Book Quote:

“Do we still know what it’s like to dream about the other side of the mountain? At what point does one cross the crest of forgetting? And this is when I think of Matias, who breached the space of the known for nothing more than a glimpse of the white-blind city on the other side.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  AUG 18, 2011)

I have seldom read such an extraordinary collection of stories, fascinating in their sheer inventiveness, subtly interlinked so that their images reflect and coruscate.* It is not entirely right to speak of stories either. Roughly half the two dozen pieces in this collection might be called stories in the normal sense, though some are no more than brief surreal hallucinations. The rest include several poems, two sets of dictionary entries, a letter and the reply to it, a news report, and a brief history of poetry in Cuba. All the pieces are ostensibly by different authors, collected by an expatriate Irishman who introduces himself in the preface and concludes with brief biographies of all the writers involved. All of course are fictional, even the author herself: “Ana Menéndez is the pseudonym of an imaginary writer and translator, invented, if not to lend coherence to this collection, at least to offer it the pretense of contemporary relevance.”

All this cleverness would mean little were Menéndez not able to write and have something vital to write about — but she does and she can. Listen to the ending of “Journey Back to the Seed,” as a senile Cuban woman in exile in Miami thinks slowly back to her birth on that scented island:

“And then her soul passing through a pinhole in the firmament, her thin thread-self forgetting that she had once remembered the pleasure of the body, the sound of the wind…. Nameless now she goes, tearing stars into time’s shroud, cleansed and purified for the journey’s return.”

Or, at the other end of the scale, a six-year-old boy woken by his mother to set out on a long trip:

“Children are the slaves of other voices. They have not yet mastered the first person singular and are always at the blunt end of someone else’s dream.”

This story, “Cojimar,” and the two that follow her are obviously based on the 1999 story of Elián González, the sole survivor of an escape by sea from Cuba, who was eventually repatriated by the US authorities. But Menéndez shies from telling the story straight: the first tale is suspended somewhere between the uncomprehending wonder of the child and the almost mystical fears of an old fisherman. The second is a comedy set in an officeful of Miami expatriates engaged in milking the US Government. The third is a Cuban press-release.

This technique of approaching a subject from different angles and in wildly differing styles is central to the author’s method. Few of the other pieces can be tied down so clearly to an historical event. She has mostly chosen to occupy the mind of the exile as a psychic space, dreaming alternately of escape and return. Images of transport abound: flight, wings, parachutes, balloons; boats, winds, and the call of the sea; grand railroad terminals, and trains speeding through darkness that never reach their destination.

The first story, “You Are the Heirs of All My Terrors,” a surreal nightmare of an old man hunted by killers in a station whose roof opens to the firmament, ends with a line that is typical of the whole: “With a great concussion of air, the train swept into the station, bearing with it the smell of the sea.” Except that there is no “typical;” Menéndez’ style keeps changing, and some of her most effective stories are barely connected to the Cuban theme at all. In “Three Betrayals,” an ordinary divorce case becomes an allegory of loss. In “The Express,” a professor commuting home from another city starts to reevaluate her life when the train hits a suicide:

“And now? Now she was whole, complete, content. She breathed and loved. She’d banished danger; but never again would she be invited to dance on its electric rim.”

Ana Menéndez is a wizard with English and a born writer. But an exile tells a life-story that has no proper ending, in a language that does not belong. There is an amusing trio of fables in the book constructed like a computer program that keeps looping back to the beginning and never ends. There is a small anthology of poems put into English by Google Translate; the original Spanish version of the first of them appears as a footnote to another story, and the differences are laughable, but soon the fractured English of the Google version develops a magic of its own. There is even a story about two Americans in the Caribbean written entirely in Spanish, with just the odd phrase of English, a pointed reversal of the way that novelists typically give local color to stories in foreign settings. I mention these things to illustrate Menéndez’ invention and variety, but I would not leave the impression that this book is merely clever and nothing more. Indeed, as I thumb through it now, I keep coming on passages that touch me again with their beauty, wonder, or sorrow. Reading this is an experience like no other.


*But then I have not read any Borges — an omission I shall soon correct — and I very much suspect his genius is in the air Menéndez breathes.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 4 readers
PUBLISHER: Grove Press, Black Cat; Original edition (August 2, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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August 18, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Cuba, Short Stories, Unique Narrative, World Lit

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