames and speaks after an eight-year, stroke-induced silence? Or was it the shrouded black figure that has haunted the town since Cristóbal García carved her in despair?
The genius of Collignon’s novel lies in its structure. Cristóbal García is set up as a dream sequence, weaving back and forth via flashback and foreshadow, introducing characters and their plights long before each is fully explained. This nonlinear pace can get tiresome and redundant, of course; but Collignon’s dreamy prose is top-notch, unrelenting, so that his words come across in true folklore fashion, and as an extension of his self-proclaimed love for the oral tradition of the New Mexico region:
When the two men walked into Las Sombras, not only did they find everyone who had lived there gone, but the entire village had been burned. Each house was no more than charred adobe, the walls lying in heaps or at best half standing. Ceilings had collapsed and the latillas and vigas were only black ashes. The sole structure unharmed was the church. It stood in the middle of all the debris as if it had left the village when the fires had begun and not returned until it was safe.
In Cristóbal García, Collignon’s take on history is that it may be cyclical, but ultimately personal. Past deeds (good or evil) are never forgotten in the Guadalupe universe, but meant to endure and affect the present. It is a town where “the walls are made of bones” and “no one forgets…even if they don’t remember;” where the sins of previous generations are owed. Enigmas abound in the novel, saturating its pages in the surreal, so that character actions come across as dichotomies more often than not, even in the face of true danger:
Vehicles were parked half on the pavement and half on the shoulder all the way to where the road climbed out of the valley to Las Sombras. People were walking about, visiting or standing in groups. Whole families were sitting in the beds of their pickups, the butt end of the trucks parked so that they faced the fire. The village squad car and a number of state police cars were in the midst of everyone, their lights flashing, their sirens off. It looked like the entire country had come to Guadalupe for a party. Kids were running up and down the highway. Six-packs of beer and soda pop were being passed around. Flavio knew most of the people, but there were others, standing off by themselves, whom he had never seen before. The only traffic moving was in one lane in the center of the road, and even that was almost at a standstill.
Everyone and everything is interconnected in Cristóbal García, and an uneasiness haunts each character in the form of their memories. Along with Flavio and Felix mentioned earlier, readers are treated to other quirky characters; and it’s through Collignon’s strong characterization that the novel’s primary themes of home, displacement, and death are strengthened. We listen to Guadalupe García, for instance, the town crazy woman, foreshadowing the town’s demise with her visions as a child—visions that ultimately ostracize her and her family from the rest of the populace. There’s Guadalupe’s ancestor, Emilio García, the bandit of Guadalupe legend, who is hung from the cottonwood tree outside the town church under mysterious circumstances; as well as Ramona, Flavio’s sister, the painter of burning fields and cemeteries. Finally, readers are introduced to Cristóbal García himself, the patriarch and founder of the town of Guadalupe, who goes mad in the wilderness after carving his saint, only to have her return time and again throughout his life (as well as that of his descendants) to haunt the town in the guise of a woman in black.
Originally described by Publisher’s Weekly in 2002 as a work of fiction situated “squarely in a tired genre,” this paperback edition of Cristóbal García is proof of the permanence and continued popularity of Collignon’s prose. Though not as monumental as Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in terms of depth and scope, A Santo in the Image of Cristóbal García deserves all its accolades which, in this reader’s estimation, are well earned.
-Robert Paul Moreira