Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Book review: Tentacle, Rita Indiana (2018)

This strange work of speculative fiction was first published in Spanish by its Dominican author in 2015. The translation is very good but the pace is very fast and you won’t grasp everything as it unfolds. The plot is complex and the politics are unashamedly progressive. The other thing to say at the outset is that it’s not long so you never feel oppressed even when the story takes one of its characteristic turns.

The story opens in a year (2037) in the future when the coral reefs have all died. Alcide is a low-rent female prostitute who is taken in by a man named Eric who occupies a place in the household of a soothsayer for the country’s president. With a friend, Alcide is responsible for Esther’s murder and gets away with a precious anemone that Esther keeps in a special receptacle in her luxurious home. Eric finds Alcide after she goes on the run and helps her to transition from a woman to a man, then Alcide is transported back in time to 1991 and becomes Giorgio Menicucci, who falls in love with a woman named Linda Goldman who inherits money from her rich father. They start operating a laboratory on a beach on the island dedicated to saving marine life. Meanwhile, a young artist named Argenis who is fired from his job giving tarot readings to customers over the phone is taken in by Giorgio. Argenis comes to live on Giorgio and Linda’s beach, Playa Bo but he starts having visions during which he is alive in the colonial period in the same part of the island. In that capacity, he makes a series of woodcuts that are printed on a press and are buried in a wooden trunk.

This crazy superstructure however only gives the merest hint of the kind of impressionistic writing the book is made out of. The themes of magic, destiny, racial violence, and environmental destruction coalesce to form an intricate and beautiful narrative full of unusual sentences that glow and quiver like some wonderous marine animal stuck on a rock down beneath the tide line. The poetic vision is extremely strong and, as a result, despite the odd switches that the story takes as it meanders to its quiet close, you are always alert to some new revelation as fresh and as unexpected as the sudden change in temperature you feel when you are snorkelling in a sheltered bay and then, there ahead of you, suspended in water as clear as ice, is a beaked parrot fish nibbling serenely at the coral like the living spirit of some ancient god.

Some might balk at the way that the author conscripts the reader’s sympathies for the inventions that she produces from her fertile imagination, especially the way that queer themes are allowed to become interlaced with other themes to do with the natural environment and with racial relations. I can understand how people who have such reservations when faced with this kind of narrative might feel that they are being forced to see things that lie very much outside their direct experience, but this is the thing with outsider literature: you have to try to imagine life in the other person’s shoes.

I have read or started to read a significant number of books in the past 18 months that were written with the same feelings in mind as are evidently animating this novel, works of speculative fiction by people who identify with one or another of the world’s minorities, and I have to say that this is by a long stretch the best of the bunch so far. With many works of speculative fiction that are written by people who feel themselves to exist outside the mainstream, the problem arises when the types of plot devices the author brings into play fail to convince the reader. You feel as though the author’s worldview is being used to try and shoehorn your imagination into a tight box where it cannot be free to roam. This is ultimately a failure of poetic vision. It is in this regard that the current book triumphs where so many others fail. The author in this case is supremely in control of her material and has produced something to wonder at, something that can give meaning to the lives of many, no matter where they might live.

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