Tuesday September 2, 2014

Pig’s Foot: A Ballet Superstar Writes a Novel

And as our reviewer discovers, it’s a surprisingly good read.

Carlos Acosta: Dancer, choreographer, and now writer

Courtesy Standard.co.uk

Late last year, Cuban-born international ballet powerhouse Carlos Acosta surprised the literary world by publishing his first novel, Pig’s Foot. We asked poet, playwright, and translator Félix Lizárraga to give us his opinion, and the essay he sent us is a literary work in itself: part review, part reminiscence, part lyrical reverie. Enjoy the journey to Pig’s Foot.

Back in the 1990s, as a member of a small community theatre troupe called Teatro de los Elementos, I spent four or five unforgettable weeks in a hamlet lost in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. There, where the barracks for the field hands of a sugarcane plantation had once stood, those field hands, mostly Haitian immigrants, had settled and founded their tiny village, where they eked out a living on the very edge of nowhere.

The population of Barrancas was so overwhelmingly black that the son of a white woman who had come there as a single mother was nicknamed “Blanco” (White). There was no running water, and the generator shut down at night and left us illuminated only by kerosene-fueled chismosas and quinqués, as well as the van Gogh stars that seem within easy reach when you are on the mountains. From the heads of the rustic windows hung stick crosses and bunches of garlic to ward off vampires. A few houses grouped down the hill were known by the rather picturesque name of Reparto Fango al Pecho, the Suburb of Chest-High Mud.

In spite of the modesty of the accommodations and the scarcity of the simplest resources, the people of Barrancas turned out to be wonderfully hospitable. I learned some creole there (mostly forgotten now), and a few rara songs of which I still retain bits and pieces. Having arrived with a broken leg, I left on two hale ones, thanks to Solimán, an old Haitian farmer and healer. I also arrived there wearing a cross of metal and black stones, tied to my neck with a simple cord, that stayed in Barrancas as a goodbye present.

In the brief time we spent there, we talked to a lot of people (especially the older, Haitian-born generation) and listened to their stories. In the end, we managed to put together a production rescuing the Haitian legend of Mackandal and showcasing the considerable talents for dance and music of the people of Barrancas. I felt, however, that the story of Barrancas itself, as well as those of its fascinating, big-hearted inhabitants, remained untold.

I’m bringing up these rather old, rather personal memories only because they were recently rekindled by a book. Barrancas was (and probably still is) a place not unlike Pata de Puerco, the fictional village that gives its name to Pig’s Foot (Bloomsbury, London, 2013).

Courtesy Amazon UK

Its author, Carlos Acosta (Havana, 1973) is half Renaissance man, half force of nature. As a dancer, he won the gold medal at the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland at the tender age of 16, and has worked with some of the most prestigious world companies, such as the National Ballet of Cuba, the English Royal Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opera, and the Bolshoi Ballet. His impossibly high leaps earned him the nickname of “Air Acosta,” and critics have described him as “one of the most gifted dancers of his generation,” and “a dancer who slashes across space faster than anyone else, who lacerates the air with shapes so clear and sharp they seem to throw off sparks.”

As a choreographer, his ballet Tocororo broke box office records and was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award. He made a brief but memorable appearance as an actor in a segment (directed by Natalie Portman) of the film New York, I Love You, and stars in the recent movie Day of the Flowers. And he is probably the first black boy from the barrio of Los Pinos in Havana to be appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire. (Now that I think about it, I cannot recall any blond boys from Los Pinos that have merited such a distinction, either.) So it is small wonder that his autobiography, No Way Home: Dancing from the Streets of Havana to the World Stage (Harper Collins, 2008) was generally well received by readers and reviewers alike. He has, after all, lived a life that would be considered rich, eventful, and highly productive even by the most stringent standards—and all that at barely 40.

However, when I learned that he had also published a novel, and that it had been chosen by mammoth British bookseller Waterstones as one of eleven “debut literary stars of 2013,” I was skeptical. Waterstones’ own Michael Scott said Acosta’s first novel was “a vast, ambitious book with startling language and a beautifully woven story.” The Guardian more guardedly stated: “Far too much is packed in, yet despite its frailties the novel does have a gripping quality, which deepens towards the end.” But The Guardian also gushed: “Dancing off the page, Acosta's prose dazzles and certainly commands its audience,” and Metro summarized it as “Dark yet sexy.” I thought: such praise for a novel titled Pig’s Foot? Once I started reading, though, my skepticism did not last long.

Pig’s Foot follows the saga of a Cuban family in a relatively (and apparently) straightforward way, from the late 1800s until the 1990s, as told by a sulky, hardboiled narrator who goes by the improbable name of Oscar Mandinga. This in itself makes it unique, since I cannot think of a single Cuban novel before Acosta’s that has ever attempted such a multigenerational account. But the real kicker is that the family whose lives are chronicled here is a black family—as evidenced by their last name, which comes from the Mandingo or Mandinka people.

Courtesy The Culture Trip

Since the early 1800s, Cuban literature, particularly the novel, has been no stranger to the lives and issues of people of African descent. Unfortunately, most attempts have ranked from the merely well-intentioned (like Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda’s Sab and Antonio Zambrana’s El negro Francisco) to the frankly clueless. Probably the only exceptions are Cirilo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés (somewhat lifeless as a novel, but priceless as a sociological study of 19th-century Cuba) and Alejo Carpentier’s magnificent El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World), about the Haitian Revolution. Almost all of these books (the good, the bad, and the risible) have been written by people of white race.

I would not like to reduce Pig’s Foot to the politics of black people—there is a lot more to it than that—but that is clearly one of its main themes from the beginning, where Oscar the narrator claims to be imprisoned, in 1995 Cuba, by Commissioner Clemente, the Grand Wizard of the Cuban branch of the Ku Klux Klan.

While such a claim sounds undoubtedly bizarre, there is the uncomfortable historic fact that black people have been marginalized in Cuba since the inception of the nation. The island has always been overwhelmingly governed by people of white race; the few (and light-skinned) exceptions, like General Fulgencio Batista or General Ramiro Valdés, only serve to confirm this rule. Even outside of the island, in a Cuban enclave like South Florida, a lot of black Cubans have been forced to move to African-American neighborhoods and fade into the brickwork. To find a book about black Cuban families, whose stories are voiced by a black Cuban narrator, and written by a black Cuban writer, is a breath of fresh air. I could not help but feeling that, somehow, the secret history of Barrancas was being told.

The story of the Mandinga family proper begins in slavery, with the birth of two male slaves, one of them a pygmy from the fictional tribe of the Korticos (cortico in Spanish means “shorty”) who inherits from the father he never met an ancient amulet: a leather necklace strung with a shriveled pig’s foot. Both men go on to fight in the two Cuban Independence Wars and marry two sisters. After independence, the founders of Pata de Puerco (named after the amulet) return to settle among the ruins of the plantation where they had been slaves. And there they remain, on the margins of history. The only person from Pata de Puerco who is able to leave a mark on the outside world is Melecio, a whiz kid who becomes a world-famous architect. He singlehandedly creates the Art Nouveau style and designs, among other monumental buildings, the Bacardí tower in Havana—in the “fantastical alternate version of Cuba” created by Acosta, of course.

Melecio eventually develops what he calls the Brick Theory: according to it, bricks “never reach the villages of mud and ditches and timber shacks, villages like the one I was raised, those places where most of the citizens of this country live. With every brick I lay, I feel I am contributing to the starvation and the misery of my own people.” He then returns to help his fellow villagers, teaching them how to read and write, and struggling to bring electricity and sewerage into their forgotten shantytown.

Melecio’s story, however, is mainly told through his letters to his still illiterate family, which are read to them by the driver of the Bacardí family, a dignified black man named Aureliano, in what may or may not be a wink to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. (After all, those grand Greco-Roman names are still to be found in the real Cuban countryside, right beside such deranged concoctions as Yalaidis and Yulusmeidis.) For a good part of the novel, we stay in Pata de Puerco, until a series of tragic events force second-generation Mandingas Benicio and Gertrudis to leave for distant Havana, where eventually Oscar is raised by them.

In telling the story of this humble black family, Acosta achieves a difficult feat. Except for the wars against Spain, they remain mostly marginalized from history; even then, as the Kortico ex-slave points out bitterly, they are just instruments of the white men in charge. Yet Acosta manages to infuse their existence with not only drama (there are several poignant love stories woven along the book), but an epic grandeur, in a stark contrast to the prosaic world of 1995, where, as Oscar remarks, “people get married just for the extra rations of beer and cake, just to throw a party.” The grandiosity of this bygone era is aided by the fact that their chronology, like that of myth and epic, remains always a little hazy, which makes us suspect from the beginning that Oscar may be a somewhat unreliable narrator.  

The novel unfolds like a set of Chinese boxes, each throwing a new light into what happened before. Come its last third, however, it takes a plunge into the realm of the mythical (where we learn the origin of the pig’s foot talisman) and later into the purely Freudian, and these two sudden turns of the screw do not work as well as the rest. Nevertheless, it must be said that the pervading theme of schizophrenia (the book is dedicated to Acosta’s sister Berta and his aunt Lucía, who both suffered from it) ends up acquiring interesting social and metaphysical undertones. Some critics have compared Pig’s Foot with One Hundred Years of Solitude; without going into detail (for fear of risking spoilers), I must say that the dichotomy between the richly epic world of Pata de Puerco and the wan reality of 1995—a dichotomy that at a certain point becomes a fork in the road—reminds me much more of Don Quixote.

Racial, political, literary, and metaphysical considerations aside, Carlos Acosta’s novel has a virtue that trips all others in the end: it is a good, gripping, satisfying read. I look forward to his next book as much as I look forward to any of his other many, variegated projects. (It also makes me wonder about that little metal cross I left behind in Barrancas, all those years ago. Where is it now? Perhaps it may have joined the pig’s foot?)

It should be noted that, for Spanish speakers, this book by a Cuban author that is told through multiple narrative smoke screens comes through yet another one—an English translation. Fortunately, Frank Wynne (an award-winning, Irish-born translator and writer) is more than up to the task. Leaving aside some minor gripes (why on earth does the Pionero magazine become La revista pionero?), Wynne channels Acosta’s colloquial style to perfection. Here and there, Oscar’s street-smart brogue may sound a tad too disturbingly British (even to British ears), but that is par for the course. Cuban readers will savor the English rendition of a particular proverb involving green guavas.

Félix Lizárraga is a Cuban author. He has published the science-fiction novel Beatrice (David Award, 1981), and the poetry books Busca del Unicornio (La Puerta de Papel, 1991), A la manera de Arcimboldo (Editions Deleatur, 1999) and Los panes y los peces (Colección Strumento, 2001). His poems, stories, and essays have been featured in several magazines and anthologies, including Nuevos narradores cubanos (Siruela, 2000), and Island of My Hunger (City Lights Books, 2007). Prometeo Theater Group of Miami has staged his plays Farsa maravillosa del Gato con Botas and Matías y el aviador. He has lived in the United States since 1994.