Puerto Rico is not generally a stop on my literature travels, and it is only through my decision to read my way through the “10 Essential Spanish-Language Books” as highlighted in Publisher’s Weekly that I came across this collection of short stories from Rosario Ferré, “The Youngest Doll”. My stay, for Spanish Literature Month, in the Central American regions has been prolonged even further. And given we are nearly at the end of July I am going to read and review a number of translated Spanish language works without actually getting to Spain itself.
As pointed out in the Foreword, Puerto Rico is “the only country in the world which is still attached to the United States without being fully integrated as a state nor fully autonomous.” This Americanization has had a massive impact on Puerto Rican identity, and this collection creatively explores this “identity” through a number of techniques. More on the techniques used later.
But this collection is not simply an exercise in exploring the cultural identity of a nation, these stories also highlight the patriarchy prevalent in the Puerto Rican society, a strong feminist work one that I would thoroughly recommend for Women In Translation Month next month.
Patriarchy in Puerto Rico has divided women into the “decent” upper-class women whole role is to become mothers and ornamental hostesses, guardians of the purity of the family, and an army of marginalized women – the mistresses and prostitutes, the servants and nurses. Patriarchal society tries to keep these women separate by caging decent women within the home to protect them from the outside world; yet that outside world constantly invades the upper-class home through the subversive presence of servants, nurses, and nannies. Foreword by Jean Franco
The early stories in the collection you know from the opening paragraph whether it is a story of the “upper-class” women or the marginalized women, with the settings being the “balcony”, the “canefields” or phrases such as “father supervise the workers” letting you know immediately whether white or blue is their collar colour.
The title story opens the collection, a tale of a maiden aunt who is bitten on the leg and inhabited by a prawn. Each year she makes a doll for her two nieces, life sized at the time of making and continues to make them right up until the time they are married. Her final doll being elaborate, decorated with jewels and filled with honey…
Politics is not far from the surface and the short story “The Poisoned Story” is told in two voices, the writer and Rosa, a second wife who criticizes the “two-bit writer” for being melodramatic and practical:
From morning till night he’d go on scribbling page after page about our lost identity, tragically maimed by the “invasion” of 1898, when the truth was that our islanders welcomed the Marines with open arms. It’s true that, as Lorenzo wrote in his book, for almost a hundred years we’ve lived on the verge of civil war, but the only ones who want independence on this island are the romantic and the rich; the landowners who still dream of the past as of a paradise lost; the frustrated, small-town writers; the bitter politicians with a thirst for power and monumental ambitions. The poor of this island have always been for commonwealth or statehood, because they’d rather be bead than squashed once again under the patent leather boot of our bourgeoisie. Each country knows which leg it limps on, and our people know that the rich of this island have always been a plague of vultures. And today they’re still doing it; those families are still trying to scalp the land, calling themselves pro-American and friends of the Yankees to keep their goodwill, when deep down they wish they’d leave, so they could graze once again on the poor man’s empty guts.
But don’t think this collection is simply a political rant, there are a number of stories, for example “The Fox Fur Coat”, that have a melancholy air, a subtle hint of nostalgia, with deft prose capturing how Puerto Rica was before the invasion.
This collection has a number of translators collaborating with Rosario Ferré herself to bring the stories to English. Each short story having a credit of the translator, at times the language rolling like poetry, rhythmic and a vivid attention to detail, at other times a little clunky, all a result of the many different styles that are used here. Each story using a different form or style, for example the story “The Seed Necklace” being one single sentence covering a multitude of times, blending thoughts of power and corruption, innocence and family honour, through the eyes of the family maid. Other stories using long winding sentences;
It was a world where time had stopped because nobody could know the inhabitants’ true age or how old things were beneath their white shroud; a world where everyone smiled the same sad smile and where all types of powder had been forbidden, face powder by Coty as well as by Chanel, rice powder and starch powder, scrubbing powder and contraceptive powder, love powder and hate powder, laughing thought masques that they couldn’t take off, eating, talking, laughing through the masques, waiting anxiously for the first drop of rain that never fell from the cement sky, the first lightning storm or blessed hurricane that would, they hoped, crack the solid mortar of that ceiling which rose above their heads and on which once could see reflected, as on a frozen winter lake, the forlorn surface of the earth.
Another style employed is in the stories “Sleeping Beauty”, a montage of letters, newspaper articles, clippings, fairy tales, dreams and narrative. Quite simply this is a stunning piece of craftsmanship and it makes the price of the book worth it simply for this story!
Using the many differing styles has its drawbacks as you take a while to get used to the new format/style and all of a sudden you’re finished and onto a new one. As a result, this is a work that demands re-reading, complex but enjoyable, multi layered but single minded, a master presentation by a skilled story teller.
The collection finishes with “When Women Love Men” a tale of a wife and a prostitute both being left equal parts of a man’s estate. The story is followed by an essay “How I wrote ‘When Women Love Men’”;
There are two kinds of irony in literary convention: irony can be a play on words (a pun, a parody, a paradox can all be ironic), in which one meaning is stated and a different, usually antithetical meaning is intended. Dramatic irony, on the other hand, is a plot device according to which the spectator knows more about the action itself than the characters. But there is a third type of irony, which consists mainly in the art of dissembling anger, of refining the foil of the tongue to the point that it can more accurately pierce the reader’s heart. This kind of irony, which is not usually defined in literary manuals, is most often present in women’s writings.
A wise observation on women’s literature and here we have not only an ironic collection of stories, but an educational essay on their creation.
A collection of many layers, throughout drawing on the same themes, dolls, cement dust, gardens of Eden, all piling up over and over again, like the dust itself, but creating something more permanent, but visceral, unreal, fantastic, dreamlike.
Another worth inclusion on the list in Publisher’s Weekly, a collection I thoroughly enjoyed, even if it took a while to warm to some of the styles, a book that has given me a glimpse into Puerto Rican culture, of which I knew nothing, another lost gem of translated women’s fiction, first appearing in 1991 – fifteen years before it came to my attention!!! Rosario Ferré was nominated for the National Book Award in 1995 for her novel “The House on the Lagoon”, which is sadly out of print, losing out to Philip Roth’s “Sabbath’s Theater”.
Within the next week here at the blog I will be looking at one more book translated from the Spanish, Alejandro Zambra’s “Multiple Choice”, before I look at a few books written in English, a collection of essays and three poetry collections that have been shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Literary Award. Then it is August….Women In Translation Month.