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Book Reviews Letters from Latin America

Past and future collide in works by Francisco Aragon, Amparo Davila and Rita Indiana

FRANCISCO ARAGON, possibly one of the best Latinx poets writing today, has created a thing of beauty in His Tongue a Swath of Sky (available from author, franciscoaragon.net). It’s both a poetic meditation and a thought-provoking conversation with Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario.

As well as including seven of Dario’s Spanish-language originals and translations of his work, the pamphlet incorporates some of Aragon’s poems from his upcoming full-length collection After Ruben, due out next year.

These are illuminating pieces inspired and reimagined after Dario, the undisputed father of Spanish-American modernism in literature.

Particularly striking is the poem January 21, 2013, a letter written by Aragon in the voice of Dario addressed to Nicaraguan novelist Sergio Ramirez. It’s a response to an article by Ramirez in which he denounced a series of letters by Dario that revealed him as having an intimate relationship with the Mexican poet Amado Nervo to be fake.

There’s also a brilliant reinterpretation of Dario’s 1904 poem To Roosevelt, a reaction to the involvement of the United States during the separation of Panama from Colombia. Here, it’s reimagined by Aragon as being written to George W Bush and he follows in the steps of Dario as he interrogates the US president, challenging his political view of the world:

“But America, sir/is North, Central, and South—delicate/wing of a beetle,/thundering sheet/ of water (our cubs/are crossing/over). And though,/O man of bluest eye/you believe your truth,/it is not—you are not/the world.”

Son of Nicaraguan immigrants and a native of San Francisco, Aragon has created a pamphlet that not only interrogates the past and explores the endless possibilities of allowing for a multiplicity of poetic voices but one that brilliantly challenges and questions at many levels what constitutes a book of poetry.

The multiplicity of voices, real and imaginary, is a focus of Amparo Davila’s The Houseguest and Other Stories (NDP, £10.99). Born in the Mexican city of Zacatecas in 1928 and considered one of that country’s finest masters of the short story, there has been a well-deserved resurgence of interest in her unique work in recent years.

This collection, translated from the Spanish by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson, is full of gems. Each one, skilfully crafted and with nods to Leonora Carrington, Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka, creates worlds within worlds in which the characters endure all nature of psychological tribulations and fears.

In The Houseguest, a wife recounts how the sudden arrival of a menacing guest brought home by her husband dramatically changes the domestic dynamics with unexpected and dark consequences, while Oscar deals with the return of a young woman from a big city to her family home in the countryside.

There, the whole family revolves around Oscar, a violent and disturbed son who lives hidden from the world in the cellar and who follows and seems to control every move. Its cinematic ending will leave you gasping for breath and it typifies the nightmares that come to life unforeseen and the disconcerting obsessions and desires of her characters that typify Davila’s work.

Rita Indiana’s dazzling Tentacle (And Other Stories £8.99) is her first book to be translated into English and it has an exhilarating pace and a mesmerising use of language.

The book’s many layers and meanings resist any form of categorisation. The novel begins in the apartment of Esther Escudero, Santeria priest and adviser to the Dominican president. After an Afro-Cuban rite she’s transformed into a servant of the sea goddess Yemaya and what follows is a vertiginous story of past, present and future, populated by Afro-Caribbean deities.

In the mix too are traditional and electronic music and sex in all its forms — including trans and non-binary — and 17th-century buccaneers hunting gold or prints by Goya.

This unique novel, crammed with post-modern desires and false certainties, is unlike anything I’ve read. It’s a fierce exploration of many aspects of eco and LGBTQ+ politics, voodoo and Santeria, the trappings of the art world and poverty and colonialism.

As such it sits firmly within the confines of a very rich and varied Latin American literary tradition.

 

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